The second biggest free agent concern for the Montreal Canadiens, after centre Tomas Plekanec, is how to deal with their goaltenders.
GM Pierre Gauthier’s concerns grew bigger when Jaroslav Halak came out as the teams No. 1 man between the pipes and had a spectacular playoff run.
Halak, through his agent Allan Walsh, had made it quite clear that he wanted to play regularly. He was given the chance by coach Jacques Martin, when Carey Price struggled, and it paid off.
At the beginning of the season, many felt Price would emerge as the top goaltender, making Halak more expendable when the duo became restricted free agents (RFA). Now, it’s not the case.
The question now is whether Price, who is an RFA for the first time, will be wanting to even stay in Montreal. It hasn’t been a good two seasons for Price, as the 22-year-old had moments of brilliance followed by runs of disappointment. The pressure of living and playing in a “What have you done for me, lately?” hockey town like Montreal has to add to his decisions.
The Canadiens know that Price is still learning and would be absolutely foolish to trade away their first round pick in 2005, especially when his stock value is down. For them to do so, it would have to be a massive deal, that evens out long-term for Montreal, to let Price go before he reaches his prime.
Halak’s stock has clearly soared, meaning he’ll seek earn top-dollar at his RFA level and likely be after a long-term deal somewhere. With the Canadiens on a tight cap already, it could be hard for the two sides to come to an agreement without clearing cap room.
In the cap era NHL, the Gauthier and advisor Bob Gainey have to be thinking of strategies and counter measures to keep at least one of these goaltenders. To let both go would be team suicide.
To keep Halak, and move Price, gives Montreal a goalie at the ready to be the No.1 guy. Cedrick Desjardins, who had a tremendous season with the Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL), could be called on as the backup.
Desjardins has seen success at the Junior and ECHL level, winning championships in both, and led his team to the Calder Cup Conference final this season.
"They're going to have to make a decision," said Desjardins in an April 2009 interview with The Hockey News. "When they make that decision, I want them to consider that I'll be there.”
The 24-year-old’s contract is also up. Giving him some incentive to get his shot with the big club might save the Canadiens some money on a quality backup.
The question to keep Halak over Price does bring a bit of risk. Was his playoff run the pinnacle of his career with the Canadiens?
In Price’s case, he’s admitted to wanting to do what’s good for the team and could be easier to negotiate with to stay in Montreal. The Canadiens could be able to find a suitable veteran goalie to take the lead for another year or two while he continues to learn.
The Nashville Predators Dan Ellis could be a leading candidate in that regard.
After losing/splitting the starting job in Music City to Pekka Rinne, Ellis continued to put up respectable numbers and is a goalie strong under high shot totals. If the Canadiens are to be pelted with shots, the way Halak saw in the first two rounds of the playoffs, for another year or so then this is your man.
He’ll be 30, and a UFA, by July 1 with a current salary of $1.75 million and could be a nice fit in the Canadiens cap range.
The Hockey News recently ranked him as one of the “Top 10 Best Free Agents” last week, noting, “Ellis is a guy who will want to go some place he has a chance to steal some minutes, and even take over the No. 1 spot. But he won’t command many dollars to do so.” If Halak’s demands were too great, Ellis could be a good “Plan B” if the price was right. No pun intended.
Of course, Gauthier could work a deal to keep both netminders happy with a respectable salary. At the end of the 2008-09 season, maybe that could have happened. It would be surprising to see him be able to do it now.