The truth of the matter is Montreal Canadiens GM Bob Gainey has no better idea than anyone else in hockey whether Carey Price can carry his team through an extended playoff run this spring.
But make no mistake. The move Gainey made on trade deadline day to trade Cristobal Huet to the Washington Capitals indicates that while he can’t predict Price or backup Jaroslav Halak will have any playoff success, he believes unequivocally Huet will falter in the post-season.
Gainey may very well be wrong and the move might turn out to be a disastrous one, but you have to admire the conviction and cojones he showed in making the trade in the first place.
The easy decision would have been to keep Huet around for the playoff run as insurance and allow him to walk in the off-season as an unrestricted free agent. Instead, Gainey dealt his No. 1 goalie for the past two-plus seasons for a draft pick that, historically, has less than a 50 percent chance of ever making a significant impact in the NHL.
And so the Canadiens, who woke up Sunday morning to find themselves in top spot in the Eastern Conference and third overall in the NHL, will try to do something that has never been done in history – win a Stanley Cup with rookies as both the starter and the backup. (Halak played 16 games for the Canadiens last season, but a player has to play 25 before he is loses his rookie eligibility.)
There is something a little Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy-esque about the whole thing and, my oh my, isn’t Price beginning to play along with the whole thing?
In his first three appearances in the Montreal net after Huet was traded, Price won all three games and posted a 1.33 goals-against average with a .960 save percentage. That’s probably not just a coincidence. Prior to the trade, Price was fairly ordinary both in the NHL and the AHL and probably needed to be put in a more stable situation in order to bring out the best in himself.
By trading Huet, Gainey essentially told Price his team’s playoff hopes were resting on Price’s 20-year-old shoulders and the young man has responded spectacularly so far. But what makes the move even more impressive is Gainey did what good and successful hockey executives do. He made a measured decision on a player, assessed his value to the organization and made a move that reflected it.
Somewhere along the way, Gainey obviously came to the firm conclusion the Canadiens weren’t going to win anything with Huet and on that value judgment, he made a decision based on what he saw and felt in his gut, not what convention would tell him to do.
When the New Jersey Devils were winning Stanley Cups, they made player personnel decisions dispassionately and based on value better than anyone in the league. At one point, they felt Alyn McCauley would be no better than Jay Pandolfo, and traded McCauley. Good move.
On another occasion, director of player personnel David Conte told European scout Dan Labraaten to unearth the best player in Europe that season. Labraaten came back with the name Brian Rafalski and despite the fact he was an undersized defenseman who had never been drafted, the Devils signed him immediately. Another good move.
And it’s not like this is the first time Gainey has done something like this. In fact, a bold decision by Gainey on Price worked out tremendously last spring. After Halak had spent most of the season in the Hamilton Bulldogs crease and was one of the top goalies in the AHL, Gainey decided to allow Halak to play for Slovakia in the world championship and gave the goaltending duties to Price, who had just graduated from junior hockey.
The decision didn’t go over big in Hamilton to say the least. Bulldogs coach Don Lever wasn’t thrilled about it and the local media and fans grumbled about being shortchanged by the NHL team. But Lever put Price in for the first playoff game and watched the pro rookie lead his team to the Calder Cup by winning four series against teams that had finished higher in the standings. Not only that, by moving Halak to the world championship, he exposed both of his future goalies to a high level of intense competition instead of having one of them playing and the other opening the door to the players’ bench.
And those who think Price cannot possibly lead the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup should be a little less certain of themselves.
First of all, Price has been an integral part of two championship teams – Canada at the world juniors and the Bulldogs – in the past 18 months. And of course it sounds impossible, but did anybody in their right minds think either Dryden or Roy would lead the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup?
Of course not. But in 1971 and 1986, the Canadiens made bold decisions and were rewarded for them.
Gainey has a hunch the same might happen in the spring of 2008.
Campbell’s Cuts will return March 17.
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