After practice last Friday, Canadiens goaltending instructor Roland Melanson took a knee at center ice next to his prized pupil, Jos� Th�odore. Melanson then delivered a 10-minute monologue that he would later sum up in one word: Relax. Through Sunday, Th�odore, who won the Hart and Vezina trophies last season, had an .833 save percentage, a number that would be sweet if it were Barry Bonds's slugging percentage, but it was close to 100 points below the average Th�odore put up last season and ranked 55th in the NHL.
Early in the season he looked lost in playing the angles, struggled to hold his post on the short side and was slow to read plays, which caused him to overreact on scoring chances. "When I'm on top of my game, I'm a half-second ahead," says Th�odore, who on the night before Melanson's pep talk was beaten four times on 14 shots before being yanked in a 6-2 loss in Philadelphia. "Right now I'm not reading situations as well as I should." Coach Michel Therrien allowed Th�odore to do remedial reading from the bench on Saturday night, starting Jeff Hackett in a 5-3 victory over the Senators.
The larger question was not of poor angles but of misplaced focus. "In this city we always want our heroes—the Rocket, Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Jacques Plante—and Jos� was a hero here last year," Melanson says. "He's the type of guy who doesn't say no easily, and maybe he was overloaded during the summer, trying to please everyone."
Th�odore didn't exactly make the rounds of the rubber-chicken circuit, but he did film commercials, attend the ESPYs and participate in Quebec's St. Jean Baptiste celebrations and Canada Day festivities. He also signed a new contract, a three-year deal worth $16.5 million plus bonuses. The weight of the trophies, a contract that makes him the highest-paid player in team history and his status as the cornerstone of the fabled franchise would be a burden for any 26-year-old, even one as grounded as Th�odore.
But the Canadiens' situation isn't dire. Th�odore is too talented to be a one-year wonder like Jim Carey, who won the Vezina with the Capitals in 1996 but was out of hockey three years later. Hackett is a luxury item, a $3.6 million backup who has been a No. 1 goalie and probably will be someplace else by the March trade deadline.
Having recovered from the string of injuries over the past two years that thrust Th�odore into the spotlight, Hackett has been formidable in stealing a win in Detroit on Oct. 17 and robbing Mats Sundin in overtime to preserve a 2-2 tie against Toronto two days later. After making 45 stops, including two on breakaways, against Ottawa, the 34-year-old has given Montreal five of a possible six points in the three matches he has started. Almost as important, Hackett, an unrestricted free agent after the season, has increased his trade value, a major benefit for a team that is spending $8.6 million this season on goaltending.