The Laval Rocket are in the middle of a fight for their first playoff berth since the franchise moved from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Laval in 2017. But they are doing it with some uncertainty in the game’s most impactful position: in goal.
“I’m in a tough spot,” Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard admitted Tuesday. “I’m happy Cayden [Primeau] got called up. I understand [Keith] Kinkaid’s situation that it isn’t cool for him. And I’m happy for Michael McNiven that he gets to have time in the American Hockey League.”
If you’ve been following the Rocket this season, you’ve noticed that the team has alternated between the two goaltenders they’ve had in their stable. When they began the season with Cayden Primeau and Charlie Lindgren, both goalies saw time in net. When Keith Kinkaid was sent down from the Habs after a dismal 1-1-3 record with an .875 save percentage, he split time with Lindgren or Primeau. The schedule filled with back-to-back games means you need to use both goaltenders.
Primeau was with the Habs on Tuesday, filling in while Carey Price is home sick with the flu. Meanwhile, McNiven finds himself back in Laval after spending the year with three ECHL teams. With Primeau returning to the AHL, the logjam continues.
The team’s rotation of goalies has gotten the Rocket to fourth place in the American Hockey League’s North Division. But as the playoffs draw nearer, and other teams draw closer in points, it’s becoming clear that at a certain point a decision might need to be made.
Kinkaid has lost his last five starts for Laval, including a 5-4 overtime loss to the Belleville Senators over the weekend. In the latest chapter of his less-than-stellar time with the Canadiens organization, Kinkaid spent close to 30 minutes in an animated discussion with Bouchard following practice on the Place Bell ice on Tuesday.
While Bouchard went out of his way to say the conversation wasn’t a dispute, they weren’t trading baking recipes or sharing dinner plans.
“The guy is frustrated,” Bouchard said. “Put yourself in his shoes for a little bit. He came here with the Habs, it wasn’t his plan to be here in Laval.
“The guy signed with the Montreal Canadiens, [saw] himself being the backup to Carey Price and he’s here with us. That’s just facts.”
Kinkaid and the Canadiens cannot be too happy with his 3-6-2 record to go with a 3.35 goals-against average and an .880 save percentage. Primeau boasts a better record at 12-7-2-3 and a 2.70 goals-against average, despite a .899 save percentage. It remains to be seen if Charlie Lindgren will be sent down to Laval for the playoff run, but even his 7-6-3 record, 2.67 GAA, and .893 save percentage is an improvement on Kinkaid’s numbers. But Lindgren would need to go on waivers before returning to Laval.
Despite the numbers, Bouchard still propped up Kinkaid as a consummate professional, maintaining he’s had a great relationship with Primeau when they’ve split starts.
“I don’t think he’s had bad performances, but he’s definitely had goals he’d want back,” Bouchard said. “It’s been pretty emotional for him these last few weeks, and these last few months.”
But at least, unlike Michael McNiven, he’s gotten his chances to play in the Rocket’s crowded crease.
McNiven has told anyone who would listen that he wants to play. But instead of playing in Laval, he’s spent the year playing for three different ECHL teams in Adirondack, Jacksonville, and Norfolk while waiting patiently for his chance to return to the American Hockey League.
The 22-year-old knows anything could happen between the present time and puck drop for Wednesday night’s Rocket game against the Utica Comets, but he says he’s ready to step in if needed.
“[It’s] something I’ve been looking for all season,” McNiven said following practice Tuesday. “Being here the last two years, it’s another opportunity that I feel that I’m ready for. I’m confident for. And when I get my chance, I just [have] to get the job done.”
Could Bouchard just decide which starter he’d want to give more minutes to in order to go on a run? Not exactly. The decision on which goalie starts, or whoever is available, isn’t all up to him. The Canadiens, of course, are the priority. If Price falls ill with the flu, somebody needs to be called up.
Bouchard has been open about the fact that Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin call the shots, as they should. It’s clear the team is trying to get their goaltenders as much time as possible. Of course, Bouchard doesn’t want to get too far ahead of himself on the subject of his goaltenders and their playing time.
But he may have tipped his hand on who could start Wednesday night when he suggested to reporters that they “do the math.” The Rocket last played Saturday, the night where Kinkaid allowed five goals in the 5-4 overtime loss to the Senators.
“The schedule is going to have to allow it and the situation too,” Bouchard said.
As for the players in front of the goalie, they feel they can win with whomever is put in net. Until further notice, it’s how they’ll have to play.
“I think it just comes down to just doing your job,” Rocket forward Kevin Lynch said. “I feel like every single game it’s a clean slate and whoever we have in this locker room, it’s kind of like a next man up mentality.”
“I don’t think it changes much,” Rocket forward Phil Varone said. “Whether it was Keith, whether it was [Lindgren], whether it’s [Primeau], you play the same way.