Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Summer Solutions: Goaltending

Everyone knows you can't win without goaltending. All you have to do for proof is look at Varlamov, Ward, Hiller, Fleury and Thomas and how they've played in these playoffs. I've always agreed the best way to build a team is to start with the goaltender and work your way out. The goalie should be the anchor of your team; the one from whom the rest of the players take their cues. If your goalie is confident and aggressive, his teammates feed off that. When Bob Gainey drafted Carey Price, you'd assume that's the kind of potential he saw in the kid.

Unfortunately, what we saw for the last half of the season and the playoffs was a goalie who sat back in his crease and looked really stressed. Price exuded frustration with himself and his teammates and a general lack of confidence. At the end of it all, he just looked beaten. The Price we saw in the playoffs can't be the cornerstone of a winning team.

However, the Canadiens have invested a top-five draft pick in him. It was the team's only legitimate chance in years to draft a blue-chip player that could step into the NHL almost right away. So, considering the magnitude of that organizational investment, the time for debating whether Price was the right pick is long past. He is the guy the Habs are banking on, for better or for worse. The team now has to look to the future and figure out the best way to help Price be the winner they need him to be. For fans, that means immediately dismissing the idea of a trade involving him. Bandwaggoners who were frustrated with Price's playoff performance are calling for his head, but we can be fairly certain management isn't about to give up on a 21-year-old on whom they've already hung the "franchise" label. That's how you get to be Mike Milbury, yelling on TV while Roberto Luongo goes for a Cup.

So, assuming that Price is nowhere near in danger of burning up all his chances with the Habs, the team needs to address his weaknesses immediately. The first thing I think he needs is a new goalie coach. I don't believe Roland Melanson is necessarily a bad coach because a lot of goalies say they did well under him. But even a good coach might not be the right coach for a particular player. Goalies especially have a close, one-on-one relationship with their coaches, so the guy doing the teaching has to be on the same wavelength as his students. As I mentioned in the coaching solutions post below, I like the idea of courting Francois Allaire. His contract with Anaheim is up in July, he lives in Quebec anyway and says he's tired of working so far away from home. He's a proven goalie coach with some pretty impressive students on his resume. Another option might be Olaf Kolzig, who looks to be done as a player and who mentored Price in junior with great success.

Once Price has a new coach, he needs to rebuild his style because the change we've seen from the hybrid goalie he once was to the desperate butterfly guy he is now is not a good thing. Returning to a more natural style will, I think, help him cut down on the weak goals against, which will help him rebuild his confidence. When he has his confidence back and is working in a style better suited to his instincts, I believe Price will start to get it together more consistently. And right now, consistency is the main thing he's lacking.

A lot of people are making the argument that Price needs to have a veteran backup goalie to support him and help him succeed. There may be some merit in that view, but I don't agree with it. I like Jaro Halak, and I think the Habs would be short-sighted to give him up while he's still under contract for a good price. He's not much older than Price and has a lot of potential in his own right. What I would like to see is Halak given a real chance. So far, the only time we've seen Halak get more than a game here or there is when the team has had no other choice. He's done a good job filling in for Huet and Price when they were hurt in the last couple of years, and he stepped up and stole enough games to get the Habs into the playoffs this season when Price was sucking. I'd like to see a real platoon system between the two young goalies. Even a 50-30 split in games would be enough to make them feel like they're a team within a team.

An experienced goalie told me eighty percent of playing the position is mental. So I think we can't underestimate the power of two young guys who believe in each other as partners. You can't develop that unless both of them are playing. Right now, I suspect Price feels like he's a failure if Halak gets a couple of games in a row. Halak feels underused and underappreciated. I think explaining to them up front that they're going to share the games equitably and that if one of them gets into trouble, the other guy will be sharp enough to have his back will help them. The tandem system keeps both goalies game-ready and helps prevent injuries caused by over-exertion of joints in the butterfly style.

I think keeping both young goalies is a workable solution for the Habs, as long as they're managed properly. There comes a time when "inexperience" is no longer an excuse, and both of them are approaching their third seasons in the big league. They have to fly on their own at some point. There's also no guarantee the "veteran mentor" the team might bring in won't be ambitious or unhelpful as a teacher. So, I'd go with both Price and Halak along with a better goalie coach and a new system of game-sharing.

And that's how I'd deal with the goalie situation.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I would be extremely surprised to see Rolie back in September. As far as I'm concerned, he committed a professional suicide, a few weeks ago in an interview with a Radio-Canada radio person, in Frédéricton (or was it Moncton ?)

Obviously, he has had more than enough with his job and he also made it apparent in his comments that there were a lot of disagreeing amongst the coaches or more probably, between the coaches and the GM, about the choice of goalie, in different situations.

We all remember at the start of the 2007-2008 season when Carbonneau said that Price would maybe better to start in Hamilton and then be promoted to Montreal and the same day, Gainey said that Price would play in Montreal.

Last Sunday, Carbonneau refused to answer a direct question about starting Halak in the playoffs if he had been the coach but pressed again for a comment, all he managed to say is that he had all the confidence in the world in BOTH goalies. I guess, that says a lot.

Price is Gainey's guy and he'll live or die with him if he's given the chance which might not be in the stars considering the state of Mr. Gillett's finances.

Hiring François Allaire is a brilliant idea. Why not have the best when you can. I never could figure out why they let him walk away, in the first place.