Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Ottawa Senators free agent signing.
Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.
The All-Time Best St. Louis Blues Free Agent Signing
1989 – Curtis Joseph: Undrafted Free Agent
Goaltenders are often depicted in hockey as the “last line of defense.” It’s coined the most difficult position to play in the sport by current and previous back stoppers due to the amount of concentration and focus it demands. They’re judged on every shot that comes their way and how they’ll respond to the next one. They are relied on to get the job done and seal the victory, no matter what it takes. Deliver an egregious outing and they will be criticized heavily, with fans calling for the goalie’s head on a pike after the game.
Legendary netminder Jacques Plante summed it up appropriately:
Goaltender is a normal job. Sure. How would you like it if at your job, every time you made the slightest mistake a little red light went on over your head and 18,000 people stood up and screamed at you?
Curtis Joseph welcomed every challenge that came with becoming an NHL goalie. He did his best to draw the league’s attention towards him. In 1988, the Keswick, Ontario native traveled over 500 miles to Madison, Wisconsin to play NCAA Division I hockey for the Badgers. He previously played three years in the Ontario Junior A Hockey League (OJHL). Joseph went 21-11-5 in his freshman season at the University of Wisconsin, adding a save percentage of .919 and a goals-against average of 2.49. He was voted to the all-conference team after his stellar year, but remained undrafted by the NHL.
Longtime St. Louis Blues forward and captain Brian Sutter was forced to retire in the 1988 off-season due to a reoccurring back injury. He spent the previous twelve years with the team. Shortly after, the 32-year-old forward went from in front of the bench to behind it, replacing head coach Jacques Martin (who was fired after the 1987-1988 season).
Center Bernie Federko was appointed the “C,” and the Blues performed very well at home (22-11-7) in Sutter’s inaugural season as a NHL benchboss. Away from the Kiel Center, however, St. Louis was abysmal, going 11-24-5 on the road. Their inconsistent play did not keep them out of the playoffs as the Blues held on to second place in the Norris Division after 80 games. Emerging sniper Brett Hull led the offense with 41 goals. Federko led the team in assists with 45. The Blues scored 275 goals in the regular season, but let in 285.
When the postseason rolled around, St. Louis ran through the Minnesota North Stars in five games in the Division Semifinals. In the next round, they were ousted by their hated rival Chicago Blackhawks by an identical margin.
Federko was traded after the season to the Detroit Red Wings along with Tony McKegney for Adam Oates and Paul MacLean. This was one of the worst trades in Red Wings history, and one of the best for the Blues. Federko retired after the 1989-1990 season. Meanwhile, Oates turned into a superstar.
Blues general manager Ron Caron signed the relatively unknown Joseph to a contract and assigned him to the Peoria Rivermen of the International Hockey League for the start of the 1989-1990 campaign.
Joseph began his professional hockey career with the Rivermen by starting in 23 games, amassing a record of 10-8-2. His GAA was 3.87 and his SV% stood at .885. It was enough to earn himself a call-up to the big-league club, where he would split time with backup goaltender Greg Millen behind starting goaltender Vincent Riendeau.
The rookie goalie gave up six goals to the star-studded Edmonton Oilers in his first NHL start on January 2nd, but responded with seven consecutive decisions without a loss (six wins, one tie). Joseph’s teammate at the time, Robert Dirk, created his famed nickname “Cujo,” in the first year of his career in St. Louis.
[He] couldn’t really pronounce my name so he shortened it to Cujo, which is the first two letters of both names.
(quote courtesy of TSN/BarDown)
A Breakout Success
Surprisingly enough, Joseph was called on by Sutter to start against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round of the 1990 playoffs. The Blues moved on, disposing of the Leafs in five games. He would put up a .907 save percentage against the Leafs.
Riendeau would assume the number-one role in between the pipes for St. Louis in the second round against the Blackhawks. Unfortunately, the Blues were bested in seven games. Joseph made his lone appearance (in relief) in the series in Game 7, allowing four goals on fifteen shots in an 8-2 drubbing.
Despite his breakout performance against Toronto, Joseph would be situated behind Riendeau the next season. He played in 30 regular season games during the 1990-1991 season, turning in a record of 16-10-2. Once again, St. Louis fell in the second round of the postseason. This time the opponent was the Minnesota North Stars.
Becoming the Starter
As a result of the loss, the Blues decided to re-evaluate their goaltending depth chart in the off-season. They promoted Joseph to the starting spot, while trading Riendeau to Detroit in October of 1991. They also acquired Brendan Shanahan in the off-season to employ a offensive and physical boost.
Joseph’s play excelled as he gained more experience in the NHL, winning 27 games as a first-stringer in 1991-1992 while posting a save percentage of .911. St. Louis allowed the eighth least amount of goals that season, largely thanks to Cujo. They met up with the Blackhawks in the postseason (because why not?), this time in the Division Semis. After taking a 2-1 series lead, the Blues lost three consecutive games.
His Best Season in St. Louis
1992-1993 was perhaps the most note-worthy of Joseph’s time in St. Louis. With the Blues struggling to put up all goals all season long, they turned to #31 manning the blue paint. He appeared in 68 games (29-28-9) while sporting a .911 SV%. The Blues were 18th out of the 24 NHL teams in scoring with new head coach Bob Berry at the helm of the regime (Bob Plager was fired 11 games into the season). Cujo helped St. Louis finish 5th in goals allowed and 4th in the Norris Division, barely edging out the North Stars for the final playoff spot.
Their opponent in the first round would be none other than the division champions and top-seeded club in the Clarence Campbell Conference, the Blackhawks. Everyone in the league knew that Chicago had St. Louis’ number in the past and thought this year would be no different. The Blues dull offense going up against the top defense in the league, headlined by 41-game-winning goaltender Ed Belfour and phenomenal two-way defenseman Chris Chelios?
Not a chance.
St. Louis would go on to shock the hockey world by sweeping the Hawks in four straight games. Joseph delivered one of the best playoff performances of his career, shutting out Chicago in Games 2 and 3; while making a combined 81 saves in the process). Craig Janney scored the controversial game-winning goal in overtime of Game 4 and Belfour went on an absolute tirade.
The Second Round
Unlike in 1990, the Blues stuck with Cujo in the second round against the Maple Leafs. Games 1 and 2 both went to double overtime, with each team taking a game from the other. Joseph made 118 saves on 121 shots that he faced. With their backs against the wall in Game 6, St. Louis forced a seventh game thanks to their last line of defense, who stopped 40 shots and allowed only a single goal. Once again, the Blues would fall in the second round. Toronto obliterated the Blues in the final game of the series by a score of 6-0, but Joseph’s outstanding performances in those two rounds remain etched in the minds of Blues fans everywhere.
He was voted 3rd behind Belfour and Tom Barrasso for the Vezina Trophy and was re-signed by the Blues in the summer.
It was the farthest that Joseph would get in the postseason in the Gateway City, even after amassing 36 wins in 1993-1994 (in which he was an All-Star) and 20 victories in the lockout-shortened 1994-1995 season. Five playoff appearances in St. Louis, three first-round exits.
In the 1995 off-season, he was traded to the Oilers as part of a package with forward Mike Grier in exchange for first-round picks in the 1996 and 1997 NHL Drafts.
Curtis Joseph deserved a much better fate with the St. Louis Blues. On some nights, he was the only reason why they weren’t run out of the building. His versatile style of play stemmed from his ability to play shots by utilizing both stand-up and butterfly techniques. Cujo embraced breakaways and odd-man chances, and fared well against them. Skating was one of his strong suits and he often acted as a third defenseman while setting up plays (such as a long stretch pass) in the defensive zone. He oozed competitiveness and was never satisfied with how he played, always working to improve his game.
You look back on his career statistics and one number stands out almost immediately: 454. It’s the amount of wins Joseph racked up over his long and storied tenure in the NHL. He ranks fourth all-time in NHL history in that regard. The three goaltenders above him (Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy and Belfour) have all won Stanley Cups.
Joseph’s name never chiseled its way onto Lord Stanley.
While he reinforced his elite status while playing for the Oilers and Maple Leafs, Joseph’s significant impact on the franchise in St. Louis was much more than what they could have hoped for when they signed him.
And who could forget that incredible mask?