Being a starting goalie in the NHL may be equalled only by NFL starting quarterback and MLB closer when it comes to pressure placed upon the position. When they're good, they can turn an average team into a playoff contender, and when they're bad it can undo the even the highest caliber of squads. These players are a lonely island that fans and media often point to and single out when things aren't going well, and are often undervalued when times are good.
So it comes as no shock that Jonas Hiller has been a regular point of contention amongst the Ducks fan base. Since taking over for Conn Smythe winner and Stanley Cup hero Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Anaheim has been unable to return to the lofty levels attained from 2003-07. With only one playoff series win in two trips as a starter, Ducks fans have never quite developed the same love for Hiller as his predecessor. It's understandable, but at the same time wholly unfair to the goalie for whom a strong case can be made is the second best in franchise history.
That idea may make some Ducks supporters who've followed all 20 years of Anaheim hockey wince, as original starter Guy Hebert has long been a fan favorite. The first selection by the Mighty Ducks in the 1993 expansion draft, Hebert deservedly got some of the loudest cheers on Throwback Night this season. For eight seasons he appeared in half or more of the Mighty Ducks' games and built up an impressive list of firsts and accomplishments which still rank among the best at the club.
Guy was the first goalie to lead the Mighty Ducks to the playoffs, backstopping a thrilling seven game opening round series win over Phoenix in 1996-97. The first Mighty Ducks goalie to make an appearance in the All Star game, joining Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne in San Jose earlier that season. The first Mighty Ducks goalie to be named to an Olympic roster, the third goalie for the United States in Nagano in 1998. In the regular season, Hebert appeared in the second most games (441), earned the second most wins (173), put up the second most shutouts (27), and made the most saves (11,813) over the life of the franchise.
However for having played 142 fewer games in his five seasons thus far, Hiller (299 games) is either hot on Hebert's heels or has already statistically surpassed the Ducks original goalie in regular season metrics. Hiller has only 26 fewer wins (147) and nine fewer shutouts (18), but amongst Anaheim goalies with more than 50 career decisions his 49.2% winning percentage is the franchise's best (Giguere is next closest at 46.1%), his .917 save percentage is tops, and his 2.51 GAA is 0.24 lower than Hebert's while facing an only one shot fewer on average. Hiller is also the only goalie in Ducks history to appear in more than 70 games in a season (73 in 2011-12). When comparing the playoff performance, the difference becomes even more pronounced.
While both goalies have won only one playoff series, Hiller's arguably carries more weight. Upsetting the Presidents' Trophy winning San Jose Sharks, who set a Pacific Division record with 117 points in 2009, was the fourth time that feat had been achieved and was made all the more special in that it happened during the first modern all-California series.
While beating the fifth seeded Coyotes was an important first for the franchise, Hebert promptly got injured in the second round and the Mighty Ducks were swept by the Red Wings. Hebert also failed to win any games in a first round sweep by Detroit in 1998-99. Though the Ducks never won a series against the Red Wings with Hiller between the pipes, he had better stats in each playoff run and the team fell in the seventh game both times. When looking at the all-time playoff numbers Hiller's .935 save percentage is .022 higher than Hebert's while facing an average of 7.9 more shots, and his 2.31 GAA is 0.36 lower.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere is rightfully the standard by which all Ducks goalies ought be measured. Hiller has not produced the same ultimate results as Giguere, but in the meanwhile he has made an All Star game appearance (2011) and started for Switzerland in the 2010 Olympics. One must also remember his bought with vertigo during the 2010-11 season, an unexpected monkey-wrench that derailed a campaign that was showing potential for a Vezina nomination before succumbing to the vestibular system disorder. It also has to be noted that Hiller won the starting job with two full seasons of out-performing Giguere before earning the full faith of general manager Bob Murray to pull the trigger on a trade in the third season with the same results.
So while some may be creating Twitter handles and hashtags wanting to run the Swiss stopper out of Orange County, Ducks fans would be well advised to take the second to remember just how good Hiller has been for Anaheim. This isn't Steve Shields, Dominic Roussel, or Mikhail Shtalenkov we're talking about. Hiller has been objectively better in fewer games than the franchise's first starter and took the starting spot from the only other keeper with better all-time numbers.
While his future with the Ducks is certainly in question, Hiller deserves the benefit of the doubt from Ducks fans. The pressure and abounding arguments are just part and parcel of life as a starting goalie in the NHL. Hebert may have been the first, but only Giguere has been better in the Anaheim net than Jonas Hiller.