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Blues acquire Halak from Montreal

by Dave Lozo
Jaroslav Halak, who was being compared to Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden during this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, had his rights traded by the Montreal Canadiens to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday in exchange for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz.

The 25-year-old goaltender is set to become a restricted free agent on July 1 after one of the more remarkable and unexpected runs in playoff history. If the Blues are unable to sign Halak, they will receive compensation depending on the size of the offer sheet. But Blues President John Davidson and GM Doug Armstrong feel that won't be a problem with their new acquistion.

"It was a combination of everything," Davidson said when asked about what made Halak the goalie he and Armstrong wanted. "When you think of where he was drafted (ninth round, 2003) and the road trip he's had to become who he is today, he's excelled in all areas. He helped Montreal get in the playoffs, he played well in the playoffs, he played well in the Olympics. We're just simply excited to have him here in St. Louis.

"Our research tells us about his demeanor, which is very solid. He's one of those players who loves to play, loves to battle. He works extremely hard in practice, understands the position. At his age, we feel the best is ahead of him."

Halak was in his home country of Slovakia when he received word from Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier and said he was surprised by the news and the fact the Canadiens never spoke to him about his status during the offseason.

"They never talked to us about the possibility of a new deal or staying in Montreal," Halak said. "But it never happened. That's why the news I got today was a little bit surprising for me. It was still early and also that's why I was surprised -- it came early. But I'm really excited about the new start."

Halak carried the eighth-seeded Canadiens past the top-seeded Washington Capitals and defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins before running out of gas in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. Halak finished the postseason with a 2.55 goals-against average and a League-leading .923 save percentage -- but the Canadiens decided to hitch their future to Carey Price, the 22-year-old who became an afterthought once Halak got hot toward the end of the regular season.

The Canadiens trailed the Capitals 3-1 in their best-of-7 series, but Halak stepped in after being benched in Game 4 and stopped 131 of 134 shots over the final three games of the series to spark the upset.  Halak continued his heroics in the second round against the Penguins, making 71 saves on 76 shots to help win Games 6 and 7 and overcome a 3-2 deficit in that series.

Price has yet to build on his outstanding rookie season of 2007-08, but now there is no one in Montreal to stand in his way. Halak went 26-13-5 this past season with a 2.40 GAA and .924 save percentage. Price went 13-20-5 with a 2.77 GAA and .912 save percentage. Both Halak and Price entered the offseason as restricted free agents, but it was Halak who was shipped away despite an outstanding performance this spring.

Halak has no hard feelings about the Canadiens' decision and said it was probably best for him and Price that someone was traded.

"I guess that was the best way to do it, to deal one goalie and leave one goalie in Montreal. I was the one who got dealt," Halak said. "I'm very excited that I'm in St. Louis, and I'm looking forward to the new start and fresh start for me."

It's hard to find a comparable situation to Halak's, but goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin backstopped the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup in 2004. He posted a 1.71 GAA and .933 save percentage that spring, but wasn't brought back when he became a free agent after the lockout and signed with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Blues were looking for an upgrade at goaltender with Chris Mason hitting the market as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Mason finished 2009-10 with a 30-22-8 record, a 2.53 GAA and .913 save percentage. Ty Conklin, who is signed through next season, will likely be Halak's backup.

The 21-year-old Eller is a native of Denmark who spent two seasons with Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League before playing for the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL this past season. In 70 games with Peoria, the center had 18 goals and 39 assists. Eller also had 2 goals in 7 games with the Blues in 2009-10.

Schultz, the younger brother of the Capitals' Jeff Schultz, is a more raw prospect who currently plays with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. The 20-year-old right wing had 24 goals and 31 assists in 70 games this past season.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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