Saturday, January 9, 2010

Hardest Job In Hockey

Looking at him, sitting up there in the pressbox with his hands folded and his inscrutable stare, Bob Gainey doesn't really look like a world-class gambler. He's not cocky or tough or intimidating-looking. He gives the impression of being tired and world-weary. Sometimes bored. Unflappable. He's never the guy who throws a coffee cup when his team loses in OT, or the one who high-fives his seatmate when they win a big one. Mostly, he just looks troubled, like a basset hound with a thorn in its paw.

I wouldn't want to be Bob Gainey, not even for the millions he makes and the best view in hockey he gets from the Bell Centre every game. Doing his job is like playing a never-ending game of chess for a living. You try to see two or three moves ahead, and shift the piece you think will hurt you least. Then your opponent makes a move you weren't expecting and you suddenly realize the piece you sacrificed was the very one you need to have now. Only, in Gainey's case, the opponent isn't just 29 other teams' GMs. It's injuries, attitudes, individual behaviours, illness, player development and coaching. Throw in the limitations of the salary cap, free agency and the whims of those 29 other GMs, and you're looking at a job that requires the soul of a gambler to perform even passably well.

There are two dilemmas facing the GM at the moment. The first is, how to sign Tomas Plekanec? The second: what to do with the goalies? I think the first one is the easier of the two problems. There's no doubt Plekanec is a good player, and one the Canadiens would benefit by keeping. That makes the problem merely a money issue. I believe Plekanec can be had for money, and money can be manipulated, through trades or demotions or retirements. There's always a way to get money.

The other problem is much, much more difficult because it's not just a money issue. It's a question of judgement that will carry consequences for years to come. The Canadiens have two good young goalies who are capable of stealing hockey games. Both are RFA, so the ball's in the Canadiens' court as to which one...or both...they decide to keep. Unfortunately, while money can be manipulated up to a point, it can't be stretched infinitely. And neither can ice time. When two young goalies both want the lion's share of the game starts, something's got to give. So, while fans scream about how Halak's a poser who stars against weak teams and Price is a thoroughbred, or how Price is a head-case and Halak's the real deal, Gainey's watching and weighing and trying to figure out which goalie to keep and which one to let go.

Obviously, in the past, Gainey has been Price's biggest supporter. The kid has great talent, and size, wonderful positioning and the advantage of the first-round investment the team has made in him. But, he wears his emotions on his sleeve and lets bad outings get to him. And he's got no luck. If he's in line for a shutout, a weird, fluke goal will fly over his head and drop in behind him.

Halak was never supposed to be this kind of good. He's not got the pedigree Price has, but he's quick and determined and has that rare ability to tell himself, "No more goals" and then follow through. Somehow, he manages to win games despite long odds.

So, the decision Gainey's got to make is a complicated one. Stats aren't helping. Both goalies have good basic statistics this season, although Halak's got two shutouts to Price's none, and Halak is fifth in the league in save percentage, at .927% to Price's .915% which lands him at 19th league-wide. Halak is fifteenth in the league in goals-against average, with a 2.50 mark. Price comes in at 22nd, with 2.67. Over his 75-game NHL career, Halak has a .917 save percentage and a 2.72 goals-against average. Price has played 122 NHL games, has a .913 save percentage and a 2.70 GAA. The only real difference between their stats is in wins. Price has a 57-43-16-4 record in his career. Halak's is 42-27-2-6. Counting OT and SO losses as losses, that means Price is 57-63 in his career, with four shutouts. Halak is 42-35, with six goose eggs. That's a .467 career winning percentage for Price, and a .560 percentage for Halak.

The two common explanations of Halak's better win percentage are that he plays against weaker teams than Price does, and the team scores more goals for him than it does for Price. Both explanations are true. The teams Halak faces on average have two more wins and two less losses than those Price faces. A small difference, but a difference. And it's also true that the Habs have scored only 2.15 goals a game when Price is in the net, and 3.17 for Halak. That may possibly be chalked up to the quality of the opponents' defence when you compare contenders to bubble teams.

Though there are some differences in the stats, overall, they're not marked enough to make a clear-cut favourite out of either goalie. Numbers are concrete in themselves, but they're affected by injury, opponent, the play of the team overall, and goal support. A smart GM knows that. So that's not helping Gainey make a choice.

He then has to look at potential, which is the most difficult thing to quanitify. Who can tell whether Price's skill will make him the next Fleury in the coming two or three seasons, or whether his mental issues will make him the next Dan Bouchard? Who can tell if Halak will become a number-one goalie when given the confidence of his team, or if he'll collapse when playing 60 games a year against contenders? It reminds me of the 'Hawks in the early '90s, with Belfour and Hasek. They went with Belfour, who ended up having a very strong career with the team for ten years. But they let Hasek go and, well...he turned into The Dominator. It wasn't a bad choice for Bob Pulford to make at the time. He went with the guy who had played the bulk of the team's games and had done pretty well...even though the other guy won more of the starts he made. How could he know what the backup would become?

I'm not saying Halak is the next Hasek. But he's proven he can win in the NHL, and that's nothing to sneeze at. So Gainey's got to consider the consequences of what will happen if the guy he trades explodes elsewhere. To that end, he has to look at trade partners and focus on those least likely to hurt the Habs repeatedly. That limits his options.

He's also got to look at the personalities involved and consider the long term. Halak has been treated pretty badly by the organization to date, but still keeps his head down, plays his best when he gets a chance and supports the team. His much-vaunted "trade request" was actually a request to play more. Since he's received more starts, he's done nothing but win. Price is quietly emotional, loves to win and gets a lot of respect from his teammates. But, Bob Gainey has to consider how well Price fits into the pressure cooker that is the Montreal goal crease. The Roy-salute to the fans last year, the crying after losses, the glaring at his defencemen and the hole he punched through a wall earlier this season tell us Price can have some extreme reactions to losing and those reactions can be made more volatile by the crowd and the pressure in Montreal. Gainey has to think about what will happen if he trades Halak and signs Price to a four-or-five year deal. Will Price stick around when he becomes a free agent, or will he bolt for somewhere closer to home or a quieter market in the US? It's conceivable the choice Gainey makes right now could leave the Canadiens with neither of these goalies in four years.

Then there's the return. Which goalie will bring more back to the Habs? Unquestionably, it's Price right now. He's still got the aura of his glowing resume about him, and his tantalizing mix of skill and size would make any NHL GM drool. His first-round status gives him a bit more cachet than Halak enjoys as well.

These are all things Gainey has to consider in making a choice on the goaltending front. Whatever he does, he'll be second-guessed by some, completely vilified by others and mistrusted by just about everyone.

No, you couldn't pay me enough to be Bob Gainey. He's got to have the hardest, loneliest, most thankless job in hockey.


Anonymous said...

Great piece JT. You might add nerves of steel and much thicker skin that the rest of us mere mortals in describing Bob Gainey. Although I loved your basset hound with a thorn in its paw. Brilliant.
Bob Gainey has one job that I would never want. In my previous job I had about 250 bosses. Fortunately their desires were filtered through a committee and one "boss." But it didn't take long before I realized that you just had to do your job the best that you could because no matter what you did, there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that everyone was going to be happy or satisfied. So multiply my kind of situation by about a million and you have an idea of what the GM of the Montreal Canadiens goes through. Even though there are many fans who want his head on a platter,this fan still has faith in Mr. Gainey. Unless something drastic happens in the next few weeks, the goalie issue will probably be the big decision. I think Plekanec will be signed by the Habs. GM's are great money jugglers when it comes to finding cap space.

Olivier said...

I look at this and wonder: why should Bob either trade or sign one of these guys to a lucrative deal? This is Halak's fifth season, so next year is his last RFA contract before free agency. The hiccup with Halak is he can entertain offer sheets.

Price is only on his entry-level contract, that means he still has 3, 4 (?) years to go before hitting free agency, and no offer sheets this summer. I guess Bob would love to ink Price to a 2 years contract and see what's coming at him next, but he doesn't have to if he doesn't feel this is too much of a risk. This is a business and Bob can be as ruthless as they come. I wouldn't be surprised to see Halak land a 2+ millions paycheck next year or go away on an offer sheet, netting draft picks in return (probably a bigger return than can be hoped for at the trade deadline).

And I wouldn't be surprised to see Price settle for a qualifying one year offer. We all love hockey and love the kind of narratives it enables us to play out in the open (the scrappy underdog and the jock, etc etc etc), but Bob ain't tied to that for a moment and he knows it.

DB said...

Good article.

A few other points to consider:

Price is 2 years younger than Halak and that will likely be a factor in Gainey's educated guess about who will be the better goalie.

Halak can file for arbitration this year, Price can't. That will likely inflate the salary needed to sign Halak.

Halak is more likely than Price to play the KHL option.

Gainey likely doesn't care, as he shouldn't, where either player was drafted. If he thinks Halak will be better than Price he will trade Price. He has repeatedly shown this type of mentality. He bought out Samsonov, traded Theodore, and most recently let Tanguay walk despite giving first and second round choices for him only a year earlier.

Gainey clearly has a tough choice to make. One that will be endlessly second guessed once it's made. I'm glad he has to make it and not me.

Andrew Berkshire said...

I think the pressure argument is a little irrelevant considering Price was pumped up as the starter while Halak was announced as the backup, meaning Halak has virtually no pressure on him ever, while Price is ALWAYS in the news whether he wins or loses. Besides, Roy was pretty damn emotional too.

Anonymous said...

Berkshire : it's comment like your that pisses me off.

when will you PRO Price stop comparing the kid with Patrick Roy? He his no Roy and will never be...come on, we are talking about one of the best goaltender in the history of the game and a kid who actually never prooved anything in the NHL but sure as good promises.

I'm not a Pro Price as i am nit a PRO Halak. I'M a PRO habs.

THe only point here, I am pretty damn sure that Price will leave the HABS when he will have a chance, as soon as he reach UFA ( even if it's just in a couple of years). Do you want to keep a guy you know will walk on you as soon as he can?

ANd yes Halak can do the same where he can go(or most likely of both) tothe KHL.

Big problem for Bob....