For any young player, the entry draft is the culmination of a lifelong dream as well as a long odyssey. The draft brings these young men one step closer to their goal of playing in the NHL.
Players chosen in the first few rounds know that their chances of getting to play in the NHL are very high and in most cases, highly probable. For the most part, these are the most talented of all prospects, the can’t miss players, the future stars of the NHL.
For the Canadiens this would be Carey Price, their first round choice, fifth overall in the 2005 draft. Price was this past year named the top goalie in Canadian junior hockey, and led Canada to the gold medal at the 2006 World Junior Championships. At this moment his future prospects in Montreal couldn’t look better.
However, as you fall further down the draft, your future chances of NHL success become even more remote. There are only so many open spots available every year in the NHL. Typically, these draft picks have to work their way through the system before reaching the ultimate destination. This can take years to achieve for some. For most of them however, it’s a journey that they never complete.
When you’re chosen with the 271st selection in the draft, in the ninth round, your dream of making it all the way to the NHL can quickly become out of reach.
But then again, Jaroslav Halak’s hockey career has been all about exceeding everyone else’s expectations of him.
In the 2003 draft Jaroslav Halak was the 25th goaltender selected, and the second one picked in that draft by the Montreal Canadiens (they had previously selected Christopher Heino Lindberg in the sixth round with the 177th pick).
“I watched the first six rounds,” recalls Halak. “When I didn’t see my name, I stopped watching. Then my agent called me and said I got drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. I was kind of disappointed I got drafted in the ninth round but I was glad I got drafted by the Canadiens.”
Needless to say, a player picked in the ninth round from Slovakia has a long road ahead of him if he hopes to one day play in the NHL.
“The NHL felt really far away,” remembers Halak. “But it’s part of the process to go there and get some experience.”
After playing in Slovakia for a year Halak joined the Lewiston Maineiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the fall of 2004. Coincidentally, former Canadiens assistant coach Clement Jodoin was now the head coach in Lewiston. This proved to me a good match for Halak, who was able to get adjusted to life in a new country, while all the while being under the close watch of the Canadiens.
Halak went on to post a 24-17-4 record, with a 2.78 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. In the first round of the playoffs he helped Lewiston sweep Shawinigan, posting a 1.75 goals against average, and a .944 save percentage.
“He wanted to learn, to compete,” says an impressed Jodoin. “To go to a new country, to make new friends and learn a new language at 19, that’s tough, and he did it quickly.”
After his performance in Lewiston, Halak was finally signed by the Canadiens and invited to the team’s training camp in the fall of 2005. After then attending the training camp of the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal’s top farm team), Halak was sent to play for the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the East Coast Hockey League.
Almost immediately after joining the Ice Dogs, Halak hurt his groin and was forced to sit out for the next two months. However, in his first twenty games with Long Beach, he was able to post a goals against average of 2.05 and a save percentage of .932.
This earned him a promotion back to Hamilton where he continued his hot play by garnering three shutouts in his thirteen games played, to go along with a 2.29 goals against average and a .927 save percentage.
At the beginning of the 2006-07 season, Halak was officially the number two goalie with the Hamilton Bulldogs backing up Yann Denis. For the first month he mostly watched from the bench, but in November he began seeing more game action and the rest is history.
Halak played in eight games for the Bulldogs in November 2006, posting a microscopic 0.82 goals against average and a .972 save percentage. In all, Halak faced 214 shots in the month of November and stopped 208 of them. Halak was awarded the AHL’s goaltender of the month award, but more importantly he had established himself as the number one goalie for the Hamilton Bulldogs.
This put Halak in the ideal position on February 15th, 2007.
After than a better than expected start to the season the Canadiens were quickly falling back to earth. Mired in a five game losing streak, the news got even worse when starting goaltender Cristobal Huet went down with what was thought at the time to be a season ending injury. Halak was immediately called up from Hamilton and spent his first game as an NHL’er watching from the bench as the Habs lost their sixth straight game.
Desperately looking for any way to switch his team’s sagging fortunes, Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau tapped Halak to play his first ever NHL game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on February 18th, 2007.
Not that Carbonneau had ever seen Halak play before.
“I didn’t know him at all,” recalls Carbonneau. “But we had to do something. He’d had success in the American Hockey League. How these kinds of guys react when they come here, you don’t know. You have to trust that they can do it here and give them a chance as long as you put them in a position to be successful.”
Carbonneau needn’t have worried.
Halak, only the fourth Slovakian goaltender to play in the NHL, carried a shutout into the third period before ending the Habs losing streak with a 3-2 win. Being named the games second star was only the beginning. Halak went on to win his next two starts as well as the team enjoyed a three game winning streak with him patrolling the goal.
It had been a quick jump form the East Coast Hockey League of just two years before, and even more impressive when you consider that he had been drafted a little less than four years before.
“He’s the kind of goalie who loves to compete,” says Canadiens goaltending coach Roland Melanson, explaining Halak’s rapid rise through Montreal’s minor league ranks. “He’s paying his dues off an on the ice, in the gym, in the video room. He has a great love for the game.”
After Halak’s first loss on February 24th, 2007 against the Islanders, coach Carbonneau started rotating Halak with the more established David Aebischer, trying to look for that winning combination.
This rotation came to a quick end following back to back games against Pittsburgh and Toronto on March 16-17th. Aebischer played the first game against the Penguins and performed miserably in a Canadiens loss. The next night in the biggest game of the year up to that point, Carbonneau went with Halak in front of a national television audience. Halak didn’t disappoint, leading the Habs to a shootout victory, and being named the games first star.
David Aebischer never played another minute for the Montreal Canadiens.
Just like he had earlier in the year with the Hamilton Bulldogs, Halak was given the ball, and once again he ran with it. The win against Toronto marked the first of five straight wins for the Canadiens and Halak. After a loss to Ottawa, Halak and the Habs posted back to back wins over Buffalo and Boston to leave them needing just one point to clinch the final playoff berth.
Since taking over from Aebischer, Halak had gone 7-1, with a 1.84 goals against average and a save percentage of .935, all the while playing in the most pressure packed games of the year for the Canadiens. Halak finished the year undefeated at the Bell Centre posting a 7-0 mark and helped the Habs enjoy a 9 game home winning streak to end the year, their longest such home streak since 1980-81. Unfortunately, for the Canadiens the point they needed would have to be gained on the road and that single point would prove to be elusive.
Montreal was unable to gain the point against the New York Rangers, setting up a season ending showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the biggest game of the season, coach Carbonneau decided to go with the recently healed Cristobal Huet in net over Halak.
And while we can now second guess Carbonneau’s decision, the result was a Canadiens loss, ending their season.
But for Jaroslav Halak the 2006-07 season was an unqualified triumph.
Despite playing in only 28 games for the Hamilton Bulldogs, he was named the team’s most valuable player as well as the team’s top rookie. When he was called up to the Canadiens, Halak was leading the AHL in goals against average (2.00), tied for the lead in shutouts (6), and was second in save percentage (.932). Halak was also named to the AHL’s all rookie team. In his two years in Hamilton, Halak played a combined 41 games and posted 9 shutouts.
When the Canadiens chose not to resign David Aebischer at the season’s conclusion, the path seemed clear for Halak, the number two goaltending job with the Montreal Canadiens starting in the fall of 2007.
And then a funny thing happened in Hamilton.
When the Canadiens didn’t make the playoffs, there were some questions about Halak being sent back down to Hamilton to help them as they began the playoffs. Ultimately, it was decided to bring in the aforementioned Carey Price and allow Halak to play for Team Slovakia at the World Championships.
And while Halak helped Slovakia finish in sixth place at the World Championships, Carey Price led the Hamilton Bulldogs to the Calder Cup championship and was named the playoffs most valuable player.
And since that moment Carey Price has been christened as the Canadiens savior, the next Patrick Roy, and anything else that Canadiens fans hoping for the second coming can come up with.
Now the path to the NHL seems murkier for Jaroslav Halak. What seemed assured a few months ago now seems undecided. It appears that he will find himself in a goaltending battle this fall at the Canadiens training camp. And while many have proclaimed Carey Price as the future of the Canadiens, it would be unwise not to give Jaroslav Halak a fighting chance.
After all, who’s to say, maybe Jaroslav Halak is the future of the Canadiens. Only time will tell.