Melrose, Kings find themselves prince of a backup in Stauber

December 27, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Robb Stauber, who until losing last week was the only undefeated goaltender in the National Hockey League, long ago missed out on the opportunity to be the only unscarred one.

Lack of opportunity, lack of health, the lack of others' confidence seemed destined to deny him a place with the Los Angeles Kings, who after last season left him unprotected in the expansion draft. So low was regard for him among the braintrust in Tampa Bay and Ottawa that Stauber went unchosen.

"We got a break there, that no one thought he would rebound," King coach Barry Melrose said. "We got a big break there, without a doubt."

Such words of praise actually might understate the case.

In 11 starts going into last weekend as the No. 1 goalie Kelly Hrudey's backup, the 25-year-old Stauber has a 9-1-1 record with a 3.07 goals-against average. He's stopped 91.6 percent of the shots he's faced, the best save percentage in the NHL.

"Anytime you've been down and out and it looks like you're not going to be counted on, it's fun to rise back and to accept some of the challenges that hockey can bring on," the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Stauber said.

Indeed, Stauber has spent most of his professional career climbing back from misfortune.

As a collegian at the University of Minnesota, the Duluth native won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award -- hockey's Heisman Trophy -- in 1987-88, then went 26-8 in 1988-89. As an 18-year-old in 1986, he'd been drafted by the Kings.

But when he turned professional for the 1989-90 season, his troubles began. He missed the first four months of the season with groin and back injuries, won his first pro start on Feb. 16, and was called up by the Kings two weeks later. His two NHL appearances that season were disasters, however; he allowed 11 goals in 83 minutes, a 7.95 goals against average.

"They were damaging," Stauber said of those games. "They were damaging to the people that were making decisions on whether I would return."

It looked for a long time as if he wouldn't, as least not to the Kings.

While Daniel Berthiaume was starring as Hrudey's backup in 1990-91, Stauber was compiling a 13-16-4 record and 3.67 goals-against average for the Kings' minor-league team in New Haven. After a season during which he suffered from knee, groin and back injuries, he underwent knee surgery.

Last season, though the Kings lacked a dependable backup to Hrudey, Stauber began the season with the U.S. Olympic program but was assigned to the Kings' Phoenix team. Although his 8-12-1 record and 3.86 goals-against average were unimpressive, they were the best statistics of any Roadrunner goalie.

But the new expansion teams didn't take notice, and at training camp, Melrose did.

"Right from day one, Robb Stauber I felt was going to be the second goaltender here," Melrose said. "I had no doubt about it. He's a confident kid and a goaltender has to be a confident individual because you're on your own back there and you have to believe in yourself. No one else is going to believe in you if you don't believe in yourself."

Melrose is so confident in Stauber that he is talking about initiating a true goaltending rotation at some point this season. Thus far, Stauber has played about one-third of the games.

Hrudey betrays no resentment at the threat to his playing time that Stauber poses. All he has to do is think back to last season, when the Kings' goaltending deficiencies forced him to start 35 of the team's final 38 regular-season games.

"Last year was really difficult mentally for me, especially the last bit," Hrudey said. "We played so many games and I played virtually all of them with no relief in sight. It was taxing mentally. This year, it's not the same. I feel very comfortable with the situation; I feel comfortable that Robb's going to go in there and play great."

One of his hallmarks has been a poise demanded by the volume of shots he's faced -- an average of 37 in his 11 starts. It's possible his calm springs from the fact that goaltending's inherent pressure is what first attracted him to the position. Plus, he has the knowledge that he long ago reached the goal he considered the pinnacle of his hockey career: playing in the Minnesota state high school tournament. Stauber led Duluth Denfield to third place in 1986.

"I don't think anybody understands it unless you're from there and you're a kid growing up there watching it on TV every March," said Stauber, who was not an NHL fan growing up. "To me, playing in the state tournament was probably one of the biggest thrills of my life.

And though his professional career had been anything but fun until this season, Stauber came to training camp this season, as Melrose puts it, "with a purpose," and won the backup job.

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