There is no goaltender as reliable, and perhaps as relied upon, as Carey Price. His steady demeanour and superlative play is the engine that drives the Montreal Canadiens, and in 2014-15, he drove the Habs to the top of the divisional standings.
His body of work was plainly outstanding, and likely had more impact on his team's fortunes than the efforts of any other NHL player. Price withheld almost 37 extra goals from opponents of the Habs, relative to an average goalie taking on the same minutes that Carey did. No other goaltender came within striking distance of that mark, with Devan Dubnyk's GSAA (goals saved against average) of 23.70 coming the closest.
His exemplary track record extends beyond this particularly impressive season, too. In the last five years, during which time Price has been in net for the national anthem more than 80% of the time, the Olympic gold medalist has accrued an extra 80 goals saved relative to his average colleague. Thanks to Price, the Canadiens have enjoyed a half decade of stellar goaltending.
But what about when Price needs the night off? Or what if, perish the thought, something like this happens?
Carey Price outplays his competition so thoroughly that the Habs could never seek to have a replacement of similar skill waiting in the wings. But should the Canadiens be worried about what they do have?
Dustin Tokarski was not the Montreal Canadiens' back-up goaltender, at least on paper, when Chris Kreider slid into Price. Left in a difficult situation, Michel Therrien elected to give the Saskatchewan native a speedy promotion. Even though Tokarski could not secure a series victory for the Canadiens, he played well enough to convince the Habs' brass that he was worthy of a full-time position. Marc Bergevin dealt Price's former back-up, Peter Budaj, to the Winnipeg Jets, leaving Tokarski to ride shotgun to the Canadiens' superstar.
When Price was off the ice last year, however, the Habs were a different team. Their win percentage went from a superior 67% to a paltry 37.5%. The team's save percentage went from an exceptional 93.3% to a below average 91.0%. Extrapolated over an 82-game season, the difference between Price and Tokarski approaches 40 goals-saved. That sum would have pushed Montreal from a goal differential of +32 (nestled between playoff teams Minnesota and Washington) to -8, level with the playoff afterthought Colorado Avalanche.
Of course, most goalies don't come away looking good when compared to Carey Price. The problem is, Tokarski is being outpaced by his peers, as well.
On the spectrum of primary back-ups (that is, the 30 goalies that played the second most minutes for their squad last season), Tokarski was relatively under-used. Only six primary back-ups played less than Tokarski, who managed just over 1000 minutes of hockey in 16 starts behind Price. Accordingly, the sample of his NHL work is relatively small.
That said, Tokarski managed an adjusted save percentage of just .917 at even strength, ranking him 23rd of 30 primary back-ups. Compared to the performance of the average NHL goalie, Tokarski coughed up an extra goal about once every 2.5 games, placing him 16th of the 27 primary back-ups that faced enough shots per start to register on Hockey Reference's GSAA scale.
These numbers align with what the eye test suggests about Tokarski: when he takes the reins, the Canadiens' goaltending goes from magnificent to mediocre.
That problem, such as it is, may not be easy to fix.
The top-performing back-ups of 2014-15 were well outside of Montreal's price range, as illustrated by the high and/or multiple draft picks paid for the likes of Cam Talbot, Martin Jones, and Robin Lehner. Other attractive alternatives are likely to be similarly unattainable, as goalies like Andrei Vasilevskiy, John Gibson, and Jake Allen track toward being their current team's starter one day.
The free agent market, meanwhile, is barren. The list of available options is short, and no player has offered the type of recent, solid performance that might offer fans of the Habs some confidence should he be forced to step in for Price. Then, even in the hypothetical and possibly unrealistic scenario where the Habs are able to acquire an experienced goalie to mop up points on Price's nights off, there is still the issue of opportunity cost. Tokarski, at a salary of $562 500, is the league's lowest-paid goalie. If the goaltender that replaces him is making even $1--2 million more in AAV, that extra salary could make or break a late season acquisition of, say, the perpetually in-demand top six scorer for a playoff run.
Allowing more scoring chances than only seven NHL squads is a problem. Failing to generate an equal number of scoring chances to compensate, like the Blackhawks, Lightning, and Rangers did, is an issue as well. And that the burden of rectifying that imbalance so often fell to the Canadiens’ goaltenders, and their goaltenders alone, is a grave concern. None of these are problems that can be solved by a back-up goalie, however.
Tokarski's NHL work so far may be middling at best so far, but the 25-year-old has shown he can step up before. And considering his his youth, not to mention his proximity to the pre-eminent player at his position, he may be in just the right environment to develop into the type of back-up the Canadiens can count on. Best of all, his very reasonable contract allows the team to give him time to grow, as well.
So until the back-up goaltender moves to the Bell Centre boardroom or the Head Coach's cinder block workspace, he bears no responsibility for Montreal’s past or future failures. If the Canadiens want better results when their great equalizer is sitting in the Bell Centre tunnel, their search should somewhere other than the blue paint.