For the past two seasons while watching and writing about hockey in Ottawa, I would tell anyone willing to listen that the Senators needed to trade for Jaroslav Halak while the city of Montreal was still enamoured with Carey Price. Unknown to most, the young Slovak (taken in the 9th round - 271st overall) could turn out to be a better goaltender if given the opportunity and the time to develop. The Montreal media had already anointed Price as the next Ken Dryden or the next Patrick Roy and yet it is now Halak that is carrying the workload for the Canadians.
Head Coach Guy Carbonneau has adopted the "win and you're in" philosophy as he tries to find the hot hand that will lead the Habs into the NHL playoffs. What seemed like a certainty a few months ago, the Canadians are looking in their rear view mirrors as teams like Florida, New York, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Carolina make an attempt to spoil the 100th anniversary party in Montreal.
After 63 games Montreal has a 34-22-7 win/loss record. Their 75 points has them 5 points ahead of 8th place Pittsburgh after Sunday's games but as the playoff race tightens, are the Habs headed in the right direction? They have gone 5-4-1 in their last ten games and as usual they have a stellar home record at the Bell Centre (20-6-4). However, the road has not been friendly to the Canadians (14-16-3) and as they embark on a three game road trip beginning Wednesday in Buffalo, will their winning streak continue?
Their once feared, high octane power play was running on empty after losing Sheldon Souray and Mark Streit to free agency but the addition of Mathew Schneider seems to have temporarily solved that problem. Could it be that their prowess on the power play helped disguise the problem of having two inexperienced net minders? General Manager Bob Gainey certainly put all of his eggs in one basket when he traded away Cristiobal Huet at the trade deadline last season. It was a move that needed to be made in order to establish Price as the number one goalie and Halak as the back-up. There is not enough ice time for three goalies and a second round pick for Huet was better than letting him walk away as a free agent. Could it have been a case of too much too soon for Price?
A proven winner at every level, Price won a gold medal at the 2007 Junior Championships and then took the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal's AHL affiliate) to the Calder Cup finals; earning playoff MVP honours in the process. Despite the pressures of the Junior Championship, with all of Canada watching, it still does not compare to the media frenzy that surrounds the Montreal Canadians on a daily basis. I don't get paid for work at the Rumour Mill so I won't discuss possible off-ice distractions in Montreal for a young man, so lets look at the numbers.
Taken 5th overall in the 2005 draft, Price has played 38 games this season, posting a record of 18-12-6. His 2.78 GAA ranks 26th in the league and he is 31st in save percentage at .904%. He is under contract at $2.2 million, becoming a restricted free agent after the 2010 season. He was an All-Star this year but he was voted there by the Montreal fans in their attempt to have an all Montreal starting line-up. Halak currently makes $750,000 per year and he too will be an RFA at the same time as Price. What does GM Gainey do with his "franchise" goalie if he continues to be outplayed by Halak?
While Halak has not set the hockey world on fire, he has a 2.89 GAA (32nd in the league), .913 save percentage (tied for 19th) and a 16-10-1 win/loss record, he will be affordable on his next contract which would leave future cap space to re-sign some of the fourteen UFA's Montreal has at the end of this season. It would also leave room to take on Vincent Lecavalier's ten year contract should a trade with Tampa Bay come to fruition.
The most important lesson for a young goalie in the NHL is not "if" you let in a bad goal, but "when" you let in a bad one. In his last two starts Halak has a 35 save overtime victory over Philadelphia and a 46 save effort in Saturday night's win over league leading San Jose. Halak told Bill Deacon of the Canadian Press after the victory, "As long as we win, that's what matters. We needed the points."
Perhaps more important than the opinions of the media, fans or even management in Montreal, the ghosts of the past seem to have finally moved from the Forum to the Bell Centre and taken a shine to Halak. The Sharks were continually denied a third goal as they hit post after post in the third period. It was a victory that could put the season back on track for the Canadians. As Detroit continues to demonstrate year after year, it does not matter what round you are drafted in, it is what you do when you get to the NHL. Have a great sports day everyone.