December 17, 2010 :: 11:20am ET
The Price is Correct
The travails of a rookie
defenseman takes the heat off the man with the hardest job in hockey.
LOS ANGELES, CA -- If being the President
of United States is the most stressful job in the world, holding the
starting goaltending position for the Montreal Canadiens runs a close
second. So if told you in July that starting Montreal Canadiens'
goaltender Carey Price would be off the hot seat before Christmas,
The upheaval in Habs Nation extended far
and wide when Jaroslav Halak was dealt to the American heartland not
long after taking Le Club de Hockey to the NHL's Final Four last
season. The reverberations extended to the entertainment business,
when I interviewed Montreal native Jay Baruschel for The Fourth Period
Magazine, a chunk of our conversation related to his shock on the
movie set when he first heard of the (allegedly) tragic news of the
newest playoff hero departing La Belle Provence.
It's funny how sterling goaltending numbers and the travails of a
rookie defenseman makes Price's status as the number one net minder an
assumption cast in stone. Not that the Montreal fan base didn't have a
legitimate cause for concern as the 23-year-old from Vancouver strode
to the net for the season opener against the arch rival Maple Leafs.
Arriving with huge expectations by virtue of his 5th overall selection
in the 2005 draft, Price handled the pressure well in his first two
Last season proved to be a Winter of
Discontent for Price, while his statistics weren't appreciably worse
than Halak, the team played far better in front of the Slovak net
minder. To make matters worse, Halak's agent, the bombastic Allan
Walsh, chirped loud and long through social networks with every poor
performance by Price and victory by his client.
Compounding matters was Price's
personality, while he's competitive and combative on the ice, his
excitement level of his post-game interviews ranges somewhere between
vanilla and watching paint dry. By the time the post season rolled
around, Price was an afterthought and some even thought a failed Top 5
pick. He appeared in only four playoff matches, losing one and
probably wondering which of the other 29 teams he'd be toiling for in
Fate took a hand and Price's defining moment was when Pierre Gauthier
decided to step into the cauldron that is the Canadiens' General
Manager role. The former Ducks and Senators general manager returned
to Montreal in 2003 as Director of Professional Scouting and then as
Gainey's assistant GM.
The new GM was an inside man who bore
witness to Price's progression through the system and was a true
believer in his talent. He knew of Halak as well, an afterthought 9th
round pick in the 2003 Entry Draft and who had never won more than 18
games in four seasons NHL with the Habs. While Price shrug off the
fact that his direct competitor and playoff hero was no longer there
to provide a safety net, Carey was aided by something more intangible
after being installed as the number one in net.
The glare of the spotlight burns intensely on the player defending the
crease at the Bell Centre. You're truly only as good as your last save
and with only journeyman Alex Auld to back him up, the legions of
Halak fans were waiting to pounce on the first stretch of bad play by
Price. Carey started and continued strong but that big old bull's eye
was still on his back until another teammate got caught up in the
P.K. Subban is a dynamic defenseman that
should be skating on the Bell Centre ice for the next decade. His
speed and offensive skill was on displayed during last year's playoff
run and he became an immediate fan favorite as a result.
Being a 21st century player, P.K.
challenges the establishment with his attitude and words. While his
teammates tolerated it, opponents took offense with increasing
numbers, culminating in the infamous tete-a-tete with the Flyers' Mike
Richards earlier this season.
When the captain of a high profile
opposition franchise calls you out as a rookie, you're doing the right
thing because you're in his head far before the puck in ever dropped
the next time you face him.
Strangely enough, word started leaking out
of the Montreal locker room that the veterans were about as pleased as
Richards regarding the media focus on the rookie. In defense of Subban,
this is not the 1950s when a couple of newspaper reporters told all
the news. The massive throng of media and the resulting competition
for headlines and sound bites creates land mines for players always
willing to talk after games of which P.K. is one. If Subban was guilty
of anything, it was naivety and honesty with the post game comments
Things got more complicated for him a few
weeks ago when he made two misplays that directly resulted in an
overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Normally, gaining a point
against a non-divisional opponents in an early season game wouldn't
move the needle but not in the Cradle of Hockey. The pundits came down
hard on P.K. and when he thought that things couldn't get any worse,
coach Jacques Martin decided it was time for him to learn from the
press box for a few games. The Toronto native was a healthy scratch
for three games and Montreal won those all those matches, further
complicating matters and at this point, Price was probably whispering
to himself at his locker, 'I'm glad that's not me.'
Back in the day, Larry Robinson was an
occasional healthy scratch in Montreal and he turned out pretty
decent. P.K. Subban wasn't the first 21-year-old rookie defense to sit
in press row to examine the game and were certainly won't be the last.
The Canadiens are in the midst of their
first losing streak that's made their season long perch on top of the
NHL's Northeast Division tenuous and the first negative streak in
recent Habs history where the goalie wasn't called out to be benched
or traded. As presently constituted, the Canadiens defense isn't a
shut down unit and with the loss of Andrei Markov, it's essential that
Subban and his 20 minutes per game stay in the lineup.
We've witnessed the development of two
defensemen, the Kings' Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson over the past
three years and some nights the result wasn't pretty on the Staples
Center ice. The youngsters had the support of the organization and
they were able to continue to take their apprenticeship without fear
of sitting in the press box for long stretches of time. While the
pressure and expectations in Montreal are in another stratosphere,
Subban needs to be allowed maneuver the normal maturation process for
an NHL defenseman to maximize his talent.
ALREADY A FINAL EIGHT?
More damning evidence about the weakness of the Eastern Conference and
it's not from WikiLeaks. While the Western Conference possesses 13 of
15 teams with a record over .500, there's been coagulation in the
lesser conference. There's already a six point gap between the eighth
and nine place teams just 30 games into the season. To make matters
worse, there's one, possibly two of the bottom seven that could rise
above hockey's Mendoza Line and make the post season.
Four teams --Ottawa, Toronto, Florida and
the Islanders-- were considered also rans in training camp, so there's
no surprise there. The USS Lamoriello (or the New Jersey Kovalchuks if
you prefer) is going down for the third time somewhere in the swamps
of Jersey and their likely not to surface in April. That leaves the
Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres to make a playoff race over the
final 50 games. Buffalo was off to such a poor start that there were
whispers that Lindy Ruff, the NHL version of NFL's Jeff Fisher would
be removed from the bench. While they've righted the ship somewhat,
their challenges are both old and new to stay in contention. It seems
that every year the first item in the Sabres minus column is scoring
and it's no different this season. Derek Roy is on a point a game
pace, Thomas Vanek is tracking a 35 goal season but when defenseman
Jordan Leopold is your third leading scorer, you're going to have
problem scoring most nights. While that's old news by Niagara Falls,
the other missing component has been a vital component over the team's
success over the past five seasons.
Ryan Miller has not been lights out this season and that's why the
team is languishing. He's been bit by the injury bug as a wonky groin
made him absent for the majority of November. When he's been between
the pipes, his performance hasn't raised the level of the team but
rather reflects it. He's not stealing those 2-1 games with 40 save
performances and while he's likely still getting back to 100% health,
the Sabres are the most vulnerable team in the league when they give
away points in November.
The Hurricanes likely thought they would be in a mano-a-mano showdown
with the Washington Capitals for the Southeast Division crown and
although the DCer's are trying very hard to make it a race, the
Tobacco Road boys haven't answered the call. The fast start by the
Tampa Bay Lightning and the injection of winning Chicago Blackhawks
players on the Atlanta Thrashers have three division teams in the top
eight but none of them named the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes challenges mirror those of the Sabres, so it's not
surprising they're a couple of lengths behind the leaders a third of
the way into the season. Eric Staal is on the same point a game pace
that Buffalo's Roy is and Jeff Skinner is a feel good story in his
rookie season but they're getting little love from their teammates.
Between the pipes, while Cam Ward's save percentage is in the top 10
of NHL goalies, his goals against are in the bottom third. So while
Ward is stopping the rubber at an acceptable rate, the volume of shots
he's facing are too many, he's faced the fourth most shots in the
league, an indictment of the team's defensive play. Unless there is a
major turnaround on the back end for the Hurricanes, they stand to
miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years after winning the
Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit
Dennis on Twitter.