One dollar won't get you a soda from the vending machines at the Washington Capitals' training facility. A buck won't do you any good at MCI Center, either. But, if your timing is right, 100 pennies will secure the rights to an NHL goalie, one of the top backups in the league.
That's what it cost the Capitals to acquire Craig Billington from the Colorado Avalanche this summer. They thought highly of Billington and had tried to sign him a year earlier when the keeper decided to remain in Denver. But with Colorado looking to cut salary, youngster Marc Denis deemed ready for the NHL and Patrick Roy still entrenched as the starter, Billington became expendable. When the Avalanche called in July and told Capitals General Manager George McPhee that Billington could be his for the nominal fee of $1, he nearly dropped the phone.
Just weeks before, McPhee had been having lunch with longtime Capital Dale Hunter, who was dealt to Colorado before the playoffs, when Billington's name arose. Hunter, who grew up near the goalie in Ontario, praised the 33-year-old's attitude, intellect and ability and said he'd be the perfect backup to Capitals starter Olaf Kolzig. McPhee and his staff were looking for a goalie comfortable with being the number two--someone who would not complain if he didn't play much.
"Craig's done an excellent job of defining and understanding his role," McPhee said. "He's been a great number two, and lots of guys can never come to grips with that. They're always pushing to be the number one, and I guess you can't blame them, but Craig's sort of found his niche being an excellent number two without compromising his competitive nature.
"Goalies react to things in different ways: Some goalies are more comfortable being the number one when they know the number two is the number two and he isn't really pushing to be the top guy. I think that's how Olie is. I think he's better in that kind of situation."
Overall, the Capitals' goaltending wasn't as strong as they would have liked last season--former backup Rick Tabaracci is still trying to land an NHL contract--but McPhee feels he now has one of the premier tandems in the NHL. Billington's statistics last season weren't spectacular (2.87 goals-against average, .894 save percentage), but he's consistent, a trait that's often lacking in backups, given the sporadic nature of their job.
Most importantly, the Capitals see Billington, who earns $850,000 this season and is eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, as someone who won't cause any team conflicts and wants nothing more than to aid Kolzig's development.
"I can already tell he's a great partner," Kolzig said. "All he ever says is, 'I'm looking out for your well-being, I'm here to support you.' And I'm not used to that. I'm used to guys challenging me for the job. It's been great.
"Goaltending is unique. You've got to be supportive of your partner, but at the same time you've got to look out for yourself, too. From what I've seen so far at least, he's not looking out for himself. He's here to help his partner and help the team."
After spending parts of 12 NHL seasons with five different organizations, Billington is a realist. He understands what got him to this level and he realizes what will keep him here.
He said he doesn't worry about getting only 15 to 25 starts a season and is more concerned with victories and getting along with the player with whom he's sharing the nets. For the past three seasons, that player has been Roy, a flamboyant goalie known for having a healthy ego.
"My understanding is, if you can get along with Patrick Roy, I think you can pretty much get along with anybody," Coach Ron Wilson said. "I think Craig's going to be just what the doctor ordered."
At a time when the position is being dominated by players who look like NFL linebackers, Billington is listed at a relatively slight 5 feet 10, 170 pounds, and is probably 10 pounds and two inches shy of those measurements. While the flopping and diving technique of goalies such as Dominik Hasek is in vogue, Billington relies on fundamentals-- scouting opposing shooters and playing his angles.
Most backup goalies are seldom noticed, and Billington is unlikely to be an exception, drawing little attention to himself.
"I think it comes down to attitude," Billington said. "When you stop and look at it from the outside, you recognize the fact only 28 goalies are in a starting position and another 28 are in a backup role. That's a total of 56 goalies in the world playing in the NHL. So I take tremendous pride in what I do. On any given night, when they need me, I'm the guy to play. I take a lot of pride in that.
"The key is to understand your role, and if you don't accept it you're going to waste too much time complaining about it, and that energy you're using to complain could have been used on improving your game.
"A lot of people think, 'Oh, you're being satisfied,' and it's not about being satisfied. It's about knowing what's best for you to succeed and ultimately, for the team to succeed. It's something I've got down. I know my role, and it works. I'm an NHL goaltender, it's a great life."