June 11, 2012 9:27 AM
Given what he could control, it’s hard to imagine a better season.
Whether rookie goalie John Muse was with the Checkers in the AHL or the Florida Everblades in the ECHL, the result was usually the same. Taking all competitions from both leagues into account, he won 37 of 53 games, culminating with his playoff MVP award as the Everblades captured the Kelly Cup in May. Along the way, he posted a 2.09 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and four shutouts.
That’s part of why the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t make the 23-year-old wait long for his first NHL contract, signing him to a one-year deal on Thursday – mere weeks after the conclusion of his playing season.
“It’s really nice,” said Muse. “It makes it easier because you don’t have to sit there all summer wondering what’s going to happen.”
He knows from experience, having taken longer than expected to find a home one year earlier, when he eventually signed an AHL contract with Charlotte after finishing his senior season at Boston College.
“I had that sitting on my shoulders all summer, and it was bothersome,” he said. “Now I feel like I’m wanted, and that’s the biggest thing.”
Even last summer, it wasn’t as though Muse, who was never drafted by an NHL team, hadn’t been successful. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound netminder from Cape Cod was coming off a collegiate career that saw him win two NCAA titles as a four-year starter with the Eagles, including one as a freshman.
That makes the Everblades’ recent title his third in five years – a hugely impressive accomplishment that hasn’t seemed to completely sink in just yet.
“You definitely never get used to winning,” he said. “I’ve been really lucky, and I don’t take that for granted because some guys play their whole careers and never win a championship. You never know if that could be your last one or not, but I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that it isn’t.”
Though nothing is set in stone with roughly three months of offseason to go, it seems likely that Muse will aim to secure his next title in Charlotte. If the season started today, he’d be the Checkers starter by default, as he’s one of just three goalies under contract with the Carolina organization along with NHL veterans Cam Ward and Brian Boucher.
Any number of scenarios could occur to change that, whether it’s Justin Peters returning to the organization to resume his role as Carolina’s third option or the signing or drafting of a player currently outside the fold. However, developments up to this point have been in Muse’s favor, as Mike Murphy has chosen to sign with a Russian club and Danish goalie Frederik Andersen, previously a candidate to play in North America for the first time, elected not to sign with Carolina and will re-enter the draft.
For his part, Muse said that he had “no idea” where he would be or in what role.
“That will become more and more clear as the summer goes on,” he said.
While he hasn’t proven himself over the course of a full season at the AHL level, his first relief appearances followed by a month-long run as the Checkers’ starter in January and February were certainly encouraging. After bursting onto the scene by stopping 92 of his first 93 shots with Charlotte, he went on to post a record of 10-3-2 with a 1.81 goals-against average and .941 save percentage before returning to Florida on March 1, where he did more of the same.
That reassignment of Muse was among the tougher player transactions one is likely to see in hockey. His demotion came through no fault of his own, but rather due to the numbers game caused by the improving health of those above him in the depth chart, including Boucher, whose return from a three-month groin injury started a chain reaction of goalie transactions.
Still, he held no ill feelings at the time.
“Obviously I wanted to be in the AHL, but I always knew that my time there was limited,” he said. “Things would have been different if I hadn’t expected it, but I knew that Boucher was going to get healthy and that I would probably have to go back down to Florida.”
Upon his return, it was business as usual, with the Everblades winning 27 of their next 33 games en route to the championship. During that time, Muse was 20-5-0.
“I was happy to get that chance in Charlotte and that it went as well as it did, and when I got to Florida they were in a battle for a playoff spot so there was no time to mess around,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the reason they weren’t going to make the playoffs.”
Clearly, they did a lot more than that. Though the championship wasn’t Muse’s first, he said that it was still a learning experience due to the very different nature of postseasons at the professional and collegiate levels.
“You get more and more comfortable anytime you play in a big game,” he said. “In college it’s a one-and-done and you only have to win four games, but in the pros you can lose a game here and there and still win a championship. It’s a whole different mindset.”
With that under his belt, Muse seems poised to take another step forward in terms of competition. Even with at least some uncertainty about his destination, he’ll have the appearance of an AHL goalie, as he can replace the bright-green Everblades mask that Charlotte fans became familiar with for a Checkers-themed version that finally came in the mail two weeks after he returned to Florida for good in the spring.
That mask has never been worn, but he hopes to change that next season. His results since coming to the Carolina organization are welcome to stay the same.
“It’s been a good fit, and I’m glad it turned out the way it did,” he said.