Michael McNiven will have at least one more chance to prove his worth as a pro goalie in the Montreal Canadiens system after accepting his one-year qualifying offer from the team, even if the path for more playing time hasn’t been made any clearer with the large number of goalies in the pipeline.
Surely he’s hoping he won’t have to bounce around as many teams as he did throughout the 2019-20 season.
He played only three games for the Rocket last season, but despite the limited sample size, the goaltender won all three. His final two victories came in the midst of a four-game winning streak for Laval as the team was seeking a playoff spot, before COVID-19 shut down the remainder of the American Hockey League season.
I was among the voters who had McNiven higher than his actual ranking because I still believe in his potential as a pro goaltender in the Canadiens system. He’s also realized some of that potential throughout his young career, unlike others ranked in the Top 25 and beyond. Personally, I like to give more credence to players who’ve played in Montreal and Laval versus players who still have a ways to go in Junior.
It doesn’t mean I won’t get caught up in the hype on some other players with potential. But when in doubt, I think of the players’ already realized potential (and it doesn’t mean they don’t have room to grow, they’re just closer to the dream of being an NHL player). That’s why I have McNiven ranked where I do.
Top 25 Under 25 History
He is out of the top 20 for the first time since 2016, when he failed to make our top 25 after being signed as a teenage free agent. Now 23, he still has some time to improve his ranking, but it all depends on how much time he’s given this coming season.
History of #22
McNiven played 22 games with three ECHL franchises last year, bouncing around Jacksonville, Norfolk, and the Adirondack mountains in New York State. He posted favourable statistics in Jacksonville and with the Adirondack Thunder, but had a sub-.900 save percentage on a last-place Admirals squad.
All the while, the Canadiens had to deal with Charlie Lindgren, Cayden Primeau, and Keith Kinkaid all rotating between the role as backup to Carey Price and time in the American Hockey League. Kinkaid’s banishment from the Rocket to the Charlotte Checkers freed up room for McNiven partway through the season.
The goaltending stable hasn’t gotten any less crowded in the minors. The Canadiens added Vasili Demchenko, a 26-year-old coming over from the Kontinental Hockey League, for reinforcements. The Habs’ acquisition of Jake Allen to back up Price on a permanent basis also means McNiven will have to compete with Lindgren for time in the minors, unless the team decides to part ways with a netminder before the season starts.
It will be curious to see if the Rocket decide to carry more than two goalies, if McNiven will change his tune about the situation from last year.
McNiven isn’t as big as other goalies in the Canadiens system, but he’s proven to be a strong athlete and isn’t afraid to fight to make saves. In almost every year he’s played with the Laval Rocket, he’s found ways to make highlight-reel saves in a number of games.
McNiven also maintains a competitive streak while trying to remain calm in goal and tries his best to not be rattled even if he’s allowed more than two goals in a game. He may bend, but he does his best not to break.
Consistency is still a key attribute in need of improvement for McNiven, and it has been for the last few seasons. He has tried his best to string together more games without allowing more than three in a game. Last season, the sample size at the AHL level was much too small to show if he truly made progress on that front.
The COVID-19 induced shutdown hurt his development perhaps more than most as he hoped to be a reliable battery-mate for Primeau as his team pushed toward the playoffs. Instead, we’ll never know if his promising form would have been sustainable.
Goaltending coach Stephane Waite says he wants to see Primeau play at least 150 AHL games before he jumps to the NHL. He also feels Lindgren still has some progression to go, at the age of 26, but he’ll need to play games.
It makes Michael McNiven’s place on the Laval roster all the more uncertain, and it appears he may once again go back and forth between the AHL and ECHL, but who knows how viable that will be in the age of the coronavirus.
Head coach Joël Bouchard has rotated between goaltenders for games before, even if it means they can’t truly maintain a rhythm with a string of starts. It would be especially tricky to have four goaltenders all in Laval seeking playing time.
If McNiven isn’t able to play consistent minutes in the minors, it could serve as another frustrating and inconsistent year for the young netminder. The hope is that since the Canadiens brought him back for another season, the team has intentions on playing him in some capacity in the organization.
Should he play well enough in training camp, he would have a leg up on Demchenko if the team needs to replace Lindgren or Primeau. If McNiven grew restless and asked out of the crowded crease, would the Canadiens be willing to cut into their depth? They might not have a packed return coming for McNiven if they went that route.
Some believe you can never have too many goalies. McNiven is surplus at a position the Habs feel good at. But when called upon, he can provide quality starts in goal. He just needs more time in net to prove he’s made progress from the start of his time with the Canadiens.