The Montreal Canadiens are an organization blessed with goaltending depth. From the NHL starter down to the ECHL and NCAA level, the Habs have few worries in net. While the position may have lacked statistical brilliance from the top down in 2017-18, it remains an area of strength for a franchise with plenty of holes to fill elsewhere.
With no lack of suitors for a starting job at every level, though, it means tough decisions will have to be made when the players return for training camp. The spotlight between the pipes, of course, belongs to Carey Price, but the more intriguing plotline revolves around who will be backing him up.
The case for Antti Niemi (by Dave Collins)
Antti Niemi has to be the odds-on favourite. The 34-year-old veteran of 10 seasons in the NHL had his best statistical performances wearing Habs colours this past year, and while we should be hesitant to believe his sparkling numbers will stay that way, Niemi has done nothing to lose the job he has already earned.
The Finn’s .929 SV% was head-and-shoulders above that of any other goaltender in the Canadiens’ organization last season, and his strong play in-place of Price should give the players in front of him the confidence and comfort they’ve often lacked when someone other than #31 has led them onto the ice.
While Niemi has his critics for the lacklustre job he has done as a starter - or at least part of a tandem - with other teams, it’s important to remember that the role Niemi currently occupies is one that is new to him, but also one that he has embraced.
The 24 games that Niemi appeared in last year - 19 of which were with the Canadiens - is the fewest he has ever suited up for, save a three-game showing in 2008-09. True, Niemi hasn’t been stellar when given the reigns long-term, but as a relief option, we’ve seen only positives from him since joining the Habs.
Twenty games is right about the sweet spot the Habs should be looking for from their back-up goaltender, and it’s an amount Niemi may be the perfect option for. Charlie Lindgren, on the other hand, should be playing more games than that.
Indeed, the greatest argument that can be made for Niemi to keep the job may be that it’s Charlie Lindgren who is more valuable to the club.
Niemi is entering the twilight of his NHL career, and the Canadiens lose nothing by sitting him on the bench for the 60-or-so games that Price will hopefully be starting. Lindgren, at 10-years Niemi’s junior, would benefit from playing far more often in Laval. If we can assume each player will perform at more-or-less equal levels, there’s little reason to keep Lindgren riding the pine.
Splitting the season with Michael McNiven would keep both goalies motivated to earn the nod, and does more to set the Habs up for whatever their end-game is with Lindgren - be it promoting him to a role where he can play more often with the big club, or selling him at his highest value. A strong showing in the AHL to start the year would do wonders in that department, and should Niemi not pan out next year, the club has a built-in option to replace him.
While sample sizes can’t be ignored, the reality is that Niemi has performed better statistically than any backup goaltender Price has ever had. Last season is last season, sure, and the Habs’ back-up position has been a difficult one for any netminder to hold onto long-term. Regardless, it’s difficult to find a fault in giving Niemi another shot in what should be a limited role when October rolls around.
The Case for Charlie Lindgren (by Jared Book)
The case for Charlie Lindgren revolves around what’s best for the organization. Lindgren will likely either be the next starting goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens at some point, or he could be an asset for the team to trade, like we’ve seen the New York Rangers do twice with Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta.
Teams don’t trade for good AHL goaltenders. They trade for players who have performed at the NHL level, even in a limited role. And if the Canadiens choose to anoint Lindgren their goaltender of the future in an organization with several options, they will need to see him perform at the NHL level.
Antti Niemi had a great season, but you need to look forward, and if you have three years before Lindgren becomes an unrestricted free-agent, you likely have to make that decision by the middle of next year if you want any sort of value for him. Can you do that if he spends the year as the starter in the AHL?
There’s also a very real trickle down effect when it comes to the Canadiens goaltenders. If they re-sign Zach Fucale, they have six goaltenders under professional contracts in the organization. And sure, six goaltenders over three teams makes perfect sense.
But that means that one of your prospects is a backup in the AHL and another is a starter in the ECHL. And, sure, experience and playing games is a big thing, but if Lindgren stays in the AHL, that means the Canadiens have Fucale or Michael McNiven as a backup. They already had the three-headed monster in Laval, and, well, the only thing scary was the performance of the three of them.
Now, yes, the defence was mainly to blame, but you need consistency. And while it’s nice to have three goalies to play the three-games-in-three-days series, those are rare. And having three goaltenders split time takes away the rhythm from all three.
However, with Niemi’s re-signing, the odds are stacked against Lindgren. He will need a great camp and he will need Niemi to struggle. Because an even camp makes the decision easy for the Canadiens, at least to start the season.
There’s also the argument that Lindgren is better off working with Stephane Waite and Carey Price every day in Montreal. The proximity of the Laval Rocket helps a lot of things, but there’s nothing like working with the best and the best are in Montreal. If you want to see how to become a great goaltender in the NHL, what better way is there than to watch and shadow a great goaltender in the NHL?
You could say that Lindgren is better suited playing games in the AHL than sitting on the bench in the NHL, but there are plenty of learning opportunities between games, and Waite and Price are two of the best at what they do. May as well soak it in.
There are arguments for both as you can see here. So now we go to you. What do you think?
Who should be the Canadiens backup next season?
This poll is closed