Okay arm-chair general managers, if you could pick one goalie to build your franchise around, who would it be? Tough question; what exactly defines a great goalie? The simplest answer would be in the stats; the least amount of goals equals the best goalie. However, anyone who’s ever actually played the game will tell you stats don’t tell the whole story. Hockey is a team game after all, and goalie stats especially are somewhat shared by the goalie and his team. Save percentages and goals-against averages can be greatly improved by a conservative defensive squad. And while Antti Niemi was third in wins last season, he wouldn’t make my top 10 or many others.
Goalies are like comedians, timing is everything (and they are usually keen observers as well). A big save at a crucial point can turn the tide in a game, season, series, or even an entire playoff. The greatest goalies can sit idle, watching their team dominate for an entire period, and still be sharp enough to stop a glorious three-on-one chance, or a big fat breakaway. The greatest goalies also hold their team’s head above water, buying them time to regroup and strike back. Great goalies are the great equalizer, they balance out their team’s shortcomings. They allow bottom feeders to make the playoffs and put the better teams over the top. They give their team a chance to win every game, and sometimes win one all by themselves. When it matters most, they bring their best. The pressure doesn’t get to them, they get up for the pressure.
With that said, I believe Carey Price embodies all of this and more. There are other goalies that play at a very high level right now (Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick) but if I had to pick one goalie for one game it would be Price. And if I could pick one goalie to build my entire franchise around from this day forth, it would still be him. The reason? He’s young, already in his prime, has a great contract, excels with pressure, and the fact he didn’t demand a trade out of a market that gave him hell all through his developmental years is remarkable. Think I’m an idiot? Even Sidney Crosby picked him as the best goalie in the NHL, over the goalie he won his only cup with. Think he’s an idiot? Like David Letterman once said, “I used to think everyone was an idiot, then I realized I was the idiot.”
Price brings to mind five-time Stanley Cup winner Grant Fuhr, though without the Cups or the beard. While Fuhr’s career stats are below those of, say, Roman Turek, he always got it done when it counted, not only in the playoffs, but internationally as well. Like Fuhr, Price’s individual stats were not leading the league when he was selected to represent his country. With Canada attempting to repeat a gold-medal performance on foreign ice at the 2014 Olympics, Price was the clutch guy they relied upon. If you want to talk numbers, here’s some from his Olympic performance. The 26-year-old posted a 0.59 GAA, .971 save percentage, and two shutouts. It shouldn’t have been viewed as much of a surprise. Gold medals and pressure-cooker tournaments were nothing new for Price. He also won Gold for the World Junior team, and a Calder Cup in the AHL.
Still you protest “who cares about that crap, the Stanley Cup is the only thing that matters!” Oh great, Curtis Joseph heard you, and now he’s upset. While the Stanley Cup has eluded Price so far, he did play masterfully in the 2014 playoffs, taking Montreal on a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final. He out-dueled 2014 Vezina winner Tuukka Rask, eliminating the favored Boston Bruins. He was the best player of the series in the second round win. Price’s magnificent roll came to a halt however, when he ultimately suffered an unfortunate injury in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. Chris Kreider slid into him, skates up, and Price was out of the playoffs, his Canadiens soon followed. Oh well, Carey will have another chance for a deep playoff run as he already has his Canadiens and their very average roster battling for first in the East.
About that roster. Price’s importance to the Canadiens cannot be overstated. They have just one player on pace for more than 60 points and their no.1 centre is so young Price would have to get him in bars American road trips. On defence it doesn’t get much better. Their top defence pairing is solid with P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, but then it drops off significantly. Their second pairing is manned by Sergei Gonchar, which would have been really great, 10 years ago. Nathan Beaulieu is promising, but still developing at 22. Alexei Emelin and Tom Gilbert haven’t exactly been brick walls on the third pairing.
Despite all this, Price sits at a .929 SV% at the All-Star break (36 starts) and a 2.15 GAA. He’s won 24 of those games. His team is 21st in scoring, but have allowed the 4th fewest goals per game. Guess why. Price has this team believing they can win every game, which allows them to take risks and play with confidence. It also allows them to start poorly, but recover by the 3rd period and pull out wins. In a fantastic stretch from Dec 9th to January 3rd, he did not allow more than two goals in any game. He also rarely lets in softies. When he does, he quickly puts it behind him. After letting in a weak short hander in December, he shrugged it off and led his team to six straight wins, five of those on the road. The man is a rock. A very agile rock.
And no city demands an agile rock more than Montreal. This is a city so passionate for hockey that they once had a riot, complete with burning cop cars, after a playoff WIN! Imagine what it’s like when they lose. As a player, when you see your fans commit federal crimes in the name of hockey, it probably adds to the pressure. Besides arson, Montreal fans are famous for booing as much as they cheer. They love nothing more than booing a goalie. The goalie is the easiest to blame for a loss, as they’re on the ice the entire game and they’re the closest ones to the puck when it goes in, caught red-handed. When 2010 playoff hero Jaroslav Halak was traded for a couple prospects, and the future of the franchise was put into the unproven Price’s young hands, the Habs’ faithful were livid. They let him know exactly how they felt in the first preseason game, raining jeers on Price’s youthful head when he dared have a poor period of play in a meaningless contest. How did Price, at the age of 23, respond? Perhaps the BC-born Price called on his west-coast vibes when he simply said “Relax, chill out…..we’re not winning the Stanley Cup in the first preseason game…”.
He then most likely lit some incense and did some yoga. Now not every city is quite like Montreal, but every goalie needs to deal with intense scrutiny and pressure. Their position is unique in that they can easily take the most blame. Price has shown that whether representing Montreal or his country, he not only easily handles the pressure, but he thrives on it.
Still, why Carey Price? Why not go with Jonathan Quick, who may not play in a hockey-mad market, but has obviously proven he can handle pressure with his two Stanley Cups, and he’s only one year older to boot. Why not Pekka Rinne, whose return from injury to Nashville has elevated them to the top of the league. If you are building your team around a goalie for years to come, age and contract are incredibly important. The cap era NHL leaves little room for bad contracts and under-performing players. With Rinne, that’s easy, he’s fantastic, but already 32, and still has a cap hit of $7 million until he’s 36. It’s a total crapshoot whether Rinne remains useful for the remaining years. Price on the other hand, is only 27 and already playing at an elite level. His cap hit is slightly less than Rinne’s and more importantly his contract will end when he turns 30. He provides much more flexibility. Johnny Quick is similar in age to Price and has an even sweeter cap hit of $5.8 million. The only problem is he has one of those trendy 10-year contracts, which keeps him in the money until age 36 as well. Perhaps he plays lights out until then, it could happen, but I’ll take the safer bet with Price.
That’s basically what it boils down to. The latest edition of the NHL is a cruel mistress. Like all cruel mistresses, be careful who you give your money and your commitments too. It’s not only talent that matters. Age, contract, and personality play such a huge part in being a part of a championship team, that it drives Price’s value beyond any others (for now). He is the unofficial captain of his team, and any success they have is ultimately down to him. He has a big window open, and it should be a heck of a ride to see if the Habs can fit through.
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