Jaroslav Halak Fans Singing The Blues
More than once today I heard the name Andrei Kovalenko. Kovalenko was nicknamed "The Russian Tank," respecting that once he parked himself in the crease, he was difficult to move. Kovalenko is now the Chairman of the KHL Players' Association.
But today, Kovalenko's name was being tossed about as people carelessly tried to compare the Jaroslav Halak deal to the Canadiens' trade that shipped out Patrick Roy and Mike Keane to the Avalanche in return for Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky, and Jocelyn Thibault. It is considered one of the worst trades in Canadiens' history.
Halak hasn't won two Stanley Cups. Nor does he have two Conn Symthe trophies. Halak doesn't need to clear shelf space for multiple Vezina and Jennings trophies. Roy had amassed quite a collection by the time he was traded on December 6, 1995.
Halak has not even had one full season as a starting goalie in the NHL.
Still, the hyperbole continued. Despite Halak having a mediocre Olympic performance and being the eighth-ranked goaltender in IIHF post-tournament statistics, the fairy tale said otherwise.
Not wanting to be outdone, a local sports radio personality tweeted, "Halak stole two playoff rounds, and was traded for [Lars] Eller who probably won't play here next year and [Ian] Schultz who's two years away. Makes sense..."
Was the radio host exaggerating? Without a doubt. Perhaps he was even being intentionally obtuse, knowing that his statement would garner a strong reaction from some fans.
Halak was a key performer in the playoffs, but didn't steal anything on his own. It would be a shame to ignore Mike Cammalleri's 13 goals in the playoffs, Hal Gill who blocked 68 shots, and Tomas Plekanec who shut down the likes of Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.
In addition, Halak was pulled from three playoff games after awful outings. In the Conference Finals against Philadelphia, Halak struggled at times and could only manage an .884 save percentage.
Not exactly a Roy-like playoff run, is it?
Still, Halak fans were dejected by the news of his trade to St. Louis. Strip away the spin, and you have a goaltender who had a career year with a fanbase who had developed an emotional attachment to him.
On the other hand, Carey Price received far more criticism than he deserved. For all the noise about the "bad season," Price was the Molson Cup winner for October and November. Had he received the same goal support that Halak did, their regular season records would have been comparable.
It's not surprising, though, that supporters have grossly over-estimated the value of Jaroslav Halak. Given the bitter reaction by fans today, they are not on the same page as NHL general managers.
Reportedly, two teams were in serious discussions regarding Halak: San Jose and St. Louis. It was Doug Armstrong's offer of two Blues' prospects that was the best deal available.
Was it enough? Obviously many Habs' fans felt that Halak was worth more. But realistically, the market dictated the return.
Leaving aside the principals for now, getting two young prospects, who are former first- and third-round draft choices, seems about right. The league will have a glut of available goaltenders in July, and a limited number of teams with vacancies for a No. 1 keeper.
As Canadiens' GM Pierre Gauthier said, "The majority of teams have established goalies."
The Blues have a number of good young roster players. Realistically, the Canadiens were not going to pry T.J. Oshie or David Perron from St. Louis. While Lars Eller has the size and potential to be a solid top-six forward for the Canadiens, I might have preferred Patrick Berglund.
But it seems that Eller was the player that Pierre Gauthier wanted all along. Blues' GM Armstrong said that Gauthier "honed in on a player we didn't want to give up" in Eller. Armstrong added, "I think we have given up great value" to add Halak.
Gauthier said that the decision to trade Halak and retain Price followed a "big picture discussion" and was "based on future projections." "We are very comfortable with Carey Price," said Gauthier.
Canadiens fans debated the goaltending situation throughout the 2009-10 year. The daily competition between two number one goaltenders was not a healthy situation and could not have continued next season.
On the transaction that was most highly anticipated, it seems that Gauthier did get some things right.
First and foremost, the Canadiens now have some cap space. Halak would have been expecting a raise in the $4 million range. Even if the Habs spend $1 million or so on a backup, they have still freed dollars to meet their other commitments like Tomas Plekanec.
Gauthier said that he "will want to complement Carey Price" with a goaltender added via free agency. Choices that fit the budget include Dan Ellis, Marty Biron, and Johan Hedberg.
But this wasn't just a financial decision. It was a rare case of the cheaper goaltender being the better player in the minds of the Canadiens' brass.
Almost every hockey person agrees that it is Price who has the highest upside. Price has solid technique, better lateral movement, and is capable of a heavier workload.
Halak tends to go down early, has difficulty controlling rebounds, and is a poor puck handler outside his crease. Halak seems to wear down after four consecutive starts. It's unclear whether he will be able to handle a 55-60 game workload.
The NHL has become a league that is not so friendly to small goaltenders like Halak. NHL scouting reports label Halak as a "big-ice goalie" who is adept at handling shots from the perimeter and relies on a defensive system to clear rebounds and clog the slot.
So ends the myth that Bob Gainey was, in some way, protecting Price. The view that Price will be the better goalie in the future is held by the Canadiens. Gauthier reported that teams were informed that Price was not available.
It seems that the goaltender that wanted to be in Montreal most has remained. In post-playoff interviews, Halak was only lukewarm about a return to the Habs.
This followed Halak asking for a trade early in the calendar year. Gainey denied the request, but instead offered Halak an opportunity to play more.
In a press conference following the trade, Halak said, "I think its best for everybody that I was dealt."
Gauthier also did the right thing by limiting his discussions to teams in the Western Conference. Given the emotional fan feeling towards Halak, it wouldn't have been smart to trade him to a team within their own conference.
The jury is out on whether Gauthier got the best players he could back in the trade. Given the track-record of the pro-scouting department (which Gauthier headed), it is fair to be sceptical. Also, the Canadiens' GM didn't seem to create a bidding war like Brian Burke has done in Toronto for Tomas Kaberle, although the aforementioned market for goaltenders and limiting trade partners to the Western Conference make that a tougher task.
We wish Halak well in St. Louis in a situation where he can prove his belief that he is a true No. 1 NHL goaltender. The Blues were a good team without Halak and primed for a break through with all their young talent. No one should be surprised if they have a very good season, and it would be overly simplistic to credit the trade alone.
Putting Halak's accomplishments in a realistic light this past season means that this was not the worst trade in Canadiens history. Not even close. For now, everyone should just take a deep breath.
Expect this to be the first of a number of moves made by the Habs' GM this offseason. Once the puzzle is complete, then Gauthier's work can be evaluated as he reshapes the Canadiens for the 2010-11 season.
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