Deal signals end of Chris Mason's two-year tenure in
St. Louis; team also acquires T.J. Hensick from Colorado
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The NHL summer season isn't supposed to kick off for another two weeks. July 1 is when the free agent market opens its doors and the signing frenzy begins along with other player movement.
Someone forgot to tell the Blues that, who made the first big off-season splash Thursday after acquiring goaltender Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for center Lars Eller, the team's 2007 first-round draft pick and right wing prospect Ian Schultz. The Blues then announced the acquisition of center T.J. Hensick from Colorado in exchange for minor league center Julian Talbot.
Halak, 25, who can become a restricted free agent on July 1 and is also salary-arbitration eligible, was deemed a savior in Montreal after leading the eighth-seeded Canadiens on an improbable playoff run. The Canadiens upset Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington and Alex Ovechkin and then disposed of Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins before falling to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Final.
Halak, who spent much of the first half of the season splitting time with Carey Price, was 26-13-5 this past season and ranked fourth in the NHL in save percentage (.940), 9th in goals against average (2.40) and was tied for 5th with five shutouts. In his 26 wins this season he had a GAA of 1.68 and a save percentage of .948. Halak was 44-27-6 over the last two seasons in Montreal with a save percentage of .924 and goals-against of 2.59.
The move comes on top of negotiations with Chris Mason, the Blues' No. 1 netminder the past two seasons who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
The trade, orchestrated by new general manager Doug Armstrong, was done with a simple phone call Armstrong made to fellow GM Pierre Gauthier of the Canadiens. Both Halak and Price, 22, will become restricted free agents July 1.
"The initial call was just to say we may be in the market for a goaltender," Armstrong said. "We were negotiating with Chris Mason. They had two young goaltenders, and I asked (Gauthier) what direction he was going to go in. He told me he was going to keep Carey and made Jaro available and that spurred the conversation onto the first stage of the assets that he would need back in the call."
Halak, whose season skyrocketed into full bloom following a terrific performance with Slovakia at the Winter Olympics, cost the Blues Schultz, who was St. Louis' third-round pick in 2008 and Eller, the 13th overall pick in 2007 who many in the organization feel will have a terrific NHL career.
"When you make a deal for a player such as Jaroslav, you have to give something up, and we had to wrestle with this," Blues President John Davidson said. "... Lars Eller is going to be a very good player in the National Hockey League. He's got a great personality to go with a skill-set. He's a player that I think fans are going to love to watch play in Montreal. Ian Schultz is a player who plays with all heart, guts and determination. He's one of the captains with his Calgary junior team, he'll drop the gloves, he'll score goals ... he'll do a little of everything.
"This was not an easy trade to put together when you think of the time and effort we put into helping to develop these two players. In turn, we needed to do something here. We had to give to get. It's that simple."
The Blues gave the keys to the car to Halak, who immediately becomes the team's No. 1 goalie in front of veteran Ty Conklin, and took the keys away from Mason, who was under the impression a deal was close to being finalized with the Blues. He was obviously caught off-guard.
"I was pretty shocked," said the 34-year-old Mason, who got a phone call from Armstrong Thursday afternoon. "I thought we were really close to getting a deal done. We had been talking the last couple of weeks, and I felt pretty good about getting a deal done this week. I was really surprised and not in a good way. But you understand it's hockey, and they're going in a different direction, which is out of my control.
"There was a deal to be had, it was just a matter of getting confirmation and getting everything in order. It was delayed a couple of times and now we know the reason why. I'd be lying if I didn't say it was disappointing. I loved being a St. Louis Blue and I thought I was going to continue to be. But that's sports and I'll be playing for another team on July 1."
In the meantime, the Blues will turn the reigns over to the Bratislava, Slovakia native Halak, who was being hailed as the next Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden among Canadiens fans. He became their most popular player. There were even comparisons and murals portraying Halak as Jesus Christ. That's how much Canadiens fans thought of Halak.
"When I got the news, obviously I was surprised by it," Halak said via conference call from his native Slovakia. "I'm very happy to be a part of a new organization and I'm very excited about a new start.
"I spoke to the new GM in St. Louis and he made me feel welcomed in the new organization. He was very nice to me and I'm very excited I'm in St. Louis. I'm looking forward to the new start and fresh start for me."
Halak, who is 56-34-7 with a 2.62 GAA in three NHL seasons, was selected by Montreal in the ninth round (271st overall) of the 2003 draft. He was 9-9 with a 2.55 GAA and .923 save percentage in the playoffs
"... We decided to go in a different direction," Davidson said. "We've looked at a lot of different people, we've done a lot of homework, we've seen a lot of people play live, we've done a lot of research. And with Doug putting a lot of that research into his phone calls, everything was discussed with Montreal and the discussions were such that the Jaroslav Halak deal was born with the St. Louis Blues. We're very happy about it.
"When you look at Halak and the track record he's already had and the fact that he's only 25 years of age, you can understand why."
According to Halak and agent Alan Walsh, the Canadiens never made a contract offer to keep Halak, and the wheels spun into motion rather quickly once Armstrong got wind that it would be Price that the Canadiens would turn to moving forward.
"I've had a great conversation with the player and his agent and told them how excited we are to have them as part of the Blues family," said Armstrong, who wants to get a deal done as soon as possible. "He falls into the age group there with all our young players. When you look at the defense that we have with (Erik) Johnson and (Alex) Pietrangelo coming in, (Ian) Cole and some of our young forwards that we have with our veteran mix, we feel we've added a young piece that is 25 years old and can sit right in and grow with this team.
"I think he's excited. He's going to a team that's going to use him as a clear-cut No. 1. He's been given that opportunity."
Hensick, 24, was a third-round pick by Colorado in 2005. He has played in 99 NHL games, all with Colorado, during which he notched 11 goals with 24 assists. Hensick was demoted early last season to Lake Erie and was added by the Blues for depth.