DENVER — The last time Jaroslav Halak was in Winnipeg, he had a brief and unpleasant stay.
A year ago Saturday, the Islanders flew in from St. Paul after Halak was pulled in a 6-4 loss to the Wild. General manager Garth Snow called Halak at the team hotel that morning and informed him that the Islanders were putting the goaltender on waivers — two years after he set a franchise record for wins.
So Halak gathered his gear and made the trip back to New York. No one claimed him, of course, and he spent the next three months as by far the most NHL-experienced goaltender in the AHL.
A year later, Halak was back in Winnipeg — as the Islanders’ starter and clear No. 1 goaltender.
“Careers have ups and downs. It was a tough time for Jaro, but it changes you,” coach Doug Weight said on Friday morning before Halak made 33 saves in a 4-2 loss to the Jets. “It’s how you get through those times, and he handled it great. [Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson] was ecstatic with his play on the ice, his work ethic off it, and from the day he got back, he’s been a big plus in that regard. His attitude, his work ethic — it’s that feeling of ‘I don’t want that to happen again and I’ve got too much left in the tank to let that happen.’ ”
Halak’s journey back from the AHL and from deteriorated relationships with many people in the Islanders’ organization is a testament to the 32-year-old’s ability to learn to roll with things.
After a decade in the NHL, Halak’s reputation through four different stops was one of a very serious guy who needed his work environment to be just right.
Snow brought in Marc Champagne, Halak’s offseason goalie guru, as a consultant. The Islanders did what they could to make Halak comfortable. But a preseason groin tweak before the 2015-16 campaign changed matters. Snow claimed J-F Berube on waivers and kept three goaltenders around, much to Halak’s chagrin.
When Halak went down with a more serious groin injury in the final minutes of a win over the Penguins on March 8, 2016, and Thomas Greiss played well during the Isles’ playoff win over the Panthers, Halak seemed headed for the exit.
But offseason hernia surgery scuttled the team’s trade plans. Halak’s stellar World Cup for Team Europe impressed the Islanders enough to welcome him back last season, but Berube and Greiss remained. The friction was bad enough that Allan Walsh, Halak’s agent, went on Twitter to rip Snow and the Islanders for keeping all three goaltenders around.
The bottom came in St. Paul on Dec. 29. Halak did not speak to reporters or his teammates or coaches after being pulled, and that was the last straw for Snow.
It also began Halak’s road back. He was superb in the AHL, posting a .925 save percentage in 27 games. Better still, he was encouraging to his young teammates and didn’t close himself off from the experience.
When he was recalled on March 23, the Isles were in desperate need of goaltending. Berube struggled and Greiss was fading from the workload. Halak won all six of his starts to nearly drive the Isles to a playoff spot.
Not that he loves discussing it now.
“That’s past, you know,” he said. “I put everything behind me and try to focus on what happens now and what’s going to happen in the future. Whatever happened happened, it’s behind us and we’ve got to move on.”
This season, even with two goaltenders, hasn’t been easy. Halak has a .907 save percentage, well off his .916 career average, but his even-strength save percentage is .931, seventh in the league among goaltenders with at least 20 starts. Friday’s loss marked the fourth straight game in which he’s made at least 33 saves.
Champagne, his private coach, was let go before the season, and the Isles’ offensive outburst this season has led to better scoring chances against. That has been an adjustment for Halak, who is in the final year of his four-year contract.
“It’s been a challenging first half for him,” Weight said. “But his consistency has been better than what we’ve seen in results like save percentage, goals against, than he’s probably gotten credit for in the last four to six weeks. It’s been a slow, steady, gradual explosion for him here. He’s in a good place and I’m excited for him. I’m excited for our team that he’s found that rejuvenation, he fought through all that.”