Undrafted free agents are always a wild card. Sometimes they turn into an NHL Hall of Famer like Martin St. Louis. Other times they’re quite literally nothing. Michael McNiven is proving himself to be far from the latter, but also not even close to the former. It might seem a bit extreme, but with another professional season under his belt, the 24-year-old netminder is keeping himself firmly entrenched in the Canadiens goaltending hierarchy as it stands.
His numbers this past year aren’t going to blow anyone away, but they also require some context to help understand why they look the way they do. McNiven started 13 games for the Laval Rocket, serving mainly as a backup to Cayden Primeau, and he compiled a 7-3-4 record to pair with a .895 save percentage and 2.59 goals against.
The numbers look a bit unimposing when stated like they are, but considering the fact that McNiven and the other Rocket goalies rarely faced more than 25 shots a night (or even 20 in most cases), any goal against hit the stat sheet much harder than it usually would.
Only two panelists ranked McNiven outside their top 25, with most agreeing that he should fall somewhere in the mid-20s range. I was the high vote, with Patrik and Jared not far behind. While I can’t speak for their methodology, I saw a lot of growth from McNiven once he was given a stable amount of playing time, and think he still has another level he can reach within the organization.
Top 25 Under 25 History
McNiven really made a name for himself with a great 2016-17 OHL season, and moved up to #13. His position has fallen as he hasn’t had an easy time in the AHL, but his ECHL numbers and flashes of great netminding with the Laval Rocket are keeping him in a comfortable spot in the Top 25 in this his final year of eligibility.
History of #20
|2019||Jayden Struble / Joni Ikonen|
Watching McNiven play when he’s dialed in is a treat. He’s not a big goalie like Carey Price, but with sound positioning and athleticism, he covers a lot of net with ease. It’s not often that McNiven was caught scrambling in the crease this season, and a good chunk of that is thanks to a strong defensive structure in front of him. However, even if he was caught out a bit he had the composure to get himself into position to make the follow-up save(s) as needed.
Michael McNiven dives and steals a goal from the Senators during a 5 on 3 PK pic.twitter.com/IAwdvS7Q4s— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) April 22, 2021
His reaction and puck tracking has improved immensely since his early days as a rookie in the AHL. He’s constantly aware of the puck movement in his zone, following it as it moves along. Even when his teammates might lose the puck, he’s aware of where it’s headed and does well to cover that area quickly.
Michael McNiven take a bow sir!— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) May 4, 2021
What a glove save by the Rocket goalie! pic.twitter.com/jAVAO953S8
As he approaches his playing prime, we should see him take another step forward in the AHL this season, and with it back to being a two-goalie tandem in Laval, his playing time should increase over a full season as compared to the shortened one from last year.
It’s always tough to analyze a young goalie. Even more so when they were cast out to play on multiple ECHL teams over the course of a year before finally suiting back up for the team he’s signed to. For McNiven, one of the biggest weaknesses he faced was not his own fault, but that of the Canadiens for failing to give him a stable growing environment. He has that now and will need to show he can improve his numbers from last season. Yes, they are skewed a bit by how strong the defence was, but at the same time, if the defence is that good you should be seeing the shots coming in much better.
While McNiven is typically in good spots to make saves, he does have a habit of occasionally removing himself from play with a big overcommitment. Sometimes he’s able to correct his course and get himself back into position to make the save, other times he’s finding himself in Drummondville or Tremblant as the puck is put into the net. Focusing on closing down some of those over-corrections or honing his reactions a bit will do wonders for the young goalie going forward.
Now comes the hard part. Where do you place Michael McNiven in the Montreal goalie hierarchy?
Price is here to stay for a long while, and Jake Allen is very firmly entrenched as the NHL backup for the next two seasons at least. So the path to the NHL is immediately closed off since also in that queue, ahead of McNiven, is top prospect Primeau. McNiven and Primeau split the majority of starts last year, with Vasili Demchenko being the third option if there was an injury or a call-up.
The net in Laval will again likely be Primeau’s to start, but McNiven will have plenty of chances to prove his own mettle in the net. If Primeau falters then it’s McNiven’s chance to climb up the ladder, but it’s far from a guaranteed thing. Also putting pressure on McNiven this year is the arrival of veteran netminder Kevin Poulin, where if McNiven struggles there is someone there capable of filling in.
As it stands right now, McNiven isn’t likely to be an NHL netminder due to the bodies in front of him, but he’s providing solid play for the AHL club while the next generation of drafted goalies work their way towards the professional level. However, after a marathon of moves through various minor league systems and some strong play for the Rocket, McNiven might have earned an actual cup of coffee for the Habs to analyze what they actually have between the pipes right now.
Patrik Bexell and Anton Rasegård discuss entries 20 and 21 in the Top 25 here: