Awww...our little goalie is growing up so quickly. It seems like only yesterday that Carey Price was a seventeen-year-old shy, lanky draft pick. Now he's heading into his third NHL season and has been through the wringer on his journey from then to now. He's been fat, thin, injured, healthy, an all-star, a hero, a disappointment and a scapegoat booed out of his own rink. He's been both annointed and vilified by the public. His career so far has been so tumultuous it's hard to believe he's just turning 22 today. This morning, I heard an old country song on the radio that made me think of him. "Why don't you love me like you used to do? Why do you treat me like a worn-out shoe? My hair is still curly and my eyes are still blue, so why don't you love me like you used to do?" Habs fans are a fickle bunch, aren't we?
A birthday is always a good time for taking stock of your life and making resolutions about where you want to go. Price certainly has a lot to think about. Now, on the brink of his second season as the Habs' number-one goalie, the hopes of the team are riding on him in a way they haven't really done before. Last year the team was expected to be good enough to cover up any minor mistakes its young goalie might make. But the injuries and poor performances of so many players left Price exposed in a way nobody could have predicted. Every error he made seemed to result in a back-breaking goal against and his confidence plummeted along with his stats.
Now, Bob Gainey has set the team up to give Price the best possible chance to be successful. The defence is generally more mobile and tougher than last year, and will probably manage to keep the shot totals below last season's typical forty. The forwards are faster and able to play a puck-possession, defensively responsible game, designed to keep the puck out of the Habs end as much as possible. Jacques Martin's style of hockey is very goalie-friendly as well, and the new goaltending coach, Pierre Groulx, has a reputation for allowing his charges to work in the style in which they're most comfortable. Management has given Price all the help it can.
The rest of it will be up to him, and it won't be easy. In creating the best possible set of circumstances for Price's improvement, Gainey has also effectively turned the team over to him. After the Summer Purge, nobody knows how all the new players will fit in or who'll emerge in the leadership roles. Price is a constant, and he'll have to be on his game right away while the new guys adjust and find their places on the team. He has to inspire the confidence of his new teammates; they have to know he's there and won't fail them. The Habs have enough adapting to do without worrying about the goalie killing them with poor play. It's a huge responsibility for a guy who's had trouble carrying the load in the past. But the bare truth is this year's team goes only as far as Carey Price can take it. It makes you wonder what he might wish for when he blows out his candles today.
The good news in all of this, however is Price is likely on the cusp of putting his consistency problems behind him and breaking out for real. If you look at other great goaltenders around the league, you can see it's pretty common for a goalie to truly establish himself around his third or fourth NHL season. Patrick Roy had his first really dominant season (33-5-6, 2.47 GAA, .908 SV%) in 1989, his fourth full season when he was 24 years old. Martin Brodeur had a good rookie season, but he first showed Hall of Fame numbers in 1997 (37-15-13, 1.88 GAA, .927 SV%), at age 24, in his fourth full NHL campaign. Roberto Luongo established himself in the league's goaltending elite in 2004 (24-33-14 on a weak Panthers team, 2.43 GAA, .931 SV%) in his fourth full season as an NHL starter, at age 24. Miikka Kiprusoff broke out in 2004 as well (24-10-4, 1.70 GAA, .933 SV%). He was only in his third full NHL season at that point, but he was 27 years old after having spent several early career seasons in Europe. Marc-Andre Fleury put up his best numbers in his third NHL season when he was 23 and won the Cup at 24. And he was the first-overall draft pick in his class.
In other words, Carey Price's development is right on track. In fact, if you look at the other top goalies mentioned, a breakout season this year would put him ahead of the curve those other guys followed. Although, I wonder how Martin Brodeur would have reacted if the faithful in New Jersey booed him out of the rink in his second season? As for the questionable mental toughness and tendency to get discouraged Price has shown in the past, I've decided not to worry about those anymore. Winning cures those problems, and I think the winning will start to come more consistently for him pretty soon.
Now we just have to be patient and let Price's talent and his growing maturity help him develop into the goalie we think he can be. And we need to remember that the weight of the Habs' world is resting on the shoulders of a guy who's just 22 years old today...younger than just about every star goalie's break-out age. It's a heavy burden for someone who's had to grow up so fast, and my birthday wish for Price, and for the Habs, is that he's truly ready to carry it. I want to look back on his 25th birthday and say, "Wow, it's amazing we ever thought Price wouldn't be a superstar," while our biggest worry is how to get tickets to watch the team hoist its newest Cup banner in the fall.