The title question may seem odd. After all, Carey Price is coming off a 36-save shutout victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.
However, prior to that win, the Montreal Canadiens' starter had surrendered four or more goals in five consecutive contests and has struggled badly since being named to the Canadian team that will compete for gold at the Sochi Olympics.
How bad has it been? This is what his season looks like when divided between games before he was named to the team and after:
- Before January 7: 20-11-4, 0.928 save percentage
- After January 7: 3-5-0, 0.886 save percentage
The first stat line is that of an elite NHL goaltender, one of the very best in the game. The second is the kind that would make a third-stringer blush. Should those numbers be making Canada’s management nervous? Certainly. Should it change the team's goaltending plan? Let’s take a look.
(Digression: Montreal fans on Twitter are awfully skeptical of the numbers, suggesting that the drop-off falls entirely on the defence. While the Canadiens defence has not been good, two factors make that a tough argument. First, there's the depth of the drop-off, and second there are goals like this and this and this and this.)
The first question to answer is whether or not Price now slots behind Canada’s third-string goalie.
Canada’s management group decided not to name a top young goalie having a great season—someone like Jonathan Bernier—to the team. Instead, it opted for a veteran hand in Mike Smith, even though Smith himself is having an underwhelming campaign.
The upside of that decision is that, if injury hits, the coaches would have a guy who has been around to toss into the rotation, but the downside is that Smith is less capable of challenging Price for playing time than someone like Bernier would have been.
For one, Smith has surpassed the 0.910 save percentage mark exactly once in the last five years and has a career 0.913 save percentage—largely built on a 0.930 save percentage performance in 2011-12 that increasingly looks like an aberration.
Price has topped that 0.910 mark in four of the last five seasons and has a career 0.916 save percentage.
Second, Smith has lagged behind Price all season and has also been subpar since being named to the Olympic team. In 10 games since the January 7 announcement, Smith has a 3-5-1 record with a 0.898 save percentage.
People often disagree on how influential short-term trends should be when judging goaltenders, but given that the pair is slumping, it should be obvious to everyone that the guy with the better long-term record should get the benefit of the doubt. In this case, it seems abundantly clear that Price should get playing time ahead of Smith.
In that case, do Price’s struggles entrench Roberto Luongo as Canada’s starter? After all, Luongo—despite injury—has been good for the Vancouver Canucks since being named to the team.
Should his performances coupled with Price’s poor form of late make him the man between the pipes? Yes and no, but mostly no.
Luongo was already the best choice to get the first shot as Canada’s starting goalie. Price has closed the gap recently, but over the last five years, Luongo has consistently been the better goalie, and that long-term performance should eclipse short-term fluctuations:
Recent work by both goes some distance toward reiterating that Luongo should return as the Canadian starter, but it is only one small piece of that puzzle. The last five years are far more important for evaluative purposes.
The fact is, though, that both goalies need to play, both because it only makes sense to have a backup with an Olympic game under his belt if the starter gets hurt and to reduce the effects of a compressed schedule on the starter.
Courtesy of IIHF.com, here is what that schedule will look like:
- February 13 vs. Norway
- February 14 vs. Austria
- February 16 vs. Finland
- February 18 in qualification round (depending on results)
- February 19 in quarterfinals (depending on results)
- February 21 in semifinals (depending on results)
- February 22 or 23 in bronze or gold medal game, respectively (depending on results)
In a worst-case scenario, that means Canada could be playing as many as seven games in a span of 10 days, including three sets of back-to-back games.
The Canadians doubtless hope to play in the gold-medal game and can reasonably assume that they will be skipping the qualification round, but that still leaves six games in 11 days with one set of back-to-back contests.
What is the best way to manage that schedule? Likely, the starter will play two of three preliminary games, specifically the contest against Finland—Canada’s biggest challenge in the early going—and the one against Norway—the first game of the tournament—with the backup getting Austria.
Assuming all goes well, that would mean Luongo would play on January 13, 16, 19, 21 and 23, which is a pretty reasonable schedule for an NHL starter.
But that was the only realistic way for the goalies to play anyway.
The starter would get all the elimination games and two of the three preliminary contests. No matter how exceptional the backup, he was not going to exceed the starter on the basis of a game against Austria. The starter would need to melt down in an elimination game—at which point the tournament may very well be over for Canada anyway.
On the other end of the scale, no matter how poorly the starter plays going in, the coach would need to be crazy to run the risk of fatiguing his starter and running an untested backup later to take away that game against Austria and give it to the starter.
Price’s run of poor play seems unlikely to result in any changes to Canada’s goalie strategy because he had likely already lost the starting job, the third-stringer is not really a threat to supplant him and, as there is only one workable goaltending strategy, those were the only moving parts.