When I arrived at the Xcel Energy Center on Friday morning to cover the first day of Houston’s training camp, I had a sneaking suspicion a fourth goalie would be joining Matt Hackett, Darcy Kuemper, and Mike Brodeur.
But I had no idea that fourth goalie would be former Pittsburgh Penguins prospect John Curry. Sure enough, there he was, wearing unmarked white and blue pads, trying to make the most of a rare tryout opportunity.
The 5-foot-11 native of Shorewood, MN has already overcome plenty of adversity in his playing career. A “walk-on” at Boston University, Curry went from barely making the team to playing just over five minutes as a freshman to earning the starting gig as a sophomore.
His play for the Terriers as a sophomore and junior was so impressive that he was named Assistant Captain for his senior year (2006-07). Despite being upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that year, he was still voted as the Hockey East Player of the Year and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
Even though he had historic numbers for BU, Curry was never drafted, due in large part to his lack of size. But like many NCAA goalies these days, he still earned a pro contract as a free agent with the Penguins on July 1, 2007. It didn’t take long before injuries opened the door for him to quickly settle in as Pittsburgh’s #3 goalie, and he was off and running.
On November 26, 2008, Curry made his NHL debut. Two days later, he earned his first NHL start against the Sabres, stopping 28 of 32 shots in a 4-2 loss. He played in three NHL games during the 2008-09 season and posted a respectable .914 save percentage.
On January 11, 2010, Curry made his fourth appearance with the Penguins, but allowed five goals on 14 shots to the Canucks. He was pulled early in the second period, and never again saw the light of day in the NHL.
So after four solid seasons within the Penguins organization, Curry left Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as the team’s all-time leader in both regular season and playoff wins, but with very little to show for it. Knowing the organization was favoring Brad Thiessen moving forward, John had no choice but to sign a one-year deal with Hamburg of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL).
It was an unceremonious end to his fruitful AHL stint, but Curry’s season in Germany was a positive experience. He played in 42 games for the Freezers and posted a 2.73 goals-against average and a .917 SV%. The playoffs didn’t go as well as he would’ve liked, but he still posted a .909 SV% in five games.
Although his DEL experience was positive, Curry knew something wasn’t right. A feeling of discontent was creeping into the back of his mind as the season progressed, and he quickly realized he wasn’t ready to give up on his NHL dreams. He wanted to be back in the AHL, and he wanted to push for another opportunity in the NHL.
Fortunately for him, the Houston Aeros flew in and offered him a tryout at the last minute. That elusive window of opportunity was very small, but at least it was there.
Curry jumped at the chance, and now he’s hoping to create a buzz around the AHL.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to meet some of the people in the organization and try to prove that I’m still a prospect for the NHL,” Curry said. “One of the challenges for me right now is just getting back into the spotlight, and letting teams know that I’m still serious about being a prospect. The first step to doing that is finding a spot to play in the American league. I know Minnesota has great depth in goal and there’s probably not a position for me here right now, but regardless, it never hurts to train with these guys and to network with people in the organization. I have faith that it’ll work out, and I’ll just keep pushing along.”
The DEL isn’t considered to have the same level of talent as Russia (the KHL) or the Elitserien (Sweden), but it’s a league that has been fielding better goaltending every year. Names such as Wild prospect Dennis Endras, former Avalanche prospects Tyler Weiman and Jason Bacashihua, Timo Pielmeier, and Bobby Goepfert currently play in the DEL, so it was a good place for a guy like Curry to continue developing.
“It was great. I really enjoyed it,” Curry said about his season in Germany. “I thought it was a high level of hockey and I definitely think that I improved. I just quickly realized that I wasn’t ready to be in Europe for the remainder of my career, and I knew I still had some push in me to make it to the NHL. I felt like I didn’t give it everything I had last time.”
Like most pro hockey players, Curry has overcome adversity in the past, so he’s hard-wired to never give up. And when that feeling of “unfinished business” leads to restlessness and mental discomfort, no matter how small that window of opportunity might be, like a furious bull, Curry is going to try and charge right through it.
Size doesn’t matter. The lack of a roster spot doesn’t matter. The fear of failure doesn’t matter. He has broken through these barriers before, so there’s no reason for him to believe he can’t do it again.
“I’ve learned a lot. Just about every year, I’ve gone through something different, whether it was at BU or with Pittsburgh or in Germany,” Curry reminisced. “I think that’s why we say goaltending is 90-percent mental, and why you see a lot of goalies making it later — because it takes that experience and it takes going through that adversity. I had a couple of really excellent years in the Pittsburgh organization and a couple that weren’t so great, but I learned just as much — if not more — during the years where things weren’t going well. As long as you’re still in the game, the more that you go through those experiences, the better you are. I think I’m a better goalie now because of it.”
Due to the trials and tribulations he experienced in the Penguins organization, it’s easy to understand why Curry considers himself a better goalie today than one year ago. But that doesn’t always translate to a successful “re-transition” back to the AHL.
This is especially true considering how talented the AHL will be this season (NHL lockout).
“There’s definitely a difference in the style of play, and the skill level is obviously better here with the younger players,” Curry said. “But I know I can still play at this level. I’ve done it before, and I think that I’m a better goalie now than when I was excelling at this level before. I don’t have doubts about that, I just want to prove it and give myself the best chance to find an opportunity or a platform to prove that.”
From the way Curry spoke, I could tell he was fiercely focused and not the least bit tense or nervous. But technically speaking, that adjustment from the DEL back to the AHL can wreak havoc on a goalie’s timing, angles, and overall technique. With that in mind, I was curious about the technical adjustments he made over the last year.
“I just continued to work on my positioning,” Curry explained. “Being in not only the best position for the shot you’re facing, but also for anything that happens after that. I know that, especially in North America, there’s a lot of action down low. You can’t get caught too far out – that was something earlier in my career where I guess I’m more of a quick, explosive goalie and I would get in trouble if I was wandering out. I’m also not the big body that can sit on the goal line, so I’ve had to find that medium where I maintain good position to be able to recover for that second opportunity.”
No matter what happens, as long as Curry shows the coaching staff that he’s willing to work hard and compete for every puck with strong second efforts, the odds are high he’ll earn some sort of AHL/ECHL contract. He has a quality resume, he had a solid season in Germany, and at 28 years of age, he has both experience and maturity on his side.
Furthermore, a goalie’s work ethic will always trump their size. In today’s game, it’s not about how much space you fill, but what you do to cover the space you don’t fill.
“Obviously it’s been a while since I’ve seen [AHL] game action, so that’s going to be an adjustment at this time of year,” Curry said regarding the transition. “But I’m excited to see those game scenarios unfold, and it’s refreshing. I’m excited, and who knows what’s going to happen, but hopefully it goes well.”
Sure, the current depth chart for the Aeros doesn’t write a happy ending for Curry. Hackett and Kuemper are sure to earn the team’s two roster spots, and Brodeur was signed to be that experienced depth guy to play in Orlando (ECHL).
But the plot thickened when Brodeur took a shot off the jaw in one of last weekend’s practice sessions, forcing him to miss both Saturday’s and Sunday’s scrimmages. If Brodeur is to miss more time, the Aeros might be willing to offer Curry a one-year contract.
That’s how things work these days for goalies in Curry’s position. Whether by injury or other unforeseen circumstance, one never knows when that small window of opportunity might suddenly expand into a massive unlocked door.
And even if the Aeros don’t sign him, don’t be surprised if Curry lands an AHL/ECHL contract at some point in October.
He certainly deserves it.