In a normal season, a rotation of three goalies is a safe bet, and allows a coach flexibility during a long road trip or multiple back-to-back situations. This year, however, it means that Joël Bouchard has an extremely tough task of trying to give the organization’s top goalie prospect plenty of reps, while also making sure that his backups have a chance to play.
The trio of Cayden Primeau, Michael McNiven, and newcomer Vasili Demchenko make up the goaltending core this year, and Bouchard has made it clear the net is Primeau’s to start unless he gives the Rocket a reason to make a change. However, the top options alongside him are more than capable of shouldering the pressure as well.
2019-20 AHL Stats: 17-11-4, 2.45 GAA, .908 SV%
Primeau is the heir apparent to Carey Price, and the Canadiens are going to want him to be playing as much as he can. He started his rookie season red-hot, helping to push the Rocket to the top of the eastern conference. However, like many young goalies, he fell into a slump when the team struggled the most, going five and then another six starts in a row without a win during the season.
Yet Primeau rebounded into form late in the season as the Rocket reasserted themselves in the playoff chase. When he’s at his best. Primeau is a lot like a dialed-in Carey Price; everything seems easy when making saves. With a year of AHL experience under his belt, the sky is the limit for the young goalie as he looks to solidify his spot in the Canadiens’ goalie hierarchy.
2019-20 AHL Stats: 3-0-0, 2.33 GAA, .919 SV%
Michael McNiven had the most fascinating season of any goalie in the Canadiens system last year. He bounced around three ECHL clubs since Montreal didn’t have one of their own before rejoining the Rocket late in the season. He’d been a loyal soldier for the Rocket in his first two seasons, and could very easily have felt hard done by being bounced out of favour. Instead, upon returning to the Rocket, he took over the backup spot from Keith Kinkaid, and played about as well as anyone could have possibly hoped. Three straight wins, a strong showing each game, and helping spell Cayden Primeau reliably.
He’ll be in a similar role this year once again as Primeau is the expected starter, but with a strong showing last year and a brand new contract McNiven has all the motivation in the world to be at his best. Though if he falters in any semblance, the Canadiens went and also added another young goalie with plenty of pro experience.
2019-20 KHL Stats: 9-17-3, 2.75 GAA, .907 SV%
The Russian netminder is the wild card heading into the AHL season this year. He has a ton of experience from the KHL, and is older than both Primeau and McNiven. It’s easy to dismiss him based on last year’s stats, but he played on two of the worst offensive teams in the entire league, often not getting much goal support. In previous years with Traktor Chelyabinsk, Demchenko was a quality .930 goalie, and I’ll lean toward trusting the larger body of work going into this season.
When they acquired Demchenko, originally it looked as though Primeau might have been NHL-bound for this season. The later acquisition of Jake Allen threw a wrench into that theory, as did the delayed start to the AHL season this year. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Demchenko also be the go-to backup to Primeau this year based on his professional experience.
It’s a 36-game season, and if we assume Primeau is getting at least half of those starts it makes it a tricky spot for Bouchard to balance the playing time for his other two goalies. Luckily there’s a lot of talent in this group that can shine on any given night, and in case of injuries the club can weather the loss of one goalie.
While the forward group is far and away the strength of this club, fans would do well to not ignore the potential between the pipes for the Laval Rocket this year.