By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 1999; Page D1
One dollar won't get you a soda from the
machines at the Washington Capitals' training facility.
A buck won't do you any good at MCI Center,
either. But, if your timing is right, 100 pennies will
secure the rights to an NHL goalie, one of the top backups in the league.
That's what it cost the Capitals to acquire
Craig Billington from the
Colorado Avalanche this summer. They thought highly of Billington and
had tried to sign him a year earlier when the keeper decided to remain in
Denver. But with Colorado looking to cut salary, youngster Marc Denis
deemed ready for the NHL and Patrick Roy still entrenched as the starter,
Billington became expendable. When the Avalanche called in July and told
Capitals General Manager George McPhee that Billington could be his for
the nominal fee of one dollar, he nearly dropped the phone.
Just weeks before, McPhee had been having
lunch with longtime Capital
Dale Hunter, who was dealt to Colorado before the playoffs, when
Billington's name arose. Hunter, who grew up near the goalie in Ontario,
praised the 33-year-old's attitude, intellect and ability and said he'd be the
perfect backup to Capitals starter Olaf Kolzig. McPhee and his staff were
looking for a goalie comfortable with being the number two someone
who would not complain if he didn't play much.
"Craig's done an excellent job of defining
and understanding his role,"
McPhee said. "He's been a great number two, and lots of guys can never
come to grips with that. They're always pushing to be the number one, and
I guess you can't blame them, but Craig's sort of found his niche being an
excellent number two without compromising his competitive nature.
"Goalies react to things in different
ways: Some goalies are more
comfortable being the number one when they know the number two is the
number two and he isn't really pushing to be the top guy. I think that's how
Olie is. I think he's better in that kind of situation."
Overall, the Capitals' goaltending wasn't
as strong as they would have
liked last season former backup Rick Tabaracci is still trying to land an
NHL contract but McPhee feels he now has one of the premier tandems
in the NHL. Billington's statistics last season weren't spectacular (2.87
goals-against average, .894 save percentage), but he's consistent, a trait
that's often lacking in backups, given the sporadic nature of their job.
Most importantly, the Capitals see Billington, who earns $850,000 this
season and is eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, as
someone who won't cause any team conflicts and wants nothing more than
to aid Kolzig's development.
"I can already tell he's a great partner,"
Kolzig said. "All he ever says is,
'I'm looking out for your well-being, I'm here to support you.' And I'm not
used to that. I'm used to guys challenging me for the job. It's been great.
"Goaltending is unique. You've got to
be supportive of your partner, but at
the same time you've got to look out for yourself, too. From what I've
seen so far at least, he's not looking out for himself. He's here to help his
partner and help the team."
After spending parts of 12 NHL seasons with
five different organizations,
Billington is a realist. He understands what got him to this level and he
realizes what will keep him here. He said he doesn't worry about getting
only 15 to 25 starts a season and is more concerned with victories and
getting along with the player he's sharing the nets with. For the last three
seasons, that player has been Roy, a flamboyant goalie known for having
a healthy ego.
"My understanding is, if you can get
along with Patrick Roy, I think you
can pretty much get along with anybody," Coach Ron Wilson said. "I think
Craig's going to be just what the doctor ordered."
At a time when the position is being dominated
by players who look like
NFL linebackers, Billington is listed at a relatively slight 5 feet 10, 170
pounds, and is probably 10 pounds and two inches shy of those
measurements. While the flopping and diving technique of goalies such as
Dominik Hasek is in vogue, Billington relies on fundamentals scouting
opposing shooters and playing his angles.
Most backup goalies are seldom noticed, and
Billington is unlikely to be
an exception, drawing little attention to himself.
"I think it comes down to attitude,"
Billington said. "When you stop and
look at it from the outside, you recognize the fact only 28 goalies are in a
starting position and another 28 are in a backup role. That's a total of 56
goalies in the world playing in the NHL. So I take tremendous pride in
what I do. On any given night, when they need me, I'm the guy to play. I
take a lot of pride in that.
"The key is to understand your role,
and if you don't accept it you're going
to waste too much time complaining about it, and that energy you're using
to complain could have been used on improving your game.
"A lot of people think, 'Oh, you're
being satisfied,' and it's not about being
satisfied. It's about knowing what's best for you to succeed and ultimately,
for the team to succeed. It's something I've got down. I know my role,
and it works. I'm an NHL goaltender, it's a great life."