Saturday, February 7, 2009

Price Check

First thing I'd like to say is I like Carey Price. I think he's a good young goalie with potential to be great. But I'd also like to say I think he's not great yet. The prizes he's won to date: CHL goalie of the year, World Junior Championship MVP, Calder Cup MVP, have been won by others who've never used those prizes as a springboard to greatness. Admittedly, not all of them have been won by one guy, but even their accumulated prestige don't mean the guy in question is destined for NHL greatness.

One thing Price's early success did give him, perhaps mistakenly, was a well-paved road to the big time. No toiling in the minors for him, even though his coach in Montreal thought he probably should spend some time in Hamilton. He was annointed a can't-miss player and elevated by GM Bob Gainey straight to the NHL. It lasted half a season before poor play and a complete loss of confidence culminating in a bout of post-game tears in the dressing room earned Price a trip to the minors to get his game back in order out of the glare of the Montreal spotlight. After his recall, he performed well until the playoffs arrived. Then, a combination of mental fatigue and a body carrying thirty pounds of excess junk-food weight caught up with him and his play suffered. The Habs were ignominously eliminated by Philly and two weeks later, Price's holiday pictures from Cancun, featuring him drinking heavily and smoking showed up on the internet. It looked like the golden boy had a lot of growing up to do.

I thought Price's newfound resolve to do better this year, visible in his physical fitness at training camp, was proof the kid was maturing. But the latest bad stretch has me wondering if that's true.
Price has looked bad on many goals against since the all-star game. That's to be expected, to a degree. He's still very young, he's coping with his first year of being a number-one goalie in the NHL and the mental pacing that requires. He's just coming back from an injury. In many ways, he's still finding his way through the minefield of pro life. But during the recent slump, I've seen something in Price that worries me.

While the goalie has been at fault for some of the bad goals, his teammates have also made their share of mistakes which have found their way to the back of Price's net, through little fault of his own. When that's happened, I've seen Price roll his eyes, shake his head, bang his stick or glare at his teammates. It gives two impressions to the observer when he does that. One, that Price's concentration isn't where it should be, which makes you wonder about his mental toughness. And two, that he's forgetting hockey's a team game and he needs to be shouting encouragement, not casting blame.

Ken Dryden wrote in "The Game" about a time in 1973 when Scotty Bowman took him aside and asked whether Dryden thought he was "too big" for the team. The goalie was obviously the star on a squad that had yet to blossom into the powerhouse it would be in the latter part of the decade, and Dryden allowed his frustration with his teammates' mistakes to show from time to time. Bowman's implication that Dryden's ego was turning him into a fathead struck a nerve with the goalie. He was hurt and resentful, and says when the team won Bowman his first Cup in 1973 he "hung from him like a rag" when Bowman attempted to hug him in victory. But the coach's comments made Dryden think about how he perceived his teammates and how they perceived him. Bowman never had to ask Dryden again if he thought he was bigger than the team.

I wonder if Carey Price...a young guy who's enjoyed a meteoric rise to the number-one goaltending job in Montreal, and who has one of the best hockey resumes on the team...sometimes thinks he's bigger than the team too. His body language in many games recently has been screaming accusations at the teammates who've let him down. The problem with that though, is that if you're bigger than the team, you're standing there by yourself.

While watching Price in the post-game video after Saturday's humiliation by the leafs, my heart went out to him as he tried to choke back tears. Sure, he allowed a handful of rotten goals and was a very large part of why the team lost. But after the game, he looked lost, lonely and bewildered. He looked like a kid who needs his team to gather round and lift him up. There's no Cristobal Huet to help smooth the bumps in Price's road this year. Because of waiver problems, there's no trip to Hamilton to help him get back on track out of sight of the Montreal media. Price will have to get his emotions under control and find his game in full view of every Canadiens' follower, and he can't do it alone.

I think an experience like this will teach the young goaltender a couple of important lessons. For one, he'll learn the world doesn't end because of a bad stretch of regular-season hockey. And for another, he'll learn that even the most talented, brightly shining young star is part of a team. His successes and failures must be shared by his teammates, as he must share in theirs. Whether those lessons will help him get his confidence back and thereby raise the level of his play remains to be seen. Last year was an NHL trial run for Price, and he was given a get-of-Montreal-free card to fix his problems. The only help he'll have this year will be found within himself and in the support of the other 19 guys wearing the CH on the ice with him.

How he deals with this could make or break him as an NHL goalie. All we can do is root for him and believe he'll find a way to turn it around. The Canadiens have invested a big chunk of their future in betting he makes it. Let's hope they're right.


Anvilcloud said...

While Price has been brutal, the team has to take some responsibility. As against Philly last year, I keep seeing him being surprised and beaten by the quick, almost unexpected shot. While he shouldn't be surprised, he is. So, the team needs to tighten up to prevent those shots whether it's in the form of better back checking or the defense playing tighter to the man. It can be done because we seldom get to make the kinds of shots that are beating him/us. We simply aren't given the time and room to make those seeing eye shots -- at least not lately and not often. If they can do it, we can do it.

Shari said...

I am thoroughly confused by what is going on in Montreal right now. I watched Price during his junior playing days and never saw him go through a patch quite like this. His mental toughness was always one of his strongest qualities. But I'm guessing that he is a 21 year old kid who is making a paycheck that no 21 year old should be making doing something in the brightest spotlight of any city. I'm wondering if the team has done enough to guide him and the other young guys. If the rumors of the partying are true then you only have to wonder.

I'm glad that Halak has stepped in to try to lead this team to a playoff spot. With the spotty play of the defense we need a goaltender with a hot hand. And Halak has definitely proven that he has it. I'm only hoping that Price is watching all this from the bench, learning from his mistake and making a mental promise to himself that he will never let this happen again. He is going to be the future of the Canadiens. He just needs to prove to everyone that he is.

And now I'm starting to go back to my previous thought this past summer when Olie Kolzig was a free agent. I wanted Gainey to try to sign Olie ... not to take over the #1 position but to guide and mentor Carey. He has done it before, during the lockout in Tri-Cities, and he has a rapport with Carey. He guided Carey back then and Carey needs it again now. This kid will come back stronger ... he just needs to figure a few things out.

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