DENVER - Jose Theodore has his Hart, but does he have the hands and feet to be an NHL starting goalie anymore?
The veteran netminder won the NHL's MVP award in 2002 in Montreal, catching the fancy of the voters with two or three great months to get the Canadiens into the playoffs, but it's looking like one of those, "How did that happen?" stories.
The Colorado Avalanche netminder, who took his Hart Trophy and turned it into a $5.5-million US a year contract, watched $600,000 US backup Peter Budaj get the nod against the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night.
It was the third straight game Budaj, the Avalanche's top draft pick in 2001, has started while Theodore looked on.
Owner Stan Kroenke isn't crazy about paying that kind of dough for a cheerleader, but it's coach Joel Quenneville's call.
Budaj went into the Oilers game with a 7-4-1 record as a starter while Theo-dore has logged an 8-8-1 mark. Budaj's goals-against-average was 2.38, Theo-dore's at 3.06.
Theodore, who's an albatross around the neck of the Avs if he can't recover his game because they have to pay him next year, too, knows he has to be better.
"You're not going to win the Hart every year, but I still think I can be at that level," said the 30-year-old, who became only the second goalie (Dominik Hasek) in the last 45 years to win the MVP.
He's had some excellent games -- he won three straight starts in late October to early November with an impressive .942 save percentage -- but his play has been too up and down for a guy making his salary.
Backups can stand on their head every now and then, but No. 1 guys are supposed to be consistent.
The heat to perform in Montreal can be suffocating, especially for a French-Canadian, of course. He welcomed his trade to Denver last spring, but he's also following Hall of Famer Patrick Roy.
"The puck is the same size and so is the net (no matter where you play)," said Theodore. But when he was at his acrobatic best in Montreal, the puck looked the size of a grapefruit. Now, it's more like a marble. And he's also been allowing juicy rebounds, so, technically, his game is off-kilter.
"Jose's been all right this year ... he's starting to go in the right direction. He's looking to recapture his top form,"
said Quenneville, who knows the guy writing the cheques might rather see Theodore, but he has to look out for his players. He says it's not a money issue.
"As a coach you go into the season and look at the goalies and it's an independent decision," Quenneville told the Rocky Mountain News. "I don't think there's any pressure or influence based on economics. It's opportunity, based on who gives us the best chance to win."
And Theodore, frankly, hasn't been anywhere near the hot goalie who won the MVP and the Vezina trophy four years ago. His rebound control has been poor -- too many shots kicked into areas where shooters can fire again -- and he's been tentative in the net.
"It's a tough position where you really get scrutinized, where you're always measured if you let in a bad goal. But we think he's challenging more. He's on top of his crease more.
"I told Peter at the start of the year, not to be happy with the backup role," said Quenneville of Budaj. "Down the stretch, we saw he could get us into the playoffs (he played 14 straight games while Theodore, who'd broken his foot slipping on the sidewalk outside his home in Montreal before he was traded here, recuperated)."