By Bob Trask – A poll of Canadiens’ fans would almost surely reveal universal agreement that the current goaltending setup isn’t at the level of a Stanley Cup contender. Some are calling for the situation to be addressed over the summer. One of them is my friend JD Lagrange and I respect his point of view. But could there be some merit in exercising patience? A friendly discussion is always worthwhile.
In their post season press conference both Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes stressed that they weren’t going to rush the process. At the same time, they admitted that the team was still not at the level of a contender. That seems to indicate there is little desire to make a major move at the goaltending position unless a sweetheart deal falls into their lap.
There are a lot of unanswered roster questions surrounding the Habs and next season will be pivotal. The groundwork will be laid this summer and those who make the cut will be given an opportunity to show whether or not the core of this squad has the makings of a contender or not. At the moment the team is definitely not a contender for the Stanley Cup and even making the playoffs will be challenging.
The question is whether to make a big splash and acquire a proven goaltender or exercise patience and see whether adding a goaltender to this squad at a later date is justified.
In the System
The two prospects closest to being ready for the NHL are Cayden Primeau who has had a small taste of action with the Canadiens and Jakub Dobes who has yet to play a pro game. A decision must be made on Primeau because he will be waiver eligible in the upcoming season.
In keeping with their strategy of giving young players an opportunity, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Primeau with the Canadiens next season. If he falls flat on his face, there is no harm done; the Canadiens aren’t expected to seriously challenge anyway. Next summer would then be the time to hunt for a goaltending upgrade if that was the case. On the other hand, if he shows that he is capable, even as a backup, the move to play Primeau in the NHL would be a successful step in solidifying the position for the Habs. It seems like a no lose situation.
While Primeau is battling for an NHL spot, Dobes will be getting his first taste of pro hockey with the Laval Rocket. He put up stellar numbers in the NCAA and has received rave reviews from his coaches. Deferring any decisions on potential goaltending acquisitions until next year would allow the Canadiens to determine what they have in Dobes in terms of a potential NHL goaltender.
This approach fits with the overall strategy of building a deep organization that Hughes and Gorton have been preaching.
The Current Tandem
It’s obvious that the Canadiens don’t have elite goaltending. Performances have ranged from spectacular to complete duds and that kind of play won’t win many championships.
Between Samuel Montembeault and Jake Allen, Monty seems like the better fit for where the team is currently at. He is only 26 years old and has continued to develop his game. Both his GAA and his SV% improved from last season and with 103 NHL games under his belt, he has significant NHL experience. Montembeault also carries a very team friendly contract.
By comparison, Jake Allen is 32 years old. His SV% has declined every season for the past 4 seasons but he brings leadership and a team first attitude to the rink. It is something that is hard to measure but it certainly adds to his value.
The decision, if the Canadiens’ goal is to be diligent about a long term rebuild, might be to replace one of the existing tandem, replace him with Primeau and monitor the situation for possibly more changes after the 2023-24 season – or stick with the new tandem if their level of play merits doing so.
Each of the existing goaltenders brings something different to the team and if Kent Hughes was thinking of moving one of them, he would have to decide which of the two fits the long term vision of the team better.
Any goaltender that is on the Canadiens’ radar screen would have to fit a few criteria. Without knowing exactly what those are, we can make a few guesses. The ideal candidate would have to be under 30 years old, signed to a reasonable contract (less than $5M per season) and have a track record of consistently good play. The team he is currently playing for would have to be looking to trade him. If they don’t fit that mold there seems to be little gained by making a trade for one of them.
That strikes me as a pretty rare individual and if he does exist, the would likely be several suitors. The Ottawa Senators immediately come to mind and the playoffs could reveal more teams looking for help between the pipes. Any quality goaltender who comes onto the market will have more than one team bidding for his services and that could push the price up. It almost seems premature to pay a big price for a starting goaltender when so many other questions surrounding the team remain unanswered.
Carter Hart’s name pops up but with a new GM in Philadelphia the team’s point of view on their goaltender may have changed. In fact, we can go around the league and see several management and coaching changes. These GMs and/or coaches may not want to make any rash decisions immediately and could prefer to wait until other events unfold, events like the draft, the free agent season, summer trades and training camp.
The unrestricted free agent cupboard for goaltenders under 30 years old and who might be fit with the Canadiens is empty. While the RFA market does have a couple of interesting candidates, I don’t see Hughes putting out an offer sheet or at least one that wouldn’t be matched and teams with these players are unlikely to trade them.
Amateur Free Agents
This group includes NCAA players who haven’t been drafted or who don’t sign with the team that drafted them. It also includes free agent from Europe. Technically goaltenders currently playing their trade in Europe may be considered pros, but for purposes of this article those who are undrafted are considered amateur free agents.
If Kent Hughes does sign one of these players it is more likely and indication that they are headed to Laval to share playing time with Dobes. It could also be an indication that Primeau would be given a legitimate shot at a spot on the Habs, paving a way for a trade of either Allen or Montembeault. The Canadiens are unlikely to hand a spot on the NHL team over to a goaltender who hasn’t played pro hockey at any level in North America.
With a handful of draft picks in his pocket, Hughes may look at strengthening the organization’s depth at the goaltending position. In fact, it would not be surprising to see Hughes pick two goaltenders in this draft if players he likes are still available when he walks to the podium.
But don’t count on the draft being an immediate solution to any goaltending problems. Depending on the league they were drafted from, any goaltender chosen this year will spend another 2-4 years in the amateur ranks followed by another 2-3 years in the American Hockey League. That means 5+ years before any significant contribution can be expected from a goaltender drafted this season.
As with any other position, the Habs will undoubtedly be examining every avenue available to strengthen their goaltending throughout the organization. Sam Montembeault may not be the answer but he has played admirably under adverse circumstances. He may be the best option for this transition period as the Canadiens move from pretender to contender. Cayden Primeau may not be the answer either but he has paid his dues and it doesn’t seem like it is Hughes’ DNA to lose him for nothing on waivers.
With the team not quite ready to compete but moving in that direction, it is entirely possible that the Montreal GM will want more time to evaluate what he has with his young players before deciding that a starting goaltender is the last piece of the puzzle needed to push the Canadiens over the top.
Does that mean that Jake Allen is the odd man out? As hard as that is to say about a player who has demonstrated nothing but class since coming to Montreal, it is a possibility. It also raises the specter that the goaltending position could be an utter failure in Montreal next year with not much of a safety net. That is a risk that the Canadiens may be willing to take knowing that failing to make the playoffs next season will not constitute a failed season if the team continues to improve in other areas.
If that was the result, Kent Hughes would likely vigorously pursue a quality goaltender, either at the deadline or next off-season. And if the team failed to improve both offensively and defensively, adding a proven goaltender becomes a moot point.
While good goaltending is always a key to success as measured by regular season and playoff performance, for me, the timing does not seem right to make it a top priority. My focus would be on improving goal scoring from the wings and strengthening the center ice position. I would focus on using my trade currency on those two positions. The caveat is that if a talented goaltender became available at a price too good to pass up, I could see the Canadiens moving quickly to complete the transaction.
Time will tell which route they take.