It’s the dog days of summer, and for the last few days, I’ve watched hockey Twitter eat itself alive arguing about the legacy of Martin Brodeur among the best goalies in the NHL. Admittedly he doesn’t make my top three given my personal opinion being that Dominik Hasek is the greatest goalie of all time, total wins be damned (it’s team stat). Trailing Hasek is Patrick Roy and then Ken Dryden in my eyes, which is what spawned this idea. I have no wish to debate the merits of Brodeur because I refuse to go watch any old tape of the 2000s Devils allowing nine shots a night, but instead, it made me wonder about the current Habs a bit.
With the uncertainty surrounding his immediate future, it made me sit down and wonder where Carey Price ranks in the pantheon of legendary Montreal Canadiens goaltenders. Now, with full disclosure, it’s a very difficult task to measure up players from different eras of hockey given how rapidly the game has changed over the last 70+ years.
Before diving into this section, I am omitting Jacques Plante for a lack of qualifications in this article. Part of it is for length, and part of it is for how drastically the game has changed since Plante strapped on pads for the Canadiens. To put a quick bow on it, Plante is very much in the running inside the top three to four Habs goaltenders, but that can be debated another day.
Originally when I had come into this bit of research I thought that any of Dryden, Price, and Roy could be interchanged. However, after browsing through Hockey-Reference it became quickly apparent that Dryden stands far above either of his more modern counterparts. Perhaps the most astounding part of everything Dryden accomplished and had recorded in the record books, he did in just eight years, much less time than either Price or Roy.
In those eight years, Dryden claimed six Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe, and an incredible five Vezina Trophies. When his short — but storied — career came to a close, Dryden had registered a Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) of 317.2 in his eight seasons. GSAA is defined as the number of goals a goaltender saved based on his save percentage and shots faced versus the league average save percentage on the same shots. In short, by the time he retired, Dryden had saved 317 more goals than a league-average goalie would have in the same situation.
There are just four men in front of him career-wise with a higher GSAA: Tony Esposito (498), Patrick Roy (461), Dominik Hasek (413), and Bernie Parent (321). Now before we jump on the fact that Roy is second on this list, this article is only focused on their time with the Canadiens, where Roy still put up a highly respectable 285.2 GSAA in 12 years.
Part of what fed into Dryden’s dominance was the overall dominant nature of the Canadiens during his tenure, with the offence routinely outpacing the league average.
Every single year that he was in the league, Dryden’s Canadiens scored at least a half goal more per game than the league average. Basically, run support was never an issue for Dryden and the Habs. Even Dryden’s backups were fantastic, comparatively speaking, never posting a negative GSAA on a season.
It’s a much different era with different team construction when Dryden was running the NHL, but I would be remiss to not include his overall dominance and why he’s the best Habs goaltender in history in this article.
Price vs. Roy
This is where things get interesting because Dryden played in an era where the Canadiens were about as close to untouchable as a team could get. However, as the game modernized and added more teams and more skill, it became much more difficult to establish a dynastic team like the 70s Habs.
Before we dive into how the teams in front of Roy and Price impacted their overall careers, let’s take a peek at their individual accolades, starting with Roy.
In his time with the Canadiens, Roy collected a pair of Conn Smythe trophies, two Stanley Cups, and three Vezina trophies. During that same time, he registered 285.2 GSAA, which obviously makes up a large chunk of his cumulative GSAA that is mentioned in the above section.
For Price, his resume is strong given his long career with the Habs, but when it comes to hardware he finds himself lacking compared to his predecessors. As everyone knows, the end of the 2014-15 season saw Price collect a Vezina, Hart Trophy, and a Ted Lindsay award — the first goalie to win said award since Hasek in 1998. Statistically, Price clearly finishes in third out of the three goalies being analyzed in this article, with a GSAA of 110.8, despite the higher peaks in overall individual categories like save percentage and standard goals against.
So, why is that?
Roy and the Canadiens of the later 1980s to the mid-1990s put together a solid, if not unspectacular, resume. While for Price, the teams in front of him struggled to keep pace with league-average offence over the course of his career.
In six of Roy’s 11 seasons, the Montreal offence scored above league average, while in just four of 15 of Price’s season they completed the same feat. In Price’s time as the Canadiens clear cut, number-one goaltender, the team has never played up to the same level that he has for most seasons. If we look at the years Roy and the Habs made runs to the Stanley Cup (years 1,4,8) we can see the team scored well above league average during the regular season.
With Price in net, the Habs outpaced the average by a large margin just twice, when they lost in the 2008 playoffs to the Philadelphia Flyers in the semis and in 2013, when Price was clearly injured as the Ottawa Senators stunned them in the first round. That 2013 loss is where the trend shifted when both head coach Michel Therrien, and then-general manager Marc Bergevin opted for gritty, defensive-minded hockey. When Price was at his peak in the following years, it papered over the flaws permeating the franchise, but once the injuries began to pile up (Price’s year nine), that strategy became quickly outdated.
Therein lies the final piece to all of this — the backup goalie matters a lot more in the modern game than it did in Dryden’s era. Behind Price there have been good goalies (Jaroslav Halak), there have been passable backups (Charlie Lindgren, Peter Budaj), and then there’s been the hopelessly outmatched (Mike Condon, Samuel Montembeault).
The above chart is every non-starter who recorded a GSAA of any kind behind Dryden, Roy and Price. Some context is needed for this, however, as players like Jake Allen, Montembeault, and Condon were called upon to play a lot more in seasons than they normally would have been.
However, the trend is clear. The guys meant to ease the load for Price did not really do so, and his injuries forced the Habs to play said goalies more than they should have. It’s an ugly bit of sports math, but one that helps paint the image of why the Habs have struggled to do much of anything in the modern era.
This is the final chart I wanted to highlight, for a few reasons. The first among them is to show just how insanely dominant Dryden was during his short NHL career. He leads the Canadiens’ goalies in terms of GSAA and in terms of hardware in his trophy case. He’s clearly the top dog in this debate.
So that leaves the debate to rage between Price and Roy. Originally when I sat down to write this article I thought it would be a much closer debate. However, Roy’s time with Montreal, in spite of how infamous the ending, was better than I had originally given it credit for. Based on the stats he posted, the awards and titles won, it’s impossible to not give Roy the second-place spot in the Canadiens goaltending Pantheon.
So, where does that leave Price?
He leads the franchise in games played, in games won (and lost), third in shutouts, and fourth in total save percentage, despite playing 600 more games than the two men in front of him (Cristobal Huet, Halak). He has international medals and trophies galore (Olympic Gold, World Cup Gold, World Junior Gold, Calder Cup), in addition to his aforementioned NHL awards. Yet, without the Stanley Cups to his name and a few more awards, he clearly falls into the third place spot.
That, in and of itself is nothing to be ashamed of, especially not when it comes to the Montreal Canadiens. The franchise is over a century old, with more game-changing, larger-than-life players passing through it than any other team in history. Price being in the top three (arguably top four if we included Plante), is an incredible achievement in its own right. Had the post-lockout Canadiens been built with a forward-thinking group in charge, things might be different at the time of writing, but you cannot alter that which is in the past.
Price still has a few years left (potentially) as an NHL goaltender, and controls his own place in Habs history so maybe in a few years, this article will need to be updated. As it stands right now, Carey Price while a legend in his own right, still finds himself staring at the legends of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy before him.