by Zach Dooley | AHL On The Beat
Peter Budaj didn’t know what the future held for him after a winless 2014-15 season with the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps.
The veteran netminder had posted the lowest save percentage and the highest goals-against average of his professional career, which came in his first AHL stint since 2005. Left without an NHL contract, Budaj signed on for a tryout with the Los Angeles Kings organization prior to the 2015-16 season.
“The year in St. John’s was very difficult for me, Budaj said. “I think that year was more about the mental state for me. I was focusing on the wrong things. I was just coming back from being in the NHL for 10 straight years and it was very different when I went to [St. John’s]. I was focusing more on getting back to the NHL instead of just playing a hockey game.”
One constant between the Winnipeg and Los Angeles organizations was Budaj’s goalie coach, Dusty Imoo, who Budaj noted was “very patient” with him during his struggles in Newfoundland.
“He was telling me [I wasn’t focusing on the right things], but I wasn’t listening much,” Budaj said with a laugh.
Whatever the difference was, Budaj bought in in Year 2.
“When I went to tryouts here, in the Kings organization, [Imoo] was here and he had exactly the same approach, but I bought into what he was telling me,” Budaj said. “It was a very good turnaround and he’s a very big part of why it happened.”
Imoo knew, even when Budaj was struggling with the IceCaps, that the veteran goaltender still had the tools and the makeup to be successful. The key was unlocking how to find it.
“He already had the huge drive to be the best he can be,” Imoo said of Budaj. “He had that, even in the Winnipeg organization. Him and I, we were able to kind of get him to let go of the past, let go of the good parts about his past too. He was an eight-year NHL vet and all the things he had done, we kind of put that behind him and started fresh. I was able to get him to focus on the fun of it again and to treat it like he’s a young guy again, trying to earn a spot.”
What happened was magic.
Budaj signed a one-year contract with the Kings and was immediately assigned to Ontario, where he posted one of the top goaltending seasons in recent AHL history during the 2015-16 campaign. Budaj was named to the AHL First All-Star Team and won the Baz Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s best goaltender as the Reign reached the Western Conference Finals.
“I didn’t have a contract, I was on a tryout and I just came here to play,” Budaj said of his first stint in the Kings organization. “I didn’t think about signing the deal, I didn’t think about getting a big contract, playing in the NHL, I just wanted to play and that was a big part of my focus. It’s a cliche, but it’s a very important cliche because it’s true -– When you start focusing on the process, instead of outcomes, you all of a sudden realize that everything is going much easier because no one says you’re going to have a hundred shutouts, no one says you’re going to have bad games, you just focus on the process.”
When the Kings’ star netminder Jonathan Quick was injured in the first game of the 2016-17 season, Budaj seized the net, keeping Los Angeles afloat in the playoff picture as he tied an NHL career best with a .917 save percentage, accompanying a career-low 2.12 GAA and 27 victories, the second highest total of his NHL career.
After he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in a deal that brought goaltender Ben Bishop to Southern California, fast-forward to summer 2018, when Los Angeles reacquired Budaj, but with a different role in mind.
The Kings were set at the NHL level in net with Quick and Jack Campbell, and had one of the game’s top goaltendeing prospects in Cal Petersen manning the cage with Ontario. From the outset, it was viewed that Budaj’s role wouldn’t be quite the same with the Reign than it was in his first tour. While the veteran netminder showed he still had the ability to bring it on the ice, Petersen’s presence meant that Budaj would not be the only workhorse in the Reign’s goalie stable this season.
“He’s got an opportunity to come back here and help us in maybe a little bit different capacity, maybe a little bit different of a role,” Reign head coach Mike Stothers said prior to the season. “He’s a guy that sets the tone in practice with his work ethic and he’s a good leader for our hockey club as well. He’s a veteran guy that’s experienced just about everything you could experience, the highs and lows of his position, so he’s going to be extremely valuable for Cal.”
Coming off of a season where he was one of the top rookie netminders in the AHL, Petersen heard nothing but good things about the 16-year veteran joining him as a teammate.
“Right when he [came back to] the Kings, I remember Stutts (Stothers) called me and was just like, ‘Hey, Buuds is going to be your goalie partner for this year,’ and just told me he’s an awesome guy and an awesome teammate,” Petersen said. “That was the general consensus that I got from guys that had played with him. He’s totally lived up to that, he’s an awesome teammate.”
While the minute distribution has shaken out somewhat evenly due to injuries throughout the organization — with both goaltenders also seeing NHL time with the Kings — Budaj has added the “mentor” title to his job description as well, helping Imoo to aid Petersen in his development process.
With Budaj, the mentor role has been more of a physical teaching than a verbal one, showing the way to be a professional by the way he carries himself on and off ice, day in and day out.
“I think the best thing for him with being a mentor is just his professionalism, more than anything,” Imoo said. “He doesn’t tell Cal anything, he’s not big on, ‘Hey, you should do this or that’ -– that’s my job and I don’t even go about things that way. It’s more what he does on and off the ice and how he dictates himself, that’s been the biggest thing for Cal to learn from him. Buuds’ teaching comes more from what he does.”
What he’s done on the ice has impressed everyone in the second half of the season. Budaj has lost just twice in regulation since the AHL All-Star break, with one of those losses coming in a relief appearance. The Slovakia native has posted a .921 save percentage in that span, with that number jumping up to .943 on home ice, including a 47-save shutout in February, the Reign’s only blanking of the season.
The shutout was one of the most memorable moments in an Ontario season that has certainly had its ups and downs. When Budaj starts a game, makes a save or, in this case, posts one of the performances of the season, the love is always shown from the Reign faithful.
“I was happy for him, especially in his rink,” Stothers said. “He had a real good go for us the one year and I know he likes playing here, the fans like seeing him play in front of them.”
But it’s not just what Budaj does when he’s on the ice that makes an impact. With Petersen’s abilities, the second-year goaltender merits his time in net as well, but he’s been thankful to have Budaj alongside him in what has been an action-packed season behind a Reign team that tops the AHL in shots allowed per game.
“We haven’t had the season we’ve wanted to as a team and Buuds and I have both had nights where it’s been a little lonely back there,” Petersen said. “Having each other to be able to have each other’s back and talk over things or vent a little if we need to…he’s just been a huge advocate for me and I try to do the same for him. When one of us has a great game, we’re the happiest guys for each other and I think that’s pretty unique, but an awesome part of this year.”
With both goaltenders playing at a high level at different times throughout the season, and the track record that both netminders have, is there any sort of competition for the net?
Yes, but as Budaj puts it, it’s healthy for the better of both players.
“I think when you have a good relationship, it’s a healthy competitiveness,” Budaj said. “Ultimately, we’re both trying to play and help the team try to win a game, because the most important thing is to be on a winning team and that’s what going to help everybody. It definitely helps when you’re on a good note and you can support each other.”
The positive relationship shared by Petersen and Budaj is one that Imoo points to as something that isn’t in every locker room. Unlike forwards, which roll four lines, and defensemen, that trot out three pairings, there is only one net, which means that a goaltender that wants to be in the lineup, finds himself on the bench every night.
Imoo noted that he’s been fortunate to have a great pair of goaltenders for the second straight season, with Petersen and Campbell sharing a similar bond with the Reign a season ago.
“I’ve been on the other side of the coin, especially back in the day, that was a thing, there were more goalie partners that were not nice,” Imoo said. “I really encourage, and I did the same thing with Soupy and Cal, I said I want you guys to like each other and bond and support each other and it really works.”
Imoo’s approach has worked with Petersen and Budaj who can be seen congratulating each other after Reign wins or solid performances.
“He’s the first guy to usually give me a big hug after a big win,” Petersen said. “Part of being a goalie is you have to try and be there for the other guy when he does well, I think a big part of it is just being a good teammate. That definitely goes far when the best teammate you have to be is to your goalie partner.”
As the Reign finish out what has been a tough season in the standings, you might not know it from Budaj’s demeanor. His attitude and character have shown through in the eyes of his head coach, who has enjoyed having Budaj as a part of his team for now the second time.
“His attitude has been terrific – He’s a leader in the room, he’s helpful for the younger players, he’s a great mentor for Cal,” Stothers said. “Buuds is one of those guys that comes in and very seldom has a bad day. He’s just happy to be around his teammates, he’s happy to be playing the game, because he’s been around a long time and he knows you don’t take it for granted. Your career can end in a heartbeat. He’s just enjoying life right now and we’re happy for him.”
Between staying late to work with younger players, to trying his hand at one-timers with a players stick, and having some success at that, Budaj embodies Stothers’ words. So what’s next for the now 36-year-old netminder? He’s not exactly sure, but he knows while he’s still got games on the schedule this season, he’s going to enjoy it each and every day at the rink.
“We’ll see how this thing is going to evolve over the summer and what’s going to happen,” Budaj said. “I’ve been playing for a long time and I definitely love the game still, I still have a passion for it. There are other elements that come into play, which is family and family time. Moving a lot with the kids and everything else, it’s demanding, not just for you, but for the loved ones around you. I just want to finish this season the best I can, work hard and take every second to enjoy this.”
With every athletic save, with every “Buuuuuuuds” chant that fills Citizens Business Bank Arena and every smile from Budaj when he comes to the rink, it’d be hard to argue otherwise.