I was thrilled to see Jaroslav Halak signed for another two years, at what I think is a great steal of a contract. The 23-year-old Slovak will receive 1.55 million dollars over the course of the deal, which, when you consider some of the head-scratching contracts out there these days, is both fair and cap-friendly.
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a big Halak fan. He's made the most of every chance he's been given, working his way up from the ninth round of the 2003 draft (think about it...if there were only seven rounds back then, as there are now, he'd have gone undrafted altogether), through the ranks of the Q, the ECHL and the AHL. He's posted stellar numbers at every level and when thrown to the wolves in the form of standing in for the injured Cristobal Huet on a tanking Canadiens team, he damn near dragged them into the playoffs with his play. I thought it was unfair when he was sent to Hamilton last season after a great camp, and worse that when he was called up he didn't get a single start until after Huet was traded to Washington.
This year, though, Halak gets his chance. He's going to push Carey Price, because although both are quiet, pretty even-keel type guys, they're both competitive. And Halak might be the more competitive of the two. He's had to overcome so much to get this shot, he's going to sink his teeth into it like a pit bull. There's something about him...an aura of resolve, perhaps...that you don't see in every young player. I'm looking forward to watching him this year. There's nothing as exhilarating as cheering for an underdog to overcome the odds.
That's not to say I don't like Carey Price, or that I wish Halak to overtake him for the number one spot. On the contrary, if Price is the better goalie, which he likely is, I want him to succeed to the greatest benefit of both himself and the team. But there's nothing to say that a backup goalie has to be a guy who plays six games a year like they do behind Luongo or Brodeur. In fact, I think that's ridiculous. New Jersey and Vancouver put their star goalies in that position because on any given night, those goalies are the best players on their teams. And, just as the Habs wouldn't voluntarily sit Kovalev or Markov because that would significantly reduce their chances of winning, those teams won't voluntarily sit their starting goalies in favour of the backups.
I think that complete reliance on one goalie costs the team eventually, when the playoffs arrive and the goalie is burnt out from playing seventy-plus games in the regular season. When the Habs were in mid-dynasty in the seventies, Ken Dryden played only around fifty games, with Bunny Larocque playing around thirty. Dryden talks about their internal competition in "The Game," explaining that it worked because Larocque was never satisfied with playing thirty games, and always pushed for more, which kept Dryden on his toes. And if Dryden were hurt or got pulled, Larocque was perfectly capable of winning games for the team as well. Of course, it turned out that Larocque, while an excellent backup to Dryden, never really cut it as a number one. That may be the case for Halak as well...or for Price, if he (remembering that he's only 20) begins to struggle. The point is, it's to a team's benefit to have two competitive goalies who can carry as much of the playing load as they're asked to bear. If a team can spread the work around, with fairly even chances of winning with either, that team will be more consistent and it will arrive at the playoffs with a strong, well-rested tandem it can rely on when it counts.
That's why I don't understand Habs' fans who advocate trading Halak. Sure, there may come a day when it becomes too expensive to keep both Price and Halak, or that one of them will become disgruntled at a lack of starts. But, right now, you have two very young, potential star goalies with a lot to prove. They'll push each other to greater heights all year, and learn a lot in the process. Halak's trade value at the moment would be minimal, because even though he's got a great minor-league resume, his NHL CV wouldn't bring home the fabulous return some fans think it should.
No, Halak is right where he belongs. He'll start the season as Carey Price's wingman, with the potential to push for the pilot's seat. It'll be good for the team, good for both goalies and good for the fans who want to see the team win as much as possible. And, all for a bargain price.