Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price is on the precipice of greatness. But to take his place in a long line of Habs goalie legends, as Patrick Roy points out, he must first win a Stanley Cup. Is this his year to do it?
It’s been almost 20 years since Patrick Roy walked the length of the bench, past coach Mario Tremblay, and straight to president Ronald Corey to tell him he had played his last game for the Montreal Canadiens. Since that fateful night, a total of 20 men have occupied the blue paint for the Habs. Jose Theodore, the NHL’s most valuable player in 2001-02, was a supernova that crashed and burned in a tire fire of controversy and was traded for a career backup. Andy Moog and Stephane Fiset were No. 2 goalies on Stanley Cup winners. Cristobal Huet and Tomas Vokoun went on to greater things and more money elsewhere. And a number of them have been clearly part of the “we-hardly-knew-ye” variety. Olivier Michaud, the youngest man ever to stop a puck for the Canadiens, currently lives in Montreal and operates Ecole de Gardiens de But Olivier Michaud.
One of those 20 men is Carey Price, the 27-year-old bow hunter and rodeo champion from Anahim Lake, B.C., whose father flew him in his own plane from his remote village to Williams Lake so he could play youth hockey. Price is unflappable and engaging, has a quiet swagger and is on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats in a conga line of all-time greats produced by the Canadiens. Of the 35 goaltenders enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, seven of them have earned their way there by backstopping the Habs. (An eighth, Riley Hern, won four Stanley Cups with the Montreal Wanderers, a pre-NHL juggernaut.)
The Vezina Trophy appears to have Price’s name already engraved on it, and the notion of Price winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP is gaining a lot of steam. That’s because, under scrutiny by both eyeballs and hockey analytics, the Canadiens are decidedly mediocre without him. They start games dreadfully, they rarely knock their opponents off the puck and they are one of the worst possession teams in the league. When they get a lead, they give up a ridiculous number of shots, in terms of attempts and those that end up in Price’s glove to die. To suggest Montreal is a rag-tag team that would be life-and-death to make the playoffs if not bound by chicken wire and Price’s lasso rope isn’t a stretch. He proves it time and again when he is great, which is almost all the time, and when he is shoddy, almost never. Simply put, if Price isn’t the best player on the ice, the Canadiens don’t win.
Should he win the Hart, Price will become just the third Canadiens goalie after Jacques Plante and Theodore and just the seventh in the history of the NHL to win the prestigious award. All that remains is for him to deliver a goaltending performance of the ages in the playoffs, the way Roy did in 1993 when Montreal won 10 overtime games and caught a bunch of lucky breaks en route to winning its most recent Stanley Cup. You could even argue that Roy’s Conn Smythe-winning performance that spring marked the last time an NHL team leaned so heavily on absolutely otherworldly, lights-out, leave-you-shaking-your-head goaltending. Since then, the job of a goalie in the playoffs hasn’t been to singlehandedly win the Stanley Cup, but to not singlehandedly lose it for his team (see Niemi, Antti).
But not this season and not with Price. The consensus of the hockey world is the Canadiens will go only as far as Price carries them. Full stop. That was the case last spring when Montreal was clipping along quite nicely and had advanced to the Eastern Conference final, only to have Price knocked out of the playoffs by Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers, who “accidentally-on-purpose,” in the words of Brandon Prust, barrelled into Price skates-first in Game 1 of the series. The Canadiens bowed out meekly in six games.
That Price hasn’t yet delivered that sublime post-season goaltending performance isn’t his fault. After all, he’s just getting warmed up. When asked to compare their seasons, however, the last man to lead the Canadiens to a Cup was eager to throw the gauntlet down to see if Price is capable of doing the same thing. Roy, who is now the coach of the Colorado Avalanche, was asked if he could make any parallels between the season Price is having and the one he had in 1992-93. His response was telling. “It’s hard for me to make comments on that because we won the Stanley Cup,” Roy said. “But he is their dominant player and when you have a goaltender like him, everything is possible…and I’ll leave it at that.”
So the mission is now clear. The torch has been handed to Price from all the failing hands since Roy, and it’s up to him to hold it high. Whether he does so or not this season, the Canadiens have Price for three more years at a cap-friendly average salary of $6.5 million. That will take Price to the age of 30, and who knows whether he’ll decide to sign another long-term contract with the Canadiens before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018? So he has this year’s playoffs, plus three years or more to forge his legacy with an organization that has spawned some of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the game.
The Canadiens have had eight goalies – starting with Georges Vezina and continuing with George Hainsworth, to Bill Durnan, to Plante, then Worsley to Ken Dryden to Roy and, finally, Theodore – who have either been inducted into the Hall of Fame or won the Hart Trophy or both. It’s impossible to compare them accurately because of the advancements made in the game and the position. If we were simply trying to find the best of them, it would be Price in a walk because he plays at a time when the coaching, equipment and skill level of goaltenders is better than ever. (Yes, so are the shooters, but the goalies have more than kept pace.) But when you take into account the eras in which they played, how is Price stacking up against the best ever produced by the Canadiens?
Let’s play that game. Come on, it’ll be fun. Let’s take a look at what makes up a truly great goaltender and see how Carey Price compares:
BE THE BEST PLAYER ON THE ICE
THE TORCHBEARERS: Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Jacques Plante, Jose Theodore
Dryden and Roy are included alongside Hart Trophy winners Plante and Theodore because they each won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Dryden couldn’t win the Hart in 1970-71 for a couple reasons: Bobby Orr was in the midst of becoming the greatest defenseman the game has ever known, and Dryden didn’t join the Canadiens until late that season after the Canadian national team disbanded. Roy, on the other hand, put MVP seasons together at a time when goalies had been shut out from the trophy.
Plante won his only Hart in 1961-62 and Theodore 40 years later when he tied with Jarome Iginla in voting for the Hart but won on the strength of having more first-place votes. (One Montreal writer put Iginla fifth on his ballot. Had Iginla been any higher on that single ballot, he would have won the Hart. The voting for both the Hart and Vezina were the closest in NHL history that year. The Vezina runner-up? Patrick Roy.)
That, however, shouldn’t diminish Theodore’s accomplishment. That season, he led an ordinary Canadiens team to its first playoff berth in four years and posted a .931 save percentage, the highest ever recorded for a Canadiens goaltender over a full season. Dick Irvin Jr., a broadcaster and historian who has been with the Canadiens organization for the better part of 75 years, had season tickets in 2001-02. “In my opinion, he did more for that team than any goaltender has ever done,” he said. “Something like what Carey Price is doing this season.”
IT’S BETWEEN THE EARS, NOT JUST BETWEEN THE PIPES
THE TORCHBEARER: Ken Dryden
It requires a unique kind of athlete to endure the mental toll of goaltending, and it takes an even more mentally strong athlete to do it in Montreal. Plante once said his job was akin to a guy working in an office, then having 15,000 people scream at him after making a mistake.
Price excels on both counts. He seems almost too laid-back sometimes, rarely frames his performances in the singular and is uniquely equipped to bounce back from losses. The past two seasons under goalie coach Stephane Waite have been instrumental in this department. Waite, who has tutored Stanley Cup champions, has instilled in Price the importance of never looking beyond the next game, the next period, the next shot. “Carey Price is unflappable,” said former NHL goalie Steve Valiquette, an analyst with the MSG Network and a well-known goaltending instructor. “I mean, after a goal goes in he acts the same way as if he made the best save of the season. Does he look at his teammate and put his arms up the way Pavelec (Ondrej of the Winnipeg Jets) did recently when he got scored on from center ice and stared down (Jets defenseman Jacob) Trouba?”
Price is the picture of calm, whether it’s stopping to pose for a selfie during a timeout while he’s pitching a shutout or the calm he provides during the mayhem around his net in the dying minutes of a tie game. He’s a lot like Dryden that way, perhaps not in a lean-on-your-stick kind of way, but he manages to control his inner emotions well. A former teammate of Dryden’s, Pierre Bouchard, once compared his goalie to a duck: on the surface everything appeared calm and serene, but underneath the water his legs were moving endlessly in an effort to remain buoyant. Dryden never disagreed with the assessment.
“Because the demands on the goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie the biggest enemy is himself,” Dryden wrote in The Game. “Not a puck, not an opponent, not a quirk of size or style. The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays, the fear of failing, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being physically hurt, all symptoms of his position. The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accepts them, and puts them under control. The unsuccessful goalie is distracted by them, his mind in knots. His body quickly follows.”
TECHNIQUE, TECHNIQUE, TECHNIQUE
THE TORCHBEARER: George Hainsworth
There might not be a goaltender in the NHL who has come further and become more efficient in his net than Price has. The buzzword now is “tracking.” It’s the ability a goalie has to follow the puck as it caroms around the offensive zone and his ability to predict its trajectory so he’s in position to make an easy-looking save.
And there are few in the game better than Price. Those who analyze goaltending look at the angle of the goaltender’s upper body. Most look for the best ones to be bent at about a 45-degree angle, which allows them better sightlines to track the puck. The really good ones such as Jonathan Quick are able to get down to ice level and track the puck through four sets of legs in front of him.
Kevin Woodley, a goaltending expert and founder of InGoal Magazine, said Price has made enormous leaps in this area under Waite. “You can go look two years ago and watch his stance and his chest is upright,” Woodley said. “Now you watch, when he gets into that real low ready stance, you can barely see that ‘CH’ on his chest. Before I could see his whole waist, now I can barely see the logo up on his chest and I think that’s put him on the puck more.”
The improvement in technique has come with maturity. An estimable work ethic and a desire to learn from Waite have helped. Price has become a master technician among a generation of technicians. That wasn’t the case with Hainsworth, who used superior technique to overcome the fact he was a short, dumpy guy incapable of making spectacular saves the way other goalies in the NHL did in the 1920s and ’30s. “I’m sorry, I can’t put on a show like some of the other goaltenders,” Hainsworth once said. “I can’t look excited because I’m not. I can’t shout at other players because that’s not my style. I can’t dive on easy shots and make them look hard. I guess all I can do is stop pucks.”
YEAH BUT…THERE HAS TO BE SOME FLAIR FOR THE DRAMATIC
THE TORCHBEARERS: Gump Worsley, Bill Durnan
As technical as the position has become, there are going to be times when a goaltender is going to have to make one of those soul-crushing saves on a sure goal after being caught out of position. The same night Price did the selfie with the fan, he made a save on Matt Martin of the New York Islanders by reaching back and grabbing a sure goal with his glove behind his back before it crossed the goal line. Price has always been a great athlete, with a tip of the Stetson to his days doing rodeo. He probably relied more on athleticism than technique earlier in his career, but the scale has tilted decidedly in the favor of technique.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of making those jaw-droppers. Most of that has to do with a willingness to battle, a characteristic that most goaltenders draw upon when their technique abandons them and there’s a split-second decision to be made. “There’s a ton of athleticism there,” Woodley said. “I mean it’s just the innate reactive, compete, battle, keep the puck out of then net, that’s a huge part of it. And Carey Price has it.”
When you look at photos of Worsley making a save, he’s often seen diving across his crease to get a stick on the puck. Worsley honed much of his acrobatic style of goaltending with the New York Rangers early in his career. They were a moribund outfit that gave goalies fits because of their propensity for giving up 10-bell chances. Once when asked which team gave him the most trouble, Worsley’s response was the Rangers.
It was Durnan’s all-around athletic ability that got him into the NHL in the first place. After being released by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1930s, Durnan went to Kirkland Lake, Ont., to play softball and work in the mines. It was the Depression and jobs were scarce. Durnan was one of the best softball pitchers in Canada and managed to get a job in return for pitching for the company team. He also played goal for them in the winter and won an Allan Cup, which led to his route to Montreal. The ambidextrous Durnan was so athletically gifted that he played with two catching gloves and would shift his stick from hand-to-hand depending upon which way his opponent was shooting.
BE A THIRD DEFENSEMAN
THE TORCHBEARER: Jacques Plante
Almost every goaltender in the NHL handles the puck these days. Some are dreadful at it and others, such as Price, use their stick skills to their advantage. When Price is horsing around by himself, he can often be seen without his goaltending equipment, stickhandling and shooting on his own.
His ability to move the puck makes an enormous difference. One pro scout who has watched the Canadiens a lot this season pointed out that opponents have made a habit of dumping the puck into Andrei Markov’s corner, hoping to wear down a 36-year-old defenseman with a history of injuries. “But he never has to go back and get it,” the scout said, “because Price is always there.”
Woodley has said Price has adapted his game to become better at handling the puck, right down to cutting his sticks shorter and taping them so he can get his blocker hand over the top of his stick, which allows him to pull the puck in much closer to his body and control it more effectively. “He pulls it right in tight into his skates and can still move it around forehand-backhand without losing, where most goalies have to hold it out away from them,” Woodley said. “Even in a pre-game warm up, just watch him when something’s going on and he just kind of disappears into a corner to skate around and play with the puck. It’s really, really impressive.”
As far as puckhandlers go, none was better than Plante, who revolutionized the game with his ability to come out of his net and send the play the other way. No goalies were doing that before him. Plante saw how the big forwards of the Detroit Red Wings were having their way with the Canadiens defensemen by overpowering them along the boards. “He’s the guy who designed that play of coming out of the net and stopping the puck from going around the boards,” teammate Dickie Moore once said of Plante. “That’s what Detroit used to do when they were beating us and Plante would come out and stop the puck from going around. They’d send in a big guy like Vic Stasiuk or Marcel Pronovost to pick up the puck going around and (Gordie) Howe or (Ted) Lindsay would let it go. He figured we didn’t have to play them the way we were playing them.”
AND FINALLY, PASSION
THE TORCHBEARERS: Georges Vezina, Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden
There was a time when Price was far more demonstrative with his emotions than he is now, but there are still times when that bubbling cauldron boils over. Sometimes it happens when David Desharnais scores a one-timer on him in practice. Another might be when he storms off the ice without acknowledging his teammates after losing a 1-0 game. “They want to win,” Roy said of Price and his ilk, “and they understand that if you lose 1-0 and had a great night, you always think, ‘What could I have done to make it a 0-0 game and give ourselves a chance to win in a shootout or overtime?’ ”
When it comes to passion, Price is probably a lot more like Dryden, a person who projected calm on the outside, but had an inferno burning within. “Dryden was way more competitive than people gave him credit for,” Irvin Jr. said. “I remember one time I introduced him at the Hall of Fame and I said he had won five Stanley Cups. As he walked past me he looked at me and said, ‘It was six, Dick. It was six.’ ”
Few were as passionate about playing for the Canadiens as Vezina, who was signed by the Canadiens after he beat them 11-5 in an exhibition game with a local team in Chicoutimi during a barnstorming tour of Quebec. Vezina was passionate all right. It is part of hockey lore that he fathered 22 children (only two made it to adulthood) and had to be dragged from the Canadiens net in 1925 when he coughed up blood and collapsed in the net, suffering from late-stage tuberculosis. Shortly after that, he showed up early to practice, sat in his dressing room stall and wept. Then he took his Canadiens sweater and left the rink, never to return. He died a few months later.
On a Thursday night in mid-March, Montreal beat Carolina 4-0 on home ice. After taking a 1-0 lead in the first period, the Canadiens outshot the Hurricanes 7-3 and were outshooting them 10-4 by the end of the first period. Then, true to form, Montreal was outshot 27-12 in the final two periods.
The win was Price’s 39th of the season, a career high-water mark. It was the 218th of his career, 40 behind Dryden who’s third on the Habs all-time list. It was his 33rd career shutout, with Durnan’s 34 next to topple. It gave him a save percentage of .937, which would be the highest ever recorded by a Canadiens goalie, surpassing Theodore, if it holds the rest of the season.
The franchise record for career wins is 314 by Plante, a mark Price could easily surpass if he goes beyond this contract. He even has a realistic shot at Hainsworth’s career shutout mark of 75, of which 49 were recorded before players were permitted to make forward passes. His goals-against average of 1.89, if it holds, would be the second-best ever recorded by a Canadiens goaltender.
But Price will not enter into the pantheon of Canadiens greats until he wins at least one Stanley Cup. Chances are, he will have to do that largely on his own, at least for the foreseeable future. Roy and the rest of the hockey world are waiting.
This is feature appeared in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.