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The Strange and Fantastic Tale of Peter Budaj

USATSI_9940503_154158418_lowresJust a few days ago, we discussed the turnaround of Jake Allen and how his comeback of sorts was fuelling the St. Louis Blues. That conversation led yours truly to the discovery of another comeback, only this one is much more significant and much more incredible.

I’m talking about goaltender Peter Budaj.

The man with Ned Flanders on his mask is 28-21-3 this season, with a 2.15 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. He’s posted seven shutouts.

Budaj was also traded to by the Los Angeles Kings to the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 26, which kind of sucks for the 34-year-old.

Budaj emerged with the Kings and posted 51 stars in 2016-2017, numbers that are all the more astonishing when one considers he started played in exactly one game over the past two NHL seasons. His start totals for this season put him in a tie with San Jose’s Martin Jones and just a few games behind Edmonton’s Cam Talbot.

Budaj, in large part, benefitted from an opening night injury to Los Angeles starter Jonathan Quick. He took the ball and ran with it, fuelling the playoff hopes of the Kings and preventing an astonishing 4.42 goals relative to an NHL-average netminder. Those are big numbers because they literally prove how good Budaj was in terms of keeping the puck out of the net.

Now, the Kings are still on the outside looking in when it comes to the post-season and they can hardly be blamed for going back to Quick with the netminder returning from injury.

But Budaj’s trade to Tampa raises some questions.

The trouble for the Slovenian goalie began when the Montreal Canadiens traded him to the Winnipeg Jets in October of 2014. Budaj was waived less than a day later and was assigned to St. John’s. He failed to win a game in 19 games and became a free agent. The Kings signed him to a try-out deal and followed up with a two-way contract that saw him dumped to the Ontario Reign after cleaving waivers.

And then, a funny thing happened.

Peter Budaj started to win. He pulled the Reign to the Pacific Division Title in the AHL, was awarded as the league’s best goaltender and earned an emergency recall to the Kings. A contract followed. Later, when Quick was injured, Budaj became an NHL starter for the first time since 2011.

But now, the trade to Tampa could spell the end of Budaj’s historical run.

After all, he’s earned just two starts since landing in Florida and is 1-1-0 with a 3.05 goals against average and a .903 save percentage.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is the man for the Lightning and he’s going to see the starts. Rightly so.

Budaj, who clawed and struggled to become a starter again, has seen his fortunes change due to injuries and trades and all the rest. And history is against him, as very few starting goalies who lose the gig have come back to become starters all over again. Names like Curtis Sanford, Bob Essensa, Ron Low, and Brian Boucher come to mind, but there aren’t a lot of examples.

And in the case of Essensa, he had to change teams to maintain his spot as a starter.

That’s likely the path for Budaj here, especially with the Vegas Golden Knights in the mix. Opportunity may knock again and Sin City may give him the chance he needs to shine once more. Or he could roll the dice elsewhere and find his spot in free agency.

But one thing’s for sure: Budaj earned his money this year. And if the Kings do make the playoffs, they’ll have him to thank for it.

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