August is almost here and one mystery Canadiens fans would like solved is a contract for starter Carey Price. Now the anointed number one goaltender, little to no information has leaked from either side as Price’s representatives negotiate (we presume) with Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier. Is it possible Gauthier has made a fatal error only months into his new tenure as the decision maker in Montreal?
Let’s consider his course of action in dealing with the goaltending “crisis” that afflicted the Habs coming into the offseason. Firstly, the media largely fabricated this “crisis” - it’s not a crisis when a team possesses a plethora of young talent, it’s simply a decision for the future. After all, both goaltenders were on the record that they would be happy to share the load another year. Secondly, crowd favourite and playoff saviour Jaroslav Halak, like Carey Price, was a restricted free agent, s so while the possibility of an offer from another team loomed, his rights were protected. Yet Gauthier chose to cut bait rather than fish out the month of June.
I should point out that Gauthier had a very difficult decision to make. A younger goaltender, picked fifth overall, versus the underdog and fan favourite. As any educated investor would, Gauthier sold high. Halak was dealt to St. Louis for promising young centre Lars Eller and WHL power forward Ian Schultz. As most Habs fans wondered at the time, what was Gauthier doing making such a move without having Price already signed to a contract? Unfortunately, Canadiens fans are still wondering the same thing.
Dealing Halak without even starting contract discussions with Price gave the Price camp all of the power - at least with Halak around there was the potential for Gauthier to use the Habs playoff hero as a reasonable bargaining chip, suggesting he would be signed and start next year. Habs fans were buoyed by the acquisition of Nashville goaltender Dan Ellis who, at 29 and with solid career numbers, seemed a competent second option should Price falter. That optimism lasted two days, after which Ellis departed Montreal as a free agent for Tampa Bay.
Who is now the threat to Price’s place as the Habs 2010 starting goaltender - the newly signed Alex Auld? AHL stalwart Curtis Sanford? Clearly, control of the negotiation process largely rests with #31, Carey Price.
Various suggestions from noted hockey personalities note one of two things: Price either wants a short term deal at three million a year, or a long term deal in the four million dollar neighbourhood. This is bound to frustrate Canadiens fans as Jaroslav Halak signed for $3.75 million a year and commented on Montreal radio just weeks ago that he would have taken the same offer from the Habs. It just never came.
Potential comparable contracts for the Price deal include Kari Lehtonen, who Dallas signed to a three-year deal at $3.55 million per year, and Pekka Rinne, who is signed at $3.4 million for two more years with Nashville. However, the worrisome number for Habs fans? Anaheim starter Jonas Hiller has just three more wins than Carey Price - and he is signed for four years at $4.5 million a season. A contract at $4 million a year suddenly doesn’t seem like a shot in the dark for a young netminder like Price. Sure, he hasn’t blown the doors off as a starting goaltender, but he did win a seven game playoff series, and he’s only one season removed from being an all star.
Bottom line? Carey Price has an agent who is well paid because he isn’t going to settle for anything less than the top dollar available. Given the goaltenders previously mentioned, logic seems to suggest a contract for price in the $3-$4 million range is likely. Is $2 million a year impossible? No, but as time ticks away it’s unlikely. And with only $4.7 million left in cap space to work with, Pierre Gauthier is going to have to earn his keep negotiating with his keeper. A contract below $3 million might allow the Habs to revisit signing a key figure from 2010’s playoff run, Dominic Moore. But without some substantial give from Carey Price’s side in negotiations, the cap room to make a Moore signing, or something equivalent (say Eric Belanger, perhaps?) seems all but impossible.
Carey Price has the Habs over a barrel - but only because of a situation orchestrated by Pierre Gauthier. Would Price have agreed to a lower contract before Halak was dealt, on the condition the Habs were his team for 2010-2011? Would Halak’s value have increased had Gauthier held onto him at the draft? Halak made save after save through the Canadiens miraculous playoff run, to the extent that journalists who had covered the Habs since the 70s, and 60s in some cases, questioned whether he was putting on the best playoff show in Canadiens history. Unless Lars Eller does indeed turn out to be “The Danish Peter Forsberg” as he is often called, questions about the handling of Halak’s trade will likely be asked for years to come. Inevitably, if Price doesn’t sign soon, the word “holdout” is going to start entering headlines in Quebec. With the hero Halak minding a net far South of Montreal, fans won’t take kindly to a kid demanding more money than most families make in a lifetime.
To recap: Halak is a Blue, Price is unsigned, and Alex Auld is a Montreal Canadiens. In the end, one can’t help but wonder if things couldn’t have been done differently in situations such as this. I would suggest that in this case not only could they have been done differently, but much more effectively.