Whither Now, Dwayne Roloson?

Part of the fun of watching the NHL playoffs for me comes from focusing in on the players near the end of their careers: players like Mark Recchi in Boston, Teemu Selanne in Anaheim, and Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit. With those sorts of players, the drive for a Stanley Cup victory has a little more urgency, as there won’t be many post-season runs left.

This is especially true for players that have never won the Cup. For instance, regardless of one’s personal feelings for the Colorado Avalanche, it was good to see a class act like Ray Bourque win his first Cup in the final playoff run of his career, in 2001.

I always pull just a little bit extra for that sort of player, and there was no individual player I was hoping for more than Dwayne Roloson.

Even for a goaltender, Roloson was a late bloomer. He got his first NHL start at the age of 27, stopping 35 of 38 shots as a member of the Calgary Flames en route to a 3-3 tie on November 13, 1996. Even then, he wasn’t totally through with the minor leagues; after spending parts of four seasons in Calgary and Buffalo, Roloson spent all of 2000-01 with the Worcester IceCats of the AHL. He was 31 years old.

Expansion changed things for Roloson, who found an NHL spot with the Minnesota Wild in 2001-02 and hasn’t looked back. In tandem with Manny Fernandez, he provided superb goaltending for the Wild over their early years.

Roloson was good enough that the Wild were able to extract a first round draft pick in exchange for his rights at the 2006 NHL trade deadline. There were fears that the Edmonton Oilers had overpaid for him at the time, as well as some local concern about his win/loss record (6-17-2, despite a 0.910 SV%). Those fears proved unfounded – Roloson was shaky over the remainder of the regular season, but was phenomenal as he lead the Oilers to the Stanley Cup finals. Had he not been injured in the first game of the seven game series against Carolina, it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that he would have won the Stanley Cup that year.

Roloson re-signed with the Oilers, and spent three years back-stopping an also-ran. He lost his starter’s job to Mathieu Garon in 2007-08, but won it back the following year, providing Edmonton with superb goaltending down the stretch as he played game after game without a break, all in the ultimately unsuccessful hope of grabbing one of the final playoff spots.

In the summer of 2009, Roloson wanted a two-year contract to stay in Edmonton. General manager Steve Tambellini determined that was simply too big of a commitment even for a healthy 39-year old goalie, and instead opted to sign an often unhealthy 36-year old named Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year deal and for a lot more money. Roloson settled for a job on Long Island, joining Martin Biron and Rick DiPietro.

Roloson’s first season was decent, and his second season – this season – was even better. In fact, Roloson was so good that Tampa Bay was willing to sacrifice a high-end prospect in Ty Wishart to acquire his services.

As we know, Roloson did not fail to take advantage of his opportunity. The Lightning had employed the problematic tandem of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis; Roloson outperformed both and offered the first hint of reliability in net that Tampa Bay had seen in 2010-11. He was better in the playoffs – through two rounds, Roloson was arguably the top player in the NHL. He had some poor outings in Tampa Bay’s series against Boston, but was at his best in the series’ seventh game, stopping 37 shots in a 1-0 loss.

The key question is what happens now. Roloson is an unrestricted free agent – along with Tomas Vokoun and Ilya Bryzgalov the lone NHL starter on the market. He will turn 42 early next season. Yet, retirement somehow seems unlikely; Roloson’s one of the most fiercely competitive players in the game, and he’s coming off a post-season run where he compared favourably to elite goaltenders like Roberto Luongo and Tim Thomas.

My guess is that Roloson ends up as a backup goaltender somewhere, taking one-year deals until he can’t get them anymore. At his age, he’s unlikely to be handed a starting job outright, but he has to be an attractive option for a contender that wants a reliable backup. Given the uncertainty in Tampa Bay (their top three goalies are all unrestricted free agents), it might make sense for them to bring him back for another year.