It's hard not to get caught up in the unexpected success story of the Senators' rookie goalie Andrew "Hamburglar" Hammond. Just eight games into his NHL career, the 27-year-old sensation has posted a 6-0-1 record with a 1.35 goals-against average and .957 save percentage. More important, he's breathed new life into the team, driving the surprising Sens back into the mix for an Eastern Conference wild card berth.
The questions now are: Can he keep them there? Or will he be the next keeper to get off to a terrific start and then quickly fade away. Like, say, Viktor Fasth.
Like Hammond, Fasth came to the NHL as an older player. He made his first start with the Ducks at age 30 on Jan. 26, 2013, stopping 19 of 21 shots to lead Anaheim to a 3-2 win over Nashville. Three weeks later, he knocked off the Predators again to run his record to 8-0-0 with a 1.78 GAA, .933 save percentage and a shutout, becoming only the third goaltender in NHL history to win his first eight career decisions. With a bright future ahead, he was handed a two-year, $5.8 million contract extension on Feb. 20 of that year.
Thirteen months later, the picture was entirely different.
Fasth fell back to earth hard after that, ahem, fast start, finishing the season 15-6 after dropping four of his final five decisions. Things didn't get any better the next season, either. Limited by a lower-body injury he played just five games, going 2-2-1 with a pedestrian 2.95 GAA before the Ducks decided they'd seen enough and traded him to the Oilers.
It looks like they made the right call. Fasth's mark this season with Edmonton: 6-15-3 with a 3.41 GAA and .888 save percentage.
That's not to say that Hammond is doomed to become a flash-in-the-pan historical footnote. But there is a big difference between a good first impression and a sustainable level of excellence. History is littered with guys who fall off somewhere between those two points. Some teams, like the Flyers, are magnets for them, always having their hopes raised then dashed by those characters (where have you gone, Brian Boucher?).
But some have taken the fall harder than others.
One of the most famous was Frank McCool who was a 26-year-old rookie when he broke into the NHL with the Maple Leafs in 1944. He played in all 50 games that season, going 24-22-4 with a 3.22 GAA and four shutouts, good enough to win the Calder Trophy.
But it was in the playoffs where he really made his mark. After leading Toronto to a six-game semifinal upset of the favored Canadiens, he was on to face Detroit in the 1945 Stanley Cup finals. There he rewrote the record books, recording three consecutive shutouts to open the series, singlehandedly carrying the Maple Leafs to the championship.
It could have been the start of an amazing career, but a contract dispute (McCool wanted a $500 raise) and persistent and debilitating ulcer problems cut it short. McCool played only 22 games the following season, and then was out of hockey.
Steve Penney's career got off to a less auspicious start. A late-season call-up in 1984, he went 0-4 with a 4.79 GAA for the Canadiens. But when the playoffs began, Montreal's coach Jacques Lemaire played a hunch and rode the rookie. The 23-year-old responded by posting three shutouts, a 2.20 GAA and .910 save percentage to lead the Habs over the hated Bruins and Nordiques before finally losing to the Islanders. It looked like the Canadiens had their goalie of the future.
Only it didn't quite work out that way.
Penney had his moments the next season, going 26-18-8 with a 3.08 GAA, but he fell apart in the playoffs. He won just six more games for Montreal and was cast aside for another rookie sensation named Patrick Roy who, it turned out, had a bit more staying power.
Darren Pang, the second shortest goaltender in NHL history at just 5' 5” put together an excellent rookie season of his own in 1987-88. Splitting duties with Bob Mason in Chicago, he earned selection to the NHL All-Rookie Team and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy, finishing second to center Joe Nieuwendyk of the Flames.
But things came off the rails quickly the next season. Pang was assigned to IHL Saginaw to start the campaign and while he eventually earned a recall to Chicago he never quite found the same groove, posting a 4.38 GAA and .869 save percentage. A knee injury e suffered in a collision with teammate Wayne Van Dorp at the following year's training camp snuffed out any chance he had of re-establishing himself as a legit NHL starter.
Andrew Raycroft (left, in photo above) won the 2004 Calder Trophy after posting a 29-18-9 record with a 2.05 GAA and .926 save percentage with the Bruins, but after riding out the '04-05 lockout season in Europe, he returned a different, less confident player. His goals-against nearly doubled to 3.71 and his save percentage plummeted to .879. Recognizing that other teams had figured out the book on him, the B's shipped Raycroft to Toronto for a prospect named Tuukka Rask. After one undistinguished season as the starter in Toronto, Raycroft became a journeyman backup, eventually plying his trade in Italy and Sweden.
Two of history's greatest goalie flameouts made their debut during the lockout shortened 1995 season. Blaine Lacher, signed by the Bruins as a free agent after an outstanding college career at Lake Superior State, surprised nearly everyone by not just making the team but earning the starting job. He won 19 games that season—as many as Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek—with a 2.41 GAA and four shutouts, but he was dissected by the Devils in the first round of the playoffs. A coaching change over the summer shook up his support system and undermined his confidence. His contact was bought out the following season.
But the greatest fall from grace was suffered by Washington's Jim Carey (above, right). To be fair, his star burned brighter, and longer, than the others. After finishing fourth in Vezina voting as a rookie, he took home the hardware the following season. He won a team record 35 games, led the NHL with nine shutouts and posted a sizzling 2.13 GAA.
But Carey bombed in the playoffs for the second year running. The Penguins lit him up for 10 goals in just 97 minutes before he was consigned to the bench, replaced by Olaf Kolzig. He was traded the next year to the Bruins but soon was out of the game of his own accord, saying it was no longer any fun and swearing he'd never pick up a stick again.
"You could already sense that the passion, the drive wasn't there in Jim," then-Capitals GM David Poile said of Carey before making the trade. "It just seemed that Jim didn't really want it. And you have to want it."
"I've never seen a guy that young fall off so dramatically, so quickly," then-Blues GM Larry Pleau said. "Maybe it was too much too soon."
Carey, of course, was a kid during his best season, just 21 years old. Instant success can be a heavy burden on a player, especially a young one.
That's where maturity could weigh in Hammond's favor. Or it could come down to talent. Maybe he'll prove to be simply better than these one-hit wonders.
Whatever happens, his fast start ensures that we'll be watching.