As all of Canada waits to find out who will start Sunday against Finland at the Sochi Olympics, one has to believe the easy answer would be to go with the goalie who actually has a chance to win the 2013-14 Vezina Trophy: Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price.
That isn’t to say Price will win the trophy as the league’s best goaltender, or that Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo or Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith has played badly...although up until recently, the latter hasn’t exactly played well.
In any case, the point is that Price, like him or not, is Canada’s best shot in net at a gold medal.
That’s regardless of the puck-handling mistake he made against Norway in Canada’s first game or Luongo’s shutout in Game 2 against Austria. Sure, Canada beat Norway by just two goals thanks to Price’s gaffe. And, yes, Luongo undeniably played better against Austria.
However, one reason Canada didn’t replicate its 8-0 thrashing of Norway in Vancouver four years ago was arguably because the team as a whole didn’t play its best game.
Are you going to bench 20 different guys as a result? No, because you can’t—just like you can’t afford to dress the guy with the significantly superior save percentage in the best league in the world (.925 vs. .917) as just the backup.
Price, for the record, also has the better GAA (2.33 vs. 2.38) and win total (26 vs. 19) than Luongo. In fact, as alluded to earlier, he has played so superiorly that he can safely enter into the Vezina Trophy conversation.
No, he may very well not win, and things can still change in a hurry. However, at least his nomination as one of three finalists is realistic at the Olympic break when looking at his competition.
Competition—it should be noted—that doesn’t include Luongo.
For example, in terms of save percentage, Price places in the top 10, behind Ben Scrivens, Ben Bishop, Josh Harding, Tuukka Rask, Frederik Andersen, Jonathan Bernier, Anton Khudobin and Cory Schneider. Of those, arguably only Rask and Bishop can be considered full-time starters, and you don’t typically get awarded the trophy for the league’s best goalie when a case can be made that you’re not even the best on your team.
Maybe that’s unfair to a guy like Harding, who’s on the shelf currently with multiple sclerosis-medication-related issues. However, voting for trophies like this can get very political, especially since the league’s general managers get the final say. And, if recent history is any indication, no goaltender who has played less than 54 games has ever won it in between the two lockout-shortened seasons (1994-95, 2012-13).
Even if Harding were to return immediately after the break and play every remaining game for the Minnesota Wild while maintaining his current level of play—as unlikely as all that would be—he’d still only start 49 total games by the end of the season. That goes similarly for Scrivens, Schneider, Khudobin and Andersen.
Bernier, who plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs, would reach close to 60 starts under those same criteria. However, even if he has wrested away the starting role from James Reimer, he still has to contend with him as his backup.
If Reimer continues to earn around 40 percent of the Leafs’ starts, Bernier will barely reach 50 in total. That’s also not taking into account Bernier’s relatively pedestrian 2.55 GAA, which, barring a sharp turnaround, would alone bar him from being seriously considered.
Again, only Bishop, Rask and Price are among the league leaders in the three major statistical categories. An excellent case can be made for Bishop to win it all with him leading the two others in each category, but here’s where politics come into play.
While it would be difficult to leave Bishop out as one of the three final nominees, one has to believe the smart money to win is on Rask, who has proved to be an elite goaltender in this league for a longer period of time. Meanwhile, Price's only edge is his consistently stellar play behind a less-than-stellar team that has routinely been outshot and struggled for large stretches this season.
That would be the only real reason not to go with Price on Sunday against Finland: that he isn’t accustomed to playing in net for what is essentially an all-star team, and it’s not a particularly good one. He has after all been named to the All-Star Game three times.
Joking aside, politics will likely come into play again when head coach Mike Babcock has to name his starting goalie for Sunday, as Luongo did win a gold medal four years ago. In the here and now, though, he’s four years older and slower, and at least this season, Price has established himself as a world-class goalie.
Put simply, Price is just better...and he's playing like one of the best.