How old is too old for a comeback?
These days, sportsmen and women are often seen as “over-the-hill” or “past it” when hitting the age of thirty.
This is a misnomer when you consider how many Olympians for example have gone onto achieve greatness in their 30’s and beyond.
Being from the UK I’m drawn to the legendary Steve Redgrave, who won three of his five gold medals in Rowing (a notoriously brutal activity on the body), at the ages of 30, 34 and 38.
At 32 years old, Peter Budaj’s North American career appeared to be on the rocks.
The goaltender was traded by the Montreal Canadiens to Winnipeg just as the 2014/15 season got underway, despite being a solid enough back-up to Carey Price. A winning record of 23-16-9, a 2.45GAA and .910 save percentage aren’t bad numbers for someone receiving limited starts.
Immediately waived by the Jets, Budaj had a terrible season with the Manitoba organisation as his time on “The Rock” would be one he’d like to forget in a hurry.
In 19 games for the St. John’s IceCaps, Budaj would fail to record a single victory, with six of the losses coming in overtime. Unsurprisingly Winnipeg opted to pass on offering the Slovakian native a new contract and heading toward September, 2015 there was no hint of a deal from any club in the NHL.
There may well have been offers to head back home to Slovakia or elsewhere in Europe but Budaj stuck it out and signed a tryout contract with the Los Angeles Kings on August 28, 2015.
Nine days before his 33rd birthday, the Kings signed him to a one-year, two-way contract.
Two days later on October 11, Budaj was assigned to the Kings AHL affiliate, Ontario Reign.
This wasn’t such a raw deal for the goaltender however.
The Kings AHL affiliate were the reigning Calder Cup Champions and still possessed a chunk of the core that saw them dominate the American Hockey League last season.
The Kings had switched their affiliates around with the former AHL team, Manchester Monarchs, now becoming an ECHL outfit.
There was a lot of hype around the Ontario Reign becoming an AHL team and that’s an exciting environment for any player, let alone one with something to prove. The fans have proved the hype is real with average attendance at time of writing, a fraction under 8000 for fifth best in the league.
The Pacific Division is it’s own entity in every way this season, with teams playing less games than the rest of the league and Ontario Reign currently lead the Western Conference despite having eight fewer points than the Milwaukee Admirals, with positions determined by points percentage.
Peter Budaj began his tenure for Ontario in the perfect way by turning aside all 21 shots for opening night shutout in Bakersfield. The first three games for the Reign were on the road, but they would win them all. Budaj giving up just one goal in the second outing before recording another duck egg in the third game.
Opening night in Ontario didn’t begin so well. Giving up three goals inside the first nine minutes, Head Coach Mike Stothers decided not to pull the plug on Budaj. The team responded by scoring four goals in a span of 2:42 in the second period before notching another early in the third period. Their opponents Bakersfield would tally another with three minutes to play but Budaj held on to record one of the crazier victories in the Western Conference this season.
He’s gone on to register a total of four shutouts, tied for league best and owns a record of 16-5-2.
Also leading the league in goals against average and wins, Budaj’s save percentage is third best.
Playing behind one of the best teams has something to do with his success but the Pacific Division has been full of goals so far. No team bar Ontario averages under 2.70 goals per game and the league average is just shy of three. The Reign are the exception to that rule, having allowed just 52 goals. Twelve of their 26 outings have been decided a solitary goal, with seven making it to the overtime.
Perhaps a key to Budaj’s form is that he’s been shown utter faith by the management and coaching staff and is the clear number one at the AHL level. With Budaj starting 23 of the 26 games played (yet to be pulled or played in relief) the only man to have gotten time between the pipes is the now departed Ray Emery, who is now on a PTO with the Toronto Marlies. Former Florida Panthers prospect Michael Houser is the number two in Ontario and is yet to see any competitive action.
The former 63rd overall pick in 2001 has a penchant for off the cuff helmet designs, with Flanders from The Simpsons featuring heavily.
The latest depicts Flanders with a small crown perched upon his head, a nod to the official logo of the Kings organisation.
Whether Budaj receives an opportunity with the Los Angeles is another matter. Chances in the NHL can come when you least expect them however, just ask Ben Scrivens and Mike Condon, both in Montreal and Connor Hellebuyck, ironically in Winnipeg.