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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, you'd laugh.

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 full seasons.

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 the fall.

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 glaring spotlight.

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 and reactions.

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 Stanley Cup.

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.


 

 

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Nov. 16, 2010 Sweet Blues under the Arch
Nov. 01, 2010 A Fine Mess
Oct. 07, 2010 Two Bucks on Canucks
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