The early days of the 2017-18 NHL season have not been kind to Carey Price, that much is not in question. But those who question the former Hart Trophy-winner’s ability to rebound are doing so prematurely.
Undoubtedly, the way the Montreal Canadiens’ franchise player has struggled through the first month of the NHL calendar is disconcerting. Stumbling out of the gate isn’t exactly a great look for the man set to become the highest-paid goaltender in league history in one year’s time.
The play of Charlie Lindgren through the infancy of his NHL career hasn’t made things easier for Price, with whom a few fans seem to be losing patience at a record pace. Lindgren joined the organization after completing an impressive three-year stint with the NCAA’s St. Cloud State University, and remains undefeated through his first five starts with the Canadiens.
While the idea of a goalie controversy — the first in the city of Montreal since Jaroslav Halak was dealt to St. Louis — may make for an enticing headline, the notion itself remains a bit silly. True, Lindgren looked better than Price has all year during his 38-save shutout of the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, but we must be careful not to get ahead of ourselves.
A hot start to an NHL career is far from a guarantee, and that may be doubly true in the case of goaltenders.
Andrew Hammond, for example, debuted with a 20-1-2 record in 2014-15, and has won just seven NHL games in the two-plus seasons since. Matt Hackett went over 102 minutes before even allowing a goal in this league, and now splits time between the AHL and ECHL. Michael Hutchinson looked every bit a future NHL starter when he burst onto the scene in Winnipeg, but now finds himself sharing duties with Eric Comrie for the Manitoba Moose after a .903 save percentage last season.
We should all remember that Dustin Tokarski once looked unbeatable in Montreal as he won five of his first six regular-season starts upon joining the Habs.
That’s not to say that Lindgren can’t become a great NHL goaltender, but time will tell if he can achieve even a fraction of what Price already has.
Let’s not make the mistake of thinking a slump of this sort is something unusual for Price, or for any elite player for that matter. We don’t need to look back very far to find a run of form comparable to this one, as the Canadiens’ customarily cool starter suffered through a stretch much like this one just last year.
Through his first 11 games of the new campaign, Price has recorded just three wins while posting a meagre .877 save percentage. In similar fashion, Price went 3-5-3 from December 12 through January 24 of the 2016-17 season, while maintaining a save percentage of just .887.
That time, just as he is likely to this time, Price recovered. Over the course of the remaining 26 games, Price put up an improved .926 save percentage and closed out the year with a record of 15-11 in the final months before an even better .933 Sv% in the first round of the playoffs.
This is a story of sample sizes, and why looking at one short stretch of a long career often leads to much ado about nothing. A poor start to the year has hurt the Habs’ playoff chances, and that isn’t something to be ignored, but it should not be considered a sign of a rapid decline in one of the world’s top goaltenders
Of course, with a $10.5-million contract looming overhead, any drop in Price’s performance is scary. What we must remind ourselves of is that for a player of Price’s calibre, this is the going rate. Perhaps no goaltender has done as much for a team over the past decade as Price has; he is, after all, the only one to win a Hart in 15 years.
While he may be the first in his position to earn double-digit millions, he won’t be the last. He is set to take up 13-14% of the Canadiens’ salary cap space next season, which is not astonishingly more than the 12% Henrik Lundqvist took up when he signed his current contract in 2014, nor the 10% Sergei Bobrovsky did in 2015 (and that was before winning his second Vezina Trophy).
Sure, if Price fails to break out of his slump, the contract becomes worrisome. Truthfully, though, there’s no reason to think he won’t, and very little reason to think the contract will be poor value any time soon. If he was capable of bouncing back from losing nearly an entire season in 2015-16, it’s unlikely this blip will be anything more than just that.
It’s peaks and valleys. Every goaltender runs into lows; what’s rarer is one who is capable of highs like the ones we’ve seen, and will see again, from Carey Price.