So who's going to be Price's backup?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

[this was supposed to go up on All Habs but I'm subjecting you guys to this first]

With Halak on the trading block, there has been a lot of discussion among the fans and the media over what the Habs will get in return for him. Some think it will be a second round pick, some want to see him packaged off with the rest of the team for Lecavalier. What people aren’t discussing is who’s going to be Price’s backup. Because I follow the Hamilton Bulldogs and I know a bit about the goalies in the system, I really think this should be up for discussion...

At first glance, it would seem that the Habs should be all set with regards to goaltending. At the beginning of the year, veteran goaltender Curtis Sanford was brought in to replace Marc Denis as the starting goalie in Hamilton. He was going to be backed-up by Cedrick Desjardins who finally got a permanent job in Hamilton last year. As an insurance marker, the Habs also have Robert Mayer who is spending his first pro-season in the ECHL.

When Sanford was signed in the off-season, many saw this a really good move. Marc Denis had struggled in his few NHL call ups and Sanford has had significant NHL experience with the Blues a few years ago. A lot of people felt at the beginning of the year that Sanford was brought in with the explicit purpose that he would become Price’s backup when Halak was traded (trade rumours start early around here!). Desjardins would take over as the starting goaltender and Mayer (who everyone forgets about) would be his backup.

I don’t know if that was management’s plan, but that was the plan made sense to the fans. Sounds good to you, right?

Well.. here’s where I think things could get interesting.

Desjardins has widely been overlooked in general - not surprising considering the Habs have had a multitude of goalies over the last few years. After getting shuffled around the ECHL and the AHL, he finally earned a permanent spot with the Bulldogs last year where he backed-up Marc Denis. After a slow start last year, he picked up his game and finished the season with some solid numbers.

This season, Sanford was definitely the undisputed number one goalie for the Bulldogs. He had some great numbers at the start of the season as the Bulldogs got off to a great start. Unfortunately, things started to go downhill a bit for Sanford. At first it was easy to contribute this to the birth of his latest kid. He missed about a week to be with his wife and I figured his drop in performance when he returned was because he lost his edge a bit after not playing at all for a week. Well, we’re now a good month past that and Sanford is still struggling. Luckily for the Bulldogs, but not so much so far Sanford, Desjardins has been playing some great hockey. Much like last year, Desjardins got off to a slow start but he has since picked up his game. And he’s picked it up a lot. He now has four shutouts in his last five game and has let in a grand total of one goal in that period.

With Sanford struggling and Desjardins putting up some great numbers, it would seem obvious that Desjardins should be the next call up. However, in my mind, there’s a few potential issues here. The first is that Desjardins has never played in the NHL before. The leap from the AHL to the NHL is a big one. I’m not saying that Desjardins can’t make that leap, I’m saying we don’t know if he can. There’s a lot of  players who do well in the AHL but can’t take that extra step and make in the NHL.

Which brings me to my second point. I don’t want to take away from Desjardins and what he’s done, but I really believe a some credit has to go to the rest of the team as well. The Bulldogs are much more committed to playing defence than the Habs are and this has helped their goalies out. In his string of shutouts, Desjardins has not had to stand on his head like the Habs have needed Price to stand on his head game after game. Again, I’m not trying to take away from what he’s done, but I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to think that he can put these type of great numbers up in the NHL right now - especially with a Habs team that continually leaves their goalies out to dry.

So why not just bring up Desjardins anyway, see how he does and if he fails, bring up Sanford?

I guess there’s nothing wrong in theory with calling up Desjardins anyway... maybe he’ll completely prove me wrong and he’ll be the saviour of the Habs. Maybe not. In the event that he does flops and Sanford comes up to play instead.... I’m going to have to be honest here, I’m not thrilled with the idea of Sanford being Price’s backup. At the beginning of the year when the Habs first signed Sanford, I expressed some concern over this. While it is true that Sanford has had NHL experience and his numbers were pretty good, his more recent NHL numbers are not wonderful. In two years with the Canucks, he only got to play thirty-five games. He was 4-3 with a .888 SV% and 3.18 GAA in his first year and 7-8 with a .906 SV% and 2.59 GAA. I think he probably would have played more with the Canucks when Luongo was out last year if it wasn’t for the fact that he got injured himself. He was eventually sent back to the AHL where he basically sat on the bench for the most part because the Canucks have a stellar goalie with their AHL team in Cory Schneider. Looking back at Sanford's career, you can see that he’s been plagued with a lot injuries. In fact, it looks like every time things seem to be going well for him, he comes down with an injury. His most recent issues have been back spasms which do keep him out of games. I’ve seen him once already this year have to leave in the middle of a game because of this. Not great.

So he gets injured. Send him back to Hamilton and call up Desjardins!

They can’t. Not unless they want to risk losing Sanford on waivers. The way the waivers work for Sanford right now is that he can be called up without any problem, but if the Habs want to send him back down to Hamilton then he will have to clear waivers. Unless the Habs really dont’ care about losing him or unless he really stinks while he’s here, once he gets called up, he stays. Desjardins isn't subjected to waivers this year.

As for Mayer....

From what I’ve been hearing from people who follow the Cyclones more than me, Mayer has been having problems finding some consistency to his game. He was initially splitting the goaltending job with Nasvhille Predators prospect Jeremy Smith (with Smith getting slightly more games). Without following the Cyclones more, I can’t give you more than that, but I’m not exactly jumping for joy at the news.

So really, in short.... Sanford has the NHL experience, but his recent play has been less than stellar to the point where I think he's lost his starting role in Hamilton for now. He's also quite injury prone and it looks like this year won't be any different. Waivers would ensure that once he's called up, he stays put. Desjardins has been playing great hockey recently but he has zero NHL experience. Whether he can maintain this play in the AHL even remains to be seen. Both goalies are aided by a Bulldogs squad that plays very solid defense so I think that's helped their numbers to some extent. And Mayer hasn't found his game in the ECHL yet which isn't a good sign for Bulldogs in the event that they lose Sanford or Desjardins to the Habs.

My personal take on this is that I really believe that the Habs will have to go goalie shopping if Halak leaves. I don't think that Sanford is a great choice for the long term. Healthy is going to be a big issue with Sanford. He's recent NHL numbers are not particularly encouraging for a team that needs to have solid goaltending. While I'm not sold on Desjardins, I think he has more potential. Again, though, I still don't believe he's technically sound. When I saw him play in Ottawa a month ago, his positioning was awful and he was scrambling all over the place. He could not handle the puck particularly well either (same goes for Sanford).

I guess none of this matters a lot if the Habs are going to take the same route as the Devils, Canucks and Rangers with their starting goalies (ie. Give them 70 + games a year and just pick up any guy as backup and never play him). I think that's a recipe for disaster but I'll save that ramble for another day.... Until the Habs play better defensively (or just plain play better), they're going to need solid goaltending if they are going to win games. I don't think they're necessarily going to get this out of Sanford and Desjardins.


Number31 said...

In short, we're pretty much screwed for a goalie after Price. Unless, if they trade Jaro, a goalie comes back in the trade...which would be kind of silly.

The Flyers are a good example of the importance of having a good goalie for backup. (Though the Flyers shouldn't be like that because they have a supposedly superior team, but whatever).

People keep crowing about getting a veteran to back up Price. Would Giguere suck it up and be a backup if it's the Habs? I wonder... There's also Turco, who may be run out of Dallas one day soon (and Dallas is one of Bob's trading partners). Desjardins doesn't really give me any confidence... He's not like Mike Brodeur at all and the sparodic starts probably will be tough for him at the NHL level. Numbers only tell half the story. However I would be more confident with him over Sanford if it came to that eh.

I wonder if the Habs will draft PK's goalie brother one day :D

Grrrreg said...

Very interesting!

That's what really bothers me with this possible Halak trade: I really don't see any benefit for the team. I don't think Montreal will get anything really worthwhile for him. He's a backup, and even if he has lots of upside and showed he might be a future n°1, his value is not there yet. So I don't think we should expect much more than a draft pick (unless he's part of a package). Then if we follow your assessment, the habs will probably have to trade for a replacement. They'll have to pay roughly the same price to get one: a draft pick. I really don't see how it helps the team. The only hypothesis I can think of is that Gainey wants to please Halak if he did request a trade.

Eternal Pessimist said...

Number31 - You're right about Desjardins. I keep thinking back to the game in Ottawa when we saw him. His positioning was awful in that game. If he plays like that in the NHL he'll be doomed for sure.... His numbers really only tell half the story.

I somehow have a feeling that Gigeure would never suck it up.... Even if he did, I'm not sure I could put up with the media... =/

That would be so awesome if the Habs drafted PK's brother! =)

Grrreg - Yeah, they're setting themselves up to be in a lose-lose situation if they trade Halak. Even if they get Vinny in some type of stupid deal, people seem to forget that he's not a goalie and we'd still be messed up in nets!

Thanks for wading through my dis-organized thoughts, you guys =)

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