In the 371 days between Jan. 2, 2009, and Jan. 8 of this year, Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro underwent knee surgery, shed 15 pounds, grew a beard and hobbled down the aisle. ("Crutches wouldn't look good with my tux," he says.) But he didn't play one NHL game. Since signing a league-record, 15-year, $67.5 million contract in September 2006, DiPietro, 28, has missed as many matches to injury (132) as he's played.
Such an extended convalescence typically signals a career in decline, but DiPietro may prove an exception. The first goalie chosen with the top pick in the NHL draft, his selection in 2000 prompted former New York general manager Mike Milbury to trade Roberto Luongo, himself a first-rounder three years earlier, to make room for the athletic teenage prodigy. In six years DiPietro built a reputation as the best American goaltender of his generation, taking the Isles to the playoffs twice and backstopping Team USA at the 2006 Olympics.
"Most people thought he was going to be the U.S. Olympic goalie [for years to come] and one of the elite goalies in the NHL," says Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.
But season-ending hip surgery in March 2008, followed by separate surgeries to both knees over the next 18 months, limited him to five games last season and nearly derailed his career. His first game back, a 4--3 loss to the Stars in which he stopped 24 of 28 shots, could be considered the start of his second life.
While he was laid up, DiPietro, who broke into the league as an instinctive netminder with a flair for puckhandling, learned the value of restraint. "Less is more," he says. "It gets me in trouble sometimes that I try and do too much."
On the advice of his doctors, DiPietro slimmed down and adopted a stand-up style, "to save my legs." But it remains to be seen how durable his surgically repaired lower body will be. "His greatest asset is his 100 percent belief in his ability to be great," says Ducks television analyst and former NHL goalie Brian Hayward.
With three goaltenders—Marty Biron, Dwayne Roloson and DiPietro—Islanders general manager Garth Snow must trade one. Roloson (18-7-6, .913 save percentage) has a hammerlock on the No. 1 job, making Biron the obvious candidate to be dealt by the March 3 deadline. But coach Scott Gordon has yet to decide on a rotation at the position. "We've got to get Ricky going," he says. "But we have to be smart about it."
In DiPietro's second start, a 3--2 win over the Sabres on Long Island last Saturday, he turned away 31 shots, including five in an eight-round shootout. "I was trying not to cry on the ice," he said afterward. It was a hopeful sign that for as much as he's had to alter both his style and outlook, the best parts of DiPietro's game remain unchanged.
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