For most of the media who follow hockey, the Montreal Canadiens are reprising "Sophie's Choice" this summer, with Pierre Gauthier in the Meryl Streep role. Jaroslav Halak versus Carey Price has been raging in the media and among fans all year, and many believe Gauthier has to make his choice by draft day.
The three biggest reasons why most people believe a choice is inevitable are: 1) It's too expensive to keep both of them, 2) Both of them want to be number-one goalies and don't want to share the net in tandem fashion again next year, and 3) One of them would be great trade bait to use in strengthening a weaker position on the team.
I don't buy those reasons.
First, If Halak is offered the three million or so I'm expecting to see him make next year, he still needs a backup. A reputable, reliable backup is going to cost about a million, to a million and a half. There's no way the Habs are going to come in much under 4.5 or 5 million for two goalies, regardless of whether they keep Price, so trading him for cap savings doesn't make sense. It's conceivable Halak could be traded for cap reasons, as he's got the better numbers right now, and, as we know, the NHL is all about "what have you done for me lately." Because of that philosophy, Halak stands to make more money this summer, so, would be a better salary dump if it came down to that. The question is, how much more important is it to save money than to ensure your netminding is secure? It's very tough to buy reliable goaltending for less than five million, and the Habs have an opportunity to do that.
Second, although both goalies have made it clear to management that they believe they're number-one netminders, the fact is, only Halak has proven he can back up those words so far. He's older, more experienced and has performed better under pressure. He has played himself into the number-one goalie position, and, for now, Price has slid into the backup job. Halak also has the greater leverage in negotiations right now, with his right to take the team to salary arbitration. He has earned himself the right to be considered first when it contract time rolls around. Price may believe he's good enough to be a number-one goalie, and, in a couple of years he may very well live up to that belief. Right now, however, he has proven to be inconsistent; all-star quality one night, a sieve who smashes his stick in frustration the next. His numbers for the last two seasons have been decent, but his performances have been inconsistent. In short, he's not in a position to demand anything. He's a restricted free agent, and his immediate future is still in the hands of Pierre Gauthier...early-career hype notwithstanding.
Third, the trade value of goalies isn't great and hasn't been since the lockout. The things the Canadiens need: a tough, mobile defenceman with a heavy point shot who's good in his own end, a big, gritty two-way centre, or a scoring winger with some size, are things every team needs. The thing is, when it comes to trading a player like that, very few teams will do it unless they get something comparable in return. There's always the idea that there are other ways to get a goalie. There are more experienced netminders out there than NHL jobs, and when a cap-pressured GM has to decide if he'll go cheap on defence or in goal, he'll almost always choose bargain shopping for the backstop.
So, I don't think the common reasons why the Habs need to dump a goalie are good ones. The reasons why they don't are much more compelling. The money saved, as already argued, wouldn't be great. The trade return stands a good chance of being of less value to another position on the team than the goalies already are in theirs. Most importantly, however, is the basic fact that there's not enough evidence one way or the other to definitively decide who should stay and who should go.
Halak has been the little goalie who could at every level of hockey, and he ably demonstrated his competitive nature again in this year's playoffs. He's earned respect and a place with the Habs. But (there's always a "but") next year, goalie equipment shrinks to be size-specific for each guy. A player like Price, who's already wearing larger equipment because he's a big man, won't feel too much difference. Halak, however, being a smaller guy who'll now no longer be able to compensate by wearing bigger gear, might. I don't necessarily believe it'll be a big deal, but what if it is? What if those few inches leave just that little bit more net open for snipers to take advantage of?
Then there's Price. He's got the size, the skills and the expectation of greatness on his side. He's never shown he's got the mental toughness to be the number-one guy in an NHL net...yet. But what if he gets it together in the next year or two? He's not that far from finding consistency, and if he does, he's going to be really good.
There are still questions about both goalies; enough to keep both of them around long enough to see them answered. There's no huge pressure on Gauthier to move one of them right now. I'd like to see him offer both goalies two-year deals, with the understanding that, barring injury, one of them will win the job long-term and the other will be traded next summer. That way, a lot of questions will be answered and the extra year on their contracts raises their trade value.
Of course, this all flies out the window if a really fabulous trade offer comes along, but how often does that happen? Unless it does, both goalies should stay.
Meryl Streep never had it so easy.