Joseph's first start a new beginning

Just an offseason ago, Curtis Joseph was on top of the world, having signed a lucrative free-agent contract to be the No. 1 goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings, who were then the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

Monday, he returned from a conditioning stint in the minors.

He's likely to start his first game of the National Hockey League season Thursday night in Nashville. He's hoping that game will be the jumping off point to the rest of his NHL career, a career that no longer includes Detroit.

How did it come to this?

There are many facets to the story, which includes Joseph's offseason ankle surgery, but Dominik Hasek's return to the Red Wings after yet another bogus retirement is truly the crux of the matter.

Joseph signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Red Wings three weeks after they won the 2002 Stanley Cup and eight days after Hasek officially announced his retirement. Hasek rocked Joseph's world when he decided to un-retire in June. Reasons for the return vary -- everything from missing the competitive action to a fear of repercussions for an alleged assault of an opponent in an in-line hockey game in his native Czech Republic have been offered up -- but whatever its is, Joseph has been the most affected.

"I'm just trying to make the best of a bad situation," Joseph told reporters this week.

And that says a lot.

It may be semantics, but just a week or two ago, Joseph said it was a "difficult" situation. Now, it's "bad." And unless Detroit general manager Ken Holland orchestrates a trade soon, it's likely to get worse.

On the surface, the problems seem simple enough. Detroit now has three goaltenders -- Hasek, Joseph and veteran backup Manny Legace. Traditionally, there is only room for two on the 23-man roster. In addition, all three are vested NHL pros and can't be sent to the minors outright without clearing waivers. Hasek is clearly the No. 1 goalie. Legace, who is one of the best backups in the league and makes a base salary of $1.1 million, would be plucked off the waiver wire as soon as he was put on.

Since a three-goalie rotation often puts unneeded and unwanted stress on the goaltenders and the team, sending Joseph to the minors would make sense. However, doing that could be viewed as a form of punishment for a goaltender who has been dominant through most of his NHL career. Besides, should the Red Wings then try and trade Joseph, he could veto the move.

"It's a unique relationship that exists between management and the player right now," Joseph's agent, Don Meehan of Newport Sports told ESPN.com this week. "Management has rights under the collective bargaining agreement, but the player has a very valuable right in regards the no-trade clause."

Moving Joseph as quickly as possible would be the ideal situation for everyone. It would clear the air of tension and allow the team to focus. It would also meet the needs of a player who feels unwanted, yet is forced to maintain his position with the team to facilitate the process.

It would also reduce the league's highest payroll (a reported $77 million-plus), though the exact amount is debatable.

The economics of the situation are what will eventually dictate the deal. Though Joseph makes $8 million a season, Hasek agreed to a pay cut upon his return and now makes a base salary of $6 million. That gives Holland more flexibility, and it's not unreasonable to expect the Wings could pickup anywhere from $2 million to $4 million of Joseph's contract, maybe more.

And make no mistake, Joseph wants to leave. The lingering sentiment, unintentional or not, is that the Wings' first-round collapse in the playoffs was somehow Joseph's fault.

"Nothing against Cujo, but just having Dom in the room, on the ice, gives the team more confidence," said defenseman Chris Chelios after Hasek returned and led the Wings to a season-opening win against the Los Angeles Kings.

Though the market for high-end goalies might appear slim at the moment, all teams truly want one, not all teams truly have one, and Joseph still is considered one, though he may have to prove it again.

Joseph was nearly a Boston Bruin, but his ankle surgery six weeks before the start of the season undermined the reported deal.

For a deal to be struck now, Joseph needs to show he's fully recovered, the Red Wings have to declare just how much of his contract they will be willing to pick up (a declaration that will be depend largely by what's included in any trade) and Joseph has to OK the trade.

Since Joseph signed with the Red Wings largely for the opportunity to win the Cup, a trade to anything but a Cup-contending team might be considered a stumbling block. Not so say several NHL insiders.

"If he doesn't play this year and there's a lockout next season, that would be a long time without him playing a meaningful game," said one league general manger who asked not to be identified. "He might have to play with a team that needs him more than he needs them just to sustain his market value."

Joseph appears willing to do that. Meehan told ESPN.com that his client understands the situation and appreciates that Holland has been communicating the club's intentions on a regular basis. Meehan also hinted that Joseph would perhaps accept destinations that "perhaps would surprise some people," and indicated the sooner the deal is done the better.

"Curtis will play this week and teams then will know that he's back and he's healthy," Meehan said. "We believe a deal will get done, but the biggest question is timing. It could be this month, November, December, I don't know and I don't think anyone knows, but I would think from Holland's perspective the sooner the better because of the financial situation."

Though several people close to him say he's seething over the position he's in, Joseph has taken the high road in all of his public utterances. He does acknowledge that just being on the ice with Hasek and Legace has been awkward, but he's quick to note that it is awkward for everyone. He limits his comments about a trade to saying only that he "absolutely wants to play" in the NHL this season and that getting a first start will be a big step.

That big step is toward the door.

When it opens and where it leads is left to discuss another time.

"I'm just happy to get the process going to be back (in the NHL)," Joseph said. "It's the next logical step in the process, to get a game in. You can't get anything in practice like it."

And he can't get out of Detroit and on with his career without it either.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.