Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price Performance Shows Importance of Backup Goaltender

TORONTO, ONTARIO - AUGUST 03: Carey Price #31 of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ONTARIO - AUGUST 03: Carey Price #31 of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens are currently tied 1-1 with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carey Price is the biggest reason why.

The Montreal Canadiens have been relying heavily on Carey Price for the last decade. The team has not won any Stanley Cups in that time, but any success the organization has found since 2010 has been because of the team’s number one goaltender.

Price became the team’s starter in the 2010-11 season. Jaroslav Halak was brilliant for the Habs in the 2010 postseason, but he was dealt for Lars Eller in the offseason, as the team needed to choose between their two restricted free agent netminders.

General Manager Bob Gainey chose Price, who had less of a proven track record at the NHL level at the time, but certainly had the higher ceiling. The Anahim Lake, British Columbia product has rewarded the organization for their faith in him many times over since then.

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Price was at his best in the 2014-15 season. His 1.96 goals against average and .933 save percentage in 66 games was phenomenal. It earned him the Hart Trophy, Vezina Trophy, William Jennings Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award. He was, without a doubt, the best hockey player on the planet at that time.

Price has earned the confidence of his coaches in his career, but that confidence is starting to take its toll. He will turn 33 years old later this month and just can’t handle the same workload that he did when he was younger.

During his first full season as the undisputed number on goalie, Price played 72 games. He was terrific, posting a 2.35 GAA and a .923 SV% and had plenty left in the tank in the postseason. Though the Habs were ousted in round one, Price was their best player in a tight series that ended in overtime of Game 7. He had a 2.11 GAA and a .934 SV% against the team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup.

Lately, Price has been leaned upon almost as heavily in the regular season. The problem has been, he seems to struggle late in the season and hasn’t been able to show off his tremendous abilities in the postseason for the past few years.

In the 2018-19 season, Price played 66 of the team’s 82 games. This season, he played 58 of 71 before the regular season concluded. His numbers haven’t been terrible, but they don’t highlight Price at his best either. When he is rested and healthy, Price is still the best goaltender in the world. When he has to play almost every game, he doesn’t play at that high level every night.

The Canadiens have failed to secure a trusted backup for the past few seasons. They hoped Keith Kinkaid would bounce back from after a tough season with the New Jersey Devils, but he couldn’t. They got a few good games out of Antti Niemi two seasons ago so they thought the aging backup could do it again last year, but he couldn’t. They have tried to get Charlie Lindgren to take over the role for years when others failed, but he can’t.

Al Montoya was solid in 2016-17. He was not amazing or good enough to make anyone think he was going to be a starter. He was just good enough to get the team two points more often than it got zero point when he played. Others have failed to meet that menial standard ever since.

Ironically, or perhaps it is not ironic at all, the Canadiens haven’t made the playoffs since Montoya was a reliable backup for Price.

We all know how good Price can be when he is at his best. The only way to keep him there over a full season is to have a good backup behind him. His former running mate Jaro Halak has been the second option for the Boston Bruins behind Tuukka Rask. they basically split starts in the regular season. It was no surprise then, that Rask was healthy, rested and ready to go in the playoffs last year. He was phenomenal for the Bruins as they marched all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the St. Louis Blues.

The Canadiens need to build a similar model for Price. They need to find a backup who can play 30 games and give Price ample rest during the regular season. The Habs goaltender is the highest paid at his position right now and it might not seem like a great investment to have him sit on the bench 30-35 times during the season.

But, are the Habs paying Price to play a bunch in the regular season, or are they paying him to carry the team to a Stanley Cup? I would like to think it is the latter.

The best way to do that is to get him some rest during the regular season. Just look at him in the first two games against the Penguins in this year’s postseason. He is healthy and rested and has been incredible for the 24th ranked Montreal Canadiens, keeping them in the series against the Stanley Cup contending Penguins.

It has been just two games, but the Habs season would be on the brink already if not for Price. He has posted a 1.82 GAA and a .949 SV% in those two games. He is at his best, and as he has shown, the Habs can beat anybody when Price is at his best.

The Canadiens need Price to be at his best in the postseason. They lucked into that situation this year with the entire hockey world taking four months off before the playoffs. Next year, the only way they can ensure Price is at the top of his game in the postseason is to get him a reliable backup.

The options will be plentiful this offseason. Anton Khudobin led the NHL in save percentage playing second fiddle behind Ben Bishop in Dallas. Bringing him to Montreal to play the same role would give the Canadiens the best one-two punch in the league at its most important position.

Robin Lehner is also going to an unrestricted free agent, but he will likely be looking for a starting job. Veterans like Cam Talbot, Corey Crawford, Craig Anderson, Thomas Greiss and Brian Elliott will also be available to the highest bidder. Antti Raanta is a bit expensive but could be available for cheap from the Arizona Coyotes who may need to cut some payroll and have Darcy Kuemper starting. Heck, Matt Murray, Price’s counterpart in this series may be available as Tristan Jarry makes a push for his job and both are free agents.

No matter which one of them the Habs decide to approach, they have to bring someone in to back up Price. All of the aforementioned veteran free agents will be looking for a number two role to continue their careers. Playing behind Shea Weber for 30 games next season is going to be a fairly attractive option for these guys who aren’t likely to get a starting job.

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The Canadiens need Price at his best when the games matter most. They have that now because of the league’s lengthy layoff. They need it again next postseason and can only ensure that by making a backup goaltender their top priority in the upcoming offseason.