Pascal Leclaire can't even remember now how he got the nickname "Snoopy."
Charlie Brown's beagle from the Peanuts cartoon strip, who used to sleep on top of his doghouse and was famous for his "Curse you, Red Baron," catchphrase, is still famous, his likeness on the ubiquitous MetLife blimp.
You’d have to look a lot harder to see Snoopy on the skull cap of Leclaire’s new Senators mask, but he’s there with red pads on, a blocker and goalie stick in his left hand.
The Snoopy nickname has followed Leclaire around since it was hung on him by friends when he was a youngster, he said. Since then, a Snoopy image is always on his mask.
“My dad thought it was cool so it’s on every new mask. I have to have a Snoopy to keep my dad happy. If he sees I don’t have a Snoopy on my mask, he’s going to ask why. I already have a lot to explain to him and I don’t want to add anything to the list,” said Leclaire with a smile.
Leclaire is used to being grilled on the details.
It comes with the territory inhabited by a goaltender, especially one in
Ottawa, the place where goaltending reputations come to die.
Here, it almost always ends badly for the guy protecting the net. Since about 2000, when Ottawa became a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, the Senators goaltender has always wound up playing the tragic figure.
Go down the playbill:
- Tom Barrasso was brought in as a hired gun at the end of his career, but wasn’t any better than mediocre. His two great contributions here were swearing on Hockey Night In Canada and his answer when asked about a shot that hit the post: “You want me to stop the ones that are going wide, too?”
- Patrick Lalime, for all the brilliant goaltending he gave the Senators over the years, was run out of town along with coach Jacques Martin after giving up two soft goals to Joe Nieuwendyk and the hated Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the first round in 2004.
- Dominik Hasek gave the Senators the greatest hope, but got hurt at the Olympics and didn’t play another game in 2006. His greatest legacy is we all became a little too familiar with his adductor muscle.
- Ray Emery took the Senators to the Stanley Cup final in 2007 and then self-destructed in a blizzard of self-admitted questionable off-ice behaviour and tardiness. He wound up being bought out.
- Martin Gerber was the big free-agent signing in the summer of 2006, but
ended up losing the job to Emery and never gained the confidence of his
teammates or the fans. He wound up being demoted to Binghamton of the AHL
and then dealt to the Leafs at the trade deadline last year.
Now Leclaire, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets along with a second-round pick for forward Antoine Vermette, steps into the role, coming off a season that was ended in January by surgery on his ankle.
It was the second time in the last three seasons Leclaire had his season ended by injury. He hurt his knee in December, 2006 which led to surgery and ended his season. He missed nine games late in the 2007-08 season with a head injury.
So, the big question is can Leclaire stay healthy?
“These things happen. I’m not the first guy to get hurt long term,” said the 26-year-old, wisely choosing not to dwell on the injuries or worry that he might get hurt again.
“I’m more of a day-to-day guy. I take it as it comes and I was always confident I’d come back healthy.”
“This is not really a comeback,” he corrected a questioner yesterday. “It’s a new start.”
With Gerber having flamed out and journeyman Alex Auld and prospect Brian Elliott tending the net, Senators GM Bryan Murray knew he had to upgrade the goaltending position in the latter part of last year. With the rise of Steve Mason as a star in Columbus, the injured Leclaire was a logical target.
“They were trying to make the playoffs and wanted a ‘today’ player and they’d give up an asset to get him,” said Murray. “You don’t get a good goaltender without playing a price. We think (Leclaire)’s upside is very high. We took a little bit of a risk (because of the injury), but my feeling is players do recover and can get back on track quickly.”
Murray wanted a goaltender who could bring an elusive quality here.
“One of the things this team has lacked is confidence,” said Murray, “and this is another chance for it to happen.”
Leclaire, a native of Repentigny, Que., north of Montreal, knows the kind of scrutiny a goalie gets in a Canadian city. He grew up idolizing Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.
“I like them because they didn’t play like robots,” said Leclaire, who’s a hybrid goaltender, blending both his own athletic style with some elements of the butterfly school.
“There are going to be nights where he’s not going to look like the rest of the goalies in the league,” said Senators goaltending coach Eli Wilson.
“He’s a goalie at heart with an old-school mentality. He’s quick and powerful and he’s got his own way of doing things. He’s got patience and will stay on his feet.
“He’s great to work with. He keeps things fairly loose and he’s open-minded and has coachability, all the things we like to talk about.”
Senators coach Cory Clouston said he would like to see Leclaire play about 60 games, which would be the most he’s played in any season going back to junior (he played 54 for the Blue Jackets in 2007-08 with nine shutouts and a .919 save percentage).
Can he do it? Is he capable of staying healthy and becoming a bona fide star?
Leclaire was the top goaltender taken in the 2001 draft, eighth overall, six picks behind Senators teammate Jason Spezza (as an aside, Emery was taken 99th overall and Gerber 232nd in that draft).
He comes in here with a fine pedigree, but the questions abound.
He’ll start answering them Saturday.