By JD Lagrange – Saying that the 2021-22 season has been a tough, tough one for everyone in Montreal would be a huge understatement. Breaking records for most man-games lost (by a wide margin), including long term injuries to key players on the team, was more than any team could have gone through unscathed. Not only has the team depth been tested, but it has brought in players that weren’t ready for the NHL, playing in too big of roles… too soon.
There is no better example of that than Canadiens’ prospect goaltender Cayden Primeau. Up until then, he was developing nicely. The organization, with Marc Bergevin at the helm, has always claimed that he would need around 150-160 games in the AHL before being ready. So when they saw that Carey Price’s return kept getting delayed, they claimed Samuel Montembeault off waivers from the Florida Panthers just so that Primeau could continue developing in Laval.
Not NHL ready
What they were not prepared for – and who could blame them – was seeing veteran back up goaltender Jake Allen get injured as well. Under new management at that point, the team was slow to react and with the combination of underwhelming performances by Montembeault, pulled several times, Primeau was asked to take on an even bigger role. The combination of not being NHL-ready and playing in front of a decimated team was a recipe for disaster for the young goal keeper.
The Farmington Hills, Minnesota native appeared in 12 games for the Canadiens, starting nine of those games and coming into relief three times. Primeau had a few great games, but did not look good at all most of the games. His record stood at 1-7-1, with a 4.80 goals against average and a .868 saves percentage, before management traded for Andrew Hammond to allow the 22 year-old goaltender to return to Laval. By that point, many had given up on his as a quality prospect. Even those who hadn’t lost faith were questioning the amount of damage this stint in the NHL would do to his confidence.
Return to Laval
Primeau admits that he had some work ahead of him and he did what he had to do in order to get better. He’s a fighter and no stranger to beating the odds. Selected in the seventh round by the Canadiens at the 2017 NHL Draft, he has always had to fight to get better, to prove his worth.
“I spoke to the team’s sports psychologist. We spoke about the fact that even though we didn’t know exactly, at the time, what would come out of it, there was some positive to get from it. I’m hoping to never have to go through such moments ever again, but I know that it made me stronger today, and I’m grateful for that. I am a much better goalie than I was at the start of the season”, said Primeau.
He played 17 regular season’s games after being sent back down to Laval, where he worked at regaining his confidence. In those 17 games, he managed a 3.11 GAA and a .907 Sv%, having good and not so good starts. But being away from the Montreal spotlight was what he needed.
“To be able to find my rhythm and be able to focus on returning to the basics, it was huge for me. I think that it’s that stability that helped me the most to regain confidence”, added Primeau.
And did he ever bounce back! In the playoffs, Primeau gave the Rocket a chance to win every night, leading his team to one win away from a Calder Cup finals appearance. He finished the AHL post-season with a 2.17 GAA and a solid .936 Sv%. He even caught Rocket’s head coach Jean-François Houle a bit by surprise.
“Yes, he surprised me”, said Houle. “And as I told him, what I liked of him, is that I found that he had a lot more confidence. He was more solid in front of his net when teams were going at him trying to push him. He stood his grounds a lot more than at the start of the season. He managed the games a bit better with the stoppages of play. When we needed a whistle, he froze the puck or directed the rebounds up high. His game management was much better”, noticed Houle.
“Everyone saw, during the playoffs, how good he really was”, acknowledged Kevin Poulin, forced to give Primeau the net towards the end of the season. “He was well prepared, well focussed. He gave us a chance to win every night, even when we weren’t having our best games.”
So what does next season bring for Primeau? At this time, he is careful and realistic. If he’s thinking of getting into the NHL short term, he’s not saying it.
“It obviously will be the biggest off-season of my career, I have no doubt. But I don’t want to put expectations as to where I’ll be starting next season. I’ll give my all this summer, I’ll come to camp and hope for the best”, said Primeau.
For Poulin, who make the NHL at 20 but could never stick, there is no doubt about what Primeau needs.
“I think that he needs another good year in the AHL. He needs to play a lot, and for his focus be solely on the Rocket, that he doesn’t have to be called up too much. He needs to play his games and develop.”
“As a goalie, it’s a lot more mental than physical at some point”, added the 32 year-old veteran. “He gained in confidence during the playoffs. If he can bring this back next season, be more confident. Then you can give him a chance, but not just because there’s an injury or something. A real chance”, said Poulin.
Houle has no hesitation in supporting his veteran goaltender.
“It’s true not just for him, but for many other players. You have got to be patient, you have to take the time. We have to ensure to develop players well, and that takes time sometimes. It sometimes takes several years in the AHL. Skipping steps, sometimes, is not very good. I think that we have to be patient as an organization and I think it’s the way that we will be able to develop more players”, said Houle.
As we explained in an article earlier this season, some of today’s top goaltenders didn’t break through until they turned 25-27 years old. It is way too soon to give up on Primeau and those who are guilty of doing just that could end up having a mea culpa in a few years. The Canadiens certainly haven’t given up on their young prospect and that’s good to see.