"At least the goalie controvery's done with"
I don't think it would have surprised anyone if GM Pierre Gauthier uttered those words when he traded Jaroslav Halak for Eller and long shot Ian Schultz. That day, he effectively removed the competition for the starter's role in Montreal and placed it again in the lap of Carey Price. But in the days where he failed to sign Dan Ellis and instead settled upon big man Alex Auld, he may have inadvertently opened another controversy up.
Don't for one minute think I think or wish that Alex Auld will challenge Carey Price for the starter's role. For that to happen, we'd already have to be a very miserable group. Rather, it's my belief that Auld has by no means locked up the second-string position, unless we think the Habs too cheap to pay out his one-way contract in the minor leagues.
Auld's need for rebound
Last season, Alex Auld had a very lacklustre season, indeed. Though his Rangers numbers look good if you allow them to factor in (3 games in relief only), it was his 0.894 save percentage with the Dallas Stars to go with an 80s-esque 3.00 GAA that lead me to worry. His ES save percentage was also among the league worst and so was his save percentage on the PK. It just wasn't a season to remember.
That's not to say that Auld isn't a challenger, he is (hence the battle). But his challenge rests on a return to the form he posted in Ottawa and Boston rather than that of Florida, Phoenix and Dallas.
Sanford won't go easily
Sanford can't even look to NHL numbers from last season to make a case. The healthy duo of Halak and Price made sure he was firmly entrenched in Hamilton. However, where he differs from Auld is in his success. Last season, Sanford posted numbers to put himself among AHL leaders for the second year in a row and played so well toward the end of the season that he wrested half the playoff starts away from the All-Star choice, Cedrick Desjardins. The AHL is not the NHL as we well know, but there's history to suggest that AHL success in goaltending counts for at least something.
What's more, Sanford probably has different goals this season as he spots the low hanging fruit in Montreal. with 108 NHL games already, I'd bet good money that he's eyeing more for 2010-11. And there's plenty of credibility to his claim as well. Over that span, Sanford has been a 2.74, 0.901 goalie to Alex Auld's 2.78, 0.904. His only season in a starting role with the then abysmal 2005-06 St. Louis Blues, he easily distanced himself in the race.
Factors in the decision
With fans as unforgiving as the Montrealers who want to fire the coach a mere warmup into the season, this controversy is set to boil early. As to who wins out in the end, it's hard to say. I do feel there are some factors already in play that favour Auld.
Size: The Habs have made no secret of their cunning plan to choose the bigger goalie where possible. Auld is 5" taller and will thus have bigger equipment. I think this tips things in his favour at the outset.
The decided order: Auld has been signed as the back and it shows with the salaries. In another organization (say the Hawks), this might not matter. But a decision made is a decision made in Montreal sometimes, regardless of evidence to the contrary. The order of things will be hard to overcome for Sanford.
Ottawa/Boston: In fairness, Auld turned out very good results over 66 games in Ottawa and Boston, better than anything Sanford has shown at the AHL level. The shadow of these should carry weight at least early on.
Even with all that, I think Sanford stands a chance for reasons of his own:
The system: We all know and love the Jacques Martin Canadiens as a puck concession, shot surrendering machine. It worked with halk, because for some reason he likes that. But when it comes to Auld v. Sanford, I think Sanford may have the edge. Auld's greatest successes have come when he's been more protected from shots (like in Ottawa and his early Vancouver days) and he's had some tendency to look less impressive under heavier fire (Vancouver 2005-06 and Florida). Sanford's strength is Auld's potential weakness, and he may just push him on that because we all know that shots aren't going to stop coming in...
Salary cap: Pierre Gauthier has managed to spend nearly every last penny on this team, a team that may yet need to be tweaked. $1 million vs. $550,000 may not seem much, but come March that could buy a million dollars worth of reinforcement. If Auld plays like an AHLer anyway, I wonder how long the capologists will allow it.
It's been many a year since the Canadiens entered training camp without something to discuss from the back end. You didn't really expect that to end just because Gauthier dealt Halak did you?