It was clear something had to be done. The Montreal Canadiens were in a free fall just over a week ago with their record plummeted after losing eight straight games. General manager Marc Bergevin then placed backup goaltender Keith Kinkaid on waivers and recalled forward Matthew Peca and rookie goalie Cayden Primeau. (from ‘Stung by demotion, Kinkaid hopes hard work leads him back to Canadiens,’ Montreal Gazette, 12/12/2019) Those who predicted the seventh-round pick in 2017 was NHL-bound in late 2019 put your hands up…I didn’t think so.
It’s an odd move, seeing as it was barely Kinkaid’s for the Habs’ recent struggles. Sure, he could have been better, sporting a 1-1-3 record along with a 4.24 goals against-average (GAA) and an .875 save percentage (SV%). The hope was that Kinkaid would return to his 2017-18 form when he played 41 games for the New Jersey Devils and posted a 2.77 GAA and .913 SV%.
But the real reason for Montreal’s poor results has been their defensive coverage. They give up an average of seven odd-man rushes per game. There is simply no excuse for this number, and it makes it very difficult to win when you give the other team so many high-danger chances. Combine that with the league’s fourth-worst power play (76.0%) and you have a team that’s struggled often this season, including that eight-game winless streak (0-6-3) which is difficult to recover from. So, what have we seen and what can we expect from the call-ups?
Since joining the Canadiens in 2018, it hasn’t been an easy time for Peca. A player who’s constantly in and out of the lineup, he suited up for 38 games for Montreal in 2018-19 with three goals and seven assists, about par for a player who averaged just 10:31 of ice time and played exclusively in the bottom six.
A seventh-round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011, Peca has struggled to find his footing in the NHL, mainly due to the teams he’s played for. In Tampa, he was stuck in a logjam of players vying to make the roster and played just 20 games over two seasons.
Unfortunately, he has fallen victim to the same plague in Montreal. He started the season with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket due to bottom-six acquisition Nick Cousins taking a spot, and the emergence of Nick Suzuki. He played well in Laval for hard-nosed head coach Joel Bouchard, with 11 points in 18 games, and was trusted in all situations.
The problem for Peca is that the Canadiens have an abundance of players just like him: undersized, skilled, but not quite ready for full-time top-six minutes. Charles Hudon, Cousins, Jordan Weal, Arturri Lehkonen, Paul Byron (injured) are all similar, and frankly better than Peca. He’ll have to try and separate himself from the pack with his limited ice time on this most recent call-up if he wants to stay in the NHL long term.
It was a bit of a head-scratcher to see Primeau called up to Montreal so early in his professional career. Many (including myself) expected the 20-year-old to stay in Laval and learn what it takes to be a starter in a pro league and learn how to handle the workload involved in being a number one netminder. Yet the combination of Kinkaid’s struggles and Marc Bergevin desperate to make a move, Primeau found himself starting in the NHL against a lethal Colorado Avalanche offense.
He looked nervous to start the game, giving up two goals that he probably should have had. As the game went on, he looked more and more comfortable, and settled into the game nicely making 32 saves on 35 shots. Head coach Claude Julien acknowledged after the Habs’ 3-2 loss to the Avs that Primeau would’ve liked the first two back, but he gave his team a chance to win, and I couldn’t agree more. This is something that Kinkaid never did in his short stint in Montreal. I think the plan for Primeau was to play all season in the AHL and then give him a look next season as a possible backup to Carey Price, but circumstances have fast-tracked his rise to the NHL.
If Kinkaid can show Canadiens management that he can play as Price’s backup once more, Primeau can be sent down without clearing waivers and continue his development. If not, Primeau may be the backup for the rest of the season, or, dare I say, he may have a 1A/1B relationship with Price. It has worked splendidly for the Boston Bruins with a steady tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak and has led to Rask being fresher for the games he does start. This is a viable option for Montreal, given that Price isn’t getting any younger at age 32, and that Primeau can be better than just a 10-15 game backup.
Gustav Olofsson/Otto Leskinen
It must be so tough on a young defencemen joining the Canadiens given the lack of trust shown by Julien. Gustav Olofsson was no different before being sent back down to Laval, averaging just 8:06 of ice time in the three games he played for the big club. One play could have led to his demotion, and that was letting David Pastrnak sneak behind him against Boston for a goal on Dec. 1.
In for him was another Habs rookie in Otto Leskinen, who Bergevin brought over from SM Liiga in Finland this past summer. There were no expectations for Leskinen given that he hadn’t dominated in Finland and had to adjust to the North American game. He’s had a great start to his pro career in Laval, posting 12 points in 24 games before being called up.
Leskinen has averaged just 10:43 of ice time in his first four games with the Habs. It’s a step up from his predecessor Olofsson, but it’s still like playing with five defencemen when the sixth man plays so little. Plays like the blue line gaff against the New York Rangers and the turnover leading to the tying goal against the Ottawa Senators isn’t exactly helping his cause.
The notion of playing one defenceman less or at 10 minutes per game is ludicrous, and it also shows the distrust that Habs brass has in Mike Reilly, who is on the books for another year after this at a $1.5 million cap hit. He’s a left shot who should be capable of playing on the third pairing and playing more than 10 minutes, but it simply hasn’t happened.
Bergevin may have to make a move for a capable left-defenceman before Victor Mete is set to return in one or two weeks’ time. Shayne Gostisbehere is an interesting option, as he’s still young and can really help on the power play. But the asking price would likely be prospects and draft picks, and given Bergevin’s reluctance to part with these assets could be why this deal hasn’t happened. Either way, Bergevin is hard-pressed to make a move given the lack of trust shown by Julien to the called up defencemen.