Keeping Carey was 'the right choice'

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

He was booed in a preseason game in his home rink. His name does not appear on the NHL’s All-Star Game ballot. And yet the Montreal CanadiensCarey Price(notes) led all goaltenders in all-star votes when the latest totals were announced Monday – and he ranked behind only the Pittsburgh PenguinsSidney Crosby(notes) and Kris Letang(notes) overall.

Price has gone from written off to written in, excelling in a pressure-packed environment, replacing the popular playoff hero the Habs traded to the St. Louis Blues, Jaroslav Halak(notes).

Entering Wednesday night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers – the team atop the NHL standings, the team that ended Halak and the Habs’ playoff run last season – Price ranked first in the league in wins (17), third in save percentage (.935) and shutouts (four) and fifth in goals-against average (1.96).

Great story. And, to some, not at all surprising.

“Let’s be honest,” Detroit Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood(notes) said. “He’s one of the best goalies in the league. I mean, who else would they want to have in net? Even when Halak was there. …”

Osgood paused.

“There’s a reason they kept Carey Price, put it that way,” Osgood continued. “And everybody knows why.”

Just to be clear, why is that?

“Why?” Osgood said. “Because he’s an all-star goalie. He’s 23. To me, in the long run, when it’s all said and done, he’ll be a superstar player. I’m not so sure Halak will be.”

If you’re looking for perspective on Price, the best place to go isn’t Price himself. All he would say about his hot start was this: “Well, it’s not been me. It’s been our team. Our team’s been playing good. It just shows in our record and our goals against. It just shows our commitment to defense.” He said that even though the Habs are allowing 30.4 shots per game, ranking 17th in the NHL in shots against.

You’re better off going to a guy like Osgood, a 38-year-old veteran who is one win from becoming the 10th goaltender in NHL history to reach 400. Osgood has been a backup and he has been a starter on two Stanley Cup runs. He has been jeered and cheered. He has been waived, traded and signed as a free agent. In short, he has seen it all, and he finds it funny when people who haven’t been through any of it try to explain what it’s like to be an NHL goaltender.

Asked if he rooted for Price, just because of how Price had been booed, Osgood said no. He just follows other goaltenders closely. But he added: “I just know how ridiculous it is, because I know how good he is. I think it’s pretty obvious. Even if he hadn’t gotten off to the start he did, it still would have been the right decision to make, and I have no attachment to who makes the decisions in Montreal. But from a goalie standpoint, that was the right choice to make.”

Osgood isn’t alone in that opinion. One Eastern Conference general manager said he thought the Canadiens kept the better goaltender. Some think the Habs might have parlayed Price for more than they got for Halak – prospects Lars Eller(notes) and Ian Schultz(notes) – and others think they didn’t get enough for Halak in the first place, which only reinforces the point. Habs GM Pierre Gauthier obviously felt so confident in Price that he dealt Halak, who was about to become a restricted free agent, knowing it would ignite a firestorm among the fans.

Halak led the Canadiens to their best playoff showing since a 1993 Stanley Cup championship – first upsetting the Washington Capitals, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, then upsetting the Penguins, the defending Cup champs. Keeping Halak would have been the easy PR move.

But the big picture goes beyond one playoff run, as impressive as it was. The Habs drafted Halak 271st overall in 2003, Price fifth overall in 2005. Halak is listed at 5-feet-11, 179 pounds; Price at 6-3, 219. Halak is calm and efficient, but small and streaky; Price is big and patient, with the skill set to be consistent. Halak’s bio makes him the underdog, easy to love; Price’s bio raises expectations, making him easy to criticize.

It didn’t help Price that he broke into the NHL at age 20 and made the all-rookie team. That made things seem easy, to the fans and perhaps to Price himself. A young star in a city like Montreal, where hockey is religion and nightlife the devil? Should anyone be surprised that Price fell from grace, struggling through two inconsistent seasons and gaining a reputation, fair or not, as a party boy?

Price never had a mentor in Montreal, someone to show him how to block out distractions and go about his business. He had Cristobal Huet(notes) his first season, and he said playing with Huet was “awesome.” But Huet wasn’t, say, Mike Vernon, the veteran from whom Osgood learned when he was young.

“If anything, when Carey was young in Montreal at the start, he needed a guy like that who was kind of hard and a veteran guy who just kind of said, ‘Screw it. Just play,’ ” Osgood said. “That’s the best thing (Vernon) taught me. … It would have been good for him to have an older guy there with him, for sure. I think that would have helped him a lot. At the same time, I think he’s helped himself.”

Canadiens coach Jacques Martin loves to make young players earn their stripes – see his recent three-game scratching of rookie defenseman P.K. Subban(notes) – and Price earned his by battling with Halak. Losing the job and watching Halak’s playoff performance had an obvious effect.

“His work ethic on and off the ice has taken off,” Canadiens captain Brian Gionta(notes) said. “You can see the success this year because of it. … He’s played well. He’s confident with his game. I think that helps, too. But I think it was healthy last year what went on. I think he matured because of it, and it set him on the right path.”

When Price allowed four goals on nine shots in the preseason opener against the Boston Bruins on Sept. 22, the Bell Centre fans booed. Price famously told them to “chill out.” He has made some spectacular saves since, but mostly he has made it look easy – moving smoothly, putting himself in proper position, letting pucks hit him, controlling rebounds.

Price hasn’t allowed more than three goals in regulation in the regular season. He has allowed one goal or less in five of his past seven games. Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri said the whole Halak-Price debate has “become a real non-issue,” adding: “I can’t really think of any stinkers for him. His consistency has been tremendous.”

“He just needed time,” Osgood said. “He needed time under the right circumstances. Whether or not that was the case – I’m not so sure it was – he managed to fight through it. He’ll probably say he’s better for it now …”

Osgood paused and smiled.

“But then he’ll say that three years from now again,” Osgood said. “He’s so young.”

Yep. Great story. But it’s far from over.

Just as it was foolish to think Price wouldn’t go through hard times, it’s foolish to think he won’t go through more. He’s still only 23. He’s still the goaltender of the Montreal Canadiens. And he still has to live up to the legend of Halak in the 2010 playoffs. The same fans writing him in now could write him off again.

“It’s a real process,” Osgood said. “He’s got one of the toughest jobs in the league.”