Did you ever have to make up your mind? Pick up on one and leave the other behind? It's not often easy and not often kind. Did you ever have to make up your mind? When the Lovin' Spoonful asked those questions back in 1966, they could have been wondering about the Habs' goaltending situation 44 years later. Everyone assumes Pierre Gauthier will be unloading one of Jaro Halak or Carey Price at the draft this year, and he's currently trying to make up his mind about which one goes.
I'm not sure why that idea is such a given. Both goalies are restricted free agents, which means the team is in the driver's seat when it comes to contracts. Based on this season's performance, Halak deserves a substantial raise from his current 800-thousand-dollar salary. Price certainly deserves to be qualified as well. His cap hit this year is 2.2 million dollars, largely because of bonuses in his entry-level deal. That deal is ending this summer, and the base salary on which Price will be qualified is only 850-thousand. The Habs are obliged to offer both Price and Halak 105% of their current salaries, which comes to 840-thousand for Halak and $892 500 for Price. As long as the team extends those qualifying offers on time, it retains the rights of both goalies. Of course, other considerations, such as Halak's right to arbitration, will figure into the negotiations.
When you look at the value of the players involved, based solely on performance, objectively, Halak has earned a raise. Quadrupling his current salary would bring him up to 3.2-million a year. That would put him in the range of goalies like 26-year-old Pekka Rinne, who just signed a two-year deal for 3.4 million per. Chris Mason in St.Louis makes three million, Nikolai Khabibulin gets 3.75 per and Pascal Leclaire in Ottawa makes 3.8. Only seventeen goalies of the sixty-four on NHL rosters this year make more than four million dollars. Of those are names like Martin Brodeur (5.2 million), Henrik Lundqvist (6.875 million), Ilya Bryzgalov (4.25 million), Roberto Luongo (6.75 million) and Ryan Miller (6.25 million). Those goalies are either Vezina winners or nominees, or will likely be so this season.
Other young goalies in the same range performance-wise as Halak include Jonathan Quick, who, at 25, has another year on his contract for 770K, and Tuukka Rask, who just signed a two-year extension with a 1.25-million dollar cap hit. Halak obviously doesn't yet belong to the tier of goalies who have won Cups or Vezinas. His numbers are better than some goalies in the three-million-dollar range, and not as good as some in the 1-1.5 range. Fairly, Halak should probably fall into the 2.5-3 million level. That would be approximately 1.7-2.2 million more than he's making now.
Price, objectively, has not earned a huge raise this season. Whether through bad luck or lack of team support or whatever mitigating factors his supporters will fling at management, Price's numbers do not add up to a lot more money. The team would be completely within its rights to tender him a qualifying offer only. I suspect it wouldn't do that, however. I think it would be more than fair for an inconsistent 22-year-old goalie with average numbers heading into his second contract to earn 1.25-1.5 million dollars. That's a significant increase from the qualifying offer the team is obliged to give him, and a show of good faith on management's part.
Putting bias in favour of one goalie or the other aside for a moment, and dealing only with the numbers on the page, I think both goalies could be fairly and reasonably signed for between 3.75 and 4.5 million dollars. They currently make three million between them, when you take into consideration the entry-level contract bonuses Price is making this season. If the team could have both goalies for a 1.5 million dollar or less increase, why not do it? One of Hamrlik's or Spacek's contracts will likely have to be moved to make room for Plekanec's new deal anyway. The team can afford to give Pleks a nice raise while still affording the bump in the goalie's salaries.
As far as I can see, if the money isn't an issue, there are two arguments for trading one of the goalies. First, is the idea that two young guys can't share the crease because they'll both want to be number one and one will inevitably be unhappy. You know what? Who cares. Halak has earned the majority of the starts because his play has warranted it. He knows if he signs a two-or-three year deal that, unless he completely chokes in the playoffs, he'll be going into the new season with that experience in his favour. He has nothing to lose.
Price is 22. Most 22-year-old goalies are actually backups, if they're even in the NHL at all. The organization made a mistake in rushing Price to the big time too quickly, but with Halak playing solid hockey, it can now rectify that problem by letting Price work his way up for real. If he's got the ability and the attitude to be number one, let him fight for his ice time and earn it, rather than continue to treat him with undeserved kid gloves. Look at Jimmy Howard. The Wings used their first pick in the 2003 draft to select him, but he spent three years in college and four full seasons in the AHL before finally, at the age of 26, getting a shot at the NHL. Now he's in the league's top five in save percentage and goals-against average and is Detroit's undisputed number-one goalie. Price has a lot of time left to develop, and a chance to do that without the pressure of being the number-one goalie in Montreal is a good thing.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with starting thirty or thirty-five games and developing your craft that way. There is, on the other hand, something to be said for a solid tandem that balances ice time between the two goalies and helps prevent wear and tear on those butterfly joints. If Price is able to push Halak out of the number-one spot with stellar play, well, that's good for him and for the Habs. If not, a couple of years in a developmental role as an understudy won't hurt him.
The other argument for trading one of the two goalies is the idea that the team doesn't need two such good young goalies when the return one of them might bring could address a need elsewhere on the team. I dispute that argument as well. Injuries happen. Slumps happen. When they do, a team needs two reliable goalies. The Habs have been lucky that both young tenders have been healthy this year. That won't happen every season and in the case of a long-term injury, someone's got to be able to step up. The team could, of course, trade a goalie and hire a UFA backup like Martin Biron or Alex Auld for a million or so. Why do that, though, when Price and Halak give you a better-than-even chance of winning any game into which they're thrown. You won't get that from a career backup. (See Flyers, Philadelphia.)
Also, the goalie market isn't great when it comes to trades. Look at Bryzgalov. There you had a very good goalie who was a member of a Cup winner, whom Phoenix grabbed for nothing off of waivers because the Ducks couldn't get fair trade value for him. With the constant movement of goalies around the league via waivers and free agency, there's not a lot of incentive for a team to trade important assets like high draft picks or top prospects to get one. Sure, some team might surprise and take a flier on one of Price or Halak now; maybe even throw a first-rounder at Gauthier. If that happens, it's perhaps time to consider a trade. But if I were Gauthier, I'd be waiting for a team to blow my socks off, rather than be actively shopping a goalie for less than a fabulous return.
I think the Canadiens have the ideal situation in goal right now, and absolutely no incentive to change that up. The money is do-able, the ice time can be managed and the potential return is a pie in the sky compared to the actual talent keeping both of them brings to the team on the ice. The puck is on management's stick right now. There's no pressing reason, either for cap-relief or pending unrestricted free agency, to trade a goalie. In fact, keeping both of them for two or three more years will give the team a much clearer picture about what each of them is really worth. Will Price's potential eventually allow him to outstrip Halak's skill? Has Halak plateaued and will he see his numbers slack off from here? Those questions...the heart of any good Price vs. Halak debate...could be answered much more easily if the team has two or three more years on which to base an opinion.
The worst thing that could happen is for Gauthier to trade one goalie, who'll then go on to be a big star with his new team, while the one he keeps will turn out to be only average. Delaying a decision about which one to trade can only help make sure that doesn't happen.