Friday, May 15, 2009

Carey Price: Thoroughbred In The Gates?

Getting This Horse Up And Running

Is Carey a thoroughbred? Has Gainey and the team made mistakes with his development?

If the management group have committed to Carey Price in the way it seems they have, then really these points are moot.

Thanks for letting me air my frustrations on them. But now the time has come now to move onto real-world practical scenarios. This closing segment on Carey and his care treats you to some of my ideas on how things can be done better on the Canadiens, assuming a cornerstone named Price.


Back-up goaltender

It all sounds very logical – get a veteran back-up goaltender to help Carey Price develop and act as insurance in case he stumbles again. I do have a problem with this approach, however: it is not worth losing Jaroslav Halak over.

Let me elaborate.

I assume (based on lots of experience now) that Gainey and his new coach will press on with the “development by minutes approach” they have been implementing with Carey Price to this point. That said, to keep with the current progress and build his endurance, I think it would be reasonable to predict that a healthy Carey Price will be favoured for the start in ≥2/3 of Canadiens games in 2009-10.

For a back-up that means 20-odd games over the season. For a mentor, that suits. One could imagine many a graying netminder stepping into such a role. However, we also want this back-up to be reliable (and dare I say it, even good/great).

Now last time I checked good/great veteran goaltenders of the free agent variety don’t like to consign themselves to a back-up role before the head-to-head play has been evaluated, no matter what the salary. Sure, someone like Manny Fernandez played the back-up in Boston, and Huet did in Chicago, but they went in looking to be the starter. In Montreal, the starter role is not on offer. In my mind, that rules out a lot of eligible candidates.

So, let’s say then we forego the "capable stopper" part of the description. We sign up Curtis Joseph or other washed up vet and their now sub 0.700 save percentage and have the guy room with Carey for the season while Price takes on 72 games himself.

It’s a possibility, but not one that I like.

First of all, it undermines the original veteran back-up idea. All we've done is replaced inexperienced Halak with more Carey Price. There's no insurance, and no matter how hood the mentor is, I'm not sold on that. If anyone is ready to bet that Carey Price has undergone his last deep slump, it’s not me. I’m not a fan of burning another season, so I like the idea of insurance.

In that case, let’s forget the mentor – just get a veteran who can come in and be reliable and take over from Carey for a few weeks at a time when things get bumpy. Martin Biron, for example.

Not ideal for me either. I mean, we’re back to where we started aren’t we?

Halak already does that job. Why pay Biron to be an older Halak? It would be foolish to pay $2-3 million more for the mere tag veteran. Nevermind, the chance that Gainey will find a goalie as good as Jaro with the same tolerance for back-up duty (yet more experience) is slim indeed. No, if this vet can’t be a mentor and play with the plan for Price, then I don’t think we pay over the odds to make this type of move. This brings me to my next point…


Goaltending coach

I am not the first, and I won’t be the last to bring up this idea. If mentor is what Carey needs, surely the position of goaltending coach is a place we can park this guy.

Next year would be Roland Melanson’s twelfth season as assistant coach of the Montreal Canadiens. And, while I congratulate him on the achievement, it might be time to remind him that “all good things must come to an end”. It may be harsh to criticize him as a coach with so little understanding of what he actually does, but he has now presided over so many goaltending blowouts that one surely must question his tenure.

He has successfully presided over the rise of Jose Theodore, Mathieu Garon, Cristobal Huet and now Price and Halak. But it seems every time one of his pupils begins to ask questions of their game or their confidence, Rollie the goalie doesn’t have the answers. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t have the answers. Perhaps it’s because they weren’t asking for the type of answers he was giving. Maybe they can't relate to him, who knows.

Carey Price for his part clearly needs to be nurtured. I think we can all agree that the cool, independent image that we were sold two summers ago has been destroyed. He is needy, he is insecure – or in other words, he’s a regular goalie. We all remember Carey’s first season and his first successes. Positioning was the name of the game and rebounds were rare. He once knew how to provide the commodity we were after. In trying to improve, he has lost the above average abilities he had before. I, for one, would take those back and have him stabilize there. Sometimes a mentor is all a young charge needs to find what they once knew. And I don’t think all the calls for a veteran back-up are misguided in that way.

So who can be the man for the job?

Not Rollie.

Francois Allare? Likely the greatest technician available, but probably not the mentor for Carey.

I’d look for someone who’s been through what he has and come out alright. Someone who’s played the mentor before. My target would be Jeff Hackett. Who else could you find that was drafted high, started slow and survived a shocking 0.856 save percentage season to come back and be Canadiens star and teacher to Vezina winner?


Practice culture

Carey was failed this season by his laid-back attitude. He was failed by the laid back attitudes of those around him as well. I remember reading, in the deepest, darkest days of his slump that Carey had been working hard in practice
“On CKAC this afternoon, Martin McGuire reported Price has been working very hard in practice. He's the first one on the ice with the injured guys and often the last to leave.

Implicit in McGuire's praise is the notion that Price's work habits have not always been exemplary.”


It wasn’t the only article talking about lax habits in training.

He wasn’t great that next game as hoped, he was horrible. But practice doesn’t work that way. Practice takes time. So, presumably still in his bucke-down mode, Carey did get the next start and the next and the next and the next. And fuelled by his hard work on off days, it was probably Carey’s most impressive stretch of the season. He got four straight domes from a fed-up Tobalev (which says a lot). He let in a mere 8 goals, got 5 important points for the Habs and kept them in every game.

The connection between practice and success was unfortunately overlooked or forgotten a month later, though as more optional practices were handed down by Gainey and the one player who should have been as motivated as anyone to correct his gaps sat a few out – including during the playoffs.

It’s a simple thing really – practice makes perfect. In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, he repeated the estimate that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at something. That goes for skating, playing guitar, glove saves, stick-handling (see Kovalev). This recap from the book says it all:
The Story of Success challenges assumptions about innate genius and natural-born talent. Through a series of detailed examples, Gladwell explains away these gifts by attributing them to practice, timing, circumstance, upbringing, culture, and opportunity. In other words, those really smart, successful people we admire – Mozart, Bill Gates, the Beatles – weren’t born with natural talent. Instead, they had the right upbringing, were in the right place at the right time, and through 10,000 hours of hard work and a few lucky opportunities, landed success.”

This should be mandatory reading for Halak, Price and all the Canadiens. People often wonder how to emulate the Red Wings (looking for easy things like signing free agents, or getting a big man for the PP), but nothing can replace the hard work in practice that has kept them on top since the Bowman years and continues with Mike Babcock.


Internal competition

More than a win-you’re-in scheme, I would like to see some serious internal competition. Assuming it’ll be Price/Halak, the seeds are already there.

Here’s an idea of what I might do. From the beginning of the season sit both goalies down. Explain the situation: Carey will play 2/3 of regular season games, Jaro will play 1/3. Here’s where it gets interesting – the goalie who plays best wins the right to the first two playoff games. Stats considered could be saves, wins, giveaways and more. The scoring would be laid out and prorated based on to 2-1 ratio.

The point of the complicated scheme is that these boys have to start caring about being better than each other. That’s the starting point to them caring about exceeding the average level of play across the league. It doesn't have to be this formal (or this complex). Whatever stirs the young men. Hopefully the reward or consequences they can see on a day-to-day basis, with their competition right there will fuel them t work for what they want (one can only hope that's a playoff start...).


Improve communication

On-ice communication, that is.

With a soft-spoken Russian running the D and a couple of shy goalies, it’s no wonder the Canadiens run around following each other all over the defensive zone.

One of the benefits of better practice would be better understanding among players, but also confident leaders will emerge from defensive pairs and goalie teams.

Ultimately one person has to be in charge, otherwise you are just hoping for coverage as a unit...


Upgrade on D


Rather than pouring money into a veteran back-up, it would make more sense to allocate some funds to upgrade the defence at the 1st, 2nd or 3rd D level. That would mean Komisarek could be a comfortable number 4/5 with Gorges and a natural 6th like Bouillon could take his rightful place.

Ultimately, I would like Bouwmeester. He’s young, can skate, can cover the back, has long reach, can shoot and clearly has an understanding of the game. He’s also young and could conceivably still get even better. But Jay may be looking at top top money, and Montreal, handcuffed by the taxes may just not be able to outbid. That’s why I like Johnny Oduya UFA as a target. He’s youngish, from a good system and plays some effective if not spectacular D.

For Price/Halak, the simple addition of a player like Oduya could reduce shots, time in zone and importantly rebounds. It would be a stats enhancer, which in turn could be a big confidence boost to the young goalies.


Defensive coach

Finally, in the same vein, assigning a defencman to coach the defencemen alone could really help overall team defence and by extension the goaltenders.

Nevermind the goalies for a minute. We’ve done nothing but draft defencemen for 4 years – can we really afford to have the brilliant coordinator who came up with the coverage plans we saw this season taking those assets under the wing? I think that answer is clear as day.

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If another season is about to get underway with Price pre-selected for important starts, I think it’s high time we start tipping the scales for the boy. Get him a coach who he responds to, get him to practice well and practice hard, light fires under him with competition or whatever fires him up, sort out the defenders and bolster their numbers with people who can defend.

There’s been enough hoping things are going to turn out right. This team mustn’t accept another season launched with hope masqueraded as patience. There are tried and true methods that work.

It’s too late to draft a thoroughbred who comes in and saves the franchise at 19.

It’s too late to develop the most promising prospect the organization has had in a decade in the sensible way.

It’s not too late to install the best coaches possible, sign players that fit the needs and install a work ethic that pays dividends in the spring. It's not too late to take the lessons from the past two seasons on board and apply them to the developing team for the future.

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