By Bill Hoppe
Judge him by wins, and Patrick Lalime’s a failure. The goalie only registered nine in 47 games over three campaigns, zero this season and just one in the calendar year of 2010. By the end, prospect Jhonas Enroth pushed him out. The former NHL All-Star didn’t even dress. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.
Numbers were only one part of Lalime’s run as Ryan Miller’s backup, though. Ask teammates and coaches, and the likable 36-year-old, whose 12-year NHL career could be over, brought the Sabres something special, even invaluable. He was the ultimate teammate, someone who made “every day fun.”
“I’ve just really grown to appreciate Patty in a high regard,” Miller said last Thursday as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers inside HSBC Arena. “I really do love him. He’s awesome.”
Lalime, who seemingly has a smile permanently etched on his face, provided Miller with someone to lean on and talk to. Even with only seven appearances in 2010-11, his presence and optimistic nature remained critical to the Sabres’ success, Miller said.
In his Vezina Trophy acceptance speech last year, Miller thanked one teammate by name: Lalime.
“He works harder than pretty much anybody I’ve seen, and he does it without question,” Miller said. “He does it because it puts a smile on his face to be on the ice with the guys. That’s the kind of attitude you want around. That’s the kind of goaltending partner you want to have because he’s never had anything but a good thing to say to me, and if I needed to be picked up, he was first one there.”
The Sabres rarely picked up Lalime in net, however. An elite starter with Ottawa last decade, he went 9-26-5 here, often played just well enough to lose.
Lalime last won a game March 27, 2010, his 200th NHL triumph. Still, the Sabres re-signed him to a one-year deal in July, partly because he was tight with Miller and so respected.
But by November, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff lost all confidence in Lalime. When Lalime’s horrendous giveaway ruined an otherwise strong performance in a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Nov. 20, he had started his last game. He received two relief appearances after that, the last one Jan. 21.
Now Lalime, an unrestricted free agent, is possibly staring down retirement.
“I love the game,” Lalime said last Thursday. “I just don’t know really what’s going to happen. Whatever happens, so far it’s been a lot of fun, that’s for sure.”
Lalime certainly possesses the qualities of a good coach. Ruff watched Lalime embrace other roles when he accepted he might not play.
“The support that (people) don’t see, it’s sometimes in practice and in the room, and sitting next to Jhonas when Ryan wasn’t there, (it’s) invaluable just to have the attitude,” Ruff said. “I think you could have the same type of goaltender, the same age, a veteran goaltender that maybe thought he should be playing more, could’ve been extremely sour, could’ve been a distraction, could’ve hurt them.
“I think the support he showed Jhonas made Jhonas even better,” he said. “I’ve seen it work differently a lot of times. Fortunately for us, we had a real good person in Patty Lalime. We really felt he helped both Jhonas and Ryan throughout the year.”
Lalime added: “In this business, it’s OK to be mad or something for a little bit, but you got to move on right away. You can’t drag that on. You can’t be a negative factor off the ice. You got to be there for your teammates and stuff. I totally enjoyed it.”
Late in the season, Lalime, who started his NHL career as a phenom, going 14-0-2 with Pittsburgh in 1996-97, saw some of his old self in the 22-year-old Enroth, who backstopped the Sabres to some huge wins while going 9-2-2.
Enroth had a poster of Lalime above his bed as a boy in Sweden.
“It makes me laugh,” Lalime said. “I think it’s great in a way. Even (rookie Tyler Ennis) told me when he was young he was playing street hockey and he was Patrick Lalime. Just little things like that made me laugh. It’s nice to see.”
Is that true, Tyler?
“That is true,” Ennis said. “I remember growing up as a kid I always wanted to go in net because I loved the glove saves and stuff. He was in Pittsburgh and I remember he was my favorite goalie at the time. I would be Patrick Lalime. Everyone would be Pavel Bure. I was in net and I was Patrick Lalime.
“I have the most respect for the guy ever,” he said. “I just have the most respect for Patrick Lalime.”