Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why Choose?

Did you ever have to make up your mind? Pick up on one and leave the other behind? It's not often easy and not often kind. Did you ever have to make up your mind? When the Lovin' Spoonful asked those questions back in 1966, they could have been wondering about the Habs' goaltending situation 44 years later. Everyone assumes Pierre Gauthier will be unloading one of Jaro Halak or Carey Price at the draft this year, and he's currently trying to make up his mind about which one goes.

I'm not sure why that idea is such a given. Both goalies are restricted free agents, which means the team is in the driver's seat when it comes to contracts. Based on this season's performance, Halak deserves a substantial raise from his current 800-thousand-dollar salary. Price certainly deserves to be qualified as well. His cap hit this year is 2.2 million dollars, largely because of bonuses in his entry-level deal. That deal is ending this summer, and the base salary on which Price will be qualified is only 850-thousand. The Habs are obliged to offer both Price and Halak 105% of their current salaries, which comes to 840-thousand for Halak and $892 500 for Price. As long as the team extends those qualifying offers on time, it retains the rights of both goalies. Of course, other considerations, such as Halak's right to arbitration, will figure into the negotiations.

When you look at the value of the players involved, based solely on performance, objectively, Halak has earned a raise. Quadrupling his current salary would bring him up to 3.2-million a year. That would put him in the range of goalies like 26-year-old Pekka Rinne, who just signed a two-year deal for 3.4 million per. Chris Mason in St.Louis makes three million, Nikolai Khabibulin gets 3.75 per and Pascal Leclaire in Ottawa makes 3.8. Only seventeen goalies of the sixty-four on NHL rosters this year make more than four million dollars. Of those are names like Martin Brodeur (5.2 million), Henrik Lundqvist (6.875 million), Ilya Bryzgalov (4.25 million), Roberto Luongo (6.75 million) and Ryan Miller (6.25 million). Those goalies are either Vezina winners or nominees, or will likely be so this season.

Other young goalies in the same range performance-wise as Halak include Jonathan Quick, who, at 25, has another year on his contract for 770K, and Tuukka Rask, who just signed a two-year extension with a 1.25-million dollar cap hit. Halak obviously doesn't yet belong to the tier of goalies who have won Cups or Vezinas. His numbers are better than some goalies in the three-million-dollar range, and not as good as some in the 1-1.5 range. Fairly, Halak should probably fall into the 2.5-3 million level. That would be approximately 1.7-2.2 million more than he's making now.

Price, objectively, has not earned a huge raise this season. Whether through bad luck or lack of team support or whatever mitigating factors his supporters will fling at management, Price's numbers do not add up to a lot more money. The team would be completely within its rights to tender him a qualifying offer only. I suspect it wouldn't do that, however. I think it would be more than fair for an inconsistent 22-year-old goalie with average numbers heading into his second contract to earn 1.25-1.5 million dollars. That's a significant increase from the qualifying offer the team is obliged to give him, and a show of good faith on management's part.

Putting bias in favour of one goalie or the other aside for a moment, and dealing only with the numbers on the page, I think both goalies could be fairly and reasonably signed for between 3.75 and 4.5 million dollars. They currently make three million between them, when you take into consideration the entry-level contract bonuses Price is making this season. If the team could have both goalies for a 1.5 million dollar or less increase, why not do it? One of Hamrlik's or Spacek's contracts will likely have to be moved to make room for Plekanec's new deal anyway. The team can afford to give Pleks a nice raise while still affording the bump in the goalie's salaries.

As far as I can see, if the money isn't an issue, there are two arguments for trading one of the goalies. First, is the idea that two young guys can't share the crease because they'll both want to be number one and one will inevitably be unhappy. You know what? Who cares. Halak has earned the majority of the starts because his play has warranted it. He knows if he signs a two-or-three year deal that, unless he completely chokes in the playoffs, he'll be going into the new season with that experience in his favour. He has nothing to lose.

Price is 22. Most 22-year-old goalies are actually backups, if they're even in the NHL at all. The organization made a mistake in rushing Price to the big time too quickly, but with Halak playing solid hockey, it can now rectify that problem by letting Price work his way up for real. If he's got the ability and the attitude to be number one, let him fight for his ice time and earn it, rather than continue to treat him with undeserved kid gloves. Look at Jimmy Howard. The Wings used their first pick in the 2003 draft to select him, but he spent three years in college and four full seasons in the AHL before finally, at the age of 26, getting a shot at the NHL. Now he's in the league's top five in save percentage and goals-against average and is Detroit's undisputed number-one goalie. Price has a lot of time left to develop, and a chance to do that without the pressure of being the number-one goalie in Montreal is a good thing.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with starting thirty or thirty-five games and developing your craft that way. There is, on the other hand, something to be said for a solid tandem that balances ice time between the two goalies and helps prevent wear and tear on those butterfly joints. If Price is able to push Halak out of the number-one spot with stellar play, well, that's good for him and for the Habs. If not, a couple of years in a developmental role as an understudy won't hurt him.

The other argument for trading one of the two goalies is the idea that the team doesn't need two such good young goalies when the return one of them might bring could address a need elsewhere on the team. I dispute that argument as well. Injuries happen. Slumps happen. When they do, a team needs two reliable goalies. The Habs have been lucky that both young tenders have been healthy this year. That won't happen every season and in the case of a long-term injury, someone's got to be able to step up. The team could, of course, trade a goalie and hire a UFA backup like Martin Biron or Alex Auld for a million or so. Why do that, though, when Price and Halak give you a better-than-even chance of winning any game into which they're thrown. You won't get that from a career backup. (See Flyers, Philadelphia.)

Also, the goalie market isn't great when it comes to trades. Look at Bryzgalov. There you had a very good goalie who was a member of a Cup winner, whom Phoenix grabbed for nothing off of waivers because the Ducks couldn't get fair trade value for him. With the constant movement of goalies around the league via waivers and free agency, there's not a lot of incentive for a team to trade important assets like high draft picks or top prospects to get one. Sure, some team might surprise and take a flier on one of Price or Halak now; maybe even throw a first-rounder at Gauthier. If that happens, it's perhaps time to consider a trade. But if I were Gauthier, I'd be waiting for a team to blow my socks off, rather than be actively shopping a goalie for less than a fabulous return.

I think the Canadiens have the ideal situation in goal right now, and absolutely no incentive to change that up. The money is do-able, the ice time can be managed and the potential return is a pie in the sky compared to the actual talent keeping both of them brings to the team on the ice. The puck is on management's stick right now. There's no pressing reason, either for cap-relief or pending unrestricted free agency, to trade a goalie. In fact, keeping both of them for two or three more years will give the team a much clearer picture about what each of them is really worth. Will Price's potential eventually allow him to outstrip Halak's skill? Has Halak plateaued and will he see his numbers slack off from here? Those questions...the heart of any good Price vs. Halak debate...could be answered much more easily if the team has two or three more years on which to base an opinion.

The worst thing that could happen is for Gauthier to trade one goalie, who'll then go on to be a big star with his new team, while the one he keeps will turn out to be only average. Delaying a decision about which one to trade can only help make sure that doesn't happen.


Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for applying a common sense approach. Lord knows we do not need another Price/Halak blog posted onto the internet, especially with only 5 hours from a potential playoff clinching game. However, GREAT ARTICLE! But your perspective is very unique from the polar opposite, childish debate that continues to lag on and on.

My answer when asked who I want to keep, has always been both!

No doubt your blog will be linked on HIO, and it will be have 50 replies, complete with multiple **** from the filter.

Anyways, that is enough of a reply about the endless debate from me...Great Article JT, pleasure to read.

Hope the Habs can take care of business tonight and with a little help we may be celebrating a playoff birth tonight.

Andrew Berkshire said...

Whenever talk of trading a goalie comes up, Bryzgalov is always brought up. This is the exception, not the rule. There are several teams out there right now who are extremely worried about their goaltending futures.

Bringing up Bryzgalov when discussing trading a goalie is akin to me saying that it was useless to sign Cammalleri in the offseason, because we could easily just draft a 30 goal scorer in the last round like Nashville did in Hornqvist.

Raphaƫl P. said...

RAmen. Hope management reads you.

Anonymous said...

Bull's eye with your post, thank you from approaching this in a civilized and intelligent manner. Reading the comments on different websites about our goalie situation made me lose hope... let's just wait and make sure we keep the right goalie! We can drop one of our expensive defencemen to make cap space, nobody will notice he is missing..it may even improve the whole situation there! We need a tougher defenceman anyways, the guys at our blue line are too soft.
Keep your posts coming JT..always a treat!

Kyle Roussel said...

I agree in principle. Goaltending is the Canadiens biggest strength and they would be nowhere this season without it. There's no need to send either away right now. However, Halak could always jump ship to the KHL, could he not gain some leverage that way?

I just wrote about how the Canadiens, given their salary constraints are likely going to look an awful lot like this season in 2010-11. Once Price, Halak and Plekanec are signed, there's not much left for anything else other than cheap RFA signings. What that likely means is a repeat of this season. I am not one of the pie-in-the-sky dreamers that thinks if everyone stays healthy and plays up to par, the team would be a contender. It just doesn't work that way. In my view, the top-6 forwards are all but locked in for a long time, and the Canadiens need a #2 defenseman more than anything. With guys like Subban, Pacioretty, and Weber knocking at the door, if some sort of package can be put together that sends a goalie away with an element or 2 (Hamrlik or Spacek would be in that package) in return for that #2 d-man, I'd seriously look at it.

Excellent article, JT, as always.

DB said...

Trading Hamrlik and replacing him with a defenceman making $1.2 M would free up $4.3 M of cap space. Combine this with the $5.7 cap hit for Pleks, Price and Halak and it gives the Habs $10 M of cap space for those three. So it can be done.

Whether they can spend all of the $10 M on those three will depend on whether the cap goes up or down, which RFAs and UFAs they resign, and which Bulldogs make the team.

I'm open to keeping both goalies or trading one of them. It all depends on how much they want to be paid and what other teams are willing to trade for one of them.

J.T. said...

@Andrew: Sure, there are teams worried about their goaltending futures. The question is, when it comes time to put up or shut up in order to attain a good young goalie, will they make Gauthier a fair offer? The recent history of trades involving goaltenders would say no. I mention Bryzgalov because, even though it's a unique case, it's still indicative of the relative lack of value carried by goalies in the league right now. I believe they're generally seen as rather transient players. With the exception of Brodeur, even the top-paid goalies have been shuttled from team to team. Luongo's on his third, Huet's with his fourth, Giguere's on his second and Tim Thomas played everywhere before making it in Boston. When the Isles locked up Dipietro for fifteen years, everyone thought Snow was a lunatic, but nobody batted an eye when Ovechkin signed a thirteen-year deal, or an already-aging Lecavalier got an eleven-year extension. Those forwards have just as much a chance of getting injured as Dipietro did, and if he'd stayed healthy, he would have been a damn fine cornerstone-type goalie for the Isles. Goalies just don't bring the same return as good players in other positions. Case-in-point, when the Habs TRIED to send Halak to Philly, the Flyers said no thanks and stuck wtih their patchwork goalie situation. Do you think a few more months of Halak continuing to play well will suddenly open the vault in Holmgren's office and release a Jeff Carter or a first-round pick to Gauthier? When they can just take their chances on any number of free-agent goalies this summer for nothing?

@Kyle: I think Halak doesn't need leverage. The Habs can reasonably re-sign him for a very comfortable raise over his current salary, with the expectation that he'll play a majority of the team's games next year. He's always said he just wants to play. Why threaten KHL if he's getting his icetime and a respectable salary in Montreal, unless he's looking for some unreasonably huge payday? In which case the Habs wouldn't be able to match it, even if they wanted to, with their cap restrictions. If Jaro wants to be a Hab, the deal is do-able, even with the retention of Price as well.

The thing I didn't mention in the piece, but that's sort of hanging around in the back of my mind is that if Price is unhappy in Montreal, he'll walk as soon as he's UFA anyway. The Habs had better have Halak on the roster if that happens. Waiting a couple of years would give Price a chance to mature a bit and gain a better appreciation of the good things about Montreal, which I'm sure are sometimes overshadowed by the behaviour of some silly fans right now. Of the two, though, I think the Canadiens have a better chance of retaining Halak's services when UFA time rolls around. That has to be considered.

David Reed said...

The Bulldogs have a couple of goalies who this year are playing very well, although Sanford at 31 may never have a chance at the NHL. Desjardins however is only 25 and his numbers have been improving each year.

moeman said...

The smart GM keeps them both. The only things bothering me are the rabid Montreal media hype that foments 'goalie controversies' and the possibility of an offer sheet (if it is possible I think more than a few teams could offer Price a big contract).

J.T. said...

@David: I'm a big Desjardins fan, but he's completely unproven at the NHL level. Given the choice, I'd rather stick with the two goalies, both younger than him, who HAVE proven they can play NHL hockey. If one of Price or Halak *is* traded, however, I'd like to see Ced get his shot.

@moe: I don't worry too much about offer sheets. If the Habs qualify Price and Halak by the June 25th deadline, it's awfully tempting for the players to sign by July 15th, when the qualifying offer runs out. After all...who knows if anyone would make an offer sheet at all? If there is an offer sheet, the Habs can't lose. They either exercise their right of first refusal and sign the guy anyway, or, if it's too high a price for them, they let him go and take the other team's draft picks. If, for example, they're prepared to offer Halak 2.8 million, they can negate any offer sheet with a similar number. If the new team offers him, say, 3.4 million, then the Habs get a first, second and third round draft pick in compensation. Nobody's going to do that, if they're not willing to trade even a first for him to begin with. Ditto for Price. If a team wants him bad enough to outbid the Habs via offer sheet, then Gauthier must take the draft picks and let him go. The picks would probably add up to be more than they'd get for him in a trade anyhow. The only hitch is, they'd have to hire a new director of scouting to exercise the first-round pick, so Timmins couldn't blow it.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right J.T. Price and Halak are good young goalies. That is the strength the team has at goal. Good young goalies. I don't know what Price's bonus clauses were for or what he actually takes home so your ballpark estimate sounds fair.

Goal is a funny position, especially in Montreal. People want the legend, not the reality. Teams win, goalies help. Consistent goalies help a lot. Is there a dominating goaltender in the league now? I am not really sure there is. This isn't junior where the save % and GAA varies widely between goalies on a team. Additionally you have announcers, the press, and bloggers;-} talking up this or that goaltender as if the remaining 18 players were incidental. Then my favorite, the size of these pads.

Last night I heard TSN discussing a concept that if any part of the puck crosses the goal line, well then it should be a goal. The panel seriously discussed this, totally ignoring the issue that the goal line isn't only on the ice but the three other sides as well. What do you do with pucks off the inside of the post now? All to say the idea wasn't well thought out before floating it to a million or so viewers who will nodd along and sort of agree.

Montreal has several good young goaltenders, that is an advantage. Why would they throw that advantage away when they are not compelled to? I don't think they are even considering it. Is Price worth a 1st overall, or a second overall? Sure. Is Halak? Quite possibly. However a few years ago we would have said the same about Theodore. Patrick Roy was pretty good, and he didn't go for a first. He won what four cups? Behind some pretty awesome teams, and should have won in 89.

Folks always ignore those teams, focusing on Patrick. I guess because to acknowledge the strengths of the teams would somehow diminish the man. But they were great teams each one. The GMs did an excellent job, and luck played a part.

Anyhow I don't know who the best goalie in the league is right now. I don't know all the teams that well to understand who is actually the best. Likely it isn't the guy who will win the trophies this year. That again is the funny thing about goal.

But the Montreal Canadiens have too good young goaltenders up, and another in the tubes. Those are assets to retain because they are an advantage. Unless an offer the team can't refuse comes along, and given the GM view towards the situation in goal, I don't think that will happen.

You have to wonder though, just a bit: How would Price look in an Oilers jersey playing close to home.



DKerr said...

I think it would be more than fair for an inconsistent 22-year-old goalie with average numbers heading into his second contract to earn 1.25-1.5 million dollars. That's a significant increase from the qualifying offer the team is obliged to give him, and a show of good faith on management's part.

Remember when Pleks was signed this past off season by Gainey. People complained that Gainey paid too much for a guy coming off such a poor season. Gainey said he paid market price, plus (I think) a bit of faith. Pleks has paid that back in spades and no one questions his salary for this year anymore. Price could very well do the same thing next season. I agree with you - have some faith.