When the news dropped last week that 2017 draft pick Cayden Primeau would be leaving Northeastern and the NCAA after just two seasons, there was plenty of discussion about how this would impact the Montreal Canadiens’ goaltending situation. Carey Price is very obviously the starter in 2019-20, and will likely continue to be for years to come. However, behind Price things are entirely up for grabs, all the way down to the AHL backup spot next year.
As it stands, there are three goalies behind Price under contract with the Canadiens for next season: Charlie Lindgren, Michael McNiven, and the newly signed Primeau. Antti Niemi will almost assuredly be shown the door after an extreme regression in his play behind Price this year, so that creates an immediate need heading into the off-season. There are veteran options that will likely be on the market, but given how much Price plays on his own, Montreal does not really need to go out to spend the money on a free agent with the options they already have.
Let’s stick that thought on the back burner for right now and shift the attention to the newest member of the Canadiens goaltending depth chart in Primeau. The NCAA product leaves Northeastern University after two seasons having compiled a U-Haul full of hardware, and could continue those efforts at the professional level.
At the same time, it is not a guarantee that he will be handed the starting role in Laval right away, though personally that feels like where he is headed. Signing arguably the top goalie in the NCAA halfway through his college career isn’t a move a team makes if they plan on having him be a minor-league backup. At the NHL level, Price is likely going to play around 60 games a year, so for someone who isn’t even 20 yet, it’s well worth having him play more often than serve as Price’s squire.
So if Primeau is likely bound to play in the AHL, who is joining him?
That comes down to the play of current goaltending prospects Lindgren and McNiven, both of whom have had fantastic stretched as pros, but are looking for more consistency overall. Lindgren may very well have the inside track to serving as Price’s backup at the NHL level based on his experience already. While it is just 17 total games, Lindgren has shown that he can be a quality netminder, especially when not playing behind a shambling mess of a defence.
That being said, the past two seasons in the AHL have been a struggle for the 25-year-old, between injuries and playing behind one of the AHL’s worst penalty kills. His rookie season with the St. John’s IceCaps was very good, and he was the catalyst who carried that club into the only recent playoff berth for a Canadiens AHL club. Signed for two more years after the end of this season for just $750,000, he’s an extremely cost-effective option as an NHL backup if he can regain that lost form.
Should he falter a bit the Canadiens can attempt to send him down to the AHL. The risk is that after this season — his fourth as a professional — Lindgren will require waivers, meaning another team could very well pick him off for free. Due to his recent slumps in play that is less likely, but still something that must be considered.
If Lindgren can’t win the NHL role, the job could fall into the trapper of McNiven, who is currently in the midst of his second full professional season in the AHL. After a rough rookie year on the last-place Rocket that brought a 6-16-1 record with a 3.50 goals-against average and .884 save percentage, he has improved on those numbers. A rocky start that culminated in a three-goals-on-six-shots game in Belleville, McNiven has posted a save percentage above .912 in 13 out of 18 games, and only three games below .900 as a whole. Now, these basic stats are not the end all be all, but improvement in these numbers shows that the soon-to-be 22-year-old is heading in the right direction.
It shows in his play as well. Since Joel Bouchard’s system is a lot more structured than the one under Sylvain Lefebvre, it’s allowed McNiven to work more on positioning instead of having to scramble through tough situations. He’s played in more games than his rookie year, collected a few shutouts, and looks generally like the star he was in the OHL.
With McNiven and Primeau being the likely two goalies in the AHL, the question becomes how the coaching staff balances playing time. Splitting games until one seizes the job seems like the best path forward (easy to do with the number of back-to-back in the minor leagues), and if they both play well it is just an added bonus for the Canadiens organization.
Should they need further depth, the club can re-sign Connor LaCouvee to another AHL deal this off-season. He’s performed admirably for the Rocket in limited time, and having a trustworthy option to call upon is always a good thing.
The Canadiens’ prospect pool is quite deep, and sure to get deeper after the draft this summer. For the first time in a long time, the quality of goaltenders behind Carey Price is outstanding. There are tough decisions to be made in net behind Price, and it’s a good problem to have when deciding which young goalie is going to play in which spot.