Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Carey Price: Thoroughbred In The Gates?

The Cost Of Betting On This Thoroughbred

As promised, my third post on Carey Price will deal with the question of the management of Carey Price and his career trajectory has affected the Canadiens and members of the team.

This piece is not so much about Price as Gainey and the management. It is about how decisions on Price affected everyone else but #31.

Goaltending prospects

The people most directly affected by the decision to promote Price were the other goalies. The first to feel the repercussions of the decision were Yann Danis and Jaroslav Halak who, in effect, were leapfrogged in the depth chart.

Yann Danis, once first in line behind Theodore and Huet, then Aebischer and Huet, was already usurped in 2005-06 by the play of Jaroslav Halak down on the farm, so was not pipped for an NHL job as it happened. Even so, Yann had already had respectable stint in Montreal with 6 GP, a 2.69 GAA and a 0.908 Save %. And, considering all the hard work he had put in to get from a non-scouted program in the Ivy League to an NHL club, we were impressed. It has to be said, that surpasssed by Halak or not, by 2006-07, Yann’s seasons in Hamilton had proven his mettle. He could not have expected a junior to bump him so quickly and, had he been a lesser man, he probably would have been a bit more put out than he was to see Boy Wonder come in and take everything by right.

Jaroslav Halak was probably even more aggrieved. He had made a real mark in the Canadiens ranks while junior goalies were having their fun. In 2005-06, he put up stunning stats in the ECHL to earn a promotion, then in Hamilton he went on to replicate his form in 13 games with 7 wins, a 2.29 GAA and a 0.927 Save %. 2006-07 he was even better wresting the starting role from a pretty good Yann Danis, posting the best stats in the AHL over 28 starts (2.00 GAA and 0.932 Save %). As reward for his play, he was promoted to the Canadiens and got them into playoff contention with 10 wins in his first 16 NHL games under pressure cooker conditions. Not only that, he posted 2 shutouts in tight wins against the rival Bruins (1-0 and 2-0 – must be the last 1-0 win we’ve had) and did what it took in his typical fashion with a 0.906 save %.

2007-08 Training camp

It didn’t stop there, Jaro came in and performed best of the 4 goalies (including Huet) at training camp and looked to be restating a case he had made the last spring.

Alas, both Danis and Halak were demoted in favour of Price. At the time, I recall some ridiculous claims that Price had nothing to learn in Hamilton (which got me really angry at the time). I think, my friends, that if anything has been proven over the past two seasons it’s that carey price had plenty to learn in Hamilton.

Back to the point. The effect that initial demotion had on Danis and, unitl then, ultra-confident Jaroslav Halak could have been devastating. In fact, it was devastating for Danis as he slipped lower than any previous form would suggest he would and for Halak, at least initially, it seemed it was bad news as well. He was devastated:
“Firstly, there was no doubting Halak’s disappointment about being sent down to Hamilton this fall at the conclusion of the Canadiens training camp. Not only was it widely reported in the Montreal Gazette but his coach in Hamilton, Don Lever commented on it as a possible reason for Halak’s poor start with the Bulldogs.”

The fact he bounced back was lucky and good news for the Canadiens. It proved that Jaroslav Halak had backbone and determination. But one has to wonder how much more the guy can take.

The training camp demotion, after all, proved to be a harbinger for things to come. First, there was his call up for five games in December 2007 where he didn’t get a start, and only saw 20 minutes of action after Carey had let in 4 and lost the game. It was during a stretch where the Habs were struggling all around, so it looked hopeful for him – but he was sent back down empty handed. The next stint was worse. Called up for 12 games as Golden Balls nursed his wounds (and waited out his time where he had nothing to learn) in Hamilton, Jaro managed a mere 20 minutes again. The fact that Huet was purported to fatigue and the Halak posted 20 minutes of shutout hockey did nothing to win him a call. The slap in the face would come as Carey Price started in his second game back.

The next time Halak would see the light of NHL day was after the Huet trade. At that time, Gainey declared he was going with Price (not Price and Halak). Jaro would get his long-awaited permanent position in Montreal, but nary a start. Carey played well, but for someone who was so convinced of his tired excuse in May, one might have thought caution and a few Halak starts could have paid off. Jaro instead continued to get brow-beaten and played 4 more games before Price’s playoff meltdown.

We know the story from there. Although he gets the nod in September 2008 to be the #2 guy, when the chips are down, Halak is always passed over, and only an injury to Price really afforded him a decent chance.

I will listen to a lot of reasonable arguments about how Price and Halak differ and compare in terms of potential. But, I will not be moved from thinking that 2 full seasons of outright favouritism have not harmed the Slovak. Where once he was the man who came in and confidently won 10 virtual playoff games in March, he is now so nervy that he can’t put two periods together.

If you ask me, the Canadiens have done a horrible job at managing the man who probably should have been treated as the #2 or #3 prospect in the organization. And for what?

Cristobal Huet

Another man greatly affected by the decisions on how to manage Carey Price’s career was Cristobal Huet. It must be said that at times he benefitted, while at other times he suffered.

There was no question that Huet would be coming out of the 2007 training camp on the Canadiens team, so the decision to promote Price was of limited impact for him. If anything, it probably gave him more starts initially as the coaches tried to wean Carey onto his NHL diet. The same would be true when Carey was demoted. Halak could not play, because if he did, and played well, there would be a dilemma – one good goalie would have to be moved to make way for Carey Price when he was to be reinstated as per the plan. This period gave Cristobal another chance like he had in 2005-06 to take the bull by the horns. He did. That January was a defining moment for the Habs and Cris made it happen with an 8-3-1 record.

But Carey would not wait. Cristobal who was an all-star, played like an all-star in January, would slip in February. Not much, but enough for Gainey to move. There was a game that Huet and the Canadiens blew a 3-0 lead against the Rangers to lose 5-3, a game where he let in 3 goals on 4 shots (over the first 5 minutes) and a final 5-4 loss to Pitsburgh. That combined with Carey’s three consecutive wins (and convenient omission of the fact he too dug a 3-0 first period hole on 11 shots over 14 minutes – which Huet and the Habs would overcome) meant Carey was ready and Cristobal was done.

We knew pretty well at the time that the decision was mostly for Price’s benefit, because who trades an all-star goalie from a first-place contending team when the new back-up would have 40 minutes of NHL play that year for a second round draft pick? We know now for certain, because Gainey has said as much in his end-of-season interview.

The decision was a blessing in some ways to Huet as he surged and outplayed his protégé to vault the hot Capitals into the playoffs. It would be the streak that won him a massive contract, and he has Bob Gainey’s Carey Price fixation to thank for lifetime financial stability.

But in another way it took Cristobal from a team due to contend at that time and onto one that wouldn’t be ready – not with the defensive corps they had, and one which Ovechkin was still dragging largely without Semin and Backstrom’s help. It took a chance at a long playoff run away from Cristobal (the man who’s first into the third round this season). It also removed him from the teammates he had grown close to and cared most for.

Guy Carbonneau

It’s difficult to tease apart just how much say Guy Carbonneau had in the Carey Price situation. In the good times, I’m sure he was as much a Price advocate as anyone. What we do know is that Carbo, fresh off assisting for Halak’s sweet run was pretty keen on keeping the young Slovak around for the start of the 2007-08 season. He was quoted on it, and it was well aired at the time.

One doesn’t know how much his decisions over the rest of that season were dictated from above, but it seems unlikely that a coach who at one time is happy to stick with a goalie for 12 straight games during the tough part of the schedule would then turn around, suggest that goalie be traded and go al the rest of the way with the boy demoted then promoted from Hamilton.

This season, I’d suggest the same. Carbo showed a tendency for sticking with the “hot hand” and when it was working for the team, he didn’t care what their mother tongue was. I personally think it’s quite telling that Carbonneau and his coaches turned the team around (or rather were there when the team turned around), but was dismissed the very minute that Jaro recovered from his flu.

At the time, I wrote this:
“Carbonneau and Gainey are known to have disagreed about Halak and Price in the first place. Halak was finally playing, and then suddenly (boom) Golden Glove is back in. I don't know if it was the coach's decision (I'm guessing not) or the GM's. I suspect we will find out when the starter for the Edmonton game is announced. Is this enough for dismissal. If the rift has been going on ever since it started, and the GM is tired - then quite possibly, yes.”

What we know now is that the reasons for Carbo’s dismissal were compound. It’s worth noting that Price, not Halak, started that Edmonton game, though; as well as 14 of the 19 remaining games for the season. Good games were no longer guarantees for next start, nor bad games guarantee of the hook. It’s questionable whether 3 wins in 10 would have trumped 2 wins in 5 if Carbo were calling the shots. Based on precedent, he wouldn’t have.

If Carbonneau wasn’t affected day-to-day by meddling, he was definitely broadly affected by the GM’s consecutive decisions to promote and develop Price, come what may. It is said that a GM is paid to work with a 5-year window, whereas a coach is paid to work with a 1-game window. In this case, I don’t think the two strategies meshed. I also think the words that were likely thrown around about that fact played at least some part in Carbo’s fate.

The other coaches

While the other coaches are all gainfully employed by the Canadiens at this moment in time, odds say they won’t be in September.

Of all decisions taken, the Huet trade probably affected the assistants most. From that point, they had to deal with goalies whose confidence was fragile and whose puck control was, well below the standard they were used to. Plying games to get Carey Price big league experience doesn’t fit well with the winning that is required from coaches on the ground.

Roman Hamrlik

Roman Hamrlik is the biggest free agent signing the Canadiens have made since Kovalev. Being both a veteran and a defenceman, he likely chose his destination carefully – looking at organizational strengths, potential partners and even goalies.

When he signed up, he was joining a team with an all-star goalie, the number one PP and a very solid #1/2 pair of defencemen. Things looked good in Montreal. He probably thought: out-perform Souray (easy) and we’re in with a chance.

Well, that’s exactly how it went. But it all looks a bit differently today doesn’t it?

As it stands right now, with 2 years left on Hamrlik’s contract, the Canadiens have multiple free agents who probably won’t be back. And given the factors like less bring-home pay, they are unlikely to upgrade in the UFA market. What’s more, the GM has committed to Carey Price, which even the GM has finally realised is a waiting game.

I use Hamrlik as an example because, frankly, does anyone think he would have signed up had he known that he would be part of the Carey Price tutoring program. Nevermind how Price or Halak played, does anyone think he or any other veteran D looking for a potential contender would have gone with a team that opted to go with a 20-year-old and a 22-year-old and no one behind them? Didn't think so...


As an extension on the Hamrlik theme, I think Gainey’s pronouncements on Carey Price will likely send stirs into the UFA signing period as well.

To put it simply, I think Gainey pressed reset on his 5-year plan. Don’t you?

Now the message is out there though – our GM is willing to be make decisions that favour the 5-year career projection of one man vs. the next game’s performance for the team. Some players might rightly call it what it is – a rebuilding stage.

My feeling on this is that it will affect not only new talent we are trying to attract, but also remaining talent who have experienced one rebuilding process too many. Building a championship team is about timing, and I think even the most optimistic won’t be betting on Carey Price’s progression to take him from January 2009 form to Roy 1989 form. This group includes players we won’t find equivalents for like Saku Koivu, Alexei Kovalev and others (thank goodness Markov is signed). From outside, why would Bouwmeester, Lecavalier or Marian Hossa pay so much more tax to hope for the best?

Fans like you and me

Bob Gainey has to start appreciating the concerns of fans. The fans were told to be patient because Gainey would be implementing a 5-year plan. The end of our best chance at a Cup in spectacular fashion: patience. Carey Price is young: patience. The end of this season: patience.

Last year was the 5th year of his grace period you know, which actually for the most part looked to be coming to fruition. He preaches patience, which is fine; but no one asked him to press reset in the fifth year of the plan when the team is on the verge of vanquishing Ottawa’s hold on first. No one gave him permission to lower the bar for himself, yet again.

Personally, after giving him the 5-year benefit of the doubt, I felt a little bit cheated when the 2008 playoffs were earmarked for Playoffs 101 class for our young apprentice.

It was all the more puzzling that it would have happened anyway (with patience), given that we would have been very accepting of losing Huet in a bidding war that ended up with Cristobal vastly overpaid. At that point, we’d have all accepted the need to proceed with our two promising youngsters.

As it is, I feel like the organization didn’t give their best shot last season. I feel disgusted when I hear Bob Gainey say he expected the playoff loss in 2008 (and even 2009, now) and that we should have all accepted it too.

Gainey’s mess

Though this piece revolves around young Carey Price; the implications have nothing to do with him, thoroughbred or not.

The onus on evaluating his talent and demeanour (and fatigue levels if we’re still giving him that excuse) fell at the feet of the GM. It seems to me that in this regard Bob Gainey made errors here, many of them. Worse still, he seems to have tried to cover his tracks by making more errors and not admitting a temporary defeat.

Jack Todd, on form as if he were nailing it to Loria said:
“If Gainey does come back, he is going to have to accept that, after running this team since 2003, he can no longer pawn off his failures on Réjean Houle or André Savard. For better or for worse, this was the Gainey show, and so far it has produced more failure than success.”
He’s right. For me, his handling of this prospect (thrown to the wolves, as Jack put it) is first and foremost among his mis-steps.

Luckily, I do have some advice for Bob (if he’s reading). I’m actually relaying this to him from a comment more than a year ago – I can't remember which commenter hit the nail on the head – the advice went something like this:

"It is Bob Gainey's job to manage the Montreal Canadiens. It is not his job to manage Carey Price's career."

I think a little reminder, considering all now left in the wake, might be in order.

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