Last summer, the Montreal Canadiens were faced with a difficult decision. For some time, the team had employed two high-end young goaltenders: Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price. Halak's stock was highthe Canadiens had won two playoff rounds, upsetting the heavily-favored Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they'd done it on the back of some superlative play from Halak. After playing 45 games during the regular season and managing a .924 save percentage, Halak played 18 more in the playoffs while maintaining a .923 save percentage.
In contrast, Carey Price had long been one of the game's best goaltending prospects, and while he hadn't had a bad season (41 games played, with a .912 save percentage), he wasn't in the same range as Halak. Over 135 playoff minutes split across four games, his save percentage was just .890.
Yet, when it came time to trade a player away, the Canadiens traded Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis for 2007 first round pick Lars Eller and 2008 third round pick Ian Schultz. Despite the middling nature of the return, so far the decision has worked out relatively well for MontrealJaroslav Halak has not been especially good in St. Louis, while Carey Price has been a standout in Montreal. Is this a trend that's likely to continue?
There have been a number of good comparisons between Halak and Price to dateperhaps the most outstanding of which is Chris Boyle's October 2010 article defending the Canadiens' decision to retain Price. There is, however, something I would like to explore which I have not seen written elsewhere: a year-by-year comparison of performance, adjusted for age. Halak is slightly more than two years older than Price, and thus for a fair comparison we should look at how they performed at the same age. We'll start with their respective 19-year-old seasons, as that's the age Halak started playing Canadian major junior.
At 19, Halak played 47 games for Lewiston of the QMJHL, recording a .913 save percentage. Price's statistics line looks remarkably similar at the same age: 46 games played with a .917 save percentage. Both had young, highly-touted backups: Jonathan Bernier played 23 games behind Halak, and despite a poor win-loss record had a comparable .909 save percentage, while Chet Pickard's .903 save percentage in 29 games was well back of Price. Particularly when we consider that Bernier was 16 and Pickard 17, we must view Price as superior at this age. Price also had an opportunity to do something Halak did not: he made the jump to the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs in the playoffs, supplanted a 21-year old Halak and won the Calder Cup with a .936 save percentage over 22 playoff games.
Both players turned professional at the age of 20, and both split time between multiple teams in the Canadiens' system. Halak was phenomenal, with a .932 save percentage for the ECHL's Long Beach Ice Dogs (no other 'tender was able to top .900) and then did almost the same thing in the AHL, where his .927 save percentage was better than any of the team's other five goalies (four of whom would have or had previously had extended stints in the NHL) by a wide margin. Price's .896 save percentage in 10 AHL games was disappointing in comparison, but the other team he played for was the Canadiens, and he put in a very solid .920 save percentage over 41 games. At the trade deadline, then-general manager Bob Gainey was so convinced that he sent Price's goaltending partner Cristobal Huet to Washington.
Price played 52 games in Montreal at the age of 21 but did not replicate his achievements of the previous season, posting a below average save percentage for a starter: .905. Halak played just 16 games at the NHL level, and his save percentage was a near-perfect reflection of Price's: .906. In the AHL, where he spent the bulk of his time, his save percentage of .932 was once again remarkably good.
Halak maintained his steady play at the age of 22, posting an .929 save percentage in the AHL and looking more impressive during his brief NHL run (.934 save percentage). Price's 22-year old season was last year, and despite the fact he was outshone by a 24-year old Halak, he performed rather well: a .912 save percentage is just slightly above average for an NHL starter.
Price turned 23 over the summer, and has rebounded nicely. Through 52 games he has a .920 save percentage, which places him 10th in the league, as well as a .928 even-strength save percentage. He has also racked up the various derivative and team-influenced numbers that make sportswriters hearts go all a-flutter: a 27-19-6 record, 2.39 GAA and six shutouts. Halak managed a similar, albeit slightly lesser performance in 34 games at the same age, posting a .915 overall save percentage and .922 save percentage at even-strength.
We know what's happened to Halak since: he was brilliant last season, and okay this season. His track record at every level reveals him to be not only competent, but likely an above-average NHL starter over the long haul. It is likely that his disappointing run so far this season is an aberration, and that we will see him rebound moving forward.
That does not mean that the Canadiens were wrong to move him. I was not impressed with the players Montreal acquired for Halak: Eller managed only 57 points in 70 games at the AHL level for a middling Peoria team, while Schultz is a player best described by words like "energetic" and "gritty." That said, the market for goaltenders over the last few seasons has been weak, thanks in large part to the success of teams with average (or worse) goalies, so perhaps this was all Montreal could obtain for Halak. In any case, Carey Price has not just superior draft pedigree, but when compared to Halak's impressive record at the same age, somehow managed to consistently put up better numbers. Based on that, it seems likely that when all is said and done, Price will have the better career.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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