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The recent history of the Montreal Canadiens’ backup position

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The backup job has been a game of hot potato since Carey Price was first handed the starter’s role.

Los Angeles Kings v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Carey Price has been cemented as the starter for the Canadiens since Jaroslav Halak was traded in 2010, ending a three-year competition between the two goaltenders to become Cristobal Huet’s successor.

The backup role has been held by many different goaltenders, starting with Alex Auld, who was acquired by Pierre Gauthier quickly on the first day of free agency, signing a one-year contract for $1,000,000 for the 2010-11 season. Other options considered by the Habs for the role were Yann Danis, Patrick Lalime, and Martin Biron according to La Presse, but Auld was probably chosen due to his previous experience with head coach Jacques Martin and goaltending coach Pierre Groulx with the Florida Panthers.

“I don’t need the spotlight on me. I can contribute in other way by bringing leadership and experience. I don’t always need to be the one on the ice. There is very few situations that I have not been a part of.” - Alex Auld, La Presse

Auld would only start 12 games that season for the Canadiens, while Price shouldered the majority of the load, starting the other 70. Approaching July 1, Auld still didn’t know what his future held after completing his contract with the Canadiens.

His answer came soon enough as Gauthier signed Peter Budaj to a two-year contract worth $1.15 million per year. Gauthier preached stability as the main reason for the change: “Mr. Budaj has a lot of experience despite being quite young. He has over 200 games in the NHL. We didn’t want to be in a position where we had to change goalies every year.”

“Price is a real good goalie and I know what the situation in Montreal is. This is my role now. The important thing is to remain ready to perform whenever I am needed.” - Peter Budaj, La Presse

In the 2011-12 season, Budaj started 17 games to Price’s 65, slightly lowering Price’s workload from the previous year. Budaj returned for the truncated 2012-13 season, playing 10 out of 48 games; a much higher percentage of starts than recent seasons for a backup. At the conclusion of the season, he signed a two-year contract extension.

By 2013-14 Budaj was up to 21 starts to Price’s 59, however a third goaltender played a game for the first time since the 2008-09 season when Marc Denis played one game. Hamilton Bulldogs starter Dustin Tokarski got the call in two games for the Canadiens while Carey Price was resting following the Sochi Winter Olympics, putting up a remarkable .946 save percentage and a 1.48 goals-against average.

The 2014 playoffs were the deepest run in the playoffs by the team since the Halak run of 2010, but they came with an injury to Price in the semifinal when he was run into by New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider. Price tried to keep playing, but eventually had to be replaced by Budaj to complete the game. The backup allowed three goals on eight shots in a single period.

For Game 2, Therrien made the bold call to go with Tokarski, and he played valiantly for the remainder of the series, notably making several breathtaking saves against Martin St. Louis. The two dueled all series long.

After the playoffs, Tokarski had earned himself a two-year contract extension and the stage was set for a battle at training camp over the backup job: would it be the incumbent or the upstart?

As we found out later, at the conclusion of the playoffs, Peter Budaj, through his agent, had requested a trade out of Montreal, seeing the writing on the wall. In his final appearance with the Canadiens, Budaj allowed four goals on 26 shots in a pre-season game against the Ottawa Senators. Budaj was traded to Winnipeg three days later along with Patrick Holland for forward Eric Tangradi, while Tokarski was handed the reins of the backup job in Montreal.

“There is certain sense of accomplishment because I will be here on opening night. But I need to work hard every day to improve, because nothing should be taken for granted and things can change fast. I just want to take advantage of the moment and try to stay here.” - Dustin Tokarski, La Presse

Tokarski started 16 games for the Canadiens in 2014-15 to Price’s 66. It was Price’s best year to date, winning 67% of his starts, with nine shutouts, a save percentage of .933 and a GAA of 1.96. It earned him a Vezina, William Jennings, Hart Trophy and the Ted Linsday Award.

Tokarski’s .910 save percentage and 2.75 GAA seemed relatively tame in comparison. The results were probably the weakest for one of Price’s backups, earning only 50% of points after starting a game.

Scrivens was not Price’s back-up.
Price’s back-ups since 2010: Auld, Budaj, Tokarski, Condon, Montoya, Niemi
Getty Images

The 2015-16 training camp featured a newcomer, as Mike Condon completed his ascent from the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL to challenge Tokarski for the backup role. In pre-season action Condon was perfect, stopping all 38 shots he faced over two games. Tokarski struggled, registering a .794 save percentage and 5.33 GAA over his two starts.

“I am very excited, but not surprised. I’ve always been confident in my abilities. I know that anything that is achieved can be taken away in a moment’s time, so I will do everything I can to stay here as long as possible.” - Mike Condon, Journal de Montréal

The wheels fell off the bus when Carey Price succumbed to an injury early and was lost for the entire season. Condon did a remarkable job after being handed the reins in his rookie NHL season, making up for lack of experience with composure and professionalism in the face of very difficult odds. He was backed up by a returning Tokarski, but Tokarski failed to perform to his previous level, and Condon began to falter as the season wore on as well.

The Canadiens acquired Ben Scrivens from the Edmonton Oilers to help infuse some energy into a listing club. At the very end of the season, a freshly signed netminder, Charlie Lindgren, made his NHL debut, playing one game. Suddenly, the Canadiens goaltender depth was congested.

By the following season one would have figured that Condon had earned the backup role for the 2016-17 season for his dutiful service the previous year, but on July 1 the Canadiens once again dipped into the free-agent market to sign Al Montoya to a one-year contract for $950,000.

During the pre-season, Michel Therrien tested both Condon and Montoya extensively, and it was Montoya who came out on top with a much better performance, winning all three of his starts (.900, 2.42) while Condon struggled (.855, 3.53). Condon was placed on waivers, from which he was picked up by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the start of the season. Lindgren spent the majority of the season in the AHL.

“I’ve played behind some fantastic goalies; Luongo the last two years. I learned a lot. I think Carey and me have a more similar style than me and Lou, but just to learn off him, feed off him, whatever it may be, I’m looking forward to it.” - Al Montoya, The Canadian Press

Montoya started 18 games for the Habs that year to Price’s usual heavy workload of 62 games, putting up respectable figures that were in line with the other backups, and he seemed well in place for the second season of his contract in 2017-18. Montoya even signed a two-year extension, further cementing his position with the team.

But as we all know, things can change fast in hockey. For the second time in three years, Carey Price experienced a long-term injury this past season, and this seemingly opened the door for Lindgren to take a spot in the NHL, while Montoya took the brunt of the workload.

However things would take another twist as Montoya went down with injury several times during the season, only starting four games all season before being dealt to Edmonton, while the Canadiens picked up Antti Niemi off waivers from the Florida Panthers, to everyone’s surprise.

And what a surprise. Niemi outplayed Montoya, he outplayed Lindgren, and he even outplayed Price himself. Niemi started 17 games for the Canadiens, and despite only winning seven games still posted a remarkable .929 save percentage, paving the way toward a new contract with the Habs for the 2018-19 season.

Games started and points percentage as Price’s backup (or injury replacement starter)

Summary

  • Alex Auld (one season) not re-signed after Peter Budaj was signed as a free agent.
  • Peter Budaj (three seasons) loses backup role to Dustin Tokarski during training camp.
  • Dustin Tokarski (one season) loses backup role to Mike Condon during training camp, but returns to team briefly after Carey Price is injured for the season, loses backup role for a second time to Ben Scrivens.
  • Mike Condon (one season) loses backup role to Al Montoya during training camp.
  • Al Montoya (one-and-a-half seasons) loses backup role to Antti Niemi.

Tomorrow we make our cases for each of Niemi and Lindgren to be the one to claim the backup role for 2018-19.