Canadiens' Goalie Controversy: Is the End Near?

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Canadiens' Goalie Controversy: Is the End Near?

Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings are busy preparing this week for their NFC semifinal game with the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

The Vikings have been one of the favorites all season to emerge as the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl. Adrian Peterson is the Viking's franchise player whom some Minnesota fans love to hate.

The Vikings are blessed with a terrific offensive line and two talented running backs, Peterson and Chester Taylor, who are considered one of the NFL's top running back tandems. In fact, many were surprised when the Vikings selected Peterson in the first round of the 2007 draft with the seventh pick overall. Taylor was coming off a 2006-2007 season where he rushed for a career high 1216 yards.

This season, Minnesota was cruising along with an 11-2 record. Then, the Vikings lost two in a row against the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears, two non-playoff teams that should have been easy wins. With a berth in the Super Bowl less assured, the knives came out.

While there was lots of blame to go around, a very vocal group of Vikings' fans directed their anger at Peterson and his league-leading six fumbles lost. They were upset that all of the fumbles had occurred against division rivals, with half of them versus the lowly Detroit Lions. Some suggested that coach Brad Childress should rely more on the less risky Taylor.

Fans have their favorites, and fanaticism is not rational. While focusing on one statistic, those in the Taylor camp too easily dismiss the fact that Peterson led the NFL this season with 18 touchdowns and was second in rushing in the NFC with 1,383 yards.

Statistics and fan's blind loyalty aside, there is not one NFL general manager who would dare to say that the two running backs are close to being equal in talent. Taylor is a very competent and under-utilized backup, but he is not a thoroughbred.

Is any of this sounding familiar?

Such silly comparisons are not the monopoly of NFL fans. In Montreal, we witnessed fans and media alike advocate that Michel 'Bunny' Larocque should start over Ken Dryden and that Brian Hayward was the more consistent option over an emotional Patrick Roy.

For those who have been following the current goaltending situation in Montreal, there should be obvious parallels when reviewing Vikings' running backs or reminiscing about Canadiens' goaltending greats of the past.

At the time, speaking about Larocque in the same breath as Dryden only served to artificially inflate his perceived value. But when we look into the rafters of the Bell Centre, we see the sweaters of Roy and Dryden while Hayward and Larocque are no more than an afterthought.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's a lot of hockey to be played, but there is only one of the two current Canadiens' goalies who has the potential to be honoured in that way.

Until then, we have a so-called "goaltender controversy." Is it a true controversy with two equal goaltenders competing for the number one job? No, but this is Montreal. As explained above, fan choices are made for a variety of reasons and are certainly not driven by logic.

In short, Carey Price has been given a calculus test and Jaroslav Halak one on basic arithmetic, and some are trying to compare the results, sometimes in excruciating detail.

There is no one who assesses talent with an NHL team that believes that Halak is on par with Price. That presents a challenge to Bob Gainey given his team needs when he tries to shop Halak. He needs more than a second round pick (probably fair value) in exchange for Halak.

 

But Gainey is a smart general manager. He has used the controversy fueled by fans, media, and partly engineered by the Canadiens to improve the perception of Halak.

While pro scouting departments from other teams generally focus on the play on the ice, they aren't completely immune to hype. And right now there is a buzz around Halak that might make general managers say, "I wonder..."

 

Besides, Gainey doesn't have to convince every GM in the NHL that Halak has the potential to be a number one goaltender. He needs just one trading partner.

Gainey and his team have done a masterful job creating interest in Halak. They have carefully managed Halak's starts, giving him the best opportunity to look good against inferior opposition. When it was publicized that Halak has only won two games against teams over .500 all season, Gainey and Martin gave him a start at home against New Jersey.

New Jersey is an elite team in the league, but what was the worst thing that could have happened by starting Halak? Despite their lofty position in the conference standings, the Devils are 21st in the league in goals scored on the road. It's unlikely that a Jacques Lemaire-coached team was going to fill the net and expose Halak's weaknesses. While Halak allowed a soft goal and looked shaky early on, the Canadiens got the spin that they were looking for. Based on a strong third period, some media painted the picture that Halak went "toe-to-toe" with Brodeur despite recording another loss against one of the league's better teams.

Being spoken of in the same sentence as Brodeur and Price only helps fuel the mystique of Halak. Some media outlets are doing their part in promoting Halak driven by a desire to punish Price for "stealing" the job of their golden boy, Cristobal Huet. Despite a mediocre career primarily spent bouncing around the European leagues, and never having won even a single playoff series, Huet enjoyed his best press while in Montreal. Some still carry his torch in their persecution of Price.

Fans have always been kind to Halak, choosing the side of the underdog. The Slovakian goaltender has never been subjected to the same pressure and scrutiny as Price. They have been willing to overlook Halak's career struggles on the road and against better opposition given that he was quiet and likable. His goaltending style is quirky and creates a lot of rebounds, but he is a battler.

Even Halak's loose-cannon agent, Alan Walsh, played a part in fueling the goalie controversy. The jury is out on whether Walsh helped or hurt his client when he publicly trashed Price via Twitter and then chose to insult all Montrealers rather than apologize for his inaccurate and unprofessional tweets. Whatever Walsh's intent, the comments were clearly divisive yet shone a league-wide spotlight on the Canadiens' goaltending tandem.

Certainly not to be forgotten is Halak's contribution himself. With the assistance of a carefully managed schedule, Halak has performed very well. He has helped the Canadiens win the games that they were expected to win while improving his individual statistics. We are probably seeing the best that Halak has to offer right at the time that he is being showcased to potential suitors.

It's the perfect storm. Halak's trade value will probably never be higher than it is right now.

It would seem obvious that now is the best time to trade Halak although some suggest waiting until March 3. While the trade deadline often brings the best return for forwards and defenseman, the rules are a little different for goaltenders. The trade market for goaltenders is mostly determined by need and availability.

There are even some Halak supporters who hold on to the illusion that the Canadiens will keep both goaltenders. That won't happen for many reasons. Market value means that Price is entitled to a large raise at the end of the season. Bumping up Halak's salary would mean that the Canadiens would have too much money tied up in goaltender salaries. In addition, the Canadiens' tight cap position means that it is simply not a realistic scenario, and it is not healthy for the development of either goaltender to live under the fear of a single mistake determining wherther he starts or sits on the bench.

Lastly, there is the important detail that Halak has asked for a trade. It marks the second occasion that such a request was made, although this time, it was much more public.

While some fans in the Team Halak camp choose not to read between the lines, Jaro and his agent did everything short of erecting a billboard on the corner of René Lévesque Boulevard and de la Montagne to signal his desire to leave Montreal in the hopes of securing a number one position elsewhere.

The Olympics also complicate matters this season. Halak will be competing with Peter Budaj for the starting job with Team Slovakia. Halak won't be protected from playing the stronger teams as has been the case with the Canadiens. Although its possible that Halak could continue his strong play, he did not enjoy much success in his last international tournament. Last spring, Halak struggled at the 2009 World Hockey Championships, posting a 1-3 record with 3.17 GAA and .871 SV%.

While predicting Halak's performance at the Olympic is impossible, it is the lack of control that must be worrying Gainey and his team right now. They have worked so hard to build a sellable story. All that could be exposed in the Olympics.

It is clear that the window on ensuring the best trade offer for Halak is closing rapidly.

Is it possible that while Peterson and the Vikings are taking on the Cowboys this Sunday, and the Canadiens prepare to play the Rangers, that we could hear news that the Montreal goalie controversy, which has been both organic and artfully engineered, is finally over?


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