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Former Buffalo Sabres left winger Thomas Vanek (Associated Press)

Former Buffalo Sabres left winger Thomas Vanek

(Associated Press)

Duhatschek: Vanek deal shows Islanders believe they are playoff contenders and more Add to ...

At 32, DiPietro is a fascinating case study, and has been since 2000 when the Islanders drafted him with the first choice in that year’s NHL entry draft and opened up a juicy starting spot for him in the organization by trading away a young up-and-comer, Roberto Luongo, to the Florida Panthers. Luongo went on to have a successful career with both Florida and Vancouver, while DiPietro’s has sputtered and stumbled along, undermined more by his fragility than his erratic play.

DiPietro’s primary appeal back in the beginning was his exceptional puck-handling ability. There were thoughts that he could become the best ever puck-handling goalie and revolutionize the position – carrying on where future Hall Of Famer Martin Brodeur and others had taken it.

The Islanders liked him so much that they signed him to what was considered a lifetime contract back in 2006 – 15 years, $67.5-million – a pivotal signing that eventually paved the way for all the excessively long contracts that followed.

Just why so many NHL teams thought that was a good strategy remains a perplexing question and certainly played a major part in the term restrictions built into the new collective bargaining agreement. DiPietro dealt with all the common ailments associated with goalies saddled with heavy workloads – hip, knee, groin and sports hernia problems – in addition to a concussion. The Islanders’ patience finally ran out last year, when they bought out the final eight years of his deal.

Ever since, DiPietro – like fellow free agents Ilya Bryzgalov and Jose Theodore – has been biding his time, waiting for an opportunity and trying to get healthy.

Carolina helped Dan Ellis, now the backup to Kari Lehtonen in Dallas, resurrect his career with Charlotte, but the DiPietro experiment is probably more akin to Ray Emery’s return after he was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a degenerative hip condition, during the 2009-10 season. Emery needed a bone graft to repair the damage and then embarked on a significant conditioning program so that he could play at the NHL level again. The Anaheim Ducks eventually took a chance on Emery and after a successful 7-2-0 spin with them he moved on the Chicago Blackhawks, where he went 17-1 last year and was part of their Stanley Cup championship team, albeit it in a backup role. DiPietro needs a team to take a similar leap of faith in him.

Carolina’s season went off the rails last year after both Ward and Ellis were simultaneously out with injuries. Khudobin is considered a prospect with starting potential, but he hasn’t played since getting hurt against Phoenix earlier this season, and was scheduled to start practicing Sunday. Ward is expected to miss about a month with a lower-body injury.

From a purely short-term point of view, the Hurricanes could use an in-form DiPietro now as opposed to later, but as general manager Jim Rutherford told the Raleigh News Observer, the Hurricanes didn’t want to be caught short of goaltending depth again.

“When Cam was hurt, we started going through the names and looking at possibilities,” said Rutherford. “With an 82-game schedule you have more leeway with injuries. But with that being said, having as much depth as you can in goal is important.”

THE RINNE WATCH: Similar to the Hurricanes, the Nashville Predators will try to muddle along for the next month – and possibly longer – without their starting goalie. In Nashville’s case, Pekka Rinne is out with a bacterial infection in his surgically repaired hip. Though they are optimistic that all will go well in his recovery, there is always the fear that it won’t – and if that’s the case, Nashville may also have to wade into the goalie market.

The St. Louis Blues blasted them for six goals Saturday night – the first five getting past the new starter, Carter Hutton, and the last one past the newly promoted Magnus Hellberg, a goalie the Preds believe has a big future with them. Nashville generally relies on homegrown talent when injuries strike and have had a long history of developing high-end goalie talent, either for themselves or for other teams around the league.

The Preds play such a tight defensive system that many goalies that look great in their system don’t fare nearly as well elsewhere – Anders Lindback, being the latest example of that. The Predators missed the playoffs last year for the first time in eight years and were rewarded with a fabulous consolation prize – defenceman Seth Jones, who will likely give the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and possibly the Calgary Flames’ Sean Monahan a run for rookie of the year honors. But the Preds thought they’d be back in the playoff chase this year, anchored by a healthy Rinne.

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