The year of the backup.

Dany Sabourin was originally signed to a one-year contract by the Penguins organization (during the lockout of 2004/2005), to be the full time goaltender for the organization’s affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers in the ECHL. Sabourin had been signed as a free agent after having had a stint in the Calgary Flames’ organization. During the 2003/2004 seasons, Sabourin ended up spending time in all three of the Calgary Flames (NHL), the Lowell Lock Monsters (AHL) and the Las Vegas Wranglers. (ECHL).

While in the ECHL playing for the Wheeling Nailers, Sabourin was having a very strong showing during the 2004/2005 season, while the Wilkes-Barry/Scranton Penguins found themselves with a struggling Andy Chiodo and an inconsistent Marc-Andre Fleury at goal. A year earlier, Chiodo had been sent to Pittsburgh while Marc-Andre was sent back to junior, and he showed brilliancy and a hunger to win while in the NHL. Chiodo has the distinction of ending the long and prolonged Penguins 18-game losing streak during the 2003/2004 season. But more than that, he is rightfully credited for starting the late season winning surge that the Penguins brought to the end of the 2004/2005 regular season. And with both WBS goaltenders struggling at one point in the AHL 2004/2005 season and coach Michel Therrien being critical of Fleury’s play, the Penguins management decided to call up Sabourin to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and sent Andy Chiodo to Wheeling.

Surprisingly, Sabourin continued his good play at the AHL level. He did so well during this period, that Sabourin ended up taking over the starting goalie position over an inconsistent Fleury. Eventually, Coach Therrien, knowing well that the Penguins organization priority is to develop the first round pick Marc-Andre, ended up splitting the goaltending duties between Sabourin (out of merit), and Fleury. The combination, lead in no small part by Sabourin’s showing, would help move WBS down the stretch into the AHL playoffs. Andy Chiodo, although improved after his demotion to Wheeling, found himself as the odd-man-out since there was no justification to demote the overachieving Sabourin back to Wheeling.

When the time came for the AHL regular season stretch into the playoffs, WBS found itself having to submit the Clear Day roster to the AHL offices. The Clear Day roster is comprised of the players who are eligible to compete during the remaining four weeks of the American Hockey League regular season and in the Calder Cup Playoffs. These players cannot be substituted, unless emergency conditions arise. The Penguins filled the list and submitted Sabourin and Fleury as the two goaltenders that they would carry. But in the back of everyone’s mind, were memories of the prior year, during which Andy Chiodo had excelled over Fleury and all the other available goaltenders to WBS and carried the team deep into the AHL Calder Cup playoffs. All the way to the Calder Cup finals, in fact. In that year’s playoff run, Chiodo had proven that he was the better performer during pressure filled situations. Rumors surfaced that WBS Coach Therrien, while having been critical of Fleury’s play at the time, wanted to carry Chiodo in the lineup for the playoffs. Mysteriously, right before the playoffs started Sabourin came down with an undisclosed injury: Enter Chiodo into the lineup.

Whether rumor or truth, the alleged Therrien inclination that Chiodo would thrive under pressure, proved to be right. Fleury faltered in his few outings, while Chiodo just totally excelled with the added pressure and saved the Baby Pens from elimination in the first series of the playoffs. The Baby Pens (and Chiodo’s) playoff run eventually ended by losing to the red-hot Philadelphia Phantoms who ultimately won the Calder Cup.

As for Sabourin, apparently the Penguins organization has been duly impressed with his showing of last year, and gave him a qualifying offer in the form of a two-way contract (NHL/AHL), for what I believe is only this year.

So when the Pittsburgh Penguins training camp starts, expect to see a tooth-and-nail battle between the youngsters for that backup position to the 30-year-old Thibault. They will have Sabourin (24), Fleury (20), Chiodo (22), and Sebastien Caron (25) all “fighting” it out in a sense, although apparently all goaltenders get along extremely well between them, and no locker room distortion is expected. Caron, had just been signed to a long term contract by Pittsburgh the same year that Fleury was drafted, having showed the year before a strong showing during an extended call up to the NHL on a Pittsburgh Penguins team with a universally considered weak defense. Although Caron was not able to play in the AHL last year, due to having signed that long term NHL contract that effectively locked him out of the Penguins organization, he is still considered a promising (minimum as a backup) goaltender.

This brings a sense of drama to Pittsburgh, since if Caron does not get the backup job, he would have to clear waivers to be demoted to the AHL, and probably would be picked by another team. There are plenty of NHL franchises that do not have a deep and promising line of goalie prospects in the waiting, which would be glad to pluck him out of Pittsburgh. The fact that Fleury has yet to show consistent play does not worry anyone in Pittsburgh. He is quite young, full of talent, and the Penguins will not give up on him any time soon. But the assumption by many fans that Fleury will automatically be the backup goaltender in Pittsburgh for the 2005/2006 season is clearly not a cut-and-dry proposition within the organization. In fact, he might benefit for full-time play in the AHL, as opposed to part-time NHL duty behind Thibault, while at the same time reaping the benefits of having a full-time goaltending coach working daily with him. Pittsburgh lost assistant coach Lorne Molleken during the lockout, who had the very important side-duty of being the organization’s goaltending coach (one of the required criteria for his hiring). But the organization has decided that not only do they want to replace Molleken, but that they need a full time goaltending coach for the organization’s promising goalies. Pittsburgh’s Coach Eddie Olczyk has stated to the press that this is one of the priorities of the club after their top-priority of signing free agents. It would seem essential, seeing that Pittsburgh finds itself with a logjam of VERY promising young goaltenders in the fold.

And how it all unfolds could be crucial to Pittsburgh, since they might look back at this year as the year when they made the right or wrong decisions for the future of the Penguins.

It is going to be interesting to say the least.