Friday, May 7, 2010

Montreal's new Six Million Dollar Man?



This article was first published in the May 7th edition of Main Street Week and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by www.mainstreetweeknews.com to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday

One of the surprises in this year’s NHL playoffs certainly has to be the Montreal Canadiens and the stellar goaltending of Jaroslav Halak. After backing into the playoffs on the final day of the season with one point from an overtime loss to Toronto, leaving them clinging to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, the Canadiens were not expected to be much of a challenge for the high-powered Washington Capitals offence led by Alex Ovechkin. Buoyed by the play of Halak, the Canadiens upset Washington in the opening round, winning the decisive seventh game by a 2-1 score in the US capital.

On several occasions this season, it has appeared that Halak was the only Montreal player ready for the game; when this has occurred, his numbers have been outstanding. In the regular season and the playoffs, he is 14-1 when facing more then 35 shots per game; when facing 40 or more, he is 10-0. With each spectacular save and with every victory, the pending restricted free agent is adding another million dollars to his potential salary for the 2010-2011 season; whether it is in a Canadiens uniform is the million dollar question.

Halak and fellow goaltender Carey Price are both restricted free agents this summer; meaning that Montreal holds their rights and can match the offer either player receives from any of the other 29 teams in the league. If the Canadiens choose to let the player leave Montreal, they would receive compensation in the form of draft picks. They could also trade away his rights, losing the player but obtaining some immediate help at the NHL level. In Halak’s case, there is also the very real possibility of a multi-million dollar offer from the Russian league - the KHL, which would leave the Canadiens with nothing.

In the salary cap era, Montreal is already near their spending limit with the large contracts of Scott Gomez ($8 million), Mike Cammalleri ($5 million), Brian Gionta ($5 million), Andrei Markov ($5.75 million) and Roman Hamrlik ($5.5 million) on the books for next season. The Canadiens must also find cap space for their leading scorer in the regular season, Tomas Plekanec (25 goals, 45 assists), as he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. With very little cap space and several of their younger forwards and defenceman also becoming restricted free agents, is Halak worth the high price that other top goaltenders in the league earn? That is the difficult decision facing the Canadiens current General Manager Pierre Gauthier.

A ninth round selection (271st overall) in the 2003 NHL entry draft, Halak was not expected to be clutch performer that he has become, especially with Bob Gainey's "thoroughbred" Carey Price in the organization. However, that is exactly what he has become since his debut in the American Hockey League during the 2005-2006 season. He holds the team record for career shutouts in Hamilton with 11. When he arrived in Montreal, he continued to establish himself as a legitimate number one goaltender, but despite having great statistics, he was always second on the depth chart behind Cristobal Huet and then first round draft pick Carey Price. Halak had already asked former GM Bob Gainey for a trade if he was not going to have a legitimate chance to be the number one goaltender in Montreal. In my opinion, his play of late makes him indispensable as the Canadiens plan for their future; Halak deserves a raise and an opportunity to shine in Montreal next season.

When I was growing up, one of my favourite television shows was the Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors as astronaut Steve Austin. With its fancy intro, sound effects, slow motion running and the opening line, "We can rebuild him - we have the technology," I tuned in for every episode... Montreal management may have the technology, but do they have the salary cap space for a Six Million Dollar Man? Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by Clydeorama on Flickr.

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