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Laval Rocket season review: Michael McNiven

There were games of pure brilliance from the rookie goalie, but they were few and far between in a tough first year.

Michael McNiven guards the goal for the Laval Rocket
Michael McNiven guards the goal for the Laval Rocket
Lehigh Valley Phantoms

It isn’t an easy job being a goalie, at any level, and it’s extremely hard to be a goalie in the Montreal Canadiens system, if only due to the past triumphs between the pipes by previous generational goalies. It’s also difficult to be a rookie goalie when playing behind a jumbled mess of a team in a system that doesn’t work while plummeting to dead last in the AHL standings. Michael McNiven had a rough rookie year in every sense of the word, even if he isn’t totally responsible for most of that.

Despite being an undrafted signee for the Canadiens, McNiven piled up awards in his last OHL season. He collected the most shutouts in the league, was named to the First All-Star Team, and captured the Goaltender of the Year award.

Even tempered expectations were high as many expected him to take Zachary Fucale’s spot behind Charlie Lindgren this year. To an extent, he did that, starting and playing in more games than the more experienced netminder, and in a three-man rotation he was clearly Sylvain Lefebvre’s second choice behind Lindgren. It was an impressive feat for rookie who started his year in the ECHL for Brampton, and despite a poor showing there, he stuck around in Laval after his recall for most of the year afterward.

The young goaltender’s strengths are obvious. He’s mobile and athletic, able to use all of his 6’1’’ frame to his advantage. Unlike Fucale in net, McNiven’s movements don’t appear as hectic or unnecessary, which allows him to keep more focus on the play in front of him. This mobility allows him to take prime chances away from opponents, even if it looks like they have a tap-in goal on their stick.

Even if he’s down and out of the play, his never-quit attitude, combined with that athleticism, keeps him in plays that he has no business still being in. Given the way his defence played in front of him, it was a common occurrence to see McNiven twisting, turning, or lunging across his crease to take away goals. Perhaps none were more impressive than his effort against Binghamton, in what looks like a save of the year candidate.

If it isn’t clear from the highlight above, a puck was deflected over McNiven and fell in behind him, and the rookie netminder twisted around while keeping the puck out, then smothered it with his glove before it could cross the goal line. It’s a small glimpse of what McNiven can do between the pipes, but if the team in front of him were playing better, he wouldn’t be counted on to continually have to make highlight-reel saves.

Therein lies the biggest fault with McNiven’s season. His numbers were abysmal even in comparison to teammates Fucale and Lindgren. With a record of 6-16-1 and a 3.50 goals-against average with a .884 save percentage, it’s clear that this was not a great season for McNiven.

However, these stats need to take into account a few very important factors, namely that as a team this year, the Laval Rocket were an abject disaster defensively. The Rocket penalty kill clicked at just 77.5% — last in the AHL — while the team also wound up short-handed 329 times; sixth most in the AHL overall. While McNiven is more than capable of producing better results overall, he isn’t a sub-.900 goalie, there’s far too much talent and skill there for that to be true.

There’s a new coach coming into Laval next year, and after this year the only way to go with the penalty kill is up, and that should provide an immediate boost to all the goaltenders’ numbers.

Also important to note is that the Rocket spent a big chunk of the year playing with ECHL-quality depth on defence. The team consistently bled high-danger chances against on a regular basis, with defenders giving up space for opposing teams to easily pick their shots in the offensive zone.

It’s a system that didn’t help goalies, and even at McNiven’s best, sooner or later shots are going to go in the net, especially with the amount of power plays the team surrenders. It’s hard enough facing that quality of shot, it’s even more difficult when your own teammates block your sight on most shots, or allow players behind them to cash in on easy tips or rebounds.

As was the case for most on the roster this year, it was not an easy season for McNiven, who was thrown into a jumbled mess of a club that was hampered by injuries. He showed flashes of being a phenomenal goaltending prospect in a pool that already boasts Charlie Lindgren and two top NCAA products in Cayden Primeau and Hayden Hawkey. He earned the trust of the head coach despite coming in with no professional experience under his belt, and now he’s only going to get better with an overhaul in Laval next year.

He’ll be just 21 by the time next season rolls around, and for those who saw him this year in the AHL, there is a lot to like about his game. If they can build up the rest of the team to ease some of the pressure, then the Canadiens could be looking at yet another undrafted steal between the pipes, much like Lindgren before him.