Two young goaltenders. Two restricted free agents. One starting job. A choice to be made.
That was the situation facing Montreal General Manager Pierre Gauthier as he debated what to do with goaltenders Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak – one a former high first-round pick; the other a ninth-rounder who had become a playoff hero.
Gauthier didn't wait long to make his move. Thursday, he dealt playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis for a pair of prospects, triggering a burst of controversy in Montreal, where Halak's heroics had brought comparisons to Hall of Famer Patrick Roy only a few weeks ago.
So why keep Price and deal Halak? Gauthier, who got the job as GM in Montreal just over four months ago, said it was a matter of which goaltender the Canadiens felt had the higher upside.
"When we discuss players, we discuss what we think they're going to do in the future," he said during a post-trade conference call. "Every decision, especially the offseason like this, is a big picture decision to look at the next year and the following years."
"The decision is based on our projections and we are very comfortable with Carey Price," Gauthier continued. "He's a young man that has almost 150 games in the league even though he's only 22-years-old. He's got a few rounds in the playoffs, [and] he won a Calder Cup in the American League at a very young age. He brings a lot to the table. He's young man that we think will be a good goalie in this League."
The trade shocked Montreal fans and media. Sports talk shows and Internet forums lit up as fans disparaged the deal that sent the Habs' playoff hero out of town. Two members of Parliament reportedly used their Twitter accounts to blast the trade.
In Old Montreal, The Canadian Press interviewed about 10 locals and not one supported the deal.
"Incredible," one fan replied upon hearing the news.
"No! No! No! You're joking? No way," another distraught fan told CP, unable to believe the news.
Nor did the deal go over big with much of the media.
Longtime Habs writer Red Fisher dismissed Gauthier's suggestion in his conference call that "the Canadiens have two excellent goaltenders and only one could be retained," and called the trade a nightmare, saying the Canadiens should have kept both goaltenders for at least another year.
But that's no longer a possibility. Halak is 25, Price just 22. Both will become restricted free agents on July 1, but Halak had the right to take the Canadiens to arbitration, and Gauthier intimated that cost was a factor.
"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."
Price is not without achievements of his own. The fifth player taken in the 2005 Entry Draft came straight out of junior hockey and led Hamilton to the AHL championship in 2007. He was a rookie sensation for the Canadiens in 2007-08 and an All-Star Game starter in January 2009.
But by the spring of 2010, he had lost his starting job to Halak, the 271st pick in the 2003 draft. Halak took the Canadiens on an unexpected playoff ride, beating Washington and Pittsburgh in seven-game series before falling to Philadelphia.
During the conference call, Gauthier said the deal didn't come right out of the blue – that there had been discussions about dealing Halak more than three months ago.
"It was kind of a continuation of a discussion or contact we had before the trade deadline," Gauthier said. "We had told teams at the time to get back to us after the season and we'd see then. Some teams called back, some more serious than others, and we got to the trade we made today."
Not only is Gauthier betting that Price will become an elite goaltender, he's also counting on the two youngsters he acquired to produce. Lars Eller, the Blues' top pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, had a solid season at AHL Peoria before scoring 2 goals in seven games with St. Louis in his first taste of NHL action. The Habs hope he's ready for the NHL -- and at 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds, he would provide some size up the middle on a smallish front line.
"Our evaluation of Lars Eller, with his international experience and the experience he had this year – some games in the NHL and a really good season in the AHL – we think he's close to reaching the NHL and can contribute to the Canadiens' success as soon as next season," Gauthier said during the conference call.
"The decision is based on our projections and we are very comfortable with Carey Price. He's a young man that has almost 150 games in the league even though he's only 22-years-old. He's got a few rounds in the playoffs, [and] he won a Calder Cup in the American League at a very young age. He brings a lot to the table. He's young man that we think will be a good goalie in this League." -- Canadiens' GM Pierre Gauthier
The other newcomer, Ian Schultz, picked No. 87 in 2008, is a rugged forward who's shown some scoring touch in junior hockey with Calgary. He's the brother of Washington defenseman Jeff Schultz.
Gauthier said managing the salary cap was a big reason he wanted prospects instead of established players. He said having relatively lower-paid young players such as Eller who can play regularly helps to keep veterans, and the Canadiens are negotiating with their top scorer, center Tomas Plekanec, who becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Eller's salary for next season is $875,000.
"We had two good young goaltenders, and we still have one -- and we've added two prospects, one who's ahead of the other," Gauthier said in his conference call.
As he prepares for his first offseason as Montreal GM, Gauthier has shown he's more than willing to make bold moves. The one he made Thursday figures to have a major impact on the success of the Canadiens over the next few years.