AL MONTOYA has spent 10 years as a professional puckstopper, kicking out saves for three different NHL teams, three minor-league squads and, on several occasions, in the red, white and blue of the good ol' USA.
But somewhere along the way -- likely between being traded twice by NHL teams and suffering through myriad injuries before signing dirt-cheap as a free agent with the Winnipeg Jets -- the former first-round draft pick has been typecast as a backup.
He has essentially been pigeonholed as the goaltending version of the supporting actor; a guy counted on for a quality start here and there but seldom offered the chance to stand in the spotlight for long.
But with Ondrej Pavelec currently shelved with an injury -- he'll likely be green-lighted to play next week -- Montoya has made three consecutive starts for a Jets team still clinging to a playoff dream.
And so, as the questions about the Jets' goaltending have become a hot-button issue of late -- both in the short and long term -- here's another to ponder:
Why not Al as a possible No. 1?
Now, make no mistake, the veteran goaltender has always steered clear of this kind of chatter, politely and professionally deferring to Pavelec as the No. 1. It even came up again on Friday when Global's Joe Pascucci asked Montoya, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, if his price goes up with every game.
"What price is that?," said Montoya with a laugh. "I can't even look ahead to tomorrow. I just take it day by day here.
"For me, (the paycheque) has been a non-issue. I've been here showing what I'm capable of, not only to this team, but to the rest of the NHL. This is where my heart is right now. I'm taking it day by day, but I know what I'm capable of doing and feeling better every day."
Montoya was the first goaltender selected in the 2004 NHL draft, sixth overall, when the New York Rangers grabbed him after the names Ovechkin, Malkin, Barker, Ladd and Wheeler had been called out.
But Montoya just so happened to turn pro around the same time as another Rangers goaltending prospect -- that would be Henrik Lundqvist -- and the franchise opted to deal him to Phoenix where, in his pro debut, he posted a shutout in a 3-zip win over Colorado. Again, however, he was deemed expendable and traded to the Islanders in 2011. And when Rick DiPietro got injured, Montoya stepped in for his first real crack as a starter and went 9-5-5 with a .921 save percentage.
After signing a one-year extension, he went 9-11-5 for the Isles, finished the season on the injured list and -- with just a .893 save percentage -- hit the open market that summer as a free agent. That's when the Jets, seeking a replacement for Chris Mason to back up Pavelec, came calling.
Interestingly, Montoya now insists that at age 29 and with all those miles on his odometer he is a better goaltender than at any point in his career.
"When I first got drafted in this league in '04, I thought I should be in the NHL probably the next day," he said. "Go figure... I come up behind Lundqvist, turn pro the same year and have shoulder surgery. Then I get traded to a bankrupt team in Phoenix, where I get bumped around...
"I've been up and down. I've experienced that emotionally and physically. So when I got back to that chance in Long Island, I ran with it and I'm still running with it to this day."
Why not Al? Over to you, Mr. Montoya...
"I feel like I can play games and I feel that I can win games. Other than that, I'm not really focused on anything else," he said. "It's about coming in here and showing what I'm capable of doing, and I feel like I'm doing it. And I'm going to keep doing it.
"I've always been hungry, don't get me wrong. I've always wanted a piece of it. The only difference is I appreciated this team giving me a chance, to allow me to come here and perform and go through that process. But at the same time, I'm a gamer. I want to play. I can win games and help the team win. So at the end of the day, it's what I want to be doing.
"It's been a long time coming for me, I feel. It's about when you get that opportunity, running with it."
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