People may lob criticism at the Montreal Canadiens for drafting and development shortcomings, but if there is one area that should be praised it’s the ability to identify goaltending prospects.
Mike Condon, Charlie Lindgren, and Michael McNiven were all signed by the team as undrafted free agents in recent years. So far Condon has made his mark in the NHL, Lindgren in on the cusp of being an NHL regular, and now McNiven appears poised to quickly work his way up the organizational depth chart.
McNiven had a tremendous season, capped with a trip to OHL’s Western Conference Final. He was named the league’s Goaltender of the Year, and the race wasn’t even close, receiving 89 of a possible 95 points from voters. The runner-up, Calgary Flames prospect Tyler Parsons, who played with the mighty London Knights, received only 27 points.
It wasn’t a popularity contest that won McNiven the trophy but a long list of achievements showcasing how dominant he was in his final junior season. With a record of 41-9-2-2 in 54 games — the most wins by an OHL goalie this year — he led the league with a 2.30 goals-against average, was tied for first with six shutouts, and had a .915 save percentage.
He was selected to play in the OHL All-Star Game for a second season in a row, but it was his participation in the Team Canada camp for the World Junior Championship, most notably his being cut from the team, that was the key moment of his incredible year.
Canada hosted the annual competition, with the chosen duo of Carter Hart and Connor Ingram unable to carry the team to gold, settling for silver. Hart maintained a .906 save percentage while Ingram managed a weak .833 mark in the tournament. Both split the workload playing four games each, neither one being able to establish themselves as the undisputed starter.
Meanwhile, having been returned to the Owen Sound Attack, McNiven went on an absolute tear, winning all four starts that occured simultaneously with the World Juniors, with an exceptional .981 save percentage and 0.50 goals-against average, including two shutouts.
Comparing year-over-year performance, McNiven has managed to raise his save percentage in low-danger areas to .956 despite facing more shots from that region. He also showed great improvement in shots taken from close range, finishing with an .806 high-danger save percentage, which was third-best in the OHL for goaltenders who faced 1,000 shots or more.
Also nominated for Most Outstanding Player in the OHL this past season, he claimed the trophy as the goaltender of the year in the CHL at the end-of-year awards banquet.
McNiven saw a range of votes for this ranking, with five voters putting him in the top 10, and two placing him outside of the top 20. Overall he was comfortably placed as a top 15 prospect for the Canadiens, with the EOTP community putting him one spot ahead of where he ultimately ended up. In the eyes of most, McNiven has leapfrogged Zachary Fucale, who fell to 26 in our 2017 rankings.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Did I say leapfrog? I meant rocket past Fucale (pun intended). In one of the biggest advances in T25U25 history, McNiven jumped 16 spots, going from #29 and on the near-misses list in his first year of eligibility last season to #13 this time around. Set to play his first professional season, it will be interesting to see how he performs, and whether he can hold onto his high ranking in 2018.
Trevor Timmins spoke very highly of McNiven’s skills, mentioning his competitiveness, compete level, and calling him a ‘big game’ goalie. Attack head coach Ryan McGill focused his praise on off-ice improvements, notably his maturation. McGill was impressed that his goaltender was able to eliminate some of the unnecessary movement in the crease, controlling his positioning and staying in place for second opportunities.
If that sounds familiar, then let Don Cherry draw the straight line:
“I watched Owen Sound beat the [North Bay] Battalion and again I saw that Michael McNiven, who is unbelievable. I had Carey Price in the CHL prospect game and I thought he was terrific. [McNiven] is as good as Price right now.”
What makes him such a strong netminder is his never-quit attitude and the athleticism to actually get to the pucks that he’s determined to keep out of his net. He’s a mobile goaltender who can get across his crease in a hurry to take away what looks like a tap-in for an opposition player.
Several of his season highlights feature him stoning forwards with that lateral movement, many of them involving his quick glove hand. Not only can he get his mitt in front of top-quality scoring chances, but by catching the puck to freeze the play he can keep the opposition from capitalizing on a rebound.
Sprinkled among those games that give plenty of material for highlight reels are some relatively poor outings. McNiven’s five-game trending save percentage shows a goaltender who is still very polar when it comes to performance, ranging from tremendous to less than ordinary.
The 10-game trend does smooth out the peaks and valleys somewhat, but inconsistency remains a theme after some early-season analysis that pointed to this being an issue.
McNiven continues to work on his positioning and stance, and identified those two areas as in need of improvement ahead of his draft year in 2015. Mobility while in the butterfly position is the hallmark of just about every top-tier goaltender these days, and he recognized that he continuously needs to improve his technique in this aspect.
McNiven will be making his professional debut this season, and (if nothing changes) will be fighting Zachary Fucale for the backup role with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket. With Charlie Lindgren solidly in place as the third goaltender in the Canadiens organizational depth chart, only one of McNiven and Fucale will stay in the AHL, while the other will get lots of playing time with the ECHL’s Brampton Beast.
It will come down to who will benefit more from an understudy role to Lindgren and closer access to goaltending development coach Vincent Riendeau, and who would benefit from just playing a large number of games. For McNiven, getting quickly adjusted to the pro game would probably be best achieved by piling up minutes in the crease, so, at least to start, a stint in Brampton will probably be in his future. There he would play the majority of the games as part of a duo with seasoned goaltender Andrew D’Agostini.
The three-goalie situation that the Canadiens currently have at the minor level may not last long, as each of Lindgren, Fucale, and McNiven is an interesting bargaining chip in a potential trade. It’s possible things will look different before the 2017-18 season comes to an end.
Michael McNiven should be playing in the AHL full-time within the next two seasons. Improving his consistency on a nightly basis may one day see him earning a spot on an NHL roster.