While we patiently wait for the Montreal Canadiens to sign top prospect Alexander Romanov, general manager Marc Bergevin teased fans by signing a different Russian from the KHL, goaltender Vasili Demchenko. The Canadiens are in desperate need of a quality backup, and Demchenko is a relatively unknown goalie who has played the last seven seasons on poor KHL teams which makes this move a bit of a head-scratcher.
Related: Carey Price’s Many Backups
Demchenko’s numbers aren’t bad, but they don’t jump out at you either, so hopefully, the organization doesn’t expect him to be the answer to the team’s backup issues. With an already crowded crease and an NHL backup likely to be signed during the offseason, who will be the odd man out?
The New Guy: Vasili Demchenko
On April 21, Bergevin signed Demchenko to a one-year, two-way entry-level contract (ELC) worth $793,000. Since 2013-14, Demchenko has played for Chelyabinsk Traktor of the KHL. As the starter, he never had a save percentage (SV%) below .922 or goals-against average (GAA) higher than 2.45 until last season.
The Canadiens already have Carey Price and Charlie Lindgren in Montreal and Cayden Primeau and Micheal McNiven in the AHL with the Laval Rocket. Demchenko will play with either the Canadiens or the Rocket. If this is the case, then where does that leave the other goaltenders not named Price?
The Next One: Cayden Primeau
Primeau is in his first full season of pro hockey. He shared the crease with Lindgren and then Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid only won three of his 13 games, and Primeau found he was getting more starts and solidified himself as the number one in Laval. In 33 games, he posted an SV% of .908 and GAA of 2.45, not bad for a seventh-round pick.
Many believe that Primeau is Price’s heir apparent and that in the next couple of years will be the backup in Montreal. With all the hype, it’s safe to say he will earn the majority of the goaltending duties with the Rocket next season.
The Backup Right Now: Charlie Lindgren
Believe it or not, Lindgren has been with the Habs organization for five seasons. He was undrafted out of St. Cloud State University of the NCAA and signed with the club in 2015-16. He’s played most of his pro career in Laval, and was their starter the past three seasons with mediocre numbers; his save percentage was above .900 only once, although his numbers are better in Montreal than in Laval.
Given that the organization still doesn’t trust him to be the everyday backup, it would seem that his days in Montreal are numbered. Although he is with the parent club right now playing behind Price, it’s more likely he’s there as the best player available not the best player for the job. He has one more season on a very team-friendly $750,000 contract, and if the Habs pick up a backup goalie this offseason he is destined to return to the Rocket. With Demchenko and Primeau already there, Lindgren’s likely destination is with another team.
Hasn’t Got a Shot Yet: Michael McNiven
Finally, there’s McNiven, another undrafted goaltender signed out of the OHL a year after winning goalie of the year for the Owen Sound Attack. McNiven was Lindgren’s backup in Laval until this season. He also had mediocre numbers and spent some time with the Brampton Beast in the ECHL.
This season, however, with the emergence of Primeau, McNiven was the odd man out and spent much of 2019-20 bouncing around the ECHL, playing for the Adirondack Thunder, Jacksonville Icemen, and Norfolk Admirals. The Canadiens don’t have an ECHL team, so it was hard for him to find a home, and though his numbers were good, he only managed to play 22 games and was stuck behind the other teams’ goaltenders.
He returned to the Rocket before the season was stopped when Kinkaid was loaned to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. McNiven won all three games he played posting a .913 (SV%). This season was especially hard because he is a restricted free agent and it’s hard to fight for a contract when you don’t get to play much.
Who’s the Odd Man Out?
With Demchenko, the Canadiens now have four goalies fighting for three spots, and technically it’s three goalies fighting for two spots: Primeau is safe in Laval unless the wheels fall off. Demchenko will either be in Laval or Montreal, and my money is on Laval. For Primeau to develop properly he needs to play in Laval and neither Lindgren or Demchenko will play in the ECHL.
Lindgren still has a year left on his contract and will likely stay with the club unless he is traded in the offseason in a package deal or for late-round draft picks, which if a free-agent (FA) goalie is signed is what will likely happen. McNiven probably won’t be re-signed when his contract is up. Bergevin will try to sign one of the many FA goalies available this offseason leaving no room in Montreal.
It is clear to me that McNiven is the true odd man out like he was last season, there is just no room and without an ECHL affiliate, there is nowhere for him to go. Demchenko wasn’t signed just to be traded so Lindgren is not far behind, next season both will be out of the organization.
Trege Wilson lives in Nova Scotia and is a member of the RCN. He is a life long Habs fan and is creator and co-host of the popular Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered.