Esche hopes to get look from Team USA brass

October, 21, 2009

Colorado Avalanche goalie Craig Anderson is trying his best to put himself on the radar for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. A guy in Russia is hoping to do the same.

Robert Esche is off to a flying start with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, sporting an 8-3-2 record with a .932 save percentage and 1.62 goals-against average, gaudy numbers to say the least.

"I've been healthy the last three years here in Russia, which I wasn't my last few years in the NHL," Esche told on Tuesday from Moscow, where the team plays Wednesday. "I am hoping I can go to the Olympics; that's my goal to make that team. But if it doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world.

Just like Anderson, the former Philadelphia Flyers and Phoenix Coyotes goalie wasn't invited to Team USA's orientation camp in August, which puts both at an obvious disadvantage. Only Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick got invites. The fact that Esche isn't playing in the NHL in front of Team USA eyes also hurts. GM Brian Burke and the rest of his management team -- David Poile, Paul Holmgren, Ray Shero, Don Waddell and Dean Lombardi -- don't exactly have time to go to Russia these days.

"Right now, the GMs running the team have their hands full with the NHL season starting off," Esche said. "I'd love to go to the Olympics and play any role on the team. I felt I had a pretty good world championships this year and last year as well. But I don't know how they want to look at this league in comparison to Olympic play. To me, Russia won the last two world championships, and I've played on teams with 11 of those players, and most of them are over here right now. Some are teammates of mine.

"So I don't know how they're going to rate this league. I don't know if they're going to look down on it and say, 'We're only taking NHL guys.' I'm not really sure."

Esche has a big backer in his coach, Barry Smith, the former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach now behind the bench in St. Petersburg. Smith told on Tuesday that he has contacted Burke, Shero and Holmgren to let them know how Esche has been playing.

"He's playing at a high level here," Smith said. "He's playing an international game, which is going to help with the Olympic competition, too. So I think if Robert keeps playing the way he's playing, he's going to have a good chance."

Esche could have come back to the NHL this past summer, as he turned down opportunities with his former teams in Philadelphia and Phoenix. Holmgren, the Flyers' GM, spoke to Esche before July 1 but didn't have the cap space to match what the goalie could make in the KHL.

"We just couldn't afford to get to that level," Holmgren confirmed Tuesday. "But I like Robert. I like his competitiveness, and I still think he's a good goalie."

The Coyotes' offer was also less than the $1.8 million (U.S.) plus bonuses Esche is earning this season in Russia.

"I was flattered to have a chance to go on a team like Phoenix again or Philly, two teams that I had played with," Esche said. "One of my best friends in Phoenix is [goalie coach] Sean Burke. It was a terrific contract offer. And I love Philly, I have always loved Philly.

"But I was in the middle of a contract over here for two years; I had one more year left. We started building something in St. Petersburg that I believed in last year. Good things were happening over here, so I decided to stay another season. I figured I'm still young, 31, and I'd come back here and win something."

There's unfinished business in the KHL. St. Petersburg had the best record in the regular season last year before being upset in the first round of the playoffs. This season, Esche has his team atop its conference by 10 points already just 16 games into the season.

"We've had a really strong start to the season," Esche said. "We're pretty offensive, which makes for pretty exciting games."

Alexei Yashin and Sergei Zubov were St. Petersburg's high-profile additions in the offseason, Yashin leading the team with 18 points (4-14) in 16 games and Zubov leading the blue-line corps with 10 points (3-7) and a plus-11 rating.

"I really like this group," Smith said. "It's been a good year so far."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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