The 2017-18 NHL season is upon us at last. Tonight, the Sharks face the Flyers in a game televised nationally on NBC Sports. Ex-Shark of the Week is back, and it made perfect sense to profile a man with ties to all three organizations: Goaltender Brian Boucher.
Brian Boucher was not the headline story when he arrived in San Jose. He signed a one-year deal on February 26, 2008 — the same trade deadline day that infamously brought Brian Campbell to Silicon Valley. Boucher had played all year in the AHL, was 31-years-old, and hadn’t played more than a cup of coffee at the NHL level since the 2003-04 season. No one knew at the time that he was just what the Sharks needed.
It wasn’t always a struggle for Brian Boucher. A native Rhode Islander, Boucher was an elite hockey prospect growing up. He grew up playing goal in the States, moved to Canada at age 17 to play for the Tri-Cities Americans of the WHL, and had a phenomenal draft year. The Philadelphia Flyers chose him 22nd overall in the 1995 Entry Draft, positioning him to become heir apparent on a team poised to compete for years to come.
He lived up to the hype. In his rookie season, Boucher seized the starting job from stalwart goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck. He was a sensation, posting a 1.91 GAA and .918 save percentage down the stretch over 35 games. This NHL.com article capably tells the story of his rookie season and how surreal it was, but the playoffs took things to another level. The rookie backstopped the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Final, and made an absolutely insane save on Patrick Elias that looms large in Flyers history:
The Flyers lost to the eventual Cup Champion Devils in seven games. Boucher was fabulous. Flyers d-man Keith Jones summed it up: “I don’t think there’s any question that we wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far as we did if not for the way Brian Boucher played.”
But he never capitalized on that early potential in his first stint in Philadelphia. Boucher and Roman Cechmanek spent the 2000-01 and 2001-02 trading the starting job to each other, but neither seized the reins. The Flyers eventually saw Boucher as the odd man out and sent him to Phoenix for Robert Esche and Michal Handzus just prior to the 2002 NHL Draft.
Brian Boucher made NHL history in Phoenix in the best way possible. He was dependable, but not great in his first year in the desert, splitting time between the pipes with Sean Burke. It looked as though things would continue that way during the 2003-04 season. At one point, Boucher was Phoenix’s third string option after Burke and Zac Bierk. But just after the winter holidays, something remarkable happened:
"It started at Nashville," Boucher said. "I gave up a goal in the last few seconds of the second period. It could have been longer if I didn't give up that darn goal late in the second." He wouldn’t allow another goal for 332 minutes and one second. Five games and change. The shutout streak blew open Bill Durnan’s record from 1949. It may never be equaled. “We weren't the greatest team that year, but for that stretch of time, we were a group that pulled together and found something to play for,” Boucher recalled. “Guys stayed out of the box, blocked shots, played desperate. Guys realized we've come this far, there's no sense in blowing it now."
The Coyotes finished in the cellar that year, but Boucher proved once again that he had the potential to be elite when he was on his game. He wouldn’t get many more chances in Phoenix to show it: the ‘04-05 season vanished due to the lockout, and in ‘05-06 the Coyotes dealt him to Calgary before the Olympic Break.
The next 18 months were difficult. After three games in Calgary, Boucher signed with the Blackhawks for 2006-07 with the expectation he’d get a chance at a starting job. He started just 15 games instead. Columbus claimed Boucher off waivers in February, and he started just three games there. He had surgery on a nagging shoulder injury that offseason, and, with no NHL takers, decided to prove himself by signing with the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms. He played 42 games, and awaited a call from his agent informing him that an NHL team had decided to give him another chance.
Enter San Jose. The Sharks had been searching for an effective backup to Evgeni Nabokov; Dmitri Patzold couldn’t cut it, and a young Thomas Greiss looked shaky early on. So they signed Boucher for the stretch run. Boucher was great down the stretch in five appearances for San Jose, and his play convinced Doug Wilson that his search for a backup was over. Boucher re-signed with San Jose that offseason, and Wilson praised his relationship with Evgeni Nabokov: “I think they have great respect for each other,” Wilson said. “[Boucher] got it done on the ice and that’s how you command respect.”
He was beloved in the locker room, too. Witness his important role in the greatest Sharks video of all time:
The ‘08-09 season was fabulous for Boucher. He played in 22 games, a show of confidence and support from an organization that had forced Evgeni Nabokov to play 77(!!!) games the prior year. He posted a solid .917 save percentage in those appearances, and largely restored confidence among Sharks fans that the sky wouldn’t fall down while Nabokov was away from the crease. But the Sharks fell short in the playoffs again that year, and the organization clearly felt it was time to give Thomas Greiss a shot. To his credit, Boucher expressed no hard feelings about moving on:
“As far as San Jose is concerned, I’m really thankful for the opportunity I was given,” Boucher said. “I’m really thankful for the opportunity I was given. They plucked me from the minors and gave me an opportunity to play again in the NHL. It was really an enjoyable year and a couple months.”
The Philadelphia Flyers needed goaltending, and they signed Boucher to a two-year deal that offseason. In 67 games in his second stint as a Flyer over those two seasons, Boucher posted a .908 save percentage. Splitting goaltending duties with Michael Leighton down the stretch, the two-headed monster took the Flyers all the way to the Cup Finals — another miraculous playoff run in orange and black for Brian Boucher.
By now an established veteran presence, Boucher backed up Cam Ward in Carolina for the 2010-11 season, and then spent a cup of coffee with the Flyers in 2012. After four more games and a stint in Switzerland with EV Zug, the goaltender hung up his skates at the age of 36 and immediately transitioned into broadcasting. I think he’s one of the best analysts NBC has hired — capable of breaking down a goaltending performance in an analytical-but-relatable way, he’s one of the bright spots on an NBC team that gets a good deal of flak. I look forward to seeing him tonight, and will quietly thank him for saving Evgeni Nabokov from an early grave on two of the greatest Sharks teams of all time.