THE UNCLEAR CHOICE
By Eric Engels in Montreal
THE UNCLEAR CHOICE
By Eric Engels in Montreal
Now the winningest goalie in franchise history, Carey Price only ended up with the Montreal Canadiens at all thanks to a controversial decision at a truly unique draft.

On March 12, 2019, Carey Price passed Hall-of-Famer Jacques Plante to become the winningest goaltender in the 110-year history of the Montreal Canadiens. A 20-save performance against the Detroit Red Wings earned him the 315th victory of his career. The win came in the first year of an eight-year, $84-million contract, and barring a trade out of town or some sort of disaster, it serves as the demarcation point for the 31-year-old running away with the franchise record.

To own that distinction, in an organization with as rich a history as the Canadiens, is nothing short of remarkable, and it’s especially so for a player who was anything but a sure bet to land in Montreal in the first place. If things had gone as the Canadiens planned prior to the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Price may have never donned their sweater.

Our story begins on July 13, 2005, when the lockout that killed the 2004–05 NHL season came to a close and the process of creating a formula for the Draft Lottery got underway in earnest. League executives decided that teams that had missed the playoffs in each of the prior three seasons — and hadn’t received the first-overall pick in any of the previous four drafts — would each have three lottery balls in play, giving them the best odds of obtaining consensus No. 1 Sidney Crosby. Those teams were the Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Anaheim, Atlanta, Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Nashville and Phoenix each had two lottery balls in play. The Canadiens were among 16 teams with just one ball.

The Draft Lottery was held on July 22 in New York City, just hours after the new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHLPA was officially ratified. All 30 general managers were in attendance.

TOMMY THOMPSON, then-Wild assistant GM and director of player personnel The fact that the lottery was held only eight days prior to the draft and that the odds made it so you weren’t exactly sure what range you’d be in — it really complicated things. Don’t listen to what anyone says; scouting is partly based on where you know you’re going to be selecting. Not only in the first round, but in the other rounds as well. No one had a clue on this one.

BRIAN BURKE, then-Mighty Ducks GM The lottery made no sense to me at all. I didn’t understand how teams had a near equal chance of winning. I mean, there was a little bit of weighting, but still, it was weird. I think the teams that missed the playoffs the year before were pissed, and they should’ve been. We all had a chance to pick first, second or third. That wasn’t really fair, and I’m saying that knowing we picked second.

Another factor setting the 2005 draft apart: The selection order would be reversed from round to round (meaning whoever picked first in Round 1 would pick 30th in Round 2, then first in Round 3 and so on).

TREVOR TIMMINS, then-Canadiens director of amateur scouting You didn’t know where you were going to pick in any round, so you needed to know the entire pool of players.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced each pick, and one by one teams were knocked out of the Crosby sweepstakes. When the Blue Jackets landed in the sixth spot, it left the Penguins as the only three-ball team remaining and the Canadiens as the only one-ball team.

BOB GAINEY, then-Canadiens GM It was both nerve-racking and exciting. Understanding that the odds got severely against you as you moved along, the fact that we remained in the lottery deep in the selection process was encouraging. [Based on the standings from] the year before, our draft position would have been somewhere around 14 and 15, so we had already moved up into a different level of player with the possibility of still moving to No. 1.

TIMMINS I remember sitting there on my couch with my wife, and as it got closer and closer nerves started to tingle and I got more nervous and adrenaline was pumping and my heart rate was flying through the roof. And then, in my mind, [picking] at No. 5 [would mean having to make] a big decision [on who to take] — and boom we got picked No. 5.

GAINEY We were hopeful until we got eliminated. The big prize was Sidney Crosby.

NO. 1 STOPPING BULLETS
With his 315th career win against the Red Wings on March 12, Price passed Jacques Plante for the Canadiens' all-time record.

The Wild landed at four, the Hurricanes at three, the Mighty Ducks at two, and the Penguins at one.

On July 30, the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, which had originally been scheduled to take place at the Corel Centre in Ottawa, was instead held at the nearby Westin Hotel. Only the top 20 projected picks and their families were invited. No fans were in attendance.

BURKE The whole thing was weird. It was in a ballroom. It was some really questionable players, like [Benoit] Pouliot and [Gilbert] Brule, who were guys we all liked but weren’t sure about. It was like a Twilight Zone episode.

Pouliot had shot up to second behind Crosby in NHL Central Scouting’s final pre-draft ranking of North American skaters on the strength of a breakout, point-per-game season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves. That he was a power-forward-in-the-making coming to an NHL that valued that type of player more than ever also helped his case.
Brule ranked fifth among North American skaters thanks to a 39-goal, 87-point campaign with the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants.

THOMPSON The thing that concerned me about Brule was that his teammates didn’t speak highly of him, and the people running the Giants were very guarded about him. It didn’t seem like they were going out on a limb for him. And I always felt you had to be wary of guys who were running up scoring stats at the junior-level but appeared to be a one-man team. But other teams loved him. That was just one of the things about this draft; I think overall it was the most poorly scouted. Remember, until the end of June, no one was really sure there was going to be a next season of hockey.

PIERRE MCGUIRE, then-TSN broadcaster I think you had a lot of [scouts] who [usually focused] on the pro side that were more involved in the draft. A lot of guys that were pro scouts doing a lot more amateur work. There were varying opinions on players, which might have changed the flavour of the draft a bit.

GAINEY It was a hastily prepared draft. It was also an uplifting time for me and for the Canadiens. We had rebounded with a season in the playoffs in the spring of 2004, and then we went into a lull with the lockout where we had an opportunity to develop some of our [AHL] players in Hamilton. The lottery gave us a boost. Things were turning a corner where we could hopefully have some good things happening in the future. It was an exciting day.

THOMPSON It was hot and humid, and it was the only draft we couldn’t have all our scouts at the table. Every team had a hotel room for their remaining scouts. Getting pretty close to the draft, I see Guy Lapointe [Wild Scouting Coordinator] saying “Excuse me, excuse me” as he’s making his way off the draft floor. And I say, “Where are you going? We’ve got to get going.” And he says, “I just want to make sure the boys are okay up in the room.” He went up and went around shaking everyone’s hand, giving them the let’s-be-ready, rah-rah-type of speech, and then he turned the corner and jacked the thermostat right up to the top. You know, it’s the draft, and there’s a bit of tension among the scouts anyways, and they’re not down with us at the table. So they’re tracking everything and doing the charts, and we’re calling up. Barry MacKenzie was the scout who called me and said, “You know, I’ve been in hockey a long time but I don’t remember the tension being this high. I’m sweating like a pig up here.” Of course, he didn’t know they were being sauna’d out by Lapointe.

CAREY PRICE I remember I wore a red shirt, which is pretty fitting. I remember just hanging out with my parents and sitting in the hotel room. It was a pretty exciting day, and it was obviously a pretty special time to spend with my parents up until the draft. And then it all kind of happened pretty quickly once we got there.

The draft began. The Penguins selected Crosby first overall.

MCGUIRE I know one thing: As soon as the Penguins won that lottery, their office space in Civic Arena was not large enough to deal with all the season-ticket requests and all the memorabilia requests. They had to actually rent rooms across the street at the Marriott Hotel in Pittsburgh and hire more people because of The Crosby Effect. Like Mario Lemieux before him … Sidney definitely saved the franchise.

The Mighty Ducks were officially on the clock.

BURKE We had Bobby Ryan rated No. 2 but we knew that no one else had him that high, so we felt we should be able to move down to at least No. 4 and still get him. We had Price at No. 5, and we had Gilbert Brule at No. 6. We tried to move down and Carolina said they would listen, and I remember Doug Risebrough [then GM of the Wild] barked at me and said, “I’ve seen your act at the draft before and I just wonder if I can get you the guy you want and I can take Bobby Ryan at four,” and then he walked away. So much for that plan. No one was too interested in dealing with me after I had moved to get both the Sedins in 1999.

The Ducks selected Bobby Ryan second overall.

BURKE If we had moved down, we probably would have taken Carey Price at four had we lost Ryan. We thought four was as low as we could go without losing Ryan. But if we had lost him, we thought Carey Price was, in the words of one of our scouts, “as good a goalie as had come through the Draft in 10 years.” Our amateur guys felt he was clearly the No. 1 goalie in the world that year by a comfortable margin.

Carolina was up next.

GAINEY I probably did [have discussions with then-Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford about moving up], but I can’t recall any specific team I talked to. Those picks get pretty rich at the top of the draft and teams get locked into the player they want and it takes a lot to move them off.

The Hurricanes selected defenceman Jack Johnson third. Minnesota was on the clock to make the fourth pick.

THOMPSON To be honest with you, the guy that we thought we were going to end up with was Jack Johnson. We thought, when push came to shove, that if Carolina was going to go with a defenceman, they’d go with Marc Staal because they had [his brother] Eric Staal. We re-interviewed Johnson, and we re-interviewed Carey Price, too. But we had only made the playoffs once in that time and we thought our goaltending was a pretty good situation for us. We had Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez and had taken Josh Harding in the second round in 2002. And Harding had a great season in 2004–05 in a stronger AHL due to the lockout.

'HE SAW A LOT OF RUBBER'
In his draft year with the Tri-City Americans, Price posted a .920 save percentage and 2.34 GAA in 63 games.

PRICE I felt like the first three picks were pretty set in stone. As No. 4 came along, that was kind of where my interest started to get piqued. I was projected to go sixth or seventh, so I had a feeling I was going to go in around there. I had a suspicion that I might go to Minnesota, though.

The Wild selected Benoit Pouliot.

THOMPSON We got the sense that Montreal was thrown for a loop when we chose Pouliot because of some knowledge we had about what the Canadiens were planning that day. Doug Risebrough and Bob Gainey are friends [and former teammates], they go on trips together.

GAINEY We were targeting Pouliot; that’s the player we hoped would be there at our pick. We understood it might not happen, but had he not been selected by Minnesota, we would have selected him.

TIMMINS I saw [Pouliot] a lot that year. Good length and range, lots of growth potential; fluid, smooth skater with good hands and an accurate, quick release. He looked like the real deal.

The Canadiens selected Price at No. 5. McGuire then famously went off on the TSN broadcast, criticizing the pick and saying, “Oh man, this is off the books. This is right off the reservation.”

The comment was widely perceived to be in poor taste given Price’s Indigenous heritage. Price is of Ulkatcho descent, and his mother, Lynda, had been elected to a second term as chief of the First Nation just days before the draft.

MCGUIRE I felt so badly about it. I didn’t even realize it until the next day when I got a call. No way was that in that context, and I immediately got Carey Price’s number and called him right away. I told him I felt terrible and that I never meant to say it like that. Carey said, “No problem at all,” and he totally accepted my apology. It absolutely would have been more appropriate for me to say “off the board,” but I had heard my football coaches say to me when I was a kid growing up, “Don’t stray from the reservation.” It was one of those things that it was just in the top of my mind.

PRICE He called me the next day and apologized. I knew he meant nothing by it. All good.

MCGUIRE When the Canadiens picked fifth, and they picked Carey Price, I was shocked. Not because I didn’t like Carey Price. I saw Carey Price that year at the World Under-18s in the Czech Republic. I was over there for the entire tournament and broadcasted it, and he was great. But the Canadiens left Anze Kopitar on the board, and they left Marc Staal on the board, and that was mind-shattering at the time because the Canadiens had an MVP goaltender [Jose Theodore] who was being paid around $6 million a year.

As McGuire pointed out on the broadcast, the Canadiens also had Cristobal Huet and Yan Danis on their goaltending depth chart. He didn’t mention Jaroslav Halak, the Slovakian who was selected in the ninth round of the 2003 draft. “They have so many other needs,” McGuire said. “They’re very unproven on defence, they just let go of [veteran] Patrice Brisebois, they don’t have a big-body presence down the middle at centre … I don’t know about this at all for Montreal.”

GAINEY As far as our goaltending depth and drafting a goalie — you just presume it’s going to be three, four, or five years [after drafting him] before you’ve got a player on your team, and so many things can happen in that stretch of time. The conflict over already having a lot of depth at the position, for me, didn’t really exist. I like to try to picture the player as mature, which is at age 23 or 24, so there’s lots of time for you to kind of change your pieces around and get the best player you can.

TIMMINS We just felt, at that time, that Price was the one guy who really had the chance to develop into a franchise player, even though he was a goalie.

GAINEY My role as GM didn’t put me deeply in the recruitment/assessment area. I had given Trevor and his right-hand guys that responsibility and felt that I needed to allow them to make their pick. Price was the recommendation of the scouting staff, and that’s what we went with.

TIMMINS I had to step up and present the final decision, and I did that with full support of Elmer Benning and Trent McLeary, who were scouting out west for us at the time. They were in full support and really believed in Price. I had Billy Berglund, who worked for us in the U.S., and he was an ex-goalie who worked as a goalie coach in the NCAA and at the pro level, and he really liked Price as well. It’s always a group decision, and at the end someone has to step up and put their stamp on it. Bob [Gainey] fully endorsed it. He supported his team.

Many Canadiens fans — and several media members — assumed Brule was the player the Canadiens had targeted with their pick.

DOUG MACLEAN, then-Blue Jackets GM Brule, at the time, was a freaking star. We were nervous Montreal was going to take Brule, and I remember we were sitting there and [former Canadiens scout and current Ottawa Senators GM] Pierre Dorion leaned over to our chief scout, Don Boyd, and said, “We’re taking the goalie,” and we were so relieved because we were taking Brule.

TIMMINS As soon as we picked Carey Price, the Columbus guys at the table right beside us were throwing pens in the air and all happy, excited we didn’t take Brule.

PRICE It seemed to me, after going through the interviews, that Minnesota and Atlanta were two teams that were really interested. I didn’t really have an idea that Montreal was a possibility. They were pretty tough at the combine, I remember that. It was definitely the toughest interview that I had. They just gave me the poker face the whole time. I think what they were trying to do was just get a judgment on how I would handle criticism. Apparently, I handled it fairly decently.

TIMMINS Back then, [the pre-draft interview] was really just a personality/character assessment. What we try to do is get the prospect to feel at home and at ease and willing to talk about himself and tell the truth. I think it was the maturity level at the time that really came across with Price. He was calm, patient, poised. Those were the things that stood out; the things that make him who he is today. He’s an easygoing guy. Some goaltenders are wound up and full of nervous energy, but he was the opposite of that.

PRICE I guess, at that point, I was pretty green. In interviews, too. I hadn’t had any job interviews. I had only worked at the golf course near home. I was just trying to give an honest opinion of what they were asking.

TIMMINS We did what we do with all our targets. We got a lot of information from talking to his coaches, strength coaches, teammates, trainers, and we went to practices and saw his practice habits. When it came to his performance, he was playing with the [WHL’s] Tri-City Americans, and he really made a difference at a young age for a goaltender. Their team wasn’t very good. He saw a lot of rubber over that time. We saw him at the international level, too.

Price appeared in 63 of 72 games with the Americans in his draft year, going 24-31-8 with eight shutouts, a .920 save percentage and a 2.34 goals-against average. And in April, he had backstopped Team Canada to a silver medal at the Under-18 World Junior Championship.

READY FOR THE MOMENT
Price impressed in interviews with the Canadiens, where he came off as "calm, patient, poised" and "never intimidated."

MCGUIRE He was really good at that tournament. The one thing that I loved, and this is always going to stay with me, is he made one mistake moving a puck and it ended up in his net, and it never affected his confidence. He kept going out there and playing the puck, and it made a big difference for Canada and it made a difference for him. I loved the fact that he wasn’t intimidated by the moment. He was never intimidated in any moment. He had this mental toughness to him.

PRICE I kind of had a bit of a tough tournament. I just remember having a tough gold-medal game against the U.S. Phil Kessel was pretty good, I think he scored a hat trick on me. [Team USA won 5-1.] I had a great semi against the Czech Republic, got to play with some guys who I still keep in contact with today. It’s always great to wear the Maple Leaf, and it was cool to go see a different part of the world. I wasn’t worried about my draft position. I was just taking it easy come, easy go. Whatever organization I wound up in, I was just going to work my way up from the bottom.

GAINEY Whatever selection you make, there’s going to be an alternative option available. Over time, likely the player that got brought up to me most as one we could have used while Price was developing was Anze Kopitar. Not a bad opinion considering the Canadiens’ history over quite a long time of not having a [franchise] centreman.

Kopitar was first among European skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s final pre-draft rankings. It was a commonly held opinion in and around Montreal that the six-foot-three Slovenian represented the Canadiens’ best opportunity to fill a decades-long gap at the centre position. Executives at the time saw it differently.

BURKE Kopitar was a ponderous, medium-skill guy. It was either a great pick by L.A., or there was some luck involved because I don’t think anyone had him that high. Even at No. 11 [where the Kings took him], we might have had him ranked at No. 17 or 18 that year.

MACLEAN We loved Kopitar, but he was a Slovenian and he was playing over there in Sweden and it was scary — you know what I mean?

MR. MONTREAL
Price may have been a controversial selection, but Timmins felt he "really had the chance to develop into a franchise player."

THOMPSON There were concerns about Kopitar. I actually went over to see him. We interviewed him a couple of times, and he was a little bit overweight and he was a little bit slow. I even went to see him in the World Junior Championship the year after he was drafted, and he still looked the same to me. He looked like a good prospect, but he was a little sluggish. The next year I saw him on opening night on TV, against Anaheim, and he did the heel-toe and went right around Chris Pronger and I thought, “Holy smokes.” It’s like sometimes the caterpillar becomes the butterfly.

TIMMINS In hindsight, Anze Kopitar would have been a good pick there. But we went with Carey, who we thought could be a franchise goalie. Picking that high, you’re looking to hit a home run, which I think we did.

JOHN FERGUSON JR., then-Maple Leafs GM I don’t think Carey Price going at that number was shocking. Across the board people thought he was going to be a No. 1. Around that era, it was different than it has been lately; there have been fewer first-round goalies lately. Back then it wasn’t that unusual. You built from the net out. I think the pick has withstood the test of time.

THOMPSON Carey Price was different than other draftees. Carey Price would never put on false bravado on anything. Carey Price was not going to sit down at an interview, figure out what we wanted to hear and say it. He would think out an answer and if we didn’t like the answer, that wasn’t of concern to him. I assessed from the beginning that people who thought he was too cool for school misunderstood him.

MACLEAN Price had a great reputation, but it was a high pick. They turned out to be the smart ones.

THOMPSON With the wisdom of hindsight you could say Price was more valuable than three of the four guys who went ahead of him, and you’d be right.

MCGUIRE Price has had a tremendous career.

GAINEY He’s a bona fide superstar and would be considered at the top in any of his last seven or eight years — and certainly for a few more years to come — in his position. He had help along the way, he had good coaching, he had support from different people, but he’d have to take a lot of the credit himself for wanting to be that good and for sacrificing and doing the things that are necessary to be the strongest player on the team from the most difficult position.

TIMMINS How would I rank my picks [for the Canadiens]? You’ve got Price, [P.K.] Subban, [Ryan] McDonagh, [Max] Pacioretty… Well, it’s gotta be Pricer at the top. Him and Subban are the ones who won major awards [Price won the Hart, Vezina, Jennings Trophies and the Ted Lindsay Award in 2015, and Subban won the Norris Trophy in 2013.] If you look at home runs, Jaroslav Halak in the ninth round was one of the better ones, as was [Brendan] Gallagher in the fifth. But for what we had to do, to step out on a limb and choose Price and take the criticism at the time, that one stands out for me as the best.



Edited and designed by Evan Rosser

Photo Credits

Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images; Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images; Chris Relke/Getty Images; Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire.