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Montreal’s 2017-18 goalie battles highlight a promising future in net

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The Canadiens have great depth, but where exactly is everyone going to play next season?

St. John’s IceCaps

Being a goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens might be the worst job in the NHL. Not only are you playing in an extremely hard-to-please market, but the storied histories of those who have tended the net before is the bar you need to reach to be considered great. The past triumphs of Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden, and Jacques Plante are always brought up in comparison to their modern counterparts.

Luckily for Montreal they have Carey Price in net; a man who continues to shatter decades-old records and leads his team both on and off the ice. He is the backbone of the franchise, and with a new long-term deal in hand, it’s clear Marc Bergevin thinks so as well.

There isn’t much to say about Price that hasn’t already been said. He’s won the William M. Jennings and Vezina Trophy for his efforts in goal, the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award for just how crucial that performance has been to his team, and he will likely add to more to his cabinet before his career is over.

He sits third all time in wins in team history, and with 45 more will take over the top spot from Plante. He is firmly entrenched as the starter in Montreal, and probably will be for at least the next nine years.

Providing backup

With the top job out of reach for the other goaltenders in the organization, their ceiling is set at an NHL backup role. As of right now it looks like Al Montoya will be the squire to Carey Price once more, and as far as backups go, the Big Cubano is more than capable.

In his first season in Montreal, Montoya went 8-6-4 with a .912 save percentage, and for the first time in years fans could watch a start from the team’s number-two netminder without having to hold their breath on every shot. Previous backups like Mike Condon and Peter Budaj had flashes of being solid, but inevitably faded when the pressure was put on them to start a few games in succession.

Montoya is back on a two-year deal, but whether he sees it out to the end in Montreal is up in the air, especially with the emergence of several young goaltending prospects.

Right now, Montreal has three goaltenders in the minor leagues battling out for two spots in the AHL, with the odd man out headed to the Brampton Beast in the ECHL.

Leading this pack is Charlie Lindgren, who, in his rookie season, was nothing short of incredible for the St. John’s IceCaps — and for the Canadiens during his brief call-up at the end of the year. He went 24-18-7 while backstopping the IceCaps to a playoff berth, and in the post-season, despite a 1-3 record, was the star for St. John’s with a .922 save percentage. In games in which they were massively outshot, he slammed the door shut and gave his team every chance to win.

Lindgren may be capable of being a solid backup to Price right now, however the Habs appear to be leaning towards Montoya in the NHL, allowing Lindgren more starts in the AHL.

Assuming Lindgren is firmly planted as the starter — and he should be for the Laval Rocket — the question is: who is going to be his backup?

The next in line

There are two options here in Zachary Fucale or Michael McNiven, both of whom have outstanding resumes from their CHL careers. For Fucale this could be his last chance to really assert himself as a valuable asset to the Canadiens. He won everything there is to win during his junior hockey career, including a gold medal on home soil in the World Junior Championship.

However, at the professional level Fucale has struggled to be anything other than below average at the AHL and ECHL levels. Despite a solid record of 25-12-4, he recorded a 3.17 goals-against average and a sub-.900 save percentage on a dominant offensive team in Brampton. His previous time with St. John’s in the AHL isn’t much better with a 16-19-5 record, 3.13 GAA and .903 Sv%.

It wouldn’t be much of an issue if Fucale were named the backup to Lindgren in Laval, but for a young goalie who has struggled badly with consistency, limited playing time might not be the best route for his development.

Compounding this problem is the dramatic emergence of McNiven as a top-level prospect for Montreal. He is a former development camp invitee who impressed the Habs’ brass enough to earn an entry-level contract going into the 2015-16 season. He then responded by winning nearly every major award he could last year, including being named the CHL’s Goaltender of the Year.

McNiven was an outstanding 41-9-4 this past year for the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL, and was a major part of their playoff run, even if they fell short of capturing a league title.

Which prospect do you place where? Has Fucale built up enough goodwill with a solid ECHL playoff run to get another shot in the AHL? Or do you put the hotshot prospect McNiven behind Lindgren and condition him to be the eventual starter in Laval? Letting McNiven get the majority of starts and begin his adjustment to the pro game in the ECHL might not be the worst idea for the young netminder.

Coloured bar on left is high-, medium-, and low-danger shots against per 60 minutes; chart on right is goals saved above average (GSAA) per 60 at the indicated age.
Image credit: Dispelling Voodoo

When using the SAVE Jr. charts to compare the two netminders, there’s a fairly large gap between them in terms of stats. In their final CHL season, Fucale ranked below McNiven in every category except for medium-danger save percentage. In fact, Fucale not only ranked lower than his counterpart, he was well below average in high-danger and low-danger save percentage; two areas where McNiven thrived.

While not perfect in its analysis, it shows that in the long run McNiven may be more likely to pan out as the better goaltender. While Fucale might have a cupboard full of trophies and medals from his time in the CHL, he has yet to prove much of anything at the professional level, and the stats show that his junior career wasn’t as strong as the haul of hardware suggested.

For Fucale it’s make-or-break time in the final year of his entry-level contract. Even lower down the depth chart Hayden Hawkey has been performing at a high level in the NCAA and will be ready for the professional ranks in the next two years, so there’s no reason to remain patient with the former second-round draft selection.

The future is looking bright in net for the Habs, and that is something Marc Bergevin should be commended on, as two of his top young goalies were undrafted free agents that he scooped up and has watched blossom into strong prospects.

This level of talent allows Bergevin to shift pieces around easily, and in case of injury he has plenty of options available to him should someone need to be called up at any level. The Canadiens have quite bit of depth in net for the first time in what feels like ages, starting with the best goalie in the world all the way down to a battle between two promising former CHL goalies.