Two years ago, Peter Budaj wondered if his pro hockey days were over.
Budaj, 34, was coming off the toughest season of his career, losing all 15 starts for Winnipeg's AHL affiliate St. John's (0-9-6). He received no NHL offers in free agency, not even for training camp tryouts. Budaj tried calling teams in Europe.
"Nobody wanted to give me a shot," he said.
"He was almost done," said Dusty Imoo, Budaj's AHL goalie coach.
So Budaj did what a man of strong faith like his usually does.
"I prayed," he said.
What has transpired since has the feel of divine intervention, even for an optimist like Budaj, the new Lightning backup goaltender. Budaj parlayed a camp tryout with the Kings in 2015-16 into a stellar AHL comeback year. He expected to still be in AHL Ontario this season until both Kings goalies, Jonathan Quick and Jeff Zatkoff, got hurt in October. Enter Budaj, who played 53 games with Los Angeles and stunningly is among the league leaders in goals-against average (2.16) and shutouts (seven), better than even Montreal's Carey Price.
And Budaj, acquired in the Ben Bishop trade last week, may end up being a perfect fit as Andrei Vasilevskiy's backup next season. He can be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
"If you would have asked me two years ago if I'd be in this situation, I'd say you're crazy," Budaj said. "It's a good lesson. You never know what can happen in hockey."
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Budaj has spent most of his career as a backup, most notably behind Price with the Canadiens from 2011-14. He has a strong body of work, with a 2.66 goals-against average in 351 NHL games.
That's what made Budaj's fall in 2014 so steep. Winnipeg acquired Budaj in a trade with Montreal but immediately waived him and sent him to St. John's. Budaj said his attitude was all wrong, focusing too much on trying to get back to the NHL. The more he thought about it, the worse things got.
"There was too much (stuff) in his head," said Imoo, Budaj's goalie coach in St. John's and Ontario. "We all like to be liked and appreciated, and leaving Montreal, then being sent straight to St. John's, it was a lot for him to take in one shot. And he never really recovered."
Former teammates, including Price, reached out to Budaj with encouragement in the humbling summer of 2015. Budaj, who is Slovakian, thought about how blessed he was. His second son, Michael, had just been born (Peter Jr. is 7). When the Kings, which had recently hired Imoo as their goalie development coach, offered the tryout, Budaj told his wife, Taylor: "I'm going to just work and enjoy the moment. Try not to look too far ahead."
Fortune had intervened for Budaj to get that shot. AHL All-Star goalie J.F. Berube had been claimed by the Islanders, and prospect Patrik Bartosak had gotten hurt. Enter Budaj, who signed a $100,000 minor-league deal. One year after going winless with a 3.55 goals-against average, Budaj went 42-14-4 with a 1.75 GAA.
"It's an unbelievable story," Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean said. "When you look at how the stars aligned for him … but we talked the other day. When your heart is in the right place, good things happen."
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Budaj laughs when asked about the goodie-goodie nickname of "Ned Flanders" given to him by a former trainer.
Yes, Budaj's religious faith is strong. His bushy beard and long hair give him the look of an apostle. Yes, he always seems to be smiling. But no, Budaj, who isn't a Simpsons fan, is not the show's piously perfect Ned (a picture of Flanders is on his mask, though, left). Budaj (pronounced BOO-dye) prefers to go by "Boods."
Budaj is still a big kid at heart, making his personality a match with the 22-year-old Vasilevskiy. He loves riding go-karts and playing video games. "I like to drive fast," he said.
And, turns out, Budaj has plenty of miles left in him.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.