MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens have made their goaltending choice — Carey Price stays and playoff hero Jaroslav Halak is off to the St. Louis Blues.
The Canadiens dealt Halak for two young forward prospects on Thursday, even though the 25-year-old usurped Price as their starting goaltender late in the NHL season and played brilliantly in leading them to a berth in the Eastern Conference final.
In return, Montreal got centre Lars Eller, who may be ready to play next season, and rugged winger Ian Schultz from the junior Calgary Hitmen, who will likely need seasoning in the minors.
Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier called it "big picture decision," in which the team’s scouts and managers opted for the long-term potential of the 22-year-old Price, the fifth overall draft pick of 2005, over the more immediate success from the 25-year-old Halak.
The trade was widely panned by Habs fans on Twitter and other websites within minutes of its completion. Most felt that Price should have been dealt and, if not, the team should have got more for the goalie who was the main reason Montreal upset Washington and Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
A "shame," a "nightmare," and "April Fool’s in June" were among the comments posted on one website.
In the House of Commons in Ottawa, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau said "What? Halak for two hockey sticks and a bag of magic beans?"
Halak was the Canadiens’ player of the year in 2009-10, when he went 26-13-5 and was fifth among NHL goalies in save percentage at .940 and ninth in goals-against average at 2.40. Price was 13-20-5 with a 2.77 average and a .912 save percentage.
Both goaltenders are due to become restricted free agents on July 1, with Halak holding the right to salary arbitration, but Gauthier didn’t try to work out a deal once the team decided to make a trade.
He could have kept both, but Halak indicated in a conference call that would have left both unhappy.
"I think they did the best thing they could do — keep one goalie and give the other one a chance to play most of the season," Halak said from Slovakia. "It’s best for everyone that I was dealt and can start on a new beginning."
St. Louis made the trade after informing veteran goalie Chris Mason they would not attempt to sign him to a new contract.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong was delighted to get a proven young goaltender in Halak without giving up any of the young talent on his current roster, but he disputed the notion that the Canadiens didn’t get fair value.
"When you look at the young defencemen and forwards we have, we feel we dealt for a young goalie who can fit in and grow with this team," he said. "I think he’s excited to go to a team that will use him as a clear-cut No. 1.
"I think we gave up great value to get Jaro. It’s difficult for fans in Montreal because they haven’t seen Lars, but I think they’ll like him."
Eller, 21, had two goals in seven games for the Blues this season and was the second-leading scorer in 70 games for Peoria of the AHL with 18 goals and 39 assists. The six-foot-one, 198-pound centre from Denmark was drafted 13th overall by St. Louis in 2007.
Schultz, 20, the younger brother of Washington defenceman Jeff Schultz, is a physical six-foot-two, 185-pound winger who had 24 goals and 31 assists for the Hitmen. He was drafted 87th overall in 2008.
Gauthier said managing the salary cap had much to do with why he wanted prospects instead of established players. He said having relatively lower paid young players like Eller who can play regularly helps to keep veterans.
Halak earned US$800,000 last season and is due for a big raise. Eller is to earn $875,000 in the NHL next season, or much less in the AHL.
The Canadiens are in negotiations to keep centre Tomas Plakanec, their scoring leader who can become an unrestricted free agent, and a handful of other potential free agents.
He said the team will look to a free agent market that will be rich in veteran goalies this summer for a back-up for Price.
"You need two good goalies and we’ll make sure we have two good goalies," said Gauthier. "We’re very comfortable with Carey Price.
"He has about 150 games even though he’s only 22. He has a few rounds of playoffs. He has a Calder Cup. He brings a lot to the table and we think he will be a very good goalie in the NHL."
No-one questions the talent of the six-foot-three Price, but there has been concern over his ability to handle the mental side of the game. Halak’s strength was his consistency, while Price has been up and down since his joining the Canadiens in the 2008-09 season.
Halak bumped Price to backup duty late in the regular season after he led Slovakia to a fourth-place finish at the Winter Olympics, where he was outstanding in making 36 saves in a 2-1 upset of Russia.
His brilliance continued in the playoffs, where he set a team record with 53 regulation time stops in a 4-1 victory over Washington as the Canadiens came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the first-place Capitals in the opening round.
Halak, the 271st overall pick of 2003, was strong since his first call-up from AHL Hamilton in 2007, when he took over from the injured Cristobal Huet for Montreal’s final push for a playoff spot.
In 101 career NHL games, all with Montreal, he was 56-34-7 with a 2.62 goals-against average, but until the last stretch of his fourth season, he mostly took a back seat to Price.
"I played more and more and got more respect from the organization and the coach, too," said Halak. "The only way to do it is to get a chance and win games and that’s what I was trying to do.
"Now there’s a new start."
"He’s a winner," Armstrong said of his new goalie. "He finds ways to win games and now we feel he’s ready to take that next step."