Avs, Lacroix still waiting for big save from Theodore

Updated: October 18, 2006, 2:48 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

On Saturday night, Jose Theodore will be back in the Bell Centre crease, playing in his hometown for the first time since the March 8 trade that dispatched him to the Colorado Avalanche, along with his fractured heel, his $5.5 million 2005-06 salary and enough baggage to warrant mouth-dropping excess charges at the airline counter.

"That's something special, but the other thing, to be realistic, we have two big games before that," Theodore said of after the Avalanche's Tuesday practice in Denver. "I can't catch myself thinking too far ahead. I have to make sure I focus on one game at a time before that."

Jose Theodore
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesThrough Tuesday's games, Jose Theodore is 1-2-0 with a 3.26 goals-against average and .888 save percentage.

The deal remains subject to review, video and otherwise, but this much can be said without dispute: It remains at least as risky, and perhaps more so, than any of the many other moves Pierre Lacroix pulled off in his long and successful run as the Nordiques' and Avalanche's general manager before he stepped slightly away to solely become the team's president last spring.

It's up to Theodore, in effect, to make one big save.

He needs to help save Lacroix's reputation.

Under the three-year deal he signed in August 2005, Theodore will take up $5.3 million on the Avalanche cap through next season, a figure certainly not out of line if he plays like one of the elite goaltenders in the league. But if he turns out to be more like the guy just called up from the AHL and tossed in on the second night of a back-to-back road-game set (not bad so much as unreliable and incapable of earning the long-term faith of his teammates), then the deal is a disaster.

So as the Avalanche took off for their high-profile swing through Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal this week, the pressure was mounting.

"I'll tell you after the road trip how it went," Theodore said with a smile. "I'm planning to treat it as a normal road trip, for sure. ... That's my focus right now, and I'll think about Montreal later on."

It could become a perfect storm Saturday night, especially if the Canadiens have the dark sense of humor to rig the two-man rotation to give David Aebischer, traded for Theodore, the start against his former team. Aebischer was in and out of Joel Quenneville's doghouse last season, a fate he shared with many goalies in Quenneville's past because the coach tends to treat the position as if the men playing it could stick around after a game at Madison Square Garden to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club show. But Aebischer was playing well at the time of the trade and seemed to be justifying the Avalanche's long-trumpeted organizational view that he was a worthy successor to Patrick Roy.

When the Avalanche got on the plane Tuesday, Theodore was coming off a terrible game in a 5-3 loss to the Blackhawks and had a 3.26 goals-against average and a terrible .888 save percentage. The Avalanche had won one of their first five games; the team had confessed that its 11-year sellout streak had ended at 487 games; and some fans were getting so down on Theodore that you half expected some guy to call into a talk show after a couple of beers, get confused and say Quenneville, too, should bench his much-criticized starter and put in rookie Jay Cutler.

"I expect a lot more out of myself," Theodore said. "I did make some big saves, but I did let in some bad goals. ... It's my job to make those big saves, and last night I didn't make them."

With as much as the Avalanche has riding on Theodore, especially in the new landscape of bang-for-the-buck considerations being the bottom line, Quenneville will be under pressure -- self-imposed and otherwise -- to give Theodore both the benefit of the doubt and continued work. A switch to Peter Budaj as the No. 1 could be couched as buying time for Theodore to regroup, of course, but it would be at least a temporary admission that the deal is shaping up as a disaster.

Despite some of the pronouncements made in Montreal after the trade, it never was portrayed in Colorado as the second coming of Roy, a guaranteed reprise of the 1995 trade that brought the banished goalie to Denver in the early days of the NHL's second run in town. Eyes were open, doubts were expressed, blasts were delivered, and not only because Theodore was hurt at the time. When he was able to get in the lineup late in the regular season and showed flashes of his prime days in Montreal, especially when the Avalanche knocked off Dallas in the first round of the playoffs, that bought time.

But only a little.

So although he never was anointed "Patrick Roy redux," it still would be a jarring contrast if, as Roy makes his Hall induction speech next month, another Quebec native and former Canadiens goaltender is looking as if the only way he will make the Hall of Fame is to have VIP guest passes left for him at the entrance desk in the basement of the Toronto office building-mall.

The winner of the 2002 Hart and Vezina trophies turned 30 last month and, in a different way, has as heavy a burden of responsibility on him in Denver as he ever had at Montreal. This is a franchise struggling for an identity in the wake of the cap-triggered exits of Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, Rob Blake and even Alex Tanguay. The retooled and pared-down roster also means that if Theodore plays great, this almost certainly would be more like his one-man nudging of the Canadiens into the playoff field in 2002 than a Roy-like role with a high-priced and elite team.

"This is out of my control," Theodore said. "I just want to be happy with the way I play. And if I'm happy with the way I play, there's a good chance there's going to be a lot of other people happy. I'm just going to control what I can, and that's working hard and playing well and those kinds of things."

There's a lot at stake, including Denver's image as a hockey market. The announced attendance for the Avalanche-Blackhawks game Monday night in Denver was only 386 short of a sellout. At least in theory, someone could have pulled out a charge card shortly before the opening faceoff, bought up the remaining unsold tickets, and paid about what he would have for a new Cadillac.

But the streak was over nonetheless, after a run of announced sellouts that began Nov. 9, 1995, when the Avalanche tied Dallas 1-1 in McNichols Sports Arena. That night, Forsberg centered a line between Valeri Kamensky and Claude Lemieux and Jocelyn Thibault, the goalie of the future, was in the net.

Speaking of reprises, we'll concede this is one: The double standard is both entrenched and laughable because the interpretation of empty seats and unsold tickets for a mediocre or worse team all depends on the location of the box office. In an Original Six and/or Canadian city, it's because the fans are too smart to patronize a bad product. Elsewhere, it's because it's a rotten, fair-weather hockey market. So, as they did for the Tuesday snowstorm, Coloradans are bracing for the charge that the 11-year run of announced sellouts had more to do with a bandwagon than with an interest in and knowledge of the sport. It even will come from many folks in Colorado who didn't dream of saying Denver isn't a good basketball town because the Nuggets, outdrawn at the box office and in the regional television ratings, played in front of tiny crowds when they were rotten.

Theodore is part of a complex bigger picture, even if he hasn't been around long enough to know all the details. He still gets away from it all by fooling around on the six-string guitar. He has bought a home in the Denver area, and his girlfriend, Stephanie Cloutier, and their daughter, Romy, have joined him. He declines to talk about landing back in the tabloids' screaming headlines last summer, when he was pictured with Paris Hilton, but it's fair to say he has experience dealing with that kind of attention because of his own actions and those of his family.

His Saturday night appearance in Montreal won't provide any sort of definitive answer about his long-term viability as a Roy successor.

But it might provide one more hint.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."