Off-Season Analysis - The Goaltending

Over the last few weeks, we've taken in-depth looks at the forwards (first the top six and then "the best of the rest") and defense of the Montreal Canadiens, grading their 2009-10 season, ranking the players amongst each other and looking ahead to what their 2010-11 season might look like.

While there may have been a few players that others graded and ranked differently, fans and readers generally consented on what this team's line-up would look like, in terms of skaters, and where they played, from best to "worst". The top six is going to look exactly the same as it did for the most part last season. The defense has been set since last year's playoffs. And plus or minus a couple of rookies, the 3rd and 4th lines have also been basically set in stone.

The same could be said about what's left of this team's goaltending heading into October. The difference, however, between this team's goaltender and skating players is that GM Pierre Gauthier has really left us no choice but to accept Carey Price as the Canadiens's starting goaltender.

Through a series of moves that saw Jaroslav Halak leave town for St. Louis, Cedrick Desjardins join pretty much half the organization in Tampa Bay, and Alex Auld sign a contract with the Canadiens, Carey Price has been handed the keys to the organization and sole ownership of the nets at the Bell Centre.

While Price didn't exactly have a bad season in 2009-10, once you really look at the way he played and beyond the stats, anyway, he was often the source of criticism from fans and media members alike, culminating on a night where he was booed after a game at the Bell Centre in which he was named the 3rd star. Even Jacques Martin, who will have no choice but to go with Price as the season starts, had a surprise reaction that gave us one of his most memorable quotes from this past season:

Quote:
"I respect the fans. They pay good dollars to be entertained and they have a right to an opinion. As a professional athlete, or a coach, you have to work within the framework. Sure I'd like to see better results (for Price), as he would. At the same time, I can't say we lost the game because of him."

Martin and the team ended up more or less giving up on Price after this incident. March 31st was the last time Price saw regular season action, and the four (of 19) games which saw him take the ice during the playoffs were only in relief of Jaroslav Halak. The team in front of Price had long given up on their goaltender as well, and the fans were quick to jump on the Jaroslav Halak bandwagon early in 2010, if not sooner, despite multiple attempts from the media and blogs to quell the nastiness that had developed from this "goalie controversy" throughout the season. Some of the best work on the subject can be found at Habs Eyes on the Prize by writer Chris Boyle, who put together some excellent comparisons between the two tenders through December 2009, before the Halak tidal wave made certain that Price wouldn't stand a chance.

For the record, I'm not taking a side in the whole Price vs. Halak debate here. Frankly, I'm not even going to bother giving either goaltender a grade or rank them, as there would be no point. There will be plenty of comparisons, plenty of blogs, criticisms and comments about Price throughout the season. As someone who will likely read most of these criticisms, I hope that the rational fans can keep Halak out of the comparisons. For better or for worse, Jaroslav Halak is gone, and Carey Price will be this team’s starting goaltender. No amount of complaining will bring Halak back, so all we can do is hope that Price will regain his form and become the goaltender we have all expected from him since the beginning.

So I plead with the readers. If you’re going to criticize Price, criticize him and judge him on his own stats, his own merits, his own performance, and not based on what Jaroslav Halak or any other goaltender is doing around the league, with different teams, different coaching stats and different fans.

All of this, of course, hinges on when and for what Carey Price signs with the Habs…

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CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS: WHAT'S THE HOLD UP?

The closest thing to an update on Carey Price's contract negotiations since the season ended in Philadelphia has been the following quote from his agent, Gerry Johansson, taken from Habs Inside/Out:

Quote:
(The two sides) are not necessarily close, but it's not that we're not close in a bad way. We're having good conversations and we both are committed to getting things done.

Johansson went on to say that the slow pace of these negotiations was "relatively normal", and that he expected Price to be signed with the team by early September at the latest. But if you read between the lines, the message is pretty clear: He thinks that Price can take this team for as much money as he wants, and that it's just a matter of time until Pierre Gauthier caves into the pressure of going into training camp without a starting goaltender.

Personally, I have a feeling that the issue here isn’t money. Price doesn’t strike me as the type of player who would ask for the sky in terms of dollar amounts, unless he’s in serious financial trouble and we haven’t heard of it. I have a feeling that the issue is term.

Price is 22, going on 23. He will soon be eligible for arbitration, and knows that if he has a good season this year, he’ll either be able to get a lot more money next summer, or the price will be too steep for the Canadiens and he will end up leaving town, like Antti Niemi did in Chicago. The thought here is that if Price can sign a short term deal, he will keep his options open, depending on how the next few season go.

The Canadiens, on the other hand, would likely want to sign Price to a long term deal now that his value and the general value of goaltenders everywhere is low, so that they don’t have to pony up a lot more money than their can afford. The lesson was learned with Tomas Plekanec.

Therefore, if Price is fine with a $2-$2.5 million deal, but only for one or two years, and the Canadiens want to sign him for the same amount, but for double or even triple the term, we could be in for a lot more waiting.

Naturally, in the age of the Internet, and in a time when information is readily available to anyone who wants it at the click of a mouse, the dry well that has been Carey Price news since basically May of this past season has been frustrating for the fans of this team. With each passing day, fans get more and more anxious to see Price sign, so we can analyze the deal and compare it to anyone and everyone around the league.

With Halak gone, Desjardins gone, and whatever's left maybe even worse than what the Flyers have for goaltending heading into the season, Habs fans are chomping at their own nails in anticipation to see this team's line-up completed, and to see how long Price signs for, and, of course, for how much. Gauthier obviously hasn't made these negotiations easy, trading the only reason Price had no negotiation leverage in Jaroslav Halak, and basically telling him that no matter what he does, he's this team's only choice.

Frankly, that's what happens when you put all your eggs into the same basket. Regardless of salary cap implications, I actually do hope that Price takes every cent that he can from Gauthier. The Halak trade was questionable, the Desjardins trade pointless, and signing Alex Auld insured that the Canadiens had no choice but to go with Price. Gauthier’s traded himself into a corner, and it’s going to take fiasco or two for this team’s ownership to open their eyes.

Unless Gauthier is planning on somehow signing Antti Niemi, or pulling off a trade that none of us saw coming, which of course at this point is unlikely, he will have no choice but to give into Johansson's and Price's demands and sign him at whatever term and price that they desire.

As a Habs fan who has developed some pretty severe anxiety issues thanks to the way this team both plays on the ice and conducts its business off the ice, I can only hope, for my sake, that this silliness is done with sooner rather than later, and we can move on to more positive things.

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THE BACK-UPS: 2010-11 EXPECTATIONS

Obviously, there might not be much to say in regards to back-up goaltending for this team heading into the season.

Alex Auld, who signed a 1 year, $1 million deal with the Canadiens and will obviously be the first choice for a back-up. The 29-year-old native Cold Lake, Alberta, split the season between Dallas and then the Rangers, after being claimed off waivers. He played in a total of 24 games, posting a 9-7-3 record in his starts and a 2.95GAA and .895 SVP throughout the season. To call him a journeyman goaltender would be an understatement. Auld has played for 7 NHL teams since the lockout, excluding the Canadiens. He played the entire post-lockout season with the Canucks, playing an astonishing 67 games while posting decent numbers. In 2008-09 he played 43 games with the Sens with good numbers. Unless something unexpected happens, Auld will like play between 15 and 25 games for the Canadiens, and he will be expected to win at least a third of those games.

Curtis Sanford, another Canadian boy from Owen Sound, Ontario, and another former member of the Vancouver Canucks, is next in line and will likely be the started in Hamilton. He split the season with Cedrick Desjardins last year, posting a great 23-11-3 record and playing in 41 games, with a 2.16 GAA and a .916 SVP. He also played 9 playoff games with a 5-4 record. He signed a two-way contract with the Canadiens this summer, which will pay him $200,000 in the AHL and the league minimum if he gets called up. His back-up will likely be Robert Mayer, who spent most of his time with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL last season.

Finally, Karri Ramo, was acquired in the Cedrick Desjardins deal. The Finnish goaltender will likely spend the season in the KHL, as he is on the tail end of a 2-year deal in Russia.

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CAREY PRICE: 2010-11 EXPECTATIONS

I said that we wouldn't be handing out grades for either goaltender, but it would be relevant to talk about expectations for this team's starting goaltender heading into the next season.

Last season, Price played 41 games, registering only 13 wins (with 20 losses and 5 OTLs). He posted a GAA of 2.77 and a save percentage of .912 (the SVP at least is decent). In the playoffs, he played in 4 games, only starting one, which he lost. These numbers were an improvement over his 2008-09 numbers, a season in which he played in 54 games, and frankly, his numbers this past season were fairly decent considering all the criticism he received. His best year was his rookie outing in 2007-08, where he played, again, 41 games, posting 24 wins, 12 losses and 3 OTLs. He posted a GAA of 2.56 and an SVP of .920.

Using these stats to predict or set expectations for 2010-11 might be fairly difficult. This will be the first season that Price will have free reign over the nets, and with Alex Auld as his only competition (Auld only has one season as a starter, and another where he played 43 games), the assumption can only be that, barring injuries, Price will play a minimum of 55 games, with a chance to go up to 70 or more if he plays well.

That being said, his stats need to at least look like his 2007-08 numbers, but he would be best served winning 35-40 games, and he's going to have to improve his GAA to somewhere within the 2.2-2.5 range. Matching Halak's regular season numbers from last year is a bare minimum if he wants to prove to the world that he deserves his spot.

Considering where he's been in the past, and the pressures that now find themselves on his shoulders, this is definitely asking much of the troubled young goaltender. This is, however, what Pierre Gauthier has brought onto the fans and of course, onto Carey Price, and anything less will be a complete disaster for this team, with no one to fall back on and making the playoffs being as crucial as ever.

Can Price deliver? Can he silence all the naysayers and pundits? Can he make us forget about Jaroslav Halak and finally live up to his expectations?

Most will tell you that the chances are low, but he’s been given a chance, and he deserves some space to show us what he’s got.

Coming up next will be the coaching and management, before we take it all in and assign the team an overall grade.

Comments and criticisms are welcome!

Prax
TheCheckingLine.com
Twitter.com/GeorgePrax