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- January hasn't been a kind month for Lars Eller. He has just 12 points in 44 games, his lowest PPG average of any month.
Last summer the Montreal Canadiens signed goaltender Peter Budaj to a 2 year $2.3 million dollar contract. The ideology behind this move seemed to be acquiring a goaltender who could play several games during the season. Budaj would give Price a chance to rest during the season and stay sharp for the more important games of the Canadiens season. However, with the season that the Canadiens had it quickly became apparent that every game was important if Montreal wanted to have a spot in the postseason. Therefore, Budaj did not get the starts that were expected this season and the Habs looked to use Price at every opportunity possible. In fact this has been the fewest games Budaj has played during an NHL season in his career, although he will most likely surpass that total with the recent injury suffered by Carey Price. This finally gave Budaj a chance to play in a couple of games in a row and prove his worth to the organization.
So why hasn't he been given this opportunity before now? Yes, the Canadiens spent most of the season in a battle to stay in playoff contention, meaning they need to win every game possible. However, this still doesn't logically explain why Budaj didn't get more starts this season. From a purely statistical standpoint Price has the edge, the starting goaltender has a record of 26-28-11 (.481 win percentage) in 65 starts this season posting a GAA of 2.43 and a SV% of .916. Budaj has a record of 4-7-5 (.364 win percentage) in 16 starts posting a GAA of 2.64 and a SV% of .910. But Budaj does have something that he holds over Price, he leads the team in goaltender scoring with 3 assists in 15 games. In fact you could bring that total up to 4 after seeing the beautiful pass he made to Vincent Lecavalier on Wednesday night. That statistic is quite impressive considering his PPG (0.2) puts him ahead of 11 players who have played with the Canadiens this year: Brad Staubitz, Andreas Engqvist, Blake Geoffrion, Ryan White, Michael Blunden, Aaron Palushaj, Petteri Nokelainen, Alexei Emelin, Hal Gill (when he was with the Canadiens), Mathieu Darche and Josh Gorges. No, it does not put him ahead of Scott Gomez in PPG for those wonder, although random fact: if Evgeni Malkin got paid what Gomez did per point (about $680,000) he would have made a cool $71.4 million dollars. In other words, well above the league salary cap.
What I am trying to get at here, and you may have lost me with all the Gomez financial banter, is that Budaj isn't a half bad goaltender. In fact if the Canadiens hadn't have played him cold so much this season his results would have only been better. I am not saying create any sort of goaltending controversy, as we all know Price is the starting goaltender and the better of the two, but Budaj should have been played more consistently. Not only should he have been played more for his personal benefit but also for that of the team. Budaj's record and stats have not been bad at all this season, especially considering he went into most games cold (he only played 1 game in October and December and only 2 during January and February). It also would have been nice to see him receive more starts down the stretch. While not statistically eliminated it was fair to say the Habs have been out of playoff contention since February. It would have been an excellent time to give Budaj more starts, although to be fair his busiest month was March when he had 4. Furthermore, the majority of his starts came during the second game of a two-night double header. This meant that the team in front of him was tired and therefore more prone to making errors and giving the opposition scoring chances. Far too many times this season Price looked tired, and with less starts he most certainly would have played sharper in certain games this season. It doesn't have to be any large number of starts but it would have been nice to have seen Budaj get maybe 5 more starts this season: one more in October, two more in December, one more in January and one more in February.
Keep in mind this margin is not the difference between the Habs making the playoffs and missing out, although they would probably be closer to the postseason. It would, however, set the team up nicely for next season in which they will hopefully be able to rest Price more in favour of conserving his energy for the playoffs. There is no point in having a backup goaltender who gets paid over $1 million dollars a season and not paying him. Peter Budaj has proved this year that he among the most reliable backup goaltenders in the league. He is a great resource for the Canadiens, but they don't put him to good enough use. A clear example of how to use Budaj, or an elite backup for that matter comes out of one of the NHL's elite teams, the New York Rangers. Rangers' backup Martin Biron has played 20 games this season, filling in for starter (and Vezina Trophy favourite) Henrik Lundqvist whenever "Hank" needs a rest. In those 20 games Biron has had similar statistics to Budaj with a GAA of 2.38 and a .906 SV%. These statistics have all come while Biron was playing for a team substantially better than the team Budaj plays for. Meanwhile, the man in the headlines Henrik Lundqvist has thrived while playing less games this season. Lundqvist maintains the best numbers of his career with a GAA of 1.93 and a SV% of .931 all while playing the least amount of games he has played since his rookie campaign. If it worked for Lundqvist why can't it work for Price and the Habs. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that while Lundqvist is the better goaltender then Price, Budaj has the edge over Biron in terms of backup goaltenders. The Canadiens missed an opportunity to take advantage of their goaltending options this season. However, this doesn't mean they can't learn from (what I view as) their mistakes. Next season is a totally blank slate for this team, and hopefully it becomes a slate that sees a lot more of Peter Budaj.