So long Cujo

One of the most recognizable puckstoppers of the Dead Puck Era formally announced his retirement from the game earlier this week, as Curtis Joseph called it quits 20 years to the month after his first NHL game. "Cujo" achieved part of his fame and reputation here in Edmonton, as he was a critical piece in the Oilers' "Little Team That Could" that achieved a modicum of success in the 1997 and 1998 regular and post seasons.

Cujo came up through the back roads of success, playing Tier Two in his native Ontario before spending his 20-year-old season with the Notre Dame Hounds. He played one year at the University of Wisconsin before signing a pro contract with St. Louis. After just a half season in Peoria, Joseph was called up to the bigs, pla ing his first NHL game for the Blues on January 2, 1990. After the next, promising season was derailed by injury after 30 GP, Cujo established himself as the Blues unquestioned #1 goalie in 1991-92, playing his first of what would be 10 NHL seasons of 60+ games.

For the next three seasons Curtis maintained a goals against average just over 3.00 while compiling some gaudy save percentages for the day of .910, .911 and .911. He led the league in saves all three seasons and in Sv% in 1992-93, the only time he led the NHL in a major statistical category. I fear there may have been some statistical bias hidden within those numbers; they represented Cujo's 3 best Sv% seasons relative to league average at +.022, +.026 and +.016 respectively, but dovetailed exactly with his 3 "worst" seasons for shots faced at around 34 shots per game, or about 4 shots per game above league average. Throughout the rest of his career both shots and save percentage were much closer to league norms. Either the shot counter in St. Loo was on the liberal side or Cujo is Exhibit A for the theory that more shots and higher Sv% go hand in hand.

Things changed in the lockout shortened 1995-95 season, when Mike Keenan took command of the Blues, fresh off his Stanley Cup win with the New York Rangers. Keenan and Joseph didn't see eye to eye, especially when Iron Mike got the hook out. Cujo averaged just 53 minutes per GP that season, by far a career low and suggestive of more than a couple of quick hooks. Under Keenan Cujo's shots against rates plummeted by 6.3 shots per 60 minutes, or over 18%! Joseph's Sv% also dropped significantly, to .902; however, his GAA also dropped from 3.10 to 2.79, or 10%. (League-wide scoring was down, but not quite to that degree.) Moreover, he posted the best winning percentage of his career with a 20-10-1 mark. Whatever Keenan was doing that may have affected Joseph's personal stats, the team results were positive. After hovering in the .500 to .540 range the Blues surged to a .635 points percentage in 1995-95.

But Curtis Joseph wanted out. His contract was expiring and he wasn't interested in continuing to play under Keenan. That summer of 1995 his rights were dealt to the Edmonton Oilers along with college prospect Mike Grier in a convoluted deal which landed ex-Oiler captain Shayne Corson in St. Louis. Still without a contract, Joseph didn't report to the Oilers, instead playing the first couple of months with the Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL while his agent upped the ante. Not until January 1996 did the two sides finally come to terms on a 2½ year contract, by which time the Oilers were far out of the playoff race. Joseph arrived in Edmonton to a hero's welcome and immediately improved the team's fortunes, playing all but 5 games the rest of the way as the Oilers posted a respectable second half.     

Two years remained on that contract at $2.3 MM per, and Cujo really delivered the mail in those two years. He posted career highs of 72 and 71 GP, and while his Sv% hovered around league average he provided by far the most solid netminding the team had seen in many a year, studded by occasional hot streaks in which he seemed virtually unbeatable for a week or two at a time.

One particularly memorable game occurred in Joe Louis Arena in Dec. 1996, when Cujo stopped 52 Red Wing shots in a scoreless tie against the soon-to-be Stanley Cup champs. (Game summary here) It was a phenomenal display of goaltending from start to end, capped by a phenomenal Joseph stop in the dying embers of overtime against Brendan Shanahan's 10th shot of the night. In one of those rare shows of respect one sees only under extraordinary circumstances, Shanny tapped Cujo's pads in appreciation and disbelief after that one. It was at the time, an NHL record for saves in a regular season shutout, breaking Terry Sawchuk's old standard of 51; but has since been beaten by Craig Anderson 53-save shutout in 2008. (Honourable mention to Martin Brodeur's performance of this week when he stopped 51 shots in the hockey game and was perfect on 4 shootout attempts to win a memorable goaltending duel with Henrik Lundqvist, 1-0 in the shooutout.)

Fortunately for the Oilers, Cujo went on another of those hot streaks in the playoffs, when he completely frustrated the heavily-favoured Dallas Stars over the course of an epic series ultimately won by Edmonton in overtime of the 7th game. The Oilers actually won three overtime games in that series, including a 1-0, double-overtime win at Reunion Arena in Game 5, and of course the memorable Game 7 triumph highlighted by Joseph's backhand robbery of Joe Nieuwendyk in the 13th minute of overtime. That was the moment that I became sure the Oilers would win, because it was clear Curtis Jospeh was simply not going to allow a goal. The Stars and their fans knew it too, the building visibly and audibly sagged at that moment, and only 20 seconds later Todd Marchant burst around Grant Ledyard to score the series winner. Incredible stuff.  

There was more of the same the following spring. Joseph posted another fine season in Edmonton, setting a career high with 8 shutouts, but once again it was the playoffs where he reached new heights. Facing the same Colorado Avalanche powerhouse that had knocked the Oilers from the playoffs in the second round the previous spring, Cujo rose to the challenge and outduelled the great Patrick Roy in another 7-game set. The Oilers trailed the series 3 games to 1, and trailed 1-0 early in Game 5 when Joseph began a shutout streak that carried through 8 full periods and right through the end of the series. After coming back in the third to win Game 5, 3-1, the underdog Oil shocked the mighty Avs with shutouts of 2-0 and 4-0 in the deciding games, with Cujo playing brilliantly in all three games. Of course the magician's license couldn't carry on forever and once again the Oil fell relatively meekly in the second round, this time to the Stars, but The Little Team That Could had bagged another unlikely victim in the process.

But the writing was already on the wall that Joseph would be done as an Oiler that spring. Glen Sather had toyed with the idea of trading him at the deadline but decided he was too essential to that season's fortunes. So his contract was simply allowed to run its course and that summer Cujo became a very attractive free agent, ultimately landing in his home territory of Toronto with a nifty 4-year, $24 MM deal. Cujo had struck it rich and while it was hard to blame him, or the Oilers for that matter who were simply unable to compete with those kind of dollars, his loss certainly hurt in a major way. Many Oiler fans including this one had hoped against hope that the fit was so good that maybe he would sign for some sort of hometown discount, but that wasn't what Curtis Joseph was about.   

I won't delve into the second half of Joseph's career in quite such loving detail. He had considerable but not ultimate success in Toronto, where the Leafs were a dangerous contender but always fell short of the Stanley Cup Finals. In the last of those four seasons he had something of a falling out with another coach, this time Pat Quinn who benched Cujo during the Winter Olympics in what had to be a very difficult decision. After another playoff elimination in the Conference Finals, Joseph signed a second $24 MM windfall contract, this time in Detroit with the Stanley Cup champions to replace the retiring Dominik Hasek. Joseph reportedly accepted a little less money from the Wings than what the Leafs were offering which had to rankle Leaf fans in a different but still personal way compared to what Oiler fans had gone through four years earlier. Joseph may well have been the first major free agent to twice switch teams; fairly or otherwise he acquired the reputation at that point of being more about what was best for Curtis Joseph than any particular team allegiance.  

The Holy Grail would continue to elude Cujo in Detroit. In 2003 the defending champs were swept in the first round by an unbelievable goaltending performance by J-S Giguere. Joseph played well, but he was no match for the white-hot Anaheim tender. Then in 2004 Hasek came out of retirement to muddy the waters considerably, even resulting in Jospeh famously being sent down to the minors where he played a single, much-hyped game in the IHL. Hasek got hurt so Cujo became top dog for the playoffs, but again was the victim of an upset by Miikka Kiprusoff and the Flames. If I'm not mistaken both Games 5 and 6 ended 1-0, the latter in overtime, so Joseph was surely blameless in the defeat. Nonetheless the Wings lost again with him between the pipes.

After that came the lockout which wiped out the third of Joseph's $8 MM seasons. His stock had fallen so sharply in the new, briefly leaner economic market that he took an $6.8 MM haircut to sign on with Phoenix, a pay cut of 85%! He played OK with a poor club in Phoenix but the writing was on the wall that his career was winding down. By 2007-08 he was looking for work.

That season he finally reached the only unqualified success of his professional career, in Davos Switzerland of all places. Joseph had lost the deciding game of both the 1996 World Championships and World Cup, settling for silver each time, and had been consigned to the bench by the time Canada won gold in the 2002 Olympics. While he was a team member and a gold medallist, he hadn't actually won the big one. But on New Year's Eve 2007 he was between the pipes and the unchallenged star of the show as he led Canada (coached by Pat Quinn) to an upset 2-1 victory over Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the Spengler Cup final.

Like Fred Brathwaite before him, Curtis Joseph parlayed that Spengler Cup success into a contract with the Calgary Flames, strictly as Kiprusoff's backup but with a couple important but ultimately unsuccessful performances in the playoffs. From there the hockey nomad was on his way back to Toronto where he wrapped up his career in 2008-09. In his last game on April 8, 2009, Joseph earned the loss, tying him with Gump Worsley for first on the all-time list with 352 regular season losses (one-point losses in the Bettman Era excluded). Unfortunately that is his only NHL record of any note.

What is Cujo's legacy? He made mediocre teams good and good teams better but not better enough to ever reach, let alone win, the Stanley Cup Finals. He does rank fourth in regular season wins, and sports decent numbers elsewhere including a slightly-above-average career Sv% (although that somewhat suspect run in 1991-94 is implicated here). He was not the type of goalie who prevented many shots, preferring to let the play to come to him.

I would certainly classify Joseph as one of the better, and more durable, goaltenders of the Dead Puck Era. To me he's not quite in the A / A+ group with the "big four" of Hasek, Roy, Brodeur, and Belfour, but perhaps on the A- / B+ level with the likes of Richter, Luongo, Giguere, Kiprusoff and a select few others. He was a very, very good one if not quite a great one, and it will be interesting to see how he makes out when he's eligible for the Hall of Fame.

For sure he's made lots of friends along the way, even as he's broken some hearts in the process of switching teams so regularly. His charity work with Cujo's Cloud Nine and Cujo's Sick Kids has been top drawer stuff that he has taken seriously and personally. His one major award was the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, the one currently held by the Oilers' Ethan Moreau and whose previous recipients include several major stars and many of the finest gentlemen in the game. Curtis Joseph has made a pretty good case for himself on both fronts.

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