If Al Montoya had taken any longer to decide whether or not to return to Michigan, the Maize ‘N Blue Deli would have named a sandwich after him.
While it’s not quite the same as New York City’s Carnegie Deli, the place the “Al Cubano” calls home, it’s the best Ann Arbor can do.
Fortunately for Michigan, Montoya didn’t get too caught up in the hype that surrounded him after getting picked sixth overall by the New York Rangers.
Not that it’s been easy. Aside from the debut of his sandwich, Montoya has been to a Yankees-Mets game, discussed his Cuban heritage and the fact that his great-uncle fished alongside Ernest Hemmingway with the media about a hundred times and been dubbed “the next athlete heartthrob in New York” by the New York Post’s Page Six.
Yet, Montoya has decided to push it all aside for at least a year in exchange for mornings in Angell Hall, afternoons in Yost Ice Arena and nights at Rick’s.
While his return is obviously great for Michigan and its national title hopes, it’s a good move for Montoya as well, even if nearly all the NHL teams he spoke to before the draft told him he’s wasting his time at Michigan.
That’s because head coach Red Berenson is correct when he says Montoya has unfinished business in college hockey. The notion that he is too good for college hockey is ridiculous, which is what NHL teams seemed to be saying.
Montoya was drafted high because of his potential, what he will be more than what he is. He is definitely on his way to becoming an elite NHL goalie, but he still has a long way to go. While he was very good his sophomore year, was he any better than a pair of freshmen on rival CCHA teams, Michigan State’s Dominic Vicari and Notre Dame’s David Brown? The stats say that these two might even have a slight edge.
When Montoya is at his best, Michigan is nearly unbeatable. But Montoya hasn’t always been consistent. At times, particularly on the road, he has had bad stretches and been unable to quickly right the ship.
Montoya will also benefit from another year of high expectations. As a goaltender, he has grown accustomed to pressure, but it will be different this year. The Wolverines’ goal this year is a national championship, and anything less will be a disappointment. And with 11 seniors on the team, there is a sense of urgency intensifying the pressure. No position is more vital than goaltender, and they need to be unflappable. The only way to become impervious to pressure is to deal with it over and over, and the minors don’t offer that opportunity. In fact, because he will face similar pressure in New York, the Rangers benefit as well.
With Montoya’s return, all the pieces are in place for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Because it is a single-elimination tournament, anything can happen. But make no mistake: The Wolverines should be at the top of the rankings all season long. They have experience up and down the lineup, and no real weaknesses.
Montoya’s decision benefits everyone. Except maybe Page Six.