Every excuse has been made to explain the play of Justin Peters this year. The defense has been suffocating. He’s faced some poor offenses. Maybe he’s just gotten lucky. But now, the subject has become unavoidable: the Carolina Hurricanes have a goaltender controversy.
Not the kind that involves their starter, of course. Cam Ward is firmly entrenched in that role and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. His co-pilot for the rest of the 2013-14 season, however, is up for debate.
The arrival this summer of Anton Khudobin signaled a lack of faith in Peters, and it was no surprise when he failed to make it out of training camp. It’s been a similar refrain for the 27-year-old goaltender throughout his career.
Over the years, the Hurricanes have brought in all sorts of competition for Peters — from Brian Boucher to Dan Ellis to a mid-season signing of Manny Legace. But no matter who’s in front of him, Peters finds a way; he has played no fewer than 7 NHL games a year since his debut in 2009-10.
So when Ward and Khudobin went down just a handful of games into this campaign, Peters received yet another chance to prove that he was NHL-material. And after a particular rocky start, he has.
Despite beginning the year 0-5 and allowing 17 goals, Peters has calmed down to go 6-3-1, yielding 17 goals over his next ten games. Sure, he’s had hot stretches before, but never like this. His rebounds, for the most part, have dried up and he no longer looks intimidated in the crease. He makes quick, decisive decisions. In short: he looks like an NHL goaltender.
“That’s my little saying: smooth is fast. Just trying to be under a little more control,” Peters said. “Watching other guys, watching [Henrik] Lundqvist, watching [Roberto] Luongo. The way these guys play, they’re really calm out in there, but they’re also really fast. They’re in position. I studied a lot of their game, and I tried to model my game after guys like that.”
With Khudobin nearing a return, Jim Rutherford has a decision to make. It’s almost unheard of to carry three goaltenders for an extended period of time, playoffs excluded, and neither player will pass through waivers unscathed. But what was once obvious is no longer.
A common criticism of Peters has been his ability to play well for stretches, with “sample size” being used to discredit him. Khudobin has been lauded while Peters’ play has led to excuses. Unfair, to say the least.
If “sample size” can be used to knock Peters, why not Khudobin? He has played just 9 more games in his NHL career than Peters has this year. The numbers favor Khudobin, slightly — 2.03 GAA to 2.26 GAA; save percentages of .933 to .924 — but when factoring in his former teams, the Boston Bruins and Minnesota Wild, the battle narrows.
Off the ice, the race is a dead heat. Both are roughly the same age, have similar contract situations, are popular in the locker room, and, most importantly, have the trust of their coach.
“[Peters] did his job,” said Kirk Muller, after his team’s 2-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday. “You don’t score, you’re not gonna win any games in the league. We had some opportunities, we didn’t capitalize. He did his part. He played well.”
In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, Peters has been unfairly criticized for what happened years ago. If we were to take the same route with Khudobin, things would get ugly. In 2008-09, he appeared in 33 games for the Florida Everblades of the ECHL, posting a 2.71 GAA and .907 save percentage. Oddly enough, Peters started 31 games in Florida the year before, putting up a 2.57 GAA and .922 save percentage.
Both have pasts that are less than ideal, but are slowly putting those years behind them. Over the course of this season, Peters has developed and grown as a player, knowing where his talent lies.
“My strength is my athleticism, but within reason,” he said. “Theres a time on when to step out, be aggressive: when it’s you and him. But at the same time, you have to be in position to read the play and get across.”
The decision isn’t as cut-and-dry as it is made out to be. Rutherford must determine who will be the better option going forward, basing his choice on projections rather than things that happened in the past. With injuries affording him another opportunity, Peters has built his resume and stated his case this year. It’s time for Khudobin to do the same.