The Montreal Canadiens are facing a dilemma between the pipes, but it's much more complicated than your traditional goaltending controversy.
With both Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak set to become restricted free agents at season's end, the thinking for the majority of the campaign has been to go with Price as the number one goalie and see what the Halak can command on the trade market. When Halak reportedly made a trade demand to management back in December, it appeared that the writing was on the wall.
That logic has been turned upside down over the past two months as Halak has flourished since trade talks began to swirl, while Price has struggled.
Since the beginning of December, Halak is sporting a 9-5-1 record with a pair of shutouts, while Price has gone 4-7-2. The situation may have come to a head following last week's loss to the Blues when, according to a report from Montreal radio station Team 990, Habs alternate captain Andrei Markov reportedly told Price, "If you are not going to play with heart, stay home. We don't need you here."
The controversy swirling around the dueling goaltenders has led many fans to wonder if there is a split in the locker room and if perhaps the team would be better served by retaining Halak's services and dealing Price, who is currently under fire, out of town.
The NHL on TSN panel discussed the issue prior to the Habs' game against the Lightning on Wednesday.
"You really get the sense that the Montreal Canadiens coaching staff and management really wants Carey Price to be 'the man,' said Keith Jones.
While Price was stellar in his rookie season, his statistics have taken a hit over the past two years. Rumours have also swirled about his conduct off the ice in the hockey-mad city of Montreal, leaving the Canadiens with a very delicate situation on their hands. TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie believes that the team itself is at least partly to blame for the situation.
"If there has been a criticism of how the Canadiens have handled their goaltenders, it is that they simply won't give the job to Halak and leave Price on the bench for a little while," said McKenzie. "Every time that Halak has lost a game this year, he's never gotten a start again in the following game."
While Halak has unquestionably been the better of the two netminders of late, there are several cases for keeping Price. For one, the 22-year old is two years younger than Halak. Also, Price's pedigree is substantially more impressive. He was a first-round draft pick by Montreal (fifth overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft) and was named the CHL's goaltender of the year in 2007. That same year he backstopped Canada to gold at the IIHF World Junior hockey championship. In addition he was won the Jack Butterfield Trophy as the AHL's playoff MVP when the Hamilton Bulldogs captured the Calder Cup in 2007. The following season he was named to the NHL's all-rookie team and started the All-Star game last season in Montreal.
On the flipside, Halak was selected in the ninth round, 271st overall by the Habs in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The upcoming Olympics will be the first significant action that he has ever seen for Slovakia at the international level, and he has never been featured in more than 34 games in any season at the NHL, AHL or ECHL level.
The problem may well be that Halak has been unfairly tagged with the label of career backup, a title that he is doing his best to shake.
"People think that he asked for a trade earlier in the year, and he may have," theorized McKenzie. "But I think what he really said was this: 'I want to be a number one goaltender in the NHL. If it's not with you guys, then let it be with somebody else.' He's not getting that chance to be a number one (in Montreal) so I would think that demand still stands."
Regardless of how the situation plays out, TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger says that location is playing a significant factor in how the story develops.
"It is Montreal," stated Dreger. "Look to last week. Georges Laraque is sent packing - mind you in the middle of his contract - he responds emotionally right after learning the news from Bob Gainey and that made headline news. In this case, anything involving Carey Price, other than stopping the puck, because of his struggles is newsworthy."
Following the Olympic trade freeze that ends on February 28th, it should be a very interesting few days in La Belle Province leading up to the NHL trade deadline on March 3rd.