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Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere makes a save on a shot by Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere makes a save on a shot by Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Toronto. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)

Giguère battling for chance to start Add to ...

Jean-Sébastien Giguère sat alone in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room on Monday afternoon, half undressed in his stall after being one of the last players off the ice.

The 33-year-old netminder known to most as only Giggy picked up a small bottle of trainer-provided protein shake and put it quickly down the hatch.

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"Not very good," he said, tossing the empty in a nearby bin. "It's purple, but it tastes like chocolate. Go figure."

This is the 15th NHL training camp for Giguère, making him the grizzled veteran on what's become one of the youngest teams in the NHL. And while the day-to-day rigours are mostly old hat to the old-timers, he said Monday he realizes just how important a season this will be.

For one, Giguère wants to be a No. 1 netminder, preferably for more than a season, and he has a real fight on his hands to do so in Toronto.

And for another, this is the final year of a four-year, $24-million (U.S.) deal he signed in Anaheim two weeks after leading the Ducks to the 2007 Stanley Cup, a contract he has struggled to live up to the past two seasons.

As soft-spoken as he is off the ice, Giguère is a fierce competitor on it. He said he is determined to rebound in a big way this season.

"But not for my contract," Giguère said. "I look at it as I lost my No. 1 position in Anaheim and I definitely want to gain it back. I want to just be the No. 1 guy. I have that opportunity and I want to take it. It's an important year for that."

Privately, those close to the goaltender say his struggles began in part because of the death of his father, Claude, who lost an eight-month battle with colon cancer in December of 2008. A month later, a clearly devastated Giguère started in the all-star game in his hometown of Montreal after the fans voted him in, a difficult task given he had all but lost the Ducks' No. 1 job to a young Swiss goalie named Jonas Hiller.

A year later, Giguère was dealt to Toronto, reuniting with long-time goalie coach and mentor François Allaire and joining a team in the league's basement. Giguère started 15 games with the Leafs and played well, emerging along the way as a big brother of sorts to Swedish rookie Jonas Gustavsson.

Many around the league now feel history may repeat itself in Toronto, that another of general manager Brian Burke's European imports - with the same first name, no less - could take the reins this season and leave Giguère out of a job by this time next year.

"I know how it goes," Giguère said. "I've played with good, young goaltenders before - [Ilya]Bryzgalov, Hiller and all that. So it's going to be a gruelling year, it's going to be a battle every day. But I'm up for it."

In some respects, it's understandable that Giguère is seen as a goalie in decline given his numbers have fallen as he's crested over 30, as so many professional athletes' fortunes tend to do. Goalies, however, are a little bit different, and plenty of netminders in their mid-to-late 30s have shone in recent years.

Three of the last five Vézina Trophy winners, for one, were older than Giguère is now.

There's no reason, in other words, he can't play another six or seven seasons - although just how well he performs in this one will go a long way toward getting decent contract offers next July. This is, after all, the era of the young, cheap goalie - many of whom come from Europe, looking for a chance to unseat someone like Giguère for a fraction of the price.

One veteran, Jose Theodore, found that out this summer, and he is still waiting for an injury to finally find a home.

"I know, it's crazy," Giguère said. "It's a battle out there [for goalies]- and the young guys are good."

Giguère reflected only briefly on the r-word on Monday, expressing his disbelief that former Ducks teammate Scott Niedermayer had retired early by walking away this summer at only 36.

"He could have played until he is 40, easily," Giguère said. "For him? I always felt that it was so easy for him, you know? Everything looked so easy. I think he just didn't have that passion any more."

And that won't be Giggy.

"As long as they want me, I'll play," he said. "And then we'll see after that."

 

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