By Kevin Orris and Brendan Burke
That’s how long Ben Bishop figured it would take until he had his chance to shine with the St. Louis Blues.
He had played 121 AHL games with the Peoria Rivermen and he had finished the 2010-11 season with the best numbers of his career. He had a taste of the NHL and even picked up his first shutout with the big club in February.
He re-signed with the Blues as a restricted free agent and knew there was an opening when the Blues elected not to re-up backup netminder Ty Conklin. By the time Brian Elliott was signed as potential competition for time in St. Louis, Bishop was deep into his most intensive off-season training program.
He came into camp in the best shape of his life and his dream job in his sights. Bishop, who grew up in St. Louis, and Elliott were in the spotlight of a training camp that had little other open competition for a roster spot.
“I was pretty confident in my performance at camp and the feedback I got,” Bishop said. “I had a good feeling I’d be up there but sometimes things don’t go the way they’re supposed to and you have to fight through them. I came back with more to prove than in years past because I was really mad that I got sent down. I think just coming into my fourth season you learn so much every year.”
And just like that three seasons became four.
Elliot has been invited to participate in the NHL All-Star Game and currently ranks first in the Western Conference in both GAA (1.68) and save percentage (.937).
“I think everyone’s a bit surprised [with Elliot’s performance], but he’s playing really well and he deserves credit,” Bishop said. “You can’t take anything away from the guy. He’s having an outstanding year and hats off to him.”
But whether it’s anger, frustration, or maturation his motivation has produced results. The 25-year-old most known in years past for the one stat he can’t control -- his 6-foot-7-inch frame -- has made that anecdote an afterthought.
In the Rivermen’s first 40 games, Bishop has already matched last season’s win total with 17. Those wins also tie him for the AHL lead and mark just one of the categories in which Bishop ranks among the AHL’s best. His six shutouts are twice as many as any other goaltender, and his 2.17 GAA and .932 save percentage are both good for fourth.
And one good start deserves another; he is one of three goaltenders to have played over 1,600 minutes and is closing in on 800 saves.
“I expect to be in the NHL somewhere next year,” Bishop said. “I’m holding myself to that. I know there are factors that play into it, but for myself, I want to be there next year.”
There is no doubt that the NHL scouts that appear at Carver Arena on regular basis have not taken notice of Peoria’s most important player. His value has never been higher and neither has his confidence.
“You can’t get happy with one game’s success,” Bishop said. “You’ll have a bad night here and there, but going out and giving the team a chance to win is important. I think I’ve given the team a chance to win for most of the year.”
Giving the Rivermen a chance to win is challenging in the ultra-competitive Midwest Division, even when well rested. But when his partner Jake Allen left the team to spend a week with Team Canada at the Spengler Cup in late December, it left Bishop in the net for five straight games.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever played three days [in a row] before,” Bishop said. “I knew going into the weekend I was going to do that. I wanted to prove to the organization that I could do it, especially capping it off with a shutout in Milwaukee.”
Even with rumors that will no doubt swarm around Bishop as the NHL’s trade deadline approaches, and even with Elliott and Jaroslav Halak standing in his way, Bishop’s heart, dream and family all remain in St. Louis.
“It really was a dream come true,” said Bishop said of being drafted and playing for the Blues. “You grow up as a kid and go to the games and watch those guys and they’re your idols and one day getting the chance to be that guy on the ice the little kids are watching and want to be. It’s something I never thought would happen.”
As the Blues toy with the top spot in the Central Division and look for a way to improve heading towards a playoff berth, Bishop has already made them better. He is insurance for their two studs in net and he is winning hockey games for the future of their franchise. He is a calming veteran presence and a mentor for the 21-year-old Allen.
And he can tell him that it takes three seasons to be ready for the NHL. Or maybe four.