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The Next BIG Thing
Article By Kevin Woodley
From Goalie News
Jean-Sebastien Giguere was about to go straight from Conn Smythe candidacy as playoff MVP and the Stanley Cup Finals to free agency. Dominik Hasek and Ed Belfour, a pair of aging future first ballot Hall of Fame goalies coming off good seasons, were poised to join him, as was fast rising star Niklas Backstrom, who finished the season in Minnesota near the top of most NHL statistical categories. Rumors were also flying around the league about the availability of several top-flight, reasonably priced puck stoppers via trade, and the league’s annual Entry Draft was less than a month away.
So why, as the calendar flipped from May to June, was Jonas Hiller suddenly the hottest puck-stopping commodity in the NHL? Why were 16 teams lining up to start a bidding war for the services of an undrafted, largely unknown 25-year-old from Switzerland? How was a goalie whose team finished eighth at the recent World Championships able to command one-way contract offers in the NHL? Why would Anaheim, the team Hiller finally settled on after an agonizing week, be so keen to make a move that affects the future of the Ducks goalies on the eve of the Stanley Cup finals?
There are plenty of reasons for Hiller’s newfound popularity. For starters, he was the biggest reason an often overmatched Swiss squad even made the playoff round at the World Championships in Russia, finishing the tournament with a 91.0 save percentage. And it didn’t hurt that he did so starting ahead of proven NHL goalie and countryman David Aebischer, an ex-Colorado Avalanche’ and, most recently, ex-Montreal Canadiens’ stopper who will also be looking for a new team as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
It certainly helped that Swede Johan Holmqvist used a similarly solid showing at last year’s Worlds as a springboard to a strong season in Tampa Bay, joining Backstrom and Frederik Norrena on the growing list of aging Euro goalies successfully transitioning to the NHL. And the fact they’re doing so at relatively inexpensive salaries, without costing NHL teams a draft pick or five to six years of development is also a nice bonus in the new, salary capped world of the NHL.
But the bottom line on Hiller can’t be found in any statistic sheets, comparisons or recent trends. The bottom line is he can play.
“He's an unrestricted free agent and he's good,” Team Canada and Edmonton Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson summed up perfectly.
Hiller is also a big goalie – both literally and figuratively. He has plenty of experience on big international stages like the World Championships, and has proven he can win big games, including a pair of Spengler Cups and Swiss National League titles, the latest courtesy of a 1-0 Game 7 victory.
And he plays a lot bigger than his 6-foot-1 listing indicates, filling up the net with a technically sound butterfly that makes for obvious comparisons with both Giguere and Vancouver Canucks star Roberto Luongo.
“He's a big guy, who goes down in the butterfly like Luongo and kind of covers up the whole net,” Columbus Blue Jacket and Team Canada forward Rick Nash said during the World Championships.
Nash would know. He played with Hiller at HC Davos during the NHL lockout two years ago and came away very impressed.
"When I was there in Switzerland, I was surprised he wasn't already in North America," Nash, the tournament MVP, told the Canadian Press. "There's not many ways to beat him. He's one of the hardest working goalies I've seen. It's pretty impressive, his work ethic.”
Again, that sounds a lot like hard-working descriptions that follow around Giguere and Luongo, comparisons that aren’t surprising given Hiller’s history as a student at Francois Allaire’s longrunning summer schools back in Switzerland. Neither then is his decision to join the Ducks, who first started the trend of bringing over older European goalies as backups when they drafted another of Allaire’s aging Swiss students, Martin Gerber, in the eighth round in 2001.
“It’s an advantage for both of us,” Allaire, who has worked with Hiller in Switzerland for the last six summers, said between Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. “Jonas got 16 proposals from other teams in the NHL but he trusts me and he trusts the way I coach and trusts my knowledge of his talent. At the same time, for me, there will be a part of teaching that won’t be necessary. He knows already what I’m asking and the way I am asking. We’re going to go quicker and faster than a guy who is coming from another organization who has never been involved with me. I really trust his talent.”
Hiller also cited his familiarity with the Ducks’ resident goalie guru as a big reason for choosing Anaheim, but the reasons he was such a popular free agent pursuit for the rest of the NHL can be traced to the influx of import puck stoppers since Anaheim’s last overseas experiment with an Allaire student paid off so handsomely.
Since Gerber, the Euro fad has continued Cristobal Huet, a seventh-round pick of Los Angeles in 2001, and Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist, a seventh-round pick a year earlier. It picked up more steam when Backstrom, Holmqvist and Norrenna – three goalies with an average age of 30 and more than 30 years of pro experience in Europe – all enjoyed immediate success as rookies last year.
Back in Switzerland, it was being duly noted by Hiller.
“I recognize it for sure,” he said. “I see those guys playing in Europe and having a lot of success over there and yeah, that’s my goal to just follow those guys, do the same, and hopefully get the chance and it’s easier now. A few years ago everybody was just looking for American goalies or Canadian goalies and management and those guys see that Europeans can play on the same level. It makes it easier. To be the first Swiss guy would be tough.”
In addition to having big game experience, being more affordable than many veteran North Americans with similar pedigrees, and offering a much more immediate fix than the draft, NHL general managers have figured out that European goalies have been playing a brand of hockey similar to the new NHL. And after years of having to be patient on their skates, read play that was more east-to-west and wait out shooters with plenty of time and space to pick corners, those goalies may be better suited to the new NHL than many of their North American counterparts who spent the prelockout years playing more of a blocking style behind the hook-and-hold rodeos being passed off as minor pro hockey on this side of the Atlantic.
“In Europe you always have guys skating around and making moves because they have more space and with new rules you can’t interfere as much any more and they have more space now too,” said Hiller, echoing the sentiments of both Backstrom and Norrena from the cover story in the March issue of Goalie News (V3E3). Hiller is now the popular pick to follow them as the next great import, although seven years ago you would have had a tough time convincing him.
“It was a dream to play in the best league in the world – you always got to have that dream – but for me it was pretty far away because I never played junior national team or anything,” said Hiller.
Well down the list of Swiss goalies, Hiller wasn’t even starting for the Davos Junior team and only got one game in the National League (Nationalliga) between 2000 and 2003. In 2003-04, he had a 3.55 goals-against average behind a Laussane team relegated to the B League with Hiller in net. Things turned around the next season.
Back with Davos and starting in a Swiss League that was attracting top locked-out NHL players like Nash and San Jose’s Joe Thornton, Hiller was named Swiss goalie of the year – an award Huet captured three times before coming to the NHL – while winning the first of his two Nationalliga
Championships with HC Davos. From there came appearances – and success – in higher-profile events like the Spengler Cup and European Champions Cup, a place on the Swiss squads at the last two World Championships, and now the NHL.
“It was step by step,” said Hiller. “At first I was just happy I can jump into the Swiss League and get a chance and then I came up to national team and played As a kid I always had that NHL dream but it was so far away and I came closer and closer every year.”
Hiller doesn’t think it’s a coincidence he started taking those steps after first attending Allaire’s summer camp seven years ago. While he still likes to think of himself as more than just a blocker, Hiller has come a long way technically since that first session at age 19.
“Around 20, you can see a big difference,” said Allaire. “He really developed around age 22 … He’s a butterfly-type goaltender who plays a big game with his body. His upper body is really big. On top of that, he’s a guy who wins over there. He’s got two championships in the Swiss league and the Swiss league is a really good level. He’s got two Spengler Cup championships, too. We’re really thrilled to have a guy with some winning experience behind him.”
Hiller wasn’t totally without teaching before working with Allaire – he had goalie coaches and Aebischer had shared lessons on getting up with the proper recovery leg and the concept of blocking – and he describes his style as more similar to Luongo than Giguere in terms of still using active hands on top of a fundamental base.
“The basics are those side to side movements, always be in the right spot in front of the shooter and taking up the area,” he said, “But I’m also still working a lot of my reflexes. It’s not just positioning, I can also go for the puck and I can make saves with the arms.”
In addition to that innate reactive ability, he has quick feet, makes strong lateral pushes and reads the play well, a combination that allows Hiller to arrive early and square to save positions, which then allows him to maintain superb rebound control on body saves.
No wonder he’s ready for the NHL. Truth is, Hiller thought he might have been ready last year, but the combination of some restriction in the CBA and the desire to play a lot kept him in Switzerland for a third season. But he told Davos early on it would be his last, and seems confident he’ll make his next step in the NHL, even if the Ducks bring back both Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov (see sidebar).
“I’m not afraid to battle those guys,” said Hiller.