In a season that ended in disappointment for the Montreal Canadiens, all that remains are questions. Questions about the team’s future, both next year and beyond. Questions about the team’s management, the coaches, and the players. All of these questions lead to the bigger issue, how do the Canadiens avoid missing the playoffs again this year?
There has been no shortage of recommendations for Canadiens general manager, Bob Gainey, and head coach, Guy Carbonneau. In this digital age there is a scrutiny attached to Gainey and Carbonneau that their predecessors have not had to deal with. In addition to the ever demanding Montreal media, many “experts” can be heard each day on talk radio, with many more posting their ideas on the internet.
With seemingly everybody being able to air their “opinion” and send it out to the world, every decision, every transaction, and above all with every rumour (whether real or imagined), being analyzed over and over again, the team is under a microscope all the time. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert, possessing fountains of wisdom.
Since the Canadiens failed to qualify for the playoffs last year, the “experts” have only sharpened their scrutiny. The playoff failure has only served to fuel those who feel that if they were in charge of the team, all would be right in Hab world. With this increased scrutiny the virtue of patience is discarded, and what happened in the past is quickly forgotten.
The most discussed topic this summer, both in the media and in cyber world has been about a 19 year old goaltender that has yet to play a single minute in the NHL. Already regarded as a potential savior by many Canadiens fans, Carey Price faces a level of expectation that might be impossible for him to reach.
As with most sure things in life, expectations can have no bounds. A scan of various Canadiens fans’ chat rooms shows just how high expectations have surged since Price led Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton to an unexpected Calder Cup championship.
Here is an example of how some of these threads have quickly gone from reasonable to the improbable.
Is Carey Price ready to play in the NHL?
Should Carey Price be the starting goaltender next year in Montreal?
Will Carey Price lead the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 2008?
Is Carey Price going to be as successful as Patrick Roy?
Lost in all the talk and the speculation about Carey Price being the savior of the Canadiens, you could be excused for thinking that Montreal’s goaltending situation is pretty dire. You wouldn’t expect the Canadiens to already have an all star goaltender on their roster.
But they do, his name is Cristobal Huet.
Throughout his career Cristobal Huet has been at various times considered a mere afterthought. The 214th player selected in the 2001 NHL draft, he was considered to be a mere throw-in in the trade that brought Radek Bonk to Montreal.
Instead he unexpectedly became the main reason the Canadiens made the playoffs in 2006.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. At the beginning of the 2005-06 season, Jose Theodore was firmly entrenched as the starter in Montreal. After winning both the Hart and Vezina trophies in 2002, Theodore restated his case as one of the league’s better goalies in 2004, by leading the Canadiens to the second round of the playoffs for the second time in three years.
After the lockout, Theodore was expected to lead Montreal again in 2005-06. It never happened. For reasons still mysterious, Theodore seemed to lose his game. To say the Canadiens patiently waited for his game to return would be an understatement, after all he was their franchise player.
With the Canadiens season in jeopardy an unexpected saviour came to the teams rescue. While Theodore struggled, the unknown Huet shined, and soon a goaltending controversy loomed.
As Huet continued his stellar play, Theodore’s struggles continued and soon multiplied as various issues began to emerge in his personal life. As Theodore’s problems became an increasing distraction, Huet took his play to an all new level.
After being named the Canadiens player of the month for February, Huet followed it up and was named the NHL’s defensive player for the first week of March, as well as the first week of April.
When Theodore injured his achilles tendon slipping on the winter ice on his home, the writing was on the wall. As Huet asserted himself as the undisputed starting goaltender, Theodore became the most expensive backup in the league, one with a host of personal issues. Showing his confidence in Huet, Gainey shipped Theodore off to Colorado on March 8th, 2006.
Huet rewarded Gainey’s show of confidence by finishing the year in grand style by leading the Canadiens into the playoffs. Clearly the team’s most valuable player, Huet finished with seven shutouts in 36 games, and won the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award for having the best save percentage in the NHL. As a further validation of his newfound success, Huet was nominated by his teammates as the Canadiens nominee for the Masterton trophy.
Despite losing in the first round to Carolina, one could not blame the Canadiens loss on Huet who matched his award winning save percentage in the playoffs. At the seasons conclusion the Canadiens offered Huet a three year contract as a reward for his season. Instead, Huet signed a two year deal with the team, hoping to dispel the myth that he was a flash in the pan.
At the start of the 2006-07 season, Huet was the Canadiens top goalie. And even though he initially started slow it didn’t take him long to reassert as the teams starter. Entering the midpoint of the season Huet was replicating his magical season of the year before with a record of 17-8-3, a goals against average of 2.46, and a save percentage of .927, as he was in the race to win the Crozier award for a second year in a row, with the Canadiens in the top half of the Eastern Conference standings.
Huet was rewarded with a spot on the Eastern Conference All Star team, becoming the fourth Habs goaltender since 1969 to represent the Canadiens in the All Star game (the others are Ken Dryden 5 appearances, Patrick Roy 6 appearances, and Jose Theodore 2 appearances).
After playing in the All Star game on January 24th the bottom fell out, for both the team and for Huet. He would only win two more games the rest of the season and lose eight. His injury on February 13th in New Jersey put him on the shelf for close to two months as the team plummeted out of the playoff hunt.
Huet gamely came back to play the crucial last game of the year against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Unfortunately, it was not to be as the Canadiens lost to the Leafs and were eliminated from the playoffs.
And with that all of Huet’s play and accomplishments from the past year and a half were quickly forgotten as the media and the fans focused on the white knight that is Carey Price.
First off a little perspective, despite his and the teams second half slump, Huet still possessed s higher save percentage than Ryan Miller, Marc-Andre Fleury, Marty Turco, Dominic Hasek, Cam Ward, Dwayne Roloson, Ed Belfour, Vesa Toskala, Nikolai Khabibulin, Olaf Kolzig, Manny Fernandez, and finally, Jose Theodore.
One could argue that Huet’s injury was the biggest factor in the Habs missing the playoffs. Needless to say it is not improbable to believe that he could have secured at least 2 more points for the team. Ultimately, the difference between Montreal making or missing the playoffs. After all, it was Huet’s play that gained the Canadiens a playoff spot the year before.
Cristobal Huet has established himself as a top level NHL goaltender with his performance for the Canadiens the last two years. Whether he is a better goalie than Carey Price will be established in the next year and beyond. And before we coronate Price as the next Montreal goaltending legend, we’ll have to see if he can unseat the Canadiens’ All Star goaltender.