The Number One Conundrum: Halak Vs. Price

Sebastien TremblayCorrespondent IJanuary 12, 2010

Since making his way to the NHL a few years ago, Jaroslav Halak has progressed at a steady pace. And at this point, Halak is starting to show the league that his development has surpassed Carey Price’s, the goaltender of the future for the Montreal Canadiens.

Has Halak proven he can be a No. 1 in the NHL? I think he has with this season. He’s been the unsung hero of the last three seasons in Montreal. When filling in for the injured Cristobal Huet as a rookie, Halak posted good numbers: 2.89 goals against average and a .906 saves percentage. Pretty good for a rookie goaltender making his debut at the crucial point when the Canadiens were desperately trying to make the playoffs.

The result of these efforts? A trip back to Hamilton the next year to make room for future cornerstone Carey Price’s debut as Cristobal Huet’s backup. But there was no complaint from the Slovak netminder. Quite the contrary, Halak has always been very quiet and accepted his role.

When Huet was finally traded to Washington, Halak got his chance to shine again. But behind Carey Price, who was openly tagged as the future of this franchise and No. 1 goaltender, Halak’s window of opportunity was very small.

The situation this year is even more complicated. Halak is doing awesome. Price is doing okay considering the fact the team scores one or two less goals when he’s in net (it’s no excuse, the facts speak for themselves). Both are very young and still in development. Both need to re-sign at the end of this campaign.

Now the big problem is, who do you keep?

Consider what Halak has done since he arrived in North America: Still adapting to the North American system and ice rinks, Halak has never posted less than a .900 saves percentage and never higher than 2.89 GAA. His lowest totals as of yet have been during his rookie debut backing up Huet. Can you find another rookie goaltender who has those kinds of statistics? Good luck. And Halak has never had a losing record so far. Even Carey Price’s first two junior year were horrible statistically.

Some of you believe that his first-round draft pick status, fifth overall, should be enough for Carey Price to get the No. 1 job over Halak. Because, well, a first-round pick has more chances to become a star goaltender, right? Wrong.

Strangely enough, goaltenders drafted in the first-round have a tendency to bust. Simply because goaltenders take so long to develop and reach the NHL that by that time so much can happen to hamper his development that whatever he did in the juniors is worthless. The fact is that it really doesn’t matter which round a goalie is drafted in. This is why it’s so rare to see a goaltender drafted so high.

Here’s a situation: The year is 2000. You need a starting goaltender badly. You get the choice between one drafted in the first-round and one drafted in the seventh-round. Neither of them have played a single game in the NHL yet. Which would you pick?

Most of you would say the first-rounder. Why? Because he’s a first-rounder, of course! Well, in this case, you’d be wrong. Those goaltenders are Rick DiPietro, first overall, and Henrik Lundqvist, 205th overall. At this point, I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that Lundqvist has become the better, more dependable goaltender.

Kari Lethonen and Rick DiPietro are the last two goaltenders drafted higher than Price. And to be honest, neither are that dominant. Both constantly struggle with injuries, and frankly, neither of them have elevated their game enough to grant them star-player status.

There are examples at nearly every draft. The 2004 draft saw four goaltenders drafted in the first-round. None of them are starting goaltenders or backups. Al Montoya, who was the sixth overall pick, was thought to be the future No. 1 in New York. But it’s Henrik Lundqvist who is stealing the show.

Devan Dubnyk, following 14th overall, got his backup job stolen by Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers. Marek Schwartz, 17th overall, is back playing in Europe after years of being bumped between the ECHL and AHL. And Cory Schneider, 26th overall, is stuck in the AHL and will likely never get the No. 1 job in Vancouver thanks to Roberto Luongo.

None of them have played more than 10 games with their respective teams, but Pekka Rinne, an eighth-round pick that same year, is the starting goaltender in Nashville and doing better than all the above.

If you have just basic knowledge of how to search and understand goalie statistics, take a look at the past drafts. It’s a trend that easily goes back 10-15 years. That’s why general managers don’t like to pick a goalie in the first-round. Because one picked in the ninth-round can do just as well and maybe even better.

So those of you who believe Carey Price should be the No. 1 without question would probably fail at drafting. Draft rank, when it comes to goaltenders, is almost useless.

Jaro was a ninth-round pick. You can’t get lower than that. A total of 270 players were picked before him, and ironically, only one is doing better than him…and it’s Marc-Andre Fleury, the first pick overall in 2003! Montreal even picked another goalie before him that year, Christopher Heino-Lindberg, who never made his way to North America the way Halak did.

Now, being an avid statistics fan, there is another fact that should weigh in the balance when deciding who Bob Gainey should keep after this year. Too often have goaltenders been traded too early, only to become stars somewhere else.

Jaroslav Halak is 24-years-old, and Carey Price is 22, both very young ages for goaltenders, who tend to reach their prime near the age of 30. We have the luxury in Montreal of having two goaltenders under 25-years-old with the potential to be a No. 1. So we can all assume that neither Carey or Jaro have reached their potential, and both are still in development. Now THE question Bob Gainey needs to ask before choosing who to re-sign is: In three or four years, who will have developed into the better goaltender?

At this point, it’s almost impossible to determine. Both have shown the poise, skills, and patience to be a No. 1. But Price has the size at 6’3", 220 pounds to make any general manager drool in envy. Price also has the winning background with both a gold medal from the World Juniors Championship and a Calder cup in the very same year.

But that situation is not unique.

Craig Anderson is starting to show Florida’s management they made a big mistake by choosing to retain Tomas Vokoun and letting him go to the Avalanche.

Remember someone named Dominik Hasek? Arguably one of the best goaltenders in NHL history. Now remember who he was stuck behind? It was some guy named Ed Belfour. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Now I’m not about to say Belfour wasn’t great, but Hasek was phenomenal. Looking back now, who do you think Chicago should’ve kept back then? Tough question, but with six Vezina trophy, I’ll have to go with Hasek.

Another clear example is with Miika Kiprusoff. The Sharks had to make a decision between Kiprusoff, Evgeni Nabokov, their first-round pick, and Vesa Toskala. They chose the latter two, sending Kiprusoff to Calgary, only to see him dominate the league. Now Nabokov is not a bad choice, but since 2003-04, Miika Kiprusoff has arguably been the more dominant of the two.

It's impossible right now to say who out of Halak or Price will become the best down the road. But if history serves us right, it’s just not safe to draft a goalie in the first-round unless he’s called Roberto Luongo or Martin Brodeur.

So when trying to figure out who should be Montreal’s No. 1 goalie next year, consider these interesting facts:

1. Goalies take the longest of any position to develop and adapt to the NHL.

2. The higher the goalie is drafted, the greater expectations he’ll have to perform at the highest level right away, giving him less time to develop properly.

3. Goalie development progress tends to falter, stop, or regress easier than forwards or defencemen.

4. Draft rank usually means little or nothing when talking about goaltenders.

5. Late round draft picks are much less risky to use on a goaltender.

6. Goaltenders picked in the later rounds on average tend to do better than their first-round pick counterpart.

7. There are more goaltenders picked in the later rounds or never drafted at all currently holding on to a No. 1 goaltender job than first-round picks.

At this point, I’m unable to pick a side or to determine for myself which one I’d keep and which one I’d trade. But as of late, Halak has been the more impressive goalie and holds the better record. But when thinking about Jaroslav Halak vs. Carey Price, you also need to look at where they are in their development.

Still wondering why Bob Gainey’s decision is so tough to make? Even though Price has more NHL experience, Jaroslav Halak has had much more time to develop properly: first, being two years older, and second, having at least two full seasons in the American League.

So that said, at 24-years-old, Halak may still develop and make a Hasek or Kiprusoff out of himself by the time he reaches his prime. Price is still technically two years behind Halak in terms of pro hockey experience. So both could still break out as a legitimate No. 1 goaltender by he time they reach their 30s.

I feel both are developing at the same pace but Halak has been more consistent. This is what makes this choice so hard and complicated. Do you go for the underdog Jaroslav Halak in hopes he follows the trend set by late round picks like Lundqvist, Hasek, and so many before him and surpass the anointed No. 1 Carey Price? Or do you hold on to the hopes that the risky fifth overall pick that Bob Gainey and Trevor Timmins went for in 2005, in an attempt to get a new version of Patrick Roy, is the real deal and will lead you to the promise land?

Tough decisions to which no one can guess what will happen. It’s a shot in the dark, really. So Bob Gainey has a 50/50 chance of making the right decision, but according to what I’ve seen since he arrived in Montreal, my bet is he’ll let the wrong one go.

So you decide. Consider all these facts and tell me, can you determine without a doubt who should stay?


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