By Bob Trask – Montreal Canadiens fans have already experienced a season without Carey Price in goal and it was not a pleasant experience. But the failures of the team aren’t entirely due to Price’s absence. Injuries and illness gutted the team and only two players, Nick Suzuki and Alexander Romanov, played more than 72 games.
An NHL roster is typically comprised of 23 players with two of those being goaltenders, leaving positions for 21 skaters on the roster.
The average number of games played by Montreal’s top 21 skaters was 57 games. These numbers didn’t take into account the games missed by Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson and Paul Byron because they didn’t crack the top 21 in total minutes played.
The Habs were regularly playing with a patchwork lineup with limited opportunity to develop chemistry or momemtum. It seemed to be compounded by the impression that the coaching staff constantly had a deer-in-the-headlights look about them.
The point of all this is that should Carey Price not return to the Canadiens, it is highly unlikely that the perfect storm of 2021-22 of injuries and other absences will repeat itself.
But would the Canadiens be able to challenge for a playoff spot if Price is unable to return to regular action? Even the most optimistic of Habs fan would likely say no. The bigger question is whether they can challenge to for a playoff spot if he does return to action. The answer is still probably no.
Let’s look at the situation in the context that Price is unable to return.
Goals and Objectives
If the Canadiens do have to play most or all of next season without Price, what are the objectives? Only Kent Hughes knows for sure but all indications are that he is intent on building the team methodically. That means no quick fixes, no big free agent signings and no blockbuster trades.
A lot may depend on the progression of Cayden Primeau.
Primeau was bounced around like a yo-yo during the past regular season but after the arrival of Martin St Louis, he only suited up for two forgettable games with the Canadiens and was sent back to Laval. The Habs played an injured Samuel Montembeault ahead of Primeau but that allowed the young Canadiens’ prospect to return to Laval and regain his confidence. It hindsight it was the right move.
In his first four playoff games Primeau has sported a GAA of 1.96 and a SV% of .940. Those numbers have to be music to the ears of Kent Hughes and as the Rocket proceed to the next round of the playoffs, the Canadiens’s management are sure to be keeping a close eye on his performance.
Even if he continues with those stellar numbers, Primeau may not crack the Habs lineup next year. He will not be waiver eligible until the 2023-24 and management may want to see him continue to hone his skills in the AHL.
And there is no rush for him to join the team in an effort to make the playoffs. In this case player development is far more important than a long-shot at a playoff berth.
Montembeault was wildly inconsistent last year. At times he looked unbeatable even when teams were peppering him with 40-45 shots a games. And at other times he looked soft or made questionable playes with puck that cost the team a goal. In his defense, however, he did face almost 35 shots per game over the course of the year and a lot of them were high danger shots. Compare that with another young goaltender, Jeremy Swayman of the Bruins, who faced fewer than 28 shots per game.
A patchwork defense that saw Montrel use 14 different defenseman last year often provided little support to the team’s goaltenders. Add in the fact that Montembeault played a good portion of the season with a wrist injury that required surgery immediately after the season ended. None of us know how much that affected his play and the word that comes to mind is gutsy.
Will that be enough for him to return as a backup goaltender next year? Who knows? I suspect that Hughes will be scouring the list of goaltenders who may become available this summer but it seems unlikely that he will be making a big trade to improve his goaltending situation, particularly if Primeau continues with a hot hand in the playoffs. That bodes well for Montembeault’s chances as a backup.
Allen seems to thrive in the role of a backup goaltender and he also seems to be the ultimate teammate. But if Price does not return, he could be thrust into the role of the #1 goaltender on the team. The big question is whether he can handle the workload.
During his career Allen has average about 39 starts per season and he hasn’t played more than 46 games in a season for four years. That could be considered #1B status. He did play 59 and 61 games in back to back seasons but that was five and six years ago respectively. Allen will turn 32 years old in August and it might be wise to expect no more than 50 games per season going forward.
If management took the view that Allen should be counted on for around 50 games, do they think Montembeault is up to playing the other about 30 games. It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish, the team’s goals and objectives.
The Allen/Montembeault approach would allow Primeau to continue in Laval. If at any point in the season his play there warranted a promotion, then the combination of Allen/Montembeault would be an acceptable way to start the seaon.
If the team was reaching for the playoffs, they might want to be more aggressive but it doesn’t seem like Hughes is going to rush the agenda.
A comparable situation where a team used a veteran starter and a backup with little experience is the Buffalo Sabres. Craig Anderson is 40 years old and 32 year old Dustin Tokarski had played in only 46 NHL games before this season. How did the team do? They improved year over year from a 54 point pace in 2020-21 to a 75 point season in 2021-22.
No those numbers won’t get you into playoffs but that is probably not Montreal’s immediate goal either. And it could be argued that a tandem of Allen and Montembeault is superior to a tandem of Anderson and Tokarski.
Trades and Free Agents
Kent Hughes will undoubtedly explore the market for goaltenders, particularly given the unknown status of Carey Price. But his hands might be tied until the last moment when a decision can be made on Price’s injury status. It means that he can’t afford to acquire a high priced and maybe not even a moderately priced goaltender (puns intended) because of the uncertain contract situation.
There could be some last minute scrambling or Hughes could stick with what he already has. One thing to keep an eye on is the situation in Laval. The Habs may look to add a goaltender for the Rocket over the summer, someone who could step in and play if Primeau is called up.
In the end this entire discussion could be moot if Price fully recovers over the summer and is ready for a full season of play.