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2018 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #18 Michael McNiven

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McNiven’s first professional season was one to forget, but it’s important to remember just how good the young goaltender can be.

Canadiens.com

Michael McNiven was a free-agent addition to the prospect system, signed in the fall of 2015. At the time, he brought some much-needed depth to what was a shallow pool of goaltending prospects.

Image credit: EliteProspects

He is a talented goaltender who should provide value for the Habs organization. Throughout his time in the OHL, McNiven was a remarkable netminder, being a reliable presence between the pipes for the Owen Sound Attack. In his last year of junior hockey, he claimed the trophy as the best goaltender of the year in the CHL.

A transition to the pros came as a hard-earned lesson for the young goaltender. Last year, McNiven found himself splitting time in Laval with Zachary Fucale and Charlie Lindgren. He played four games for Brampton in the ECHL, posting a surprising goals-against average of 4.19 and a save percentage of .868. In Laval, he fared slightly better with a 3.50 GAA and a save percentage of .884. Still, those are not close to the numbers he regularly posted in previous seasons, mostly finishing at above a .910 save percentage in his Junior days.

This year he should be backing up either Lindgren or Antti Niemi in Laval, depending on who ends up claiming the NHL role behind Carey Price. This time around, McNiven will be ready for the rigours of professional hockey.

Voting

The panel had McNiven ranging from 35 to 10. He finished in a tie with Kerby Rychel, but McNiven takes the 18th position with a high vote of 10 versus Rychel’s 12.

I had him pegged at 20, not too far off his final spot. As a goaltender myself, I believe McNiven is an excellent goaltending prospect. He’s athletic, competes hard and has solid bases to rely on. He could very well end up being a great boon for the Montreal Canadiens down the road.

Top 25 Under 25 History

This year, we see McNiven falls a bit from the rankings of 2017. Last year, he was one of the few prospects who made a considerable leap from 2016 to 2017, jumping 16 spots. This doesn’t mean he’s gotten worse, per se. It has been a long time since we’ve seen so much talent in the system, which influenced our rankings quite a bit.

Strengths

McNiven had a rough pro rookie year, and that’s being polite about it, even though he isn’t fully responsible for many of the issues that plagued his teams.

Even so, through this rough stretch, he became the second-most-used goaltender for Sylvain Lefebvre’s team in Laval, playing six more games than Fucale. Achieving that feat was impressive considering at the beginning of the year he started in the ECHL.

McNiven is a very competitive goaltender, with a never-quit attitude, and has incredible athleticism to get to the pucks that he’s determined to keep out of his net. He’s a mobile goaltender who can move across his crease quickly to take away prime chances from opposing players. He’s able to use all of his 6’1” frame to his advantage by being more aggressive in his style.

He also has a calmer demeanour between the pipes. He doesn’t make many unnecessary moves, thus allowing himself to stay more focused on the action developing in front of him. Even when everything falls apart (as he saw on several occasions from his defence corps), his athleticism keeps him in plays that he has no business still being in.

Weaknesses

Some of the shine came off McNiven this year when we compare him to Lindgren or Cayden Primeau. He went from being the starter and star of his old OHL club to being mostly a backup or third-string goalie at the AHL level, and that change in role seems to have been a difficult adjustment.

He can steal games and — quite literally — be the only reason his team is still in the game, but he also has a number of outings that are quite poor. In that respect, McNiven needs to work on his consistency level. He will also need to continue to improve his positioning and stance, which have been somewhat problematic areas since 2015.

Image credit: AHL.com

As shown above, the six games he played in November all varied greatly in performance. He went from winning a game while keeping his save percentage above .920 to getting scored on three times in 14 shots. Every good game was followed by a mediocre one, making it hard for the young goaltender to string a few wins together.

This segment exemplifies his need of being more consistent from outing to outing.

Projection

While assessing McNiven’s issues last year, we have to keep in mind that the Laval Rocket were atrocious defensively. The penalty kill clicked at just 77.5% — like their overall record, right at the bottom of the AHL ranks. They were unable to cover up that critical flaw with a disciplined approach; the Rocket were short-handed 329 times, clocking in as the sixth-highest total in the AHL. Laval was simply giving up too many odd-man opportunities to opposing teams.

Due to the poor defensive coverage he had, McNiven was forced to abandon playing squared to the shooter, having to lunge across to make desperation saves. Last year, far too often was he counted on to continually make highlight-reel saves. As such, his statistics took a hit from his years in Junior.

Nonetheless, this last year could very well turn out to be a blip on an otherwise solid hockey career. He ranked very low in most categories at the AHL level, but looking at his body of work, this year was an anomaly. He has always performed well at every level he’s played, routinely pushing his team to success. McNiven is more than capable of producing better results than his sub-.900 stats in 2017-18.

With a new coaching staff in place headed by Joël Bouchard and a reshaped Laval roster, we should be able to correctly assess McNiven’s growth at the professional level. He possesses very solid skills that could push him to take the next step, it is just a matter of having the right environment.

With Fucale no longer in the system, McNiven should be able to concentrate on being the backup to whomever starts in Laval, and work on his consistency level.

If he’s able to do so, it wouldn’t be surprising to see McNiven in the NHL in two or three years’ time. He is merely 21 years old, has the tools to make it, and shows flashes of greatness on a nightly basis. He just needs to be able to put it all together for an extended period of time to stabilize his role and have something to build upon.