The trade heard around the NHL—or at least in the city of Montreal—this past summer was a "surprise" move by Pierre Gauthier, sending playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz.
The trade was only surprising because fans had fallen in love with the soft-spoken Slovak goaltender during the spring of 2010. As such, most were up in arms that Gauthier dare trade Halak in favour of Carey Price.
If we back up a bit, before Halak had risen to the height of playoff goaltending miracle maker, we have to travel back to the 2003 NHL entry draft to see where this story started.
With the 10th pick in the ninth round of the 2003 draft, the Montreal Canadiens selected Jaroslav Halak. Now, ninth overall picks are generally looked at as depth players within any organization. Players, generally speaking, that will never reach the NHL but who populate the ranks of the minor leagues and AHL affiliates.
But Habs' head of amateur scouting, Trevor Timmins, saw something more in Halak.
He saw a player who in his estimation, if left undrafted for another year would likely have gone as high as the second or third round the following season. So, as he did with goaltender Petteri Similia in the 2009 draft, Timmins snagged a played that he felt could be a gamer in a classic low-risk play, high reward play.
Halak proceeded to become the best goaltender in the AHL, by his third season in Hamilton, earning a call up to the NHL in February 2007. He battled then-starter, Cristobal Huet, for the staring job and actually carried the play for Montreal when Huet was on the shelf due to injury, getting them within striking distance of the playoffs.
It was in the final game of the season, with Huet back in the net, the Canadiens succumbed to the Leafs and missed the playoffs, setting off a summer of teeth gnashing by Habs' fans.
At the same time that all of this was going on, Carey Price—drafted fifth overall by Montreal in the 2005 NHL entry draft—was busy winning a World Junior Hockey gold medal and being named tournament MVP. After his stunning performance at the WJC's, Price proceeded to carry the Habs' AHL affiliate Hamilton Bulldogs to a championship while again being named tournament MVP.
So when the 2008 season started, despite Halak's strong play in the minors, he was pushed aside in place of Price. Carey proceeded to outplay his counterpart, Huet, to the point where then-GM, Bob Gainey, traded him out of town, giving the reigns to Price and making Halak his backup.
Price had an up and down playoff, in which the Habs were ultimately bounced by the Flyers, before continuing with an up and down season the following year. That year—the 2009-2010 NHL season—Price was the first string incumbent and Halak was supposed to play backup in a classic platoon system where each goaltender would push the other.
The problem is that both young goaltenders rightfully felt that they had what it took to be the uncontested starter, and things started looking a little uncomfortable in the Habs' crease as a result.
Unfortunately for Price, despite being given ample opportunity to grab the ball and run with it, he was unable to establish himself, eventually losing the starter’s position to Halak.
As the tide turned and Halak continued to put in outstanding starts, the voices of the Price-detractors became louder and louder. This continued throughout the playoffs last spring, while Halak was routinely putting in 40-plus save nights to get the Habs past the Capitals and Pens, but ultimately falling to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
So when the offseason started and Pierre Gauthier was faced with two RFA goaltenders, him and his team did an assessment of where they were then and projected where they felt they would be going forward. In Gauthier’s estimation, Price would ultimately become the better of the two goaltenders, so he rolled the dice and moved Halak out of town in a potentially career defining move.
Fans were livid, media felt he rushed the deal and critics felt Gauthier kept the wrong man. But, undaunted, Price proceeded to do his GM right, this season, by playing lights out and being the main reason for the Habs success at the 50-game mark.
Price, who is just coming off his second career all-star appearance this past weekend, is currently ninth among goaltenders with a 2.36 GAA, 12th with a .920 save percentage, tied for fifth with four shutouts and, most importantly, is tied for second with 24 wins in 45 games—a 53.5 win percentage.
In addition, he has faced the third most shots against, with 1315, all of this with the Canadiens managing only 130 goals for in 50 games. The Habs 2.6 average goals for per game is the lowest among all current playoff teams and is 25th in the league—in virtue of their one more game played over Minnesota, Columbus, and St. Louis.
So Price has earned his excellent numbers on his own merit and not because the team in front of him is blowing the opposition away offensively. Quite the opposite actually, as the Habs would most certainly be on the outside of the playoff picture right now without Price's heroics so far this season.
Halak on the other hand, has a 22nd overall 2.62 GAA, is 27th with a .907 save percentage and is 15th with 17 wins in 39 starts—a 43.5 win percentage. In addition, Halak is a middling 13th overall in shots against with 1080 while his Blues are tied with the Habs in goals for, with 130 in 49 games.
Hardly the stuff of champions.
Price is the number one reason why with 32 games to play, the Canadiens currently sit in seventh overall in the Eastern conference. His play down the stretch will continue to be key to any post-season aspirations.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly emotions swing in the city of Montreal, where the only pastime more popular than hockey is that of the arm chair GM. So while many, myself included, were not fans of the appointment of Pierre Gauthier as General Manager of the Canadiens, we have to remember that he does have tenure and experience in the league.
And while he undoubtedly has a spotty track record, he is eminently more qualified to hold that job than most fans, media and critics alike, myself included.
Anyone who reads my articles on a regular basis will know that I had been saying since last season that I believed that Price, at 24, would be a better goaltender than Halak at 24 (he'll be 25 in May 2011). This thought was by no means a knock on Halak, who is a capable goaltender, but more a reflection of the much higher ceiling that Price had in front of him, despite what his emotionally charged detractors had to say.
With Price turning 23 this past August it looks like he beat me to the punch by one year.
New Sunday Shinny
Don't forget to listen to the latest Sunday Shinny from January 30th, 2011 where Gary Whittaker, Nick Murdocco, Kamal Panesar and Amanda Stein welcome regular contributor to TheFranchise.ca, Will Martinez.
Discussion topics include:
- a lively discussion on whether the Canadiens will finish the season battling the Bruins for the lead of their division, battle for a playoff spot...or both!
- Rating Jacques Martin as a coach
- what the NHL can do to improve the All-Star game