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Questions facing the Canadiens: Can Carey Price stay healthy and repeat last year's performance?

Last year Carey Price was unquestionably the most important player for the Canadiens, and although the Habs shouldn't have to rely on him as heavily this year, if he's at the same level, they go from good to Stanley Cup contender.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It's something that doesn't bear thinking about for most fans of the Montreal Canadiens, but Carey Price has finished off his last three straight seasons in the press box instead of on the ice. At the end of the 2011-12 season, he was sidelined by a concussion. In 2012-13, he tweaked his groin in the Canadiens' goodwill gesture Red vs. White game, and while that didn't slow him much, he hurt his knee in a later game, torpedoing his season, before finally hurting it enough to miss the final game of the Canadiens' first round loss to the Senators.

Coming into last season, there were whispers that his knee was still bugging him, but Price silenced all doubters with a phenomenal season, including an Olympic gold medal. Unfortunately though, the Canadiens were forced to admit after the Olympics that Price did have a problem with his knee, and it had gotten worse in Sochi. After missing eight regular season games, though, Price was back in top form, finishing the season strong, and carrying the team on his back to the conference finals, only to get submarined by a crease-crashing Chris Kreider. Again, it was the knee that took the brunt of the impact, forcing Price out of the rest of the playoffs.

The good news is, Price has started this preseason looking fully healthy for the first time in a couple of years, and watching him skate and man his crease, he looks to be in top form, but there is legitimate concern that he may not be able to stay healthy.

The Habs' logjam at the backup goaltender position may actually benefit Price in a way. If, for example, Dustin Tokarski were to win out over Peter Budaj, Price would likely see slightly fewer starts over the course of the 82-game regular season, perhaps leading to less wear and tear on the franchise goaltender and heart of the Montreal Canadiens.

Entering his prime

One thing Canadiens fans shouldn't worry about however is whether Price can repeat last season's performance. In all likelihood, he can't. It's statistically almost impossible to improve on it, and usually goaltenders don't repeat peak years back-to-back. However Price's performance last season goes well beyond his .927 save percentage, he was the last line of defense of what was, for most of the season, a terrible hockey team full of good players.

You may think that sounds like a paradox, but the Canadiens have built themselves one of the better rosters in the NHL, but the margins of success are minuscule, and the combination of poor strategy and deployment from the coaching staff, as well as some of the NHL's worst defensemen on the fringe of the lineup, contributed to one of the worst defensive seasons in recent memory.

The backdoor pass was always available to opponents, the puck was cleared seldomly and always labouriously, and due to the lack of a competent transition game, the offense was stunted to boot, so Price was always under the gun to manufacture great performances to ensure wins. In retrospect, it was the perfect trial by fire to prepare him for the Olympics, but I digress.

The Canadiens have improved at the fringes of the lineup with Nathan Beaulieu taking the place of Douglas Murray, Mike Weaver taking the place of Francis Bouillon, and arguable at the top with Tom Gilbert replacing Josh Gorges. The puck movement in the defensive zone, out of it, and mobility of the defense core should be vastly improved, which in turn should lead to more offense as the puck is moved out and up the ice more frequently, with better plays.

If the playoffs are to be believed, and the addition of Dan Lacroix is as positive as it seems, the system should be improved as well, so in all likelihood Carey Price won't be dealing with the same quantity of high quality chances this year as he did last year.

Price is in his prime now, just having turned 27 years old, and his baseline performance, on a better defensive team than last season, should be within spitting distance of last year's save percentage.

To put Price's performance last season in context, take a look at the article Chris Boyle wrote post-Olympics, where he revealed that Team Canada had similar shot-quality numbers to the Boston Bruins, and Price jumped way up to a .971 save percentage in that situation.

Price's performance last year was simply other-worldly, and he was probably robbed of a Hart Trophy nomination and Vezina Trophy win, but he simply doesn't have to be that good this year. But if he is, the Canadiens are going to have a very, very good year.

Some things to watch from Price, from Jamie McLennan:

  • Patience is one of them, his timing is key bc of the way he plays, when he is down early, it exposes by his ears where he can be beat.
  • His rebound control is outstanding, if he is "set", meaning he is not in motion when pucks are shot, pucks tend to die when they hit him. If he is late on a play, or not set (moving his feet) that's when he gets into rebound trouble.
  • Puckhandling: He is great at handling the puck, the key is the decision before you get the puck, knowing your options, and executing them. Whether it is a set play where you leave the puck for the D man, a quick pass - direct to a winger, a reverse to the weak-side D man, or ring it hard for the winger battle on the half wall if there is pressure on the forecheck.
  • Positoning: At his best when he is close to top of blue paint, his crease management last season was awesome. He was very efficient in cross ice plays that he did not chase the puck, goalies tend to be explosive on cross ice plays and end up out of position for the second shot