Monday, August 20, 2007

Building a contender: goaltending

This is the first in an ongoing series, examining the Habs more or less line by line.

This post examines where any good GM ought to start when building a contender: between the pipes. The Habs are in as good a situation as any team going into this next season. Cristobal Huet is the incumbent starter. Since dethroning King Jose some time back, he has been at or near the top of the league in save percentage.

I'd argue that this is a more important stat than GAA, as it's typically a better indication of how good your defense is. Dominik Hasek was near the top last year in GAA, but faced a paltry amount of shots. And well he should, given the guys in front of him: Dany Markov, Nik Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, etc.

The Habs, on the other hand, didn't give much help on D. Souray and Rivet were great in the locker room, but are a little slow for today's NHL. And when injuries and illness hit, Janne Niinimaa as the veteran backup surely tried many a Habs' fan's pulmonary activity.

But back to Cristobal. He is a cool customer in the crease, seemingly always in position and therefore rarely in need of the spectacular save. The opposite could be said for his predecessor, who make many a highlight reel with his acrobatic saves. Huet doesn't have Jose's lateral mobility, so positioning is critical. How many times does the puck hit him squarely in the CH? He makes shooters look like they have bad aim, but I think they just wonder how he can always be in the right place at the right time.

As much as I admire his game, I have questions about Cristobal's ability to carry the load 65-70 games per year. He's never been a full time starter before his fortuitous landing in Habland. The year before, he took over mid-season and played only 36 games -- almost all of them in eye-opening form.

He started off last season not quite as well, allowing David Aebischer back into contention as the #1. But he rounded into form again only to fall apart in late December. He then tore his hamstring, and yet came back ahead of schedule late in the season. How's that for up and down?

My theory? He doesn't have the stamina for a full time goalie. Play him 2 out of every 3 starts or so, and that ought to give him the rest he needs.

And this plays right into the Canadiens' strengths: they have potentially three goalies who could capably back up Huet. Jaroslav Halak is the incumbent, a veritable Cristobal Jr: cool as ice in the nets, and usually impeccably positioned. He looks like he needs to learn some shooters' tendencies, but that will come with time.

Yann Danis is the oft-forgotten potential backup. Prior to last year, he was the Hamilton Bulldogs' go-to guy. That is, until Jaroslav started making noise last year. Then when Huet went down, Halak got the call over Danis. I remember seeing Danis as Theo's backup a few years back, and was impressed.

So I wouldn't blame him if he were a little frustrated. And it gets worse for him -- but good for the Habs. Danis now has to contend with not one young star in Halak, but also Carey Price. Bob drafted Price a few years back, puzzling many as he already had a Conn Smythe/Vezina winner locked up in a multi-year contract. But in any sport, you always draft the best player available. If you end up having an embarassment of riches at one position, then you work the trade market.

That's what will happen in Hab land, sooner or later. I think Bob will/should be patient with Price. It's never a good idea to rush a goalie. But if Price should prove his worth sooner rather than later, then someone's got to move. Price is only worth bringing up if he's ready to take over. If he's the goalie of the future, why have him riding the pine when he could be playing full time in Hamilton?

In my next post, I'll examine a possible trade scenario, one that will take advantage of the Habs' goaltending strength and take care of their most glaring weakness going into this season.

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