I had a bit of an epiphany last night. In the absence of Habs hockey, I figured the next best thing was Habs' prospect hockey. So I tuned into Game 3 of the OHL final between the Belleville Bulls and the Kitchener Rangers. Habs' 2007 second-round pick P.K.Subban plays defence for Belleville, and 3rd-rounder Yannick Weber is on Kitchener's blueline. (In the game, powerhouse Kitchener went up 3-0 in the series, with a 5-3 win...Weber had an assist, Subban was shutout...but I digress.)
Anyway, what caught my attention was the goaltending on these teams. Both goalies made some nice saves...Parker Van Buskirk stopped 45 of 50 shots for Belleville...but they looked like junior goalies. Kitchener's Josh Unice was a third-round selection of the Chicago Black Hawks last year, but he still looks like it'd be a big jump for him to play AHL-calibre hockey next season.
Watching them, I started to think about some of the big name kid goalies that are projected to carry their franchises in the NHL at some point in their careers. Tuukka Rask, first-round pick of Toronto and now a Bruin's prospect, is supposed to be their number one goalie in a few years. This season, he played four games for Boston...the rest in Providence, where he was the AHL's number two goalie (interestingly, behind Habs' brief insurance goalie, Michael Leighton) with a 0.929 SV%. Jonathan Bernier, picked eleventh overall two years ago, and who's supposed to be the Kings' saviour in net, was ranked fifteenth in the AHL, with a SV% of 0.908. Leafs' goaltending future Justin Pogge is playing second-fiddle to former NHL also-ran Scott Clemmenson with the Marlies.
Thinking about all this as I watched the OHL finals made me realize, with a sudden clarity, as though someone had switched on a light in my head, Carey Price was playing where these guys are playing last year. He has gone from the world of the Unices and Van Buskirks, past the world of the Pogges, Berniers and Rasks, to the realm of the Brodeurs and Luongos in one season. When you consider his stats in the NHL, behind a defence that ranged from brilliant to porous on any given night, and realize that his 2.56 GAA was nineteenth in the league, and his 0.920 SV% ranked him seventh, it starts to sink in. He's not only playing with the big boys, while his highly-touted contemporaries are still playing junior or American League Hockey, but he's competing with the big boys too.
Something he said in the post-game hush of the subdued Habs room on Saturday night sticks with me. He talked about feeling like he'd played for two straight years. He'd gone from Habs' development camp in September of 2006, straight into Tri-Cities regular season. He missed Christmas break that season to win the world junior championship, then joined the Hamilton Bulldogs for the Calder Cup playoffs which didn't wrap up till almost mid-June 2007. A brief six weeks later, he was heading into camp in Montreal and played 41 regular season games and eleven playoff games. Who could blame him for saying "I don't want to look at my equipment for three months?" That's a hell of a lot of hockey for a 20-year-old to play. And it wasn't just any kind of hockey. It was high-intensity, high-profile hockey, both as the number one goalie in Tri-City and then in Montreal, and in the playoffs...junior, AHL and NHL. When you consider what he's faced and conquered since training camp, 2006, and then compare that to what his contempories have done, it's pretty incredible.
Yet, we've been judging him on the same criteria as we'd judge an established NHL goalie. I know Bob Gainey chose to take that risk and put that pressure on Price. But in hindsight, it may not have been a mistake in that Price isn't able to handle the pressure or the NHL competition, but that he was too burnt out to keep up his high level of play consistently through this year's playoffs. In retrospect, maybe the team should have been less concerned with finishing first overall and instead played Jaroslav Halak more down the stretch.
In any event, watching other young goalies, just a year removed from where Carey Price was this time last season, I realize what a special talent Price really is. I'm disappointed he was outgoaled by Marin Biron this year, but I think it won't happen again. I think three months off and entering the season in Montreal as the undisputed number one goalie will cement Price as the NHL goalie he's destined to become. I think we haven't seen what this kid can really do, and when he comes back with a rest and a clear head, he's going to make us realize why he was able to follow the trajectory he has, and why the other goalies his age are just a bunch of other goalies.