Giggy sits, but supports young Hiller
DETROIT -- There was Jean-Sebastien Giguere on Saturday, working his butt off in practice, joking with teammates and not looking any worse for wear.
But looks can be deceptive.
Know this: It is absolutely killing the backbone of the 2007 Stanley Cup championship team to be watching these playoffs from the bench. But he will not complain. He also happens to be friends with the guy starting ahead of him, Jonas Hiller.
"It's really hard, extremely hard, probably one of the hardest things I've faced in my career," Giguere said Saturday. "It's not a situation that's a whole lot of fun for me. But you know, Jonas deserves what he's getting. He's worked extremely hard since he's got here. He didn't steal the job -- he just deserves it. And that's the bottom line."
These are heady times for the 27-year-old Hiller, who outplayed his San Jose counterpart, Evgeni Nabokov, in Anaheim's first-round upset of the President's Trophy winners and continued to cement his place as a legitimate No. 1 NHL netminder.
He was terrific again Friday night in a 3-2 loss to Detroit, and his numbers through seven playoff games -- a 1.84 goals-against average and .951 save percentage -- leave no room for interpretation. He has arrived.
"It feels great," Hiller said Saturday. "I can finally see what I've been working for, developing. I see improvement every year. There are things left I can achieve. I can get better."
At his side every step of the way has been Ducks goalie coach Francois Allaire, the legendary butterfly guru who first made his name with Patrick Roy. Allaire opened a goalie school in Switzerland some 18 years ago, and Hiller is a product of that schooling, following in the footsteps of Tomas Vokoun, Cristobal Huet, Martin Gerber and David Aebischer, among others.
"He's one of the guys that's been there for many, many years," Allaire said of Hiller's attending his school. "I've been really fortunate that he signed with us, for sure."
When you look back now, it seems obvious Hiller would choose the Ducks over the several NHL teams that tried to sign the free-agent netminder in the spring of 2007. But it was a little tricky. The Ducks already had Ilya Bryzgalov backing up Giguere. Former Ducks GM Brian Burke basically had to promise the No. 2 job to Hiller as part of his sales pitch, which meant finding a new home for Bryzgalov. Of course, the other part of the sell was easy -- Allaire was the Ducks' goalie coach.
"It was a factor, for sure," Hiller said. "I was a free agent, and I could pretty much choose where I wanted to go. I wanted a No. 2 job somewhere, see a chance where I can get it. Anaheim kind of offered me that, and Frankie was a big part of it. I know how he works and what he asks of his goalies."
Had Allaire had his way, the Ducks would have gotten their hands on Hiller a long time ago.
"I talked to [former Ducks GM Bryan Murray] about Jonas, too," said Allaire, who's held his post with Anaheim for the past 13 years. "He was a draftable guy before the lockout, but nobody drafted him. Even us."
After the lockout, Allaire pressed Burke to sign Hiller, but the goalie opted to play two more seasons with Davos in the Swiss League. So, again, Allaire would have to wait to get one of his disciples across the pond.
"I think he could have joined the NHL maybe a year or two before he did," Allaire said. "But at the same time, when you look at the situation, he was playing maybe 85 to 90 games per season over there, with the world championships and the Spengler Cup and playoffs and everything. So it was good for his development."
Once Hiller's deal with Davos expired in the spring of 2007, Allaire was in Burke's ear again. "Sign this guy, please, if we can afford it," was what the goalie coach said to the former GM.
"Obviously, we were really happy when it happened because he had a lot of choices at that time," Allaire said. "He could have gone with many, many [NHL] teams. I think he chose a team where he could be comfortable, and that's probably one thing I could bring to him."
Hiller knew he had an ally in Allaire, but what was an equally important development was the way Giguere welcomed him.
"He's a great guy and he has been right from the beginning when I got to Anaheim," Hiller said of Giguere. "He showed me around; he helped me out with things. He's not just the guy I fight the spot for, but also a good friend of mine.
"He's very supportive, and that makes things a lot easier if you're battling together instead of battling each other."
It's a tough spot for Allaire as well. He's also close with Giguere.
"It's a different situation," Allaire said. "It's a situation you have to deal with for Giggy, for me, for Hiller. But the thing that's really important to know is that Giguere has been really supportive towards Jonas all season long. He's a real team guy. He doesn't try to bother the other guy, he tries to help him out. That's one of the trademarks of Giggy."
Allaire said that's how Giguere has always been in Anaheim, going back to the way he helped out Gerber and Bryzgalov as well.
"He has been supportive and given those guys all the advice he could," Allaire said. "When those guys were winning, he was happy for them. We've developed a lot of good backups here, and Giggy was a big part of that."
Still, this isn't how Giguere had envisioned this season. He began the campaign in his normal position as the starting goalie but eventually lost the job to Hiller. Down the stretch, the Swiss netminder took the net for good.
"He just earned the opportunity," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "We had our struggles as far as being consistent as a hockey club. Goaltending was a part of that through half of the season. Once the trade deadline came, we just made a decision: Once you win, you're in.
"We're still not saying that he's won the job," Carlyle added. "He's earned the job at this point. We feel we have 1A and 1B in the goaltending tandem."
What's happened to Giguere? The death of his father earlier this season was tough on the veteran goalie and may have contributed to his game's going off track.
"It was extremely hard, probably the hardest season I've had in my career," Giguere said. "I thought I had a fairly good start to the season and then there were distractions off the ice. For some reason, I could never find a way to get my game back. It's been difficult, and it's still difficult.
"But I believe I will come out of this a stronger and better person, and a stronger goalie."
The Ducks are focused on the here and now, but it will be very interesting to see what the organization does with this situation moving forward. Giguere is earning $6 million next season and $7 million in 2010-11, the last year of his deal. He also has a no-trade clause. Hiller will be a bargain at $1.3 million next season, but then he will need a new, more expensive deal for the 2010-11 season.
Do the Ducks really want a $6 million backup next year? Does Giguere want to sit on the bench through another season?
"It's the wrong time," Giguere said, declining to discuss what may lie ahead for him. "The future is now -- it's in the playoffs with Detroit. We'll take it one day at a time."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.