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Canadiens' greatest goalie debated by NHL.com writers

Price is Montreal's all-time wins leader, but Plante, Roy, Dryden in conversation

NHL.com @NHLdotcom

Carey Price has the most wins in the history of the Montreal Canadiens after defeating the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 on Tuesday.

It was his 315th NHL victory, all with the Canadiens --- one more than Jacques Plante. But does that make him the best goalie in the history of the Canadiens?

We posed that question to a panel of five NHL.com writers. The answers are surprising, and the passion behind the reasoning is undeniable.

 

Tim Campbell, staff writer

Before my esteemed colleagues divert the conversation to the technical and clinical, allow me to make the sentimental pitch for Jacques Plante as the best goalie to play for the Montreal Canadiens.

Plante is the perfect combination of a winner and a pioneer, blending ability and gumption to pile up 314 wins in 556 games for the Canadiens from 1952 to 1963.

He is well known for being the first modern-era goalie to wear a mask in an NHL game, on Nov. 1, 1959, and he popularized the practice to the point that his decision has been romanticized and lionized extensively, though at the time it was seen as far more rebellious.

Behind his legendary tale are numbers that a hockey fan, especially us traditionalists, cannot help but love.

Six times a Stanley Cup winner (1953, then five straight from 1956 to 1960), Plante also won the Vezina Trophy, then given to the goalie on the team that allowed the fewest goals during the regular season, seven times, six of those with the Canadiens. In 1961-62, he won the Vezina as well as the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.

Of course, the Canadiens were stacked with Hockey Hall of Famers during Plante's time there, but he had a goals-against average of 2.22 and save percentage of .920 while in Montreal, numbers that were elite for his time.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1978, named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in 2017 and, hopefully, will be anointed through this NHL.com roundtable as the best goalie for the Canadiens.

Video: Jacques Plante changed game when he donned mask

 

Mike Zeisberger, staff writer

During the countless road hockey games of my youth on our dead-end street in Scarborough, Ontario, I'd always lean on my goalie stick the way the great Ken Dryden did.

That's why it's so hard to go against him in this exercise. But that's what I'm going to do.

When it comes to the debate about who's the greatest goalie in Canadiens history, has anyone ever done more with less than Patrick Roy?

Consider this: The Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup 20 times since 1943. Of those, at least one of Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau or Guy Lafleur was on 18 of those championship teams. 

Each of those three players is a Hall of Famer. Jacques Plante, the worthy pick of colleague Tim Campbell, played with Richard and Beliveau; Dryden with Beliveau and Lafleur.

Dryden also played behind arguably the best cache of defensemen to be on the same team: Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. Each also in the Hall.

Roy had no such Hall of Fame support up front. He, in fact, was the player who carried the Canadiens, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1986 and 1993, the last two times the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.

The 1985-86 Canadiens finished seventh in the 21-team NHL with 87 points (40-33-7) and were not among the favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Final, let alone win it. But Roy put the team on his back in the postseason with a 1.93 GAA and .923 save percentage.

Seven years later, the Canadiens finished third in the Adams Division with 102 points (48-30-6), two behind the Quebec Nordiques and seven away from the Boston Bruins. In one of the more impressive feats in playoff history, they went 10-1 in overtime games on the way to the Cup.

Roy's swagger was intoxicating, especially in overtime. After robbing Los Angeles Kings forward Luc Robitaille in OT of Game 4 of the 1993 Final (with forward Tomas Sandstrom ready to pounce on the rebound), he stared down Sandstrom and winked at him. 

Canadiens fans will never forget that moment. Or the goalie who produced it.

Video: Patrick Roy won Stanley Cup four times, three Vezinas

 
Kevin Woodley, correspondent

It's hard to argue with either Plante or Roy as the greatest goalie in Canadiens history, especially factoring in their roles in pioneering the position -- Plante with the introduction of the mask, and Roy in popularizing the butterfly -- and status among the all-time NHL greats.

Comparing save percentage across eras is problematic, especially since we lack the contextual data to properly incorporate shot quality between goalies in the same season even now. Plus, the statistic wasn't recorded during Plante's first three seasons in Montreal. Those comparisons also don't factor in the greatness of the Canadiens teams in front of Plante and Ken Dryden as noted by Mike Zeisberger in comparison to Roy, and applicable to Price now.

Still, it seems worth noting that Dryden comes out on top by a significant margin relative to his peers during their time in Montreal. In seven full seasons, Dryden posted a save percentage well above the NHL average, including a .927 in 1975-76 that was a career-best .037 above the League average of .890 that season. In total, Dryden averaged .0283 above the NHL save percentage in his seven seasons. Roy was .0175 during his 10 full seasons in Montreal, with a single-season best of .031 in 1989-90; Plante's impressive save percentage numbers were .0099 above the NHL average during his eight seasons in Montreal when save percentage was recorded, with a best of .019 in 1958-59; and Price is currently at .0058 in 12 seasons, peaking at .019 in 2015-16.

No wonder Dryden won the Vezina Trophy five times in seven seasons. He also helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup six times from 1971-79, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1971, a year before he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. The only thing going against Dryden is that he retired early.

That Price is already on Montreal's Mount Rushmore of goaltending with a third of his career left to play, staking his claim to most of the Canadiens goalie records, could change this conversation before he's done.

In a smaller sample, though, I'll take Dryden.

Video: Ken Dryden won Conn Smythe before he won Calder

 

Nicholas J. Cotsonika, columnist

I find it funny that my colleagues have made cases by mentioning the Vezina Trophy without mentioning its namesake.

Remember Georges Vezina?

He was the foundation upon which this was built.

Yes, it was a different era. The game looked nothing like it does today. But if we're comparing Plante's era to Dryden's era to Roy's era, let alone Price's, how can we forget Vezina's? If greatness is defined by dominating your era and blazing a trail, who is greater than Vezina?

He was the Canadiens' only goalie from 1910-25, bridging the National Hockey Association (1910-17) to the NHL (1917-25). He played in 367 games in the regular season and playoffs combined without a substitute, before he left a game early because of illness in 1925 and died because of tuberculosis in 1926.

Seven times, he allowed the fewest goals in his league. He ranked second five other teams.

Twice, he won the Stanley Cup. Thrice more, he played for it.

After his death, the Canadiens donated the Vezina Trophy to the NHL as an award for the goalie(s) on the team that allowed the fewest goals during the season. Since 1981-82, it has gone to the best goalie as voted by NHL general managers.

When the Hockey Hall of Fame opened in 1945, Vezina was one of the nine original inductees. When the NHL named its 100 greatest players in 2017, he was on the list.

He should be No. 1 on this one.

Video: Georges Vezina was ironman goalie for the Canadiens

 

Dave Stubbs, columnist

We come full circle in this roundtable to this Montreal native who has now watched 52 men play goal for the Canadiens and been witness as a fan, then a journalist, to 11 of their 24 Stanley Cup championships.

Colleague Tim Campbell began by detailing Jacques Plante's remarkable statistics. Others have made strong cases for their choice, goaltending guru Kevin Woodley will forget more about the minutiae of the position than I'll ever know, and there is never a wrong answer in any subjective vote.

Since Plante's hard numbers stand on their own, I'll rely more on the abstract to explain why, in my view, he's the greatest goalie in Canadiens history.

Plante played his best years in Montreal in an almost constant feud with Toe Blake, succeeding not because of his coach but often in spite of him. Plante's allergy flare-ups and his ultimately successful lobbying to wear a mask drove Blake around the bend.

All Plante did was win.

He gave quirky a whole new definition, an anti-establishment loner who let his results speak for themselves. When Plante made his NHL regular-season debut on Nov. 1, 1952, a 4-1 home win against the New York Rangers, the biggest concern of coach Dick Irvin was whether his goalie would skate to the crease wearing a wool hat that he had knitted himself. He didn't.

 

[RELATED: Price relishes win after passing Plante | Plante mask mold finds way to Hall of Fame]

 

Plante's style redefined how a goalie played. From his deep crouch, he dove barefaced, then masked, into pileups, bouncing back up as if spring-loaded. His free-ranging, puck-handling skills were revolutionary; he was literally a third defenseman.

In January 1985, on the 75th anniversary of the Canadiens' birth, Plante was the people's choice for the team's greatest goalie. Being voted No. 1 by fans, most of whom were still basking in Ken Dryden's 1970s glow and had perhaps not seen Plante once in a Canadiens sweater, spoke volumes.

Plante's boldest statement in a career overflowing with them came during the 1961-62 season after Doug Harvey had been traded to the Rangers. Many predicted that Plante would suffer greatly from the departure of the brilliant defenseman.

"Doug helped me to win five Vezinas in a row and I owe him a lot," Plante said. "But now I'm going to show you how good I am. I'm going to win the Vezina without him."

Amid the laughter of many, Plante did just that; the Canadiens' 166 goals against that season were 22 fewer than they'd allowed in 1960-61. Plante played each of the 70 games and was awarded the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.

No goalie in any era meant more to the Canadiens than Plante. He was, and remains, their best.

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