Friday, May 02, 2008

Changing Goalies In the Playoffs

It is generally a bad sign if your team changes its goalie during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The playoffs are a time to put your best possible lineup on the ice and see how far they can take you. If things are not working out, most of the time you will soon be eliminated. You likely started the playoffs with your number one goalie in net and it is rare that things will get any better when you switch to number two.

Of course there are some high profile exceptions to the rule where teams have had Stanley Cup runs when the changed goalies midway. Most recently, this happened with the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes. Their supposed number one goalie Martin Gerber was playing terribly. He put up a .856 saves percentage in the 2006 playoffs, so changing to Cam Ward made sense as Gerber was doing so badly. Ward wound up winning the Conn Smythe (although it was a poor choice for the award). Nevertheless, the move worked out well for Carolina. This season, Detroit may accomplish a cup run with a goalie change as well. Dominik Hasek was the presumed number one and has not been able to get his game on track (he has a .888 saves percentage). Detroit has switched to Chris Osgood and so far it has worked out. Detroit is in a rare and enviable situation where both of their goalies have led teams to Stanley Cups (Osgood in 1998 and Hasek in 2002). Hasek has had an up and down season due to injury and age and it was clear that if he did not have his game together at playoff time, he would be replaced. Most teams do not have the luxury of replacing their starter with a player who appeared in this season's All Star Game. Detroit is fortunate that they do.

Changing your goalie in the playoffs to try to shake up a team that is not playing so well, rarely works. Montreal tried this year. Carey Price is the presumed number one goalie who has not played any spectacular games in the Philadelphia series, but he has not been horrible either. For the most part, the entire Montreal team has not managed any spectacular performances and that finds them behind the Flyers 3 games to 1. Price has a .907 saves percentage, which is acceptable though not terrific. In an attempt to shake up the team, Jaroslav Halak was played in game four of the series. This was a move suggested by Mikado in the comments of this thread. Halak might have a lot of potential but he is even more unproven than the rookie Carey Price (Halak only has 22 career NHL games played). Now is not the time to test an unproven goalie. Now is the time to play the best lineup that you have. If you cannot win with your best, you cannot win. It's better to lose with your best players than to lose with some of your key players on the bench. This was a move that was unlikely to pay off for Montreal. Price was playing well enough that it was unlikely there would be much improvement with any other goalie. There was no reason to believe Halak was better than Price and Halak is even more unproven. The lack of strength in goal for Montreal was predictable when they traded Cristobal Huet on trade deadline day. It is not an enviable position to be heading into the playoffs with two rookie goalies and that is where Montreal put themselves.

Changing goalies in playoff time is usually a move of desperation. Desperation moves rarely pay off. Montreal attempted this desperate move and predictably it failed. Montreal may or may not have gone down 3 games to one anyway if they played Price in game four, but at least they would have played the best goalie they had instead of giving away a game by playing their backup.

I consider the trade of Huet by Montreal to be medium-risk, high-reward. I believe the dedication of their fanbase allows them to take this kind of risk, because they are unlikely to alienate that fanbase.

Montreal was hoping to find another Patrick Roy in their organization and was giving Price a chance to demonstrate that he was that guy. It's clear that he's no Patrick Roy, at least not yet.

However, it's obvious that Price played very well after the trade deadline. If he has fallen down a bit during the playoffs, it really is only that he hasn't been able to carry his team.

In any event, I wouldn't quite give Montreal a bad grade for the Huet trade (yet).

I absolutely agree that they should have stayed with Price and made this his series to win or lose. They could have made this part of his motivation for the future, an experience to draw on next time he needs to summon intensity in the face of adversity. Now instead he will always be wondering if they are going to pull him again after his next mediocre game.
The problem with the Huet trade is the return. Montreal got a 2nd round pick in 2009. That's it. That isn't enough for a playoff bound team to give up their number one goalie even if he is headed for free agency.
1) Mojo- we understand the 'Medium risk part of giving Price the starters mantle. What we failed to see from the outset of the deal is the 'high reward' part.
2) If BG got a 1st rounder out of the caps that would be a slightly different story. Its a late 2nd rounder(It was originally Anaheim's 2nd round pick)
3) Not saying Huet would have led them to wins, but certainly he would have been a more attractive alternative than the green Halak
The thing about this whole Price vs. Halak vs. Huet debate is that it is ultimately not particularly relevant to the series. Montreal's critical problem in the series has not been their own goaltending, it has been Philly's goaltending -- or perhaps more accurately, Montreal's lack of scoring.

Either due to Biron's superhuman performance, or lack of puck luck, or lack of accuracy or all of the above, Montreal has not been able to generate as much scoring as one would expect from the number of quality shots and scoring chances they have created. That's how Montreal found themselves losing three games that they have thoroughly dominated in terms of time of possession, scoring chances, and practically every statistic except the two most important ones -- goals for and goals against.

Philly has been scoring more than their scoring chances would normally indicate, yes, but Montreal has been playing well enough that if they managed to capitalize at a normal rate, that would likely not have mattered, and the decision of playing Halak or Price would have been moot. Montreal's lack of scoring have exacerbated any goaltending issues because the goaltenders were put in a position where they need to carry a sputtering offense, and couldn't.

As for Anaheim's second round pick in 2009, it remains to be seen how low that will end up. With Selanne and Niedermeyer likely to retire, there's a very real chance Anaheim might do worse in the Western conference than an improving Washingtom team might in the East.

I feel the return was a moot point, however; the decision to go with Price had been made, and it was a decision that IMHO was aimed at next year rather than this year, a decision aimed at giving Carey Price more experience. With this in mind, keeping Huet would have all but untenable; he is simply too good to stay on the bench, and was not going to be retained for next year.

While Montreal was a surprising first seed this year, I don't think Gainey is viewing this team as a win-now team, rather as a team in transition that is ahead of schedule, so he is still moving with an eye towards the long-term.
The problem with the Huet trade is that it weakened the chances of a playoff run. While other teams were bulking up for the playoffs, Montreal was getting weaker.

It is smart that Montreal did not mortgage their future to win now, but instead they mortgaged their chances of winning now. Had Montreal managed to get a better return for Huet it might have been worthwhile, but a second round pick in 2 years doesn't strike me as a big enough return to give up your number one goalie that close to the playoffs.

Will Montreal have as good a chance at the cup next year? Its not obvious they will. Koivu and Kovalev are not getting younger. They do have some young players who will likely take a step forward in the Kostitsyns and Latendresse but will any of them be ready to take over if Kovalev or Koivu drop off next year? I would bet that they wont.

Montreal hurt their chances of a cup run and they did so with limited return. That is a mistake.

With the hindsight of the series so far, one can argue that the problem is Montreal is running into a hot goalie in Biron, but that problem is made bigger because Montreal does not seem to have an answer in their goal. Price and Halak do not seem ready to carry a team deep into the playoffs (and that was a predictable situation). Huet and Price would have had Montreal in a stronger position in goal this year and that was given up for a marginal return.
It's difficult to imagine Montreal being all that much weaker next year than last. This is still a young, rebuilding team (the youngest in the playoffs, I heard mentioned) and outside of Koivu and Kovalev, none of the key players could be defined as aging. It is not just the matter of the Kostitsyns and Latendresse -- key players such as Higgins, Plekanec, and Komisarek are still very early in their careers, and should continue their development.

Before this season, everyone foresaw Montreal as a team whose window would start next year at best. They are ahead of schedule, but it's still a team in transition.

Keeping Huet for a Cup run also hinges on the belief the Price/Huet duo would be considerably more effective than Price/Halak -- which is often asserted as an axiom, given the propensity of the Montreal media to manufacture controversy and Huet's play with and without Price in the big club, might not be as obvious as it might seem at first blush. Having both Huet and Price has been a media distraction all year, and neither goalie seemed to perform as well together as when they were apart, especially Huet. I am not convinced at all that having Huet on hand would have been helpful, and it could quite possibly have made things worse.

I think in the long run, it is more important to give Carey Price playoff experience for those future years, rather than keep Huet for a putative improvement on the odds of a single Cup run that everyone is already giving away to whoever wins the Western Conference. Keeping Huet would have made it very difficult to give Carey Price the starts he was given after Huet's trade, in the playoffs of otherwise; the return for the trade was unimportant, the trade was about giving Price the uncontested starting job and not confining a goaltender with Huet's qualities to the role of benched distraction.

It can certainly be argued that the decision to trade Huet was a mistake... But it is oversimplifying it to simply assert that the Habs would've been in better shape by keeping Huet, or that the current playoffs are more important than future considerations in the decision.
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