Jaroslav Halak was a hero in Montreal during the Canadiens expected and impressive playoff run. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
Pierre Gauthier has been GM of the Montreal Canadiens only 128 days, but he’s clearly not afraid to make bold moves that fall into the high-risk/high-reward/potential-to-blow-up-in-your-face category.
That’s one of the upside factors in his decision to trade playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues for two prospects. There are a number of moving parts to this trade, but the bottom line is the Canadiens hockey department, led by Gauthier, decided its long-term future would be better served by Carey Price than Halak. It was decisive and done without passion. Those are the kinds of decisions Gauthier is paid to make.
But if Halak goes on to become the next Dominik Hasek and Lars Eller and Ian Schultz fail to deliver on their potential, fans in Montreal will remember Rejean Houle’s tenure with fondness in comparison to Gauthier’s. Given the goodwill and reverence Halak built up during the Canadiens run to the Eastern Conference final – the building beside the Bell Centre had “Halak is God” painted on it by a graffiti artist – Gauthier has displayed a willingness to go against the passions of the fan base to do what he thinks is right for the long-term interests of the franchise.
It wasn’t so much that Gauthier chose the up-and-down Price over Halak, it’s that he appeared to have made his decision a long time ago. According to Halak’s agent, Allan Walsh, the Canadiens and Halak had not a single word of communication or negotiation since the end of the season. In fact, Walsh said the two sides never once talked about a new contract.
“As far as the cost of a player, we evaluate it ourselves,” Gauthier said. “We don’t need to talk to agents to know how much it’s going to cost. The system is pretty clear, especially for someone who has arbitration rights, so you have a pretty good idea of how much it’s going to cost, at least short-term.”
You do? Because the prevailing sentiment around the hockey world was that nobody had any idea what kind of money Halak would have received had he gone to arbitration this summer.
“I wouldn’t even begin to guess,” one agent said.
The problem with Halak’s situation is that there are no comparables, which are a major factor in arbitration cases.
Unlike Price, Halak had arbitration rights this summer. Had he elected for arbitration, the Canadiens would have had the right to choose a one- or two-year award. It’s unlikely Halak would have filed because of the uncertainty, but the Canadiens could have opted to take Halak to arbitration, in which case Halak would have had the choice of a one- or two-year contract.
By dealing Halak, Gauthier no longer has to deal with that uncertainty, which was certainly a factor considering he still has to come to terms with the likes of Tomas Plekanec, Price and Maxim Lapierre this summer. And it became clear when Gauthier talked about the trade that salary cap management was a major factor in making the deal.
And here’s where it benefits the Canadiens to stick with Price over Halak. Price has no arbitration rights and, consequently, little leverage over his contract situation aside from sitting out if he can’t reach a deal with the Canadiens. The Canadiens, on the other hand, can pursue one of two options. The first would be to give Price his qualifying offer on a one-year deal at just more than $800,000, mindful it would be a two-way contract.
Or they could say to Price, “You’re our man and we’re willing to show our faith in you by offering you a two-year deal at one-way money,” and could probably get him for the two seasons for a cap hit of about $1.2 million per season. If Price rebounds and consistently shows the form he did in his rookie season, it will look like a bargain.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, get two prospects, one of which (Eller) was a first-round pick just three years ago. His upside potential is ultimately that of a two-way No. 2 center who will give you some size and contribute at both ends of the ice. Schultz, who is the younger brother of Washington Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz and is probably a few years away from the NHL, is a gritty winger who could develop into a Mike McPhee-type of player.
There’s also the sense the Canadiens had a luxury in two NHL-caliber goalies and were clearly going to have to trade one of them. Perhaps Gauthier knew this was the best deal he was going to get for Halak and that as teams got closer to July 1, the market for goalies would go from being a seller’s market to a buyer’s market.
Would Gauthier have gotten a better offer if he’d waited until the draft next weekend in Los Angeles? Would he have hit the jackpot if he had signed both his goalies, then waited until the trade deadline next season to make his move?
We’ll never know. But say what you will about the deal good or bad, it was a bold move that was not made lightly. Teams and fans in the NFL, where the salary cap and its ramifications are a way of life, have learned that these kinds of deals have to be made. But five years after the cap, the NHL teams and followers still appear to be finding their way.
But it still comes down to the one crucial decision made by Gauthier and whether or not he made the right gamble 128 days into his tenure could ultimately define his legacy as Canadiens GM.
VIDEO: THN Puck Panel – Breaking down the Jaroslav Halak trade
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
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