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(MIKE SEGAR)
(MIKE SEGAR)

Habs trade Halak to Blues Add to ...





Well, it's one way to end the argument.



The Montreal Canadiens have settled the long-running debate about who their No. 1 goaltender should be, dealing playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues and loading their hopes onto the 22-year-old shoulders of Carey Price.



To judge from the hysterical early reaction online and over the airwaves from livid Habs fans, Montreal general manager Pierre Gauthier is a rank incompetent, or worse.

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But if Gauthier's more than willing to take his lumps, it's partly because he isn't playing on the same chessboard as the team's fervent supporters; the trade provides something close to a mission statement.



"We're looking into the future … in the big picture of things, going forward, we feel very comfortable with having done this," Gauthier said.



He will be criticized for getting a relatively paltry return of two prospects for the 25-year-old Halak, whose legend was cemented with fans during the postseason.



But 21-year-old centre Lars Eller, the 13th pick in the 2007 draft, and rough-hewn Calgary Hitmen winger Ian Schultz (the 20-year-old brother of the Washington Capitals' Jeff) fit Gauthier's vision.



Indeed, Blues GM Doug Armstrong said he tried to steer Gauthier away from Eller, who had two goals in seven NHL games last season and scored 18 goals and 39 assists in 70 AHL games, but that the Habs wouldn't relent.



"It's not like we viewed [Eller]as expendable," Armstrong said. "It may be difficult for some of the fans in Montreal, but once they see him play, they'll understand."



The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Dane projects as a second-line centre, and both the Blues and Canadiens view him as NHL ready for this fall.



Citing the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Gauthier said the new paradigm involves piling up cheap, young talent that allows you to add higher-priced pieces later on. It explains why he didn't insist on a current roster player in the bidding (sources suggest four teams were involved).



As it is, the Canadiens acquired two players for roughly what Halak cost last season - probably the best they could hope for in a year where there is a rich vein of free-agent goaltending.



"That's the type of manoeuvring we have to do with this new cap system," Gauthier said. "And to acquire good young players who will play for you under their entry-level contracts, that becomes very important. You look at players and how good they're going to get. You can get established players, but you can also get them in unrestricted free agency on July 1."



True. But logic is seldom a convincing counterpoint to passion, and the Canadiens will have a tough time selling this one to a healthy bloc of their fans.



While few hockey people would dispute that Price is more talented and the brighter prospect - Halak, in addition to being older, is four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter in an era when size is prized in a goalie - the plucky Slovak is the people's choice, as demonstrated by the "HALAK" stop signs that dotted the city during the playoffs.



But he was demonstrably unhappy at playing second fiddle to Price and made it clear he would welcome a trade at the beginning of the 2009-10 campaign. Halak was also said to be disenchanted at being replaced by Price during the series against the Capitals.



In St. Louis, as Armstrong said, he's "the clear-cut No. 1."



"When I got the news, obviously I was surprised," Halak told the Blues' website. "I'm very happy to be part of a new organization, and very excited about a new start."



Halak and Price, whose career statistics are comparable, will both be unrestricted free agents on July 1, with the key difference that Halak is eligible for arbitration.



And because of his playoff success and impressive regular-season stats (26-13-5, .940 save percentage, 2.40 GAA), he is in line for a hefty raise, which Gauthier admitted forced his hand. The Blues, who have roughly $30-million (U.S.) in cap room, can accommodate big money for Halak. The Canadiens, who are negotiating an extension with Price and trying to re-sign centre Tomas Plekanec, could not.



Conspiracy buffs will surely say the fix was in for Price, the favoured son, from the get-go, and will point to the fact Gauthier didn't bother opening negotiations with Halak's agent.



But Gauthier says he already knew what Halak would be worth, and may also have seen something in the wobbles Halak experienced in every playoff round, which perhaps left a few dents in his moments of otherworldly brilliance.



No matter, the die is cast, the Price era has arrived.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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