VANCOUVER -- Can someone hold an NHL job with one of the NHL's best teams, have a first-round pedrigee and yet be completely adrift?
If you are Maxime Ouellet, the answer appears to be yes.
It appears that no matter the opponent and no matter how grueling a schedule the Canucks - and their schedule is traditionally as unforgiving as any in the NHL - Ouellet cannot get any sort of steady work.
Three games in four nights saw ironman netminder Alex Auld in net for all three, despite that trio of games featuring the likes of Calgary, Edmonton and what was a hot Columbus team prior to the Canucks thumping the visitors, 7-4.
Since a New Year's Eve start at Minnesota, Ouellet has seen just one game of action, playing second fiddle to Auld. Whatever the term for the opposite of a workhorse is, Ouellet is it.
Now, Ouellet certainly has not helped his cause since coming to the Canucks. With Dan Cloutier shelved for the foreseeable future, at the very least a back-up job was available in Vancouver for Ouellet, whom the Canucks acquired in December from Washington for a 2006 fifth-round pick.
"I was kind of happy when it happened," said Ouellet of the deal, which took some time to come to pass. "I had a chance to have a new start on a new team, so I was happy with that."
When Ouellet posted a 1.99 GAA in 52 AHL games in 2003-04, he seemed the likely candidate to back up Olaf Kolzig in Washington. But Ouellet was not particularly special during the lockout year while playing his fourth season in the AHL, and his NHL chances were no longer quite so secure.
The Capitals then completely wrote off Ouellet this season after snagging Brent Johnson off waivers from, ironically enough, Vancouver. The Frederic Cassivi-Kirk Daubenspeck pairing in Hershey was solid enough, and Ouellet was suddenly the fifth man in what is one of the NHL's thinnest organizations.
"The only thing (Washington) really told me was that they wanted a more experienced back-up (in the NHL) because they had a young team."
Ouellet was the Philadelphia Flyers' first-round selection in 1999 and thought by many in Philadelphia to be the Flyers' goalie of the future. Ouellet was the focal point of the 2002 Capitals-Flyers deal that brought Adam Oates to Philadelphia, and the deal created quite a bit of angst among Flyers fans.
But Ouellet's mere three Vancouver appearances have been less than dazzling and not of the variety that would win him a legitimate number-two job, at least not one that does not involve wilting at the end of the Vancouver bench.
Ouellet's AHL life this season has been downright bad as well. The Hartford Wolf Pack chased him in his season debut Oct. 22nd at Hershey, beating him five times in the opening 40 minutes. Ouellet looked quite off-kilter that night and it wound up being his only Hershey appearance.
After the Canucks shipped Ouellet to the AHL for some work just after the deal, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins rocked Ouellet for all seven goals of a 7-1 loss at Wachovia Arena on Dec. 10th. Given that the game was only Ouellet's third Manitoba starting nod hardly helped his case within the organization.
Ideally, it appears that the Canucks would prefer Wade Flaherty to fill Ouellet's job in Vancouver. The Flaherty-Auld tandem worked very well last season in Manitoba, and a character veteran like Flaherty offers the right mix of mentorship and push that a young goalie like Auld needs.
But the NHL waiver fandango has been deemed too risky by Vancouver management to attempt to slide Flaherty through, so Flaherty remains in an AHL for which clearly he is too good while Ouellet wilts in Vancouver.
Would Ouellet prefer to head down to the AHL to get in some much-needed work?
Well, yes and no.
Vancouver is the NHL, after all, and a winning Vancouver team plus the natural allure of the NHL makes it difficult to turn away from, but Ouellet admits that the work that he got in Manitoba last month was nice.
"It made it feel like my season started, because (prior to that), my season had not really started."