Sunday, February 10, 2008

Halak the Slovak

When Carey Price was sixteen, he was already on the radar of NHL scouts. He got into only one game for the Tri-City Americans, but he was a big kid with great positioning in the net and nice puck-handling skills. His much-vaunted unflappable demeanor was just starting to develop. By the time he was eighteen, he'd been scouted, interviewed, studied and assessed to within an inch of his life.

When Jaroslav Halak was seventeen, he was toiling away for his hometown team, Bratislava, in the Slovak junior league. He played nine games and put up a nice 2.26 goals against average. That was good enough to buy him twelve starts in the senior league the following year, in which he posted a 1.66 GAA and 0.942 save percentage. Someone noticed and the Lewiston Maineiacs took a chance on a little-known Slovak goalie who was willing to move overseas and take a shot at pro hockey. His decent numbers in his one junior season attracted the eye of Canadiens' scouts, who advised the Habs to throw a 271st overall pick at him in 2003. He turned pro and immediately impressed in the ECHL, which bought him a ticket to Hamilton where he kept winning and stopping an average of 92 percent of the shots he faced. Then the injury to Cristobal Huet last season forced him into the big time. He responded by winning his first four games, behind a defence that was...shall we say...less than stellar. He inspired a flagging team and dragged it to within one point of a playoff position. He came back to training camp this season and looked great again.

But something went wrong for Halak. He wasn't supposed to be that good. He came from a place where scouts didn't linger long and where a player could be very talented, yet out of the general consciousness of hockey watchers in North America. Carey Price, on the other hand, was in the public eye from the first time he laced up in midget AAA. Scouts saw enough of him to rank him very high in the first round of his draft.

So, here we have two young goaltenders. One is a blue-chip prospect. A first rounder with a hockey pedigree and one very, very impressive season under his belt. The other is a guy who's never won anything special and was a throwaway pick in the last round of his draft. He fought his way up through the ranks, impressing teammates and fans along the way. The Canadiens are lucky enough to own the rights to both of them.

Unfortunately for Halak though, the team has invested in Price. After picking him at number five overall, the team has to make sure he has every chance to make it. They're handling him with kid gloves, ensuring he has enough playing time and access to all the resources he needs to succeed. Halak is a bonus; a guy who was never supposed to make it anyway. The team is treating him that way now. Demoted after a very good training camp. Called up and let sit on the bench for weeks without a start. Demoted again. He's two years older than Carey Price, but he's being treated like he's already a second-class journeyman.

My hope is that Carey Price is the real deal. I want him to be the franchise goalie everyone is predicting he will become. My concern is that the organization's preoccupation with Price is blinding it to the fact that there's another very young, very good goaltender in the system as well. Halak has proven himself at every level at which he's played. He deserves a chance to play in the NHL. But if the Canadiens don't take care to give him just a little bit of the attention they give Price, they risk hindering his development or losing him to another organization who will give him a shot.

And what if Price *doesn't* pan out? What if he's meant to be very good, but not great? And what if Halak, not Price, is the next great Canadiens goalie but the team doesn't recognize it until it's too late? I think the organization needs to take better care of Halak, because so far, he's proven he's a winner. And the road he's had to take to get where he is now required a lot more struggle than the golden path a first round pick follows.

I wonder if Carey Price had been born in Slovakia, and Jaroslav Halak in B.C., who'd be the future franchise goalie today?


MikeMcLaren said...

I think the Canadiens will have to handle this situation with kid gloves for all three goalies in this love triangle.

Now this is pure speculation on my part, but there's always the chance that we might see an expansion draft one day soon and it would be a shame to lose one of our goalies that way (although by that time it's most likely that if we had the three we have now we would leave Huet unprotected... perhaps).

To your question at the end, perhaps the very same question could have been asked between 1994 and 1998?

In 1994 the Canadiens selected two goalies of note. In the 2nd round, 44th overall was Jose Theodore. In the 9th round, 226th overall they took a kid out of the Czech republic.

Was it obvious, or even a mistake that instead of Theodore and Thibault the Habs should have protected Tomas Vokoun instead?

Who knows, but they didn't. And, as Red Fisher would say, "You know the rest."

...which is why you go by J.T. and not T.V.


NailaJ said...

Hmmm... I honestly always liked Halak. He's a solid goaltender who will make it to the NHL no matter what or with who.

What I see developing is a solid team of two goalies who push one another constantly, fighting for the starting title.

Eventually, one of them will win, but until then, we can play both and stick with the hot hand.

Pressure is always good for goalies. Even developing ones.

TommyB said...

I share your sentiments (or is it concern?), regarding Price and that he is in fact the "real deal" that everyone in the know says he is.

Halak is a very good goaltender, and maybe he is not as good as Price, and maybe he is better than Price. If we keep them both, time will give us the answer. That is what I would like to see...we keep them both! Cristobal Huet has done an admirable job for the Canadiens for the most part. I just can't seem to put my finger on it, but I do not get the confidence others seem to get when Huet is starting. When he is "on", he is very good. The problem is he seems to have trouble focusing long-term. He also seems to let goals in at the worst possible times...ok, not in the same category as Aebischer, but he makes me nervous. I would feel a whole lot more confident heading into the playoffs with a Price/Halak tandem. The Huet supporters have every good reason to support him, yet for some reason I can't get myself to rally around him. Hand the torch to Price now, and let Halak be the understudy.