Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Johan Hedberg: Three Autographed Cards

The Pittsburgh Penguins, like the Montréal Canadiens, always seem to be able to find either a star goalie at every turn or at the very least someone who will hold the fort superbly well - and get recognition for it - while the Next One comes along.

Originally a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick (ninth round, 218th overall, 1994), Johan Hedberg was an up-and-coming Swedish goalie who looked like he needed seasoning but could become a reliable net-minder; the Flyers didn't quite agree, however, as they let him rot in Sweden and toil around in the minor leagues for four years before sending him to the San Jose Sharks organization without letting him earn even a call-up as a backup. In those years, the Flyers were considered "weak" in net, with the position often being cited as the weak link and reason why the Eric Lindros-led team didn't make it to the Stanley Cup Final more than once. Their revolving door of goalies in that era consisted of Ron Hextall in his second stint with the team (1994-98), hot prospect Dominic Roussel (1994-96), Garth Snow (1995-98) and Sean Burke as a trade deadline rental (1997-98).

Further than fifth on the Sharks' depth chart and in danger of spending more time in the ECHL, he spent the 1998-99 with the Swedish League's Leksands Idrottsförening helping the team finish fourth overall. He came back to North America for the 1999-2000 season, playing for the AHL's Kentucky Thoroughblades, sharing the net with the best goalie in Sharks history, Evgeni Nabokov, and the best goalie in the world in the mid-00s, Miikka Kiprusoff.

It took a loan to the unaffiliated IHL team Manitoba Moose for him to gain visibility, enough for the 2000-01 Pittsburgh Penguins - in danger of missing the playoffs with Snow, Jean-Sébastien Aubin and Rich Parent in net (none of whom had a save percentage above .900) - despite an offence that boasted such talents as Jaromir Jagr (121 points in 81 games), Alex Kovalev (95 points in 79 games), Martin Straka (95 points in 82 games), Mario Lemieux (76 points in 43 games!), Robert Lang (80 points in 82 games) and trade deadline re-acquisition Kevin Stevens (23 points in 32 games), to make his acquisition and throw him directly to the wolved.

Indeed, Moose head coach Randy Carlyle had to redirect him to Pittsburgh, as Hedberg originally assumed he was going to their AHL affiliate to close out the season. Instead, Hedberg led the Pens with a 7-1-1 record in 9 games to close out the season, with a 2.64 GAA (34 points better than the next best goalie, Snow) and .905 save percentage.

Not only did the Pens finish third in the Atlantic Division but sixth in the Eastern Conference, qualifying for the postseason, in which Hedberg outplayed Vezina winners and Stanley Cup finalists Olaf Kolzig (Washington Capitals) and Dominik Hasek (Buffalo Sabres) and leading the team to the Conference Finals, where they lost to the defending champions New Jersey Devils. Because of Devils head coach Larry Robinson's system (strongly based on predecessor Jacques Lemaire's system, but perhaps even stronger defensively), the Pens only registered 99 total shots on Martin Brodeur in the entire five-game series.

Hedberg entered the 2001-02 season as the team's #1 goalie and did not disappoint, continuing on his run with similar numbers (2.75 GAA, .904 save %, 6 shutouts, nightly highlight-reel saves) , but without Jagr gone and with Lemieux being limited to just 25 games, Kovalev was the lone offensive weapon on the team (76 points in 67 games) as it missed the playoffs by finishing fifth in its division.

The 2002-03 season wasn't as good for Hedberg, however, as his GAA climbed to 3.14 and his save percentage dipped to .895, and in the next summer he ws sent to the Vancouver Canucks for a second-round pick. From then on, he would mostly be counted on as a reliable backup who was a great teammate in stints with the Dallas Stars, Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils.

I'll get to those in a later post because the more pressing matter is the San Jose Sharks cleaned house today and Peter DeBoer and his entire staff (save for Bob Boughner, who takes over as head coach on an interim basis) were let go, meaning assistant coaches Steve Spott and Dave Barr were also relieved of their duties, as was goaltending coach... Johan Hedberg.

You may recall from my annual pre-season predictions that I'm no fan of DeBoer, who I believe was in the bottom-five coaches in the NHL. And you'll see here I am fond of Hedberg, as a player and a person. However, before he took on the job in San Jose, the Sharks' net looked like this (all images courtesy of HockeyDB):
That's Antti Niemi with 5 shutouts. Then DeBoer replaced Todd McLellan, Boughner replaced Robinson as the defense corps' coach, and the goaltenders also got replaced:
That's three goalies on a downward spiral - and the first one to drop, Alex Stalock, is arguably the guy keeping the Minnesota Wild in the playoff race so far this season.

The Sharks almost always have a contending-level roster, particularly on defence with two, three or four All-Star/Olympians at a time, so at some point the coaches have to be held accountable for the lack of results. The players too, mind you, and these guys do not seem to have it in them to reach the enxt level to win, mentally or physically - but the coaches have to at least get the statistics te remain on the level to keep their jobs.

The goalies in San Jose have been trending downwards for too long now, and the stagnation in the depths of the NHL rankings just cost Hedberg his job, whether the fault is his own or not.

Here he is in happier times, when he'd been recalled from the IHL and had the team's logo which would become his nickname, "Moose":
The card on the left is #76 from Pacific's 2001-02 Heads Up set, a beautiful bright foil card, while the one on the right is #42 from In The Game's 2001-02 Between The Pipes set, a darker foil card (not as dark as the scan, mind you) that is reminiscent of some Upper Deck Black Diamond sets. Both show him wearing the Penguins' 1995-2002 "futuristic" road (black) uniform.

And here he is wearing the Penguins 2002-07 black (then-home) jersey (which was also similar to their 2007-16 Reebok Edge jersey), on card #143 from Upper Deck's 2002-03 Series 1 set, stretching during pre-game warmups:
All three cards were signed in black sharpie when he was a member of the Devils (2010-13). He was very nice, and upon learning that I wasn't just a bald Simpsons comic book guy lookalike but had also been a goalie in my day, extended our talk from a five-second interaction to a couple of minutes as the team was packing to leave the area.

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