The New York Islanders - along with every other NHL team and many other businesses - have temporarily suspended operations due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organizations have strongly advised the public to practice self-quarantining and avoid close contact and crowds to limit the spread of the virus. But that doesn’t mean we can’t gather in a virtual space and talk about old hockey players.
As long as the Islanders are on pause, we’ll run this series to give folks a place to chat, reminisce, and generally relieve the stress of the times.
I wanted Al Montoya to work.
Obviously, he eventually did, going from AHL afterthought to a respectable NHL backup goalie with a career record over .500. What I mean is that I wanted him to work for the Islanders. I wanted him to be the goalie equivalent to the bargain basement, waiver wire, cast-off team that Garth Snow had assembled early in the modern rebuild era.
Ironically, it was an old, maligned Islanders GM that made the acquisition of The Big Cubano possible. Islanders goalies were dropping like flies due to injuries all throughout the 2010-11 season. They would end up using an absurd six (6!) goaltenders that season including 20-year-old Kevin Poulin and 41-year old Dwayne Roloson. By February, and with the former hurt and the latter dealt to Tampa Bay, Snow needed another goalie.
Montoya was drafted sixth overall by the Rangers in 2004 after a standout career at Michigan. But he hit Broadway at the same time as some guy named Henrik Lundqvist and his Ranger career stalled before it could even start (unless you count this, of course). Don Maloney was the Rangers assistant GM at the time of Montoya’s drafting and when he was GM of the Coyotes, he grabbed Montoya in a multi-prospect trade in 2008. By 2010, injuries and inconsistencies had relegated Montoya to back-up duty for the Coyotes AHL affiliate in San Antonio. Knowing Snow needed a goalie and wanting to give a player he really liked a chance at the NHL, Maloney sent Montoya to Long Island for just a sixth round pick.
The Islanders team he landed on wasn’t very good. But after firing coach Scott Gordon in November, the roster - packed with a bunch of misfit toys surrounding a certain first overall pick whose name shall not be uttered - coalesced around new coach Jack Capuano. They were a playoff longshot that played at a blazing pace and was fun as hell to watch.
Montoya’s first game as an Islander was replacing Mikko Koskinen in a wild 7-6 OT win in Buffalo on his 26th birthday. Players like Michael Grabner, a Calder finalist that season, P.A. Parenteau, Matt Moulson and Frans Nielsen were workmanlike and exciting to root for. They just needed someone who could stop some pucks. Montoya seemed to fit right in.
He would go 9-5-5 with a .921 save percentage that first season. The Islanders did indeed miss the playoffs, but with a little defensive restructuring, it looked like they had a makings of a quality NHL team for the first time in a while. Montoya was also a tall, lanky smiling Cuban-American goofball from Chicago with a cool nickname and I immediately wanted him to be Vezina material.
Alas, it didn’t happen. Montoya and a stolen Evgeni Nabokov got the bulk of the starts in 2011-12, and despite their best efforts, the team still wasn’t good enough. Montoya sustained a concussion in a December game and although he came back at the end of January, his game was clearly not right for the rest of the season. He was, however, still capable of big steals like this one.
At the end of that season, Snow let Montoya walk away as a free agent. He emerged after the lockout as a Winnipeg Jet, where he would spend that season and the next as Ondrej Pavelic’s back-up. Then it was two years in Florida as Roberto Luongo’s back-up after signing there as a free agent. Then it was a year-and-a-half in Montreal as Carey Price’s back-up after signing there as a free agent. The Habs traded him to Edmonton for a fourth rounder in 2018, which would be Montoya’s last NHL stop.
El Cubano Grande could have been the perfect compliment to the ultimate cheapo Frankenteam. But like many things with the modern Islanders, it simply wasn’t meant to be long term. Now I just like seeing him at alumni events and thinking of old hopes I used to have.