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Bits: Defending the Halak trade; Isles return to Saskatoon?

According to the Calgary Flames just-announced preseason schedule, the Islanders are returning to Saskatoon at least to face the Flames Sept. 29. Whether they hold an extended portion of training camp there now that the China trip is off, I'm sure we'll hear official word when they see an opportune time for an announcement.

Chris Botta, via at least two scouts, says don't forget Alex Burmistrov, the talented Russian center in the OHL, for the Isles' #5 pick. I confess I'm Russian-shy at this point, even though Burmistrov has done everything in his power to show his intent to play in the NHL. The risk, for me, is that kids can change their minds: Nikita Filatov said all the right things, but when the going got rough, well... Meanwhile, when a North American prospect hits hard times in his development, or when he gets tough love from the coach, he is much less likely to have friends and family whisper, "You know, you could make more money and be more comfortable in the KHL." That's a risk, no matter what a kid tells you at 18. Some other links:

Finally, if you panned the Jaroslav Halak deal yesterday like a lot of people did, I have several arguments for you to consider:

Lars Eller Will Be Good

It's a natural tendency, when you haven't heard of a prospect, to think, "They traded a playoff hero for whom?" I know the feeling; I ignore most teams' prospects myself. But Lars Eller was a first-round pick, a well-regarded big center with a good shot, and he had a good year playing tough minutes in the AHL. He goes to the traffic areas, and he plays smart. Many of you know I watch a lot of Blues games, and I'm sorry to see them send him away. He has a better shot than Frans Nielsen (though likely not a better shootout move, of course), shows similar hockey intelligence though probably more offense and is less defensive-minded. Still, Eller is five years younger, so there's time there, just like there's time with the goalie still in Montreal.

Bottom line: The Habs did not get scraps for Halak; they got a good center who could help them as soon as this season. Pierre Gauthier sure thinks so, and so does his counterpart in St. Louis. For context, the Blues wouldn't part with Eller for Minnesota's Josh Harding.


Halak's Hot Playoff Screamed, 'Sell High'

This argument won't sway many of you because Halak was a hero for a month there, but the spread of talent among NHL-caliber goaltenders really isn't that wide. I don't advocate looking at hockey players in strictly economic terms (individual players are humans, not robots; assessing them requires observation, not just spreadsheets), but I do think that should weigh heavily into personnel decisions. Halak is 25 and has played under 100 NHL games (over 100 if you count this year's playoffs). That's not a lot: 100 games is enough to get Jim Carey the Vezina and Andrew Raycroft the Calder. Halak is clearly good, but we do not know how good -- or rather, we do not know how much better he is than Price. Gabe Desjardins covered this a couple of months ago at Behind the Net Hockey. Just as that post mentions how Halak faced fewer PK minutes, WebBard's FanPost calls attention to the fact he faced more weaker teams.

Carey Price is a couple of years younger and still regarded as having higher "upside." Whether that will prove true is the crux of what this deal was made on. Like I said, I don't view players strictly in economic terms; what some statheads call pop psychology I call the reality of human frailties. So if Price is indeed the type who will wilt thanks to the ridiculous pressures and reactions in Montreal, then the Habs lose. If Halak really is a special overachiever and cool head who can filter out distraction and defeat doubters, the Habs maybe made the wrong choice.

But if Price is just a good goalie who has the hiccups you'd expect of a kid at his age (23 in August), well, the Canadiens had to choose between the two, and they chose the cheaper of the two who they believe will be just as good or better. They also chose to deal the one who would probably fetch the best return among NHL GM's, and Halak's hot spring means that was him.

Bottom line: If you have two goalies you believe in and you're living on a budget, sell the one who'll fetch more, and sign the one who has the lowest leverage at the contract negotiation table.


The Goalie Market

But shouldn't the Habs have gotten more? Many have asked that. Aside from my view that a lot of people asking that don't know who Eller is, the other questions are, "What did they want?" and "What do goalies fetch?" Eller is on his entry-level contract, which I believe is key for the Habs. The Habs don't have a lot of cap room, and they want to re-sign Tomas Plekanec. (Incidentally, center depth of Scott Gomez-Plekanec-Eller isn't too shabby, if Plekanec is for real.)

The Habs possibly could have gotten more known players for Halak, but I'm betting they needed someone who is still cheap but is ready to contribute. That's Lars Eller.

But beyond that, as many have observed, the goalie market in today's NHL is not the one we knew just a few years ago. Teams reach the finals without "name" goaltenders, while superstar goalies prove quite fallible. Is the reason perhaps that any goalie good enough to make the NHL is good enough to have a hot two months? Perhaps the spread in talent isn't as wide as it once was (or as we once thought)? You know my answer.

So not only is the market for NHL goalies undefined -- clearly some teams believe they should spend a lot, while others do not -- it's also flooded. It appears to be getting more so each summer, as more teams come to the same conclusion. In that Pierre LeBrun column, Islander-for-one-more-week Martin Biron has taken notice, too, though he beats around the bush:

"The free-agent period isn't like it was when I started in this league. It's changed the last few years. There's a real crapshoot element to it. Teams are more patient. So are the players. It took me until July 22 last year, and it was a situation I never even thought of three weeks before that."

It's changed, because the market is flooded! And it's flooded, because teams realize they don't have to pay gobs of money for perceived messiahs anymore.

Personally, I think this is because goaltending has become a standardized, well-trained position. Video of the best goalies is widespread. Technique and training is far more uniform than 10 and 20 years ago. Unlike offense, there is not a whole lot of room for individual creativity that can make a difference. If you are an elite athlete with quality fundamental training and a level head, there's a clear path to how you can get by in the NHL. But there are only 60 jobs.

So if previously uninspiring Michael Leighton or Antti Niemi are good enough to get you to the finals -- or hell, 9th-round pick Jaroslav Halak is good enough to get you two rounds -- then why pay a big price for a name goalie when there are so many adequate ones on the free agent market?

Bottom Line: Halak's buzz from the playoffs does not change the fact there are plenty of (mostly) cheap goalies out there. The Blues even nearly decided to sign one of them [well, at an asking price of nearly $4 million, Mason wasn't cheap.].

Which brings us to ... why did the Blues do this if they had one of those existing goalies, Chris Mason, willing to re-sign?


One Last Word for Pop Psychology

One factor may have been money: Mason is 34 and reportedly wanted three years at $3.75 million, while the Blues stopped at $3.25 million. That's not a huge difference, but the Blues are a team on a budget. They probably want to be sure before committing that much term and salary, and Mason gave them reason to be unsure. Yes, I think there's a bigger reason, and it has to do with the nebulous world of psychology.

If Chris Mason hadn't shown a habit of giving up backbreaking soft goals in the middle of otherwise strong performances, I don't think the Blues make this deal.

Like most NHL goalies, Mason had his moments of fantastic saves and "stolen" victories. But among Blues fans (and you have to wonder if among management and teammates, too), what should probably be seen as a fluke or selective observation was starting to become a trend of soft goals at poor times. A trend that was repeated by Mason for Team Canada at the World Championships. It's how the Blues lost their elimination game in OT against Vancouver two playoffs ago (bad-angle goal, five-hole).

I think the Blues got to the point where they didn't want to commit like that to a goalie who left lingering doubts in pressure moments when they had another option who they just saw thrive in the biggest pressure moments of all. (But remember: Halak was blown out once in each playoff series this postseason.)

Of course, they had to spend a very good prospect for this perceived "upgrade" in goal and his perceived pressure-game abilities. Which leaves the final evaluation at three questions:

  • Will Halak prove to be better than Mason? (Probably. Mason career sv%: .913; Halak's: .919)
  • Will Halak prove to be better than Mason by enough of a margin to make dealing Eller worth it? (We'll see. .919 vs. .913 is less than one goal difference for every 100 shots. But Halak is nine years younger, and his record is still young)
  • The Blues hadn't negotiated with Halak yet; will they be able to sign him for less than Mason was asking for, or did they just pay two prospects for the right to pay a different goalie the same or more than they would have had to pay Mason?

Bottom line: These two teams took the bets on opposite sides of a coin flip: The Blues wagered Eller on the bet that Halak is something more special than your average free agent, and that his contract demands won't sink the plan. The Canadiens bet that Price will be just s good, and cheaper in the near-term.


What's This Mean for the Islanders?

Not a whole lot, of course. With Nathan Lawson due a qualifying offer and Kevin Poulin coming into the system to join Mikko Koskinen, they may not even be interested in a Biron replacement to add to the Dwayne Roloson/Rick DiPietro* mix at the NHL level.

But I do like the way Garth Snow has set the Islanders up in goal for the future: They have three nice bets in Koskinen, Poulin and Anders Nilsson. If one meets expectations, great. If two do, one day they may be able to pull off their own Halak trade.