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2018 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #17 Cayden Primeau

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Well outside the rankings last year, Primeau launches up the list after an exceptional freshman year.

2017 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Cayden Primeau started off his 2017-18 campaign with an 18-save shutout in his first NCAA game. It was one of the few quality performances he had in the opening part of the season, as he appeared to lose the battle for Northeastern University’s starting role.

Getting another chance between the pipes in November, entering in relief of Ryan Ruck, he was a bit more steady in his performance. From the time he was given the chance to finish that game to the end of the season, he played all but one period for his team.

With a defined role, he gradually played his way into form, with his best outings coming in the latter portion of the season. Sporting an .850 save percentage at the point when Ruck initially took over in October, Primeau finished the year with a mark of .931. It ranked him fourth among all NCAA Division I starters, and was the best goaltending performance in the history of the Hockey East Association.

Data via College Hockey, Inc.

That efficiency earned him the conference’s Goaltender of the Year award and made him a First-Team All-Star. He was named one of the five finalists for the Mike Richter Award, given to the top netminder in all of Division I.

He also helped his team claim the Beanpot in the in-season tournament among the Boston-area schools, taking home the Eberly Award as that event’s top goaltender.

Voting

The majority of panellists had Primeau in their top 25, with five of us placing him in the top 15. As is typically the case, the combined EOTP vote was close to where he eventually ended up on our list.

Top 25 Under 25 History

Selected so late in 2017, and posting a less-than-convincing performance in the USHL in his draft year, many voters had him quite low on their ballots a year ago. He ended up 36th of the 39 players we ranked last summer, though the community had him several spots higher than the consensus.

The result of his incredible season in the NCAA is a jump of 19 positions from the previous year, which places him in a tie with Martin Réway (from 2013 to 2014) for the largest jump in this project’s nine-year history. Considering that the pool of players reduced by three in Réway’s case, while Primeau saw six new faces join the organization, the goaltender’s leap could be classified as the most significant.

Strengths

What separates Primeau from many of his peers is how well he reads the game and the intelligence he brings to his role. He has a systematic approach to goaltending that usually increases his odds of making a save.

The first step is to be in the proper place. He gets his bearings and then advances to the top of his crease when the opposition gets the puck in his end. This cuts down the net the player has to look at, using all of his 6’4” frame to his benefit.

Being one of the tallest players on the ice allows him to stay upright and follow the play at the point, easily looking over or around the forwards and his own defenders in front of him, tracking the puck’s movement across the top of his zone.

As the puck makes its way close to his net, he crouches down to better cover the four corners of his net and be ready to react in any direction to a shot or pass. Good edgework lets him move around the perimeter of his crease quickly, staying on his skates and establishing a new position square to the current puck-carrier.

Only when the puck gets past the last line of defence does he drop into the butterfly to cover the bottom of the net, still having the height to give the attacker little open net to shoot at. He doesn’t stay in that position for long, quickly bouncing back up when he can into his preferred crouched stance on his skates where he has the most mobility to react.

In that position, his paddle stays along the ice, not only protecting the five hole, but allowing him to make a quick thrust to block a cross-crease pass and prevent the most difficult shots before they can develop.

If the puck does get past that defence, he has the athleticism to pull off the highlight-reel save that is now necessary, possessing a quick glove hand and a good lateral push to shut down any low shots with his pads.

When established in position, he’s mindful of not only stopping the puck, but absorbing rebounds on point shots and directing those from closer quarters into the corner.

Weaknesses

When he’s not fully set, that rebound control can suffer, and pucks can be left in prime scoring areas if he was still reacting to a cross-ice pass. It’s clear that he’s still making a conscious effort to deflect pucks away, so that ability has not become an automatic action, which should just be a matter of time with repetition.

The butterfly stance around the net can leave the top more open for shooters, but that’s a flaw inherent in the technique, and Primeau already counters that somewhat by being on his feet more often than a typical goalie.

One reason why those redirections to the boards were so successful was the disciplined approach from the defence corps in front of him, positioning properly to be able to retrieve the puck and continue the transition from defence to offence that Primeau started. Northeastern was one of the top teams in Hockey East at preventing shots against — an average of 28.3 per game — and rarely let a cross-ice play develop. The team was also the least penalized of the 11 clubs in the conference.

That limited the workload on Primeau, preventing him from having to make too many desperation saves during the season and helping to quickly clear the odd rebound that was left near the crease.

He was joined on the Hockey East First All-Star Team by three of his teammates, including forwards Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura, who finished first and third, respectively, in the NCAA scoring race. Opposing teams were forced to focus much of their attention on preventing Northeastern’s offence rather than creating their own.

Projection

There was a mutual relationship between the team and its skilled goaltender. Primeau’s rebound control would have played a part in the low shot totals as well. Having the ability to make a strong team even stronger is a good skill for a goaltender to have.

He will be starting his sophomore season in a few months, and he goes in knowing he will have the starter’s role. That certainty may prevent the early-season ups and downs he experienced as a freshman.

He was also the most-used netminder for Team USA at the recent World Junior Showcase that brought together some of the country’s best under-20 players. Should he be even remotely close to the level he achieved last year, he should be a shoo-in to earn the main role for the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship.

It was a fairly quick adjustment to the collegiate level for Primeau, and his upward trend as the season went on is precisely what you look for from a prospect. Going from an unflattering stat line in his preparatory season in 2016-17 to one of the best for any netminder playing Division I hockey is an impressive feat.

Last year, when comparing the staff votes to those from the community, I mentioned that there could be a battle between Primeau, Hayden Hawkey, and Zachary Fucale for positioning in 2018. The Montreal Canadiens didn’t allow that to come to pass, already confident enough in Primeau’s abilities to part with both of those goalies. Considering that Hawkey played well enough to be named the second-best goaltender in the same conference, it was quite a vote of confidence for a player who only turns 19 in two days’ time.

It’s easy to get excited about Primeau. Of all the prospects in the system, he’s one of the few who has a chance to become a top player at his position at the NHL level. He is still a few years from beginning to realize that goal, and (as most members and panellists agree) Charlie Lindgren is still ahead of him given his proximity to an NHL spot, but Primeau’s potential is undeniable.

Nearly 10% of the community votes we received had him in a top-10 position, and it’s entirely possible that’s where we will find him in 2019.