The winner of Surprise of the First Half Award (if the league can create the Mark Messier Leadership Award, we can invent whatever we damn please) is St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott, whose career seemed headed one way -- due south -- until it was revived with a two-way.
Despite a glittering .940 save percentage, 1.62 goals-against average and five shutouts, other goalies are having better seasons than Elliott -- the Rangers' impeccable Henrik Lundqvist among them. But Elliott, operating behind a defense that has become hermetically sealed under new coach Ken Hitchcock, inarguably has been the most cost effective. He earns $600,000 while in the NHL this season. Thus far, that works out to $40,000 a victory. (Detroit's Jimmy Howard leads the NHL with 24 wins, but he makes $2.25 million.) And if his glove ever turned to bronze, St. Louis could ship Elliott to AHL Peoria and pay him $105,000 to get in the way of pucks.
In a position noted for its fickleness, Elliott is the new hallmark.
He had been a No. 1 goalie in Ottawa and, after the trade deadline last season, a nominal No. 1 in Colorado, but the puck seemed to be having an awfully difficult time hitting him. He had a combined 3.34 goals-against-average and .893 save percentage playing behind leaky defenses on scuffling teams, ugly numbers that were bound to produce a modest salary last July 1 when Elliott became an unrestricted free agent. There was a goalie glut on the market that summer's day -- remember, even the established Tomas Vokoun wound up taking no term and short money in Washington -- and Elliott kept getting shoved to the back of the goalie line. He says he received precious few nibbles from prospective teams in the first frenzied hours, which is why when St. Louis offered a chance to compete to be Jaroslav Halak's back-up, Elliott jumped.
"The situation (a two-way contract) wasn't ideal," says Elliott, a former ninth-round draft choice who backstopped the University of Wisconsin to the NCAA championship in 2006, "but I thought St. Louis was the best fit for me."
St. Louis always seems to be a good fit for itinerant goaltenders. The Gateway City has been a city of opportunity for masked men, some of whom, alas, have had five holes that resemble The Arch. Four No. 1 goalies -- Curtis Sanford, Manny Legace, Chris Mason and Halak -- have ridden the Blues' merry-go-round since 2005-06, none recording a save percentage better than a middling .916. (The Blues have used 13 different goalies in that stretch, including two separate tours for 6'-7" Ben Bishop, the pituitary puck-stopper who was Elliott's primary training camp competition. Marek Schwarz and Jason Bacashihua, we hardly knew ye.)
Elliott sensed he could find a home on a team constantly searching for saves. The Blues, of course, knew even more about Elliott than he knew about them.
General manager Doug Armstrong had given goalie coach Corey Hirsch the task of studying every netminder on the Blues' radar. He dutifully looked at every goal Elliott allowed in 2010-11 -- 166 in 55 games was a lot of videotape -- and realized the preponderance were simply not his fault.
"I saw a lot of Elliott when he was in Colorado," says Hitchcock, who took over in November when Armstrong fired Davis Payne. "And I remember a lot of the goals being bang-bang plays at the net, the ones where the goalies have no chance."
The numbers weren't lying, necessarily. They just weren't telling the whole truth about a 6'-3" goalie who had some portfolio. And ultimately that NHL experience, however painful at times, narrowly earned Elliott the job over Bishop, who also played commendably in the exhibition games.
"I've not been around a goalie since Eddie (Belfour, in Dallas) who prepares himself so meticulously," says Hitchcock, who coached the 1999 Stanley Cup-winning Stars. "He really works at his craft. He's completely prepared. And he's shown he has a willingness to look at every aspect of his play and the game in an effort to improve. Totally professional."
Elliott smiles at the Belfour comparison, not merely because he grew up outside of Toronto and vividly recalls Belfour's years with the Maple Leafs.
"Well," Elliott says with a nod to Eddie the Eagle, "I don't carry my own skate sharpener with me." (Belfour's preparation was so crazily extensive, the Stars, after acquiring him from San Jose, were obliged to push back their traditional practice time by a half hour in order to let Belfour finish his rituals.)
Elliott began to grasp the importance of preparation at Wisconsin when, with just two games a week, successful players had little choice but to retain a sharp focus. He doesn't think he does anything out of the ordinary. Like other goalies, prior to a match he will skip rope, play some hallway soccer with teammates and juggle tennis balls.
"The juggling," he says, "doesn't give me the chance to think too much about anything other than the tennis balls."
He also uses a formula called 2-2-92 that he discovered in a book about the muddied art of his singular position. Elliott figures if he can save the first two shots of a period, foil the first two power plays, and stop 92 per cent of all shots, he should be OK.
Eliott has exceeded the formula and all expectations, including an early run of 11 games -- starting with a 4-2 heist in San Jose Oct. 15 -- in which he allowed two goals or fewer. While Halak stumbled during the first month of the season, Elliott became a de facto co-No. 1 if not quite the go-to guy. Hitchcock divvies up the time almost equally; Halak started against his former team, Montreal, on Tuesday even though Elliott was coming off a 15-save shutout over his former team, Colorado, in the Blues' previous match. Still in a three-game stretch against Central Division opponents, Hitchcock went back to Elliott against powerhouse Detroit a second time in four days even though Elliott had lost the first game against the Red Wings, 3-2, and Halak had been splendid in a shootout loss to Nashville 24 hours earlier.
The only numbers Halak has over Elliott are on a contract: the Slovak signed for four years and $15 million shortly after the Blues acquired him following the goalie's splendid 2010 playoff run in Montreal.
"I have to give credit to both our goalies," Armstrong says. "When Jaro had that rough start, Elliott never flaunted his good play. Now we have two guys playing well, and they're pushing each other. That's what we need up and down the lineup. We're not a team that has an alpha male in any area, so we need competition on our roster to keep driving us."
Says Hitchcock, "Elliott's another example of a guy who is being rewarded for being an ultimate professional. Some of it is always going to be talent, but some of it is hard work and not being satisfied. I think a lot of goalies can learn from him."