I've been uneasy since the Jaroslav Halak trade last summer, which is kind of strange for me. I really liked Halak, but I'm a team-first kind of blogger. Even if I personally like a player, I'll suck up my own disappointment at his departure if the team is better for it. The Halak trade has been bugging me, though. After last night, I'm starting to understand why. It's because the Halak trade was a terrible mistake.
Now, for those of you who are going to start screaming about people who judge Carey Price on the strength of one lousy pre-season game: chill out. I'm with you on that. My belief that the Halak trade was a mistake is not based on skill at all. I think Price has a lot of talent. I think he's had to learn a lot, and learn it early just to survive in Montreal. But I think people are going to make his professional life in that city so difficult he's going to leave.
I watched the first pre-season game against the Bruins, hoping desperately for Price to shine. I wanted him to come out and announce "I'm the number-one goalie, and the team made the right decision to keep me," by the way he played. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Playing behind three rookie defencemen and three vets more interested in testing out their game legs than in winning that game, Price was left alone a lot. The goals he allowed were by no means entirely his fault, but that didn't matter. He needed to be superhuman, in a pre-season game to win the grudging approval of a few hundred idiots in the rafters of the Bell Centre. Honestly, listening to them, I wished there was a way to pick their mascot...the biggest, loudest, stupidest, drunkest one of them all...and stick him in the net for twenty minutes. Then I'd like Carey Price to boo the hell out of him for everybody to hear.
That's not possible, though. So, we have to deal with real facts. They are:
-Carey Price is a very young goalie who's still learning to be a man as well as an NHL goalie.
-Carey Price is talented but not perfect, and has been inconsistent during his learning process.
-Most fans understand the man is struggling to establish himself, but are aware there's a need for a measure of patience in the matter.
-Some other fans are idiots who feel the need to boo the goaltender the organization has chosen to be its future in his first pre-season game of the season.
The problem with this combination of facts is that Price inevitably makes mistakes, lets in huge stinkers and loses games. Every single goalie in the world does the same thing. Price, however, is the only one unlucky enough to be saddled with the tools in parts of the Bell Centre.
The really dumb thing about it is if a few hundred people jeer the goalie, they can be heard over the thousands of people who are cheering the team. Then, the next day, the story is "Price gets booed." Add to that the fact that Price then gets criticized in public for not facing the media to answer such brilliant questions as "How do you feel about getting booed in a pre-season game," and it gets more ridiculous. If he answers that question with a joke about it only being pre-season, he gets criticized for not taking his job seriously. If he beats himself up, he'll be called mentally fragile. He can't win, and standing there to answer questions that have only obvious answers does nothing to endear him to those asking or to those reading what he says.
It all comes together to create a terrible circle of futility. Price comes out tentatively after facing a huge crash in confidence last season. He gives up a weak goal. Fans start booing. Price gets more tentative. The booing gets louder. Price's confidence drops. He starts thinking too much. He makes a mistake and lets in another goal. The booing gets louder. He makes a save and the idiots give him the sarcastic cheer. Price ducks the media. Media write about how Price is making a mistake to duck questions. Price comes out tentative in the next game and the cycle continues.
If the Canadiens had kept Halak, they could have signed him to a similar deal, perhaps a little less, to the one the Blues gave him. He would have made mistakes, let in stinkers and lost games exactly the same as Price will do. The difference is, Halak has never had to live up to anything. He never had to be a hero before he ever played a game in the NHL. He never attracted the attention or the expectations of the idiots. He could have survived in Montreal.
Carey Price will not survive. Nobody could, under these circumstances. He can be as bright and talented as he wants, but the yahoos in the cheap seats don't want to deal with his growing pains. They expected a franchise goalie, and they let him have it when he disappoints. The team is supporting him now, but there's a limit to how long that will last if Price's play starts costing them games.
The common argument to the contrary is that this is nothing new. Jacques Plante said there was nothing worse than having a red light go on and 16-thousand people boo every time he made a mistake at work. Ken Dryden wrote about hearing every boo and every time the crowd started chanting for Bunny Larocque. Patrick Roy threw up his hands in frustration when the crowd jeered him. Those Hall-of-Famers heard the criticism and felt the intended insults keenly. They were also established pros with a history of winning by the time the boos rained down. They weren't youngsters just trying to carve out a career. Plante and Dryden had the crowd early because they were playing on powerhouse teams. Roy pulled off a miracle Cup in his rookie year and bought himself three or four years of tolerance. Price doesn't have either of those advantages. Plante was a native son, Dryden was a mature rookie at 23 and Roy was the cockiest SOB on the planet. Price doesn't have those points in his favour either. He's got a hard job to win back the fans who want to make his home starts embarrassing and miserable whenever he makes a mistake.
It's not even all the fans' fault either. Team management built him up to be the hero people were told to expect. When he didn't turn out to be that hero, some fans reacted like spoiled children and turned on him. The situation can't go on indefinitely, if only because Price is coming to the point in his career at which he can get away from the situation he's in.
And, really, who wouldn't want to bail? Who among those who yell at Price would choose to remain in an environment in which his professional performance is constantly criticized, dissected and examined? If Price remains in Montreal when he's legally allowed to bolt, I will be shocked.
That's why trading Halak was a huge mistake. Price might be a better goalie than Halak, or he might not. In Montreal he'll never have the peace he needs to learn how to be his best. He will leave, and what will happen then? The Canadiens will have no young, talented goalie. They'll be like every other team trying to sign or trade to fill a position at which they were stacked last summer.
I want Price to succeed, but he's going to have to be extraordinarily mentally strong to put up with the crap he hears in Montreal. The only way he can turn things around is by winning a lot more than he loses. That's tough to do when you're getting crap for every mistake. When it comes time to re-sign, I wonder if he will. I'm very uneasy about the whole situation, and the future of a position about which the Canadiens shouldn't have had to worry.