Canadiens Don’t Have an NHL Starter to Replace Price Yet

The Montreal Canadiens fans were handed a huge blow this week when it was revealed that superstar goaltender Carey Price will not be playing this season and could need another knee surgery. The Habs should be alright this season with Jake Allen and Sam Montembeault playing in the net, but after that Montreal could find themselves with a goaltending issue.

Canadiens Only Have Allen Short Term

Allen will be the de facto number one goaltender for the Canadiens this season; he has the experience and has been the guy the past two seasons. Injuries forced him to only play 35 games last season, where he won nine games and had a .905 save percentage (SV%). Montreal struggled on the whole and played very poorly defensively all season. Allen, when he played, allowed the team to still be in games and keep things close even while they were losing. This season will be much of the same, with the Habs not expected to win many games and a defence that will be very difficult to play behind. Allen gives the Canadiens the best chance to win any game they play and will be relied on heavily.

Jake Allen Montreal Canadiens
Jake Allen, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Allen is on an expiring contract and will be a free agent (FA) at the end of the season. Even though the Canadiens will have the best chance to win with him in net, they are not worried about winning too much. Still, they would prefer to develop the young players properly, and this could mean that Allen is expendable and will probably be moved at some point for picks or prospects.

Several teams are looking for goaltending help, such as the Nashville Predators, Arizona Coyotes and the Dallas Stars. Allen could be moved before the season starts if the return is acceptable. Canadiens general manager (GM) Kent Hughes is proving to be competent, especially when it comes to asset management and will more than likely wait until the trade deadline when Allen could be at his highest worth. Either way, he is more than likely going to be moved at some point this season.

Primeau Isn’t Ready For The NHL Yet

Cayden Primeau was drafted by the Canadiens in the seventh round of the 2017 Entry Draft while playing for Northeastern University of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). With Northeastern, he compiled a 44-18-6 record in 70 games with 2.00 goals-against average (GAA) and an SV% of .932 before signing with the Habs. While in the NCAA, he won the Hockey East Goaltender of the Year twice, Rookie of the Year, Three Stars Award, Hockey East Tournament MVP, NCAA Top Collegiate Goalie (Mike Richter Award), The Hockey East Championship and the World Junior Championship (WJC) Silver Medal. In his first pro year, he played 33 games with a 17-11-4 record of 2.45 GAA and a .908 SV% with the Laval Rocket and 1-1 with .935 SV% with Montreal. Everything pointed to Primeau being Price’s heir apparent in the Canadiens’ net.

Cayden Primeau Montreal Canadiens
Cayden Primeau, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Primeau had a hot start to his pro debut, but the following two seasons were nothing rosy. With Laval, he was good in 49 games over the past two seasons, and he had 27 wins and a .909 SV%. With Montreal, however, he did not fare well at all, going 2-9-2 with a dismal SV% below .870 and a GAA above 4.50. The coronation was halted, and it was apparent Primeau would need more time before taking over for Price or to even see if he was NHL material.

He redeemed himself in last year’s American Hockey League (AHL) playoffs when he almost single-handedly led the Rocket to the Calder Cup Semi-Finals with a .935 SV% and winning nine of 14 games. Laval fell short of their goal of a Calder Final, but Primeau proved capable of playing under pressure, and with some more time in Laval, he could start earning his way to an NHL job.

Canadiens’ Other Goaltending Prospects Not Even Close to Ready

The Canadiens have three other goaltending prospects: Fredric Dichow, Jakub Dobes and Joe Vrbetic. They are all 21 or under and still a few years away from even coming close to playing in Montreal. Vrbetic, 19 years old, signed an AHL contract this summer and will play with the Trois-Rivére Lions, an affiliate team with the Canadiens, to start the season. Dichow, 21, will play with Frolunda Hockey Club (HC) of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) this season, and Dobes, 21, is currently with Ohio State University of the NCAA. For the next season, at least, none of these goalies will be in Montreal’s plan to take over for Price, and it probably will be for another season or two before they are even in the conversation.

Related: Canadiens Load Up on Goaltending Depth

Last season with Ohio State, Dobes had a fantastic year with a 21-12-2 record, an SV% of .934, and a GAA of 2.16. He is yet to be signed, but if he continues to play like he did last season, he could project to be an NHL goaltender much on the same level as Primeau; if he chooses to play the entire four years in Ohio, then the Canadians will have to wait two more seasons before they can sign him.

Dichow is a goalie who can stand on his head, steal some games for his team, and track the puck well. Last season he played in the HockeyAllvenskan League, where he was 18-9 with a 2.27 GAA and .930 SV%, which is the minor league to the SHL, and is a bit more competitive than the NCAA. If he thrives for Frolunda, his move to North America will be pretty swift. At 21 years of age, he still has lots of time to develop, but like Dobes, he is still two to three seasons away.

Vrbetic is in the best position to be fast-tracked to the NHL; he is the only one with a North American pro contract. He played with North Battleford Batallion of the Ontario Hockey league (OHL) last season, where he won 29 of his 45 games with an SV% of .906 and a GAA of 2.87. Vrbetic probably won’t blow anyone away and doesn’t project to be a top prospect for the Canadiens, but he could be a good depth goalie in the system if he keeps improving.

Canadiens Have Other Options

With all likelihood that Allen is not returning in 2023-24, the Canadiens will be left with Montembeault, who will be in his final season, and Primeau as their only NHL-signed goalies. That may not be terrible if Primeau can play in the NHL as he does in the AHL and Montembault can prove he’s a capable NHLer. The Habs will not be winning anytime soon but they want to start moving in the right direction, which is not still near the bottom, more moving up closer to a playoff berth. If they don’t fix what could be a significant hole in 2023-24, they could remain near the bottom for a few more years unless Primeau or one of the other prospect goalies takes a giant leap forward.

Sam Montembeault Montreal Canadiens
Sam Montembeault, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens have other options, like free agency, where the likes of Tristan Jerry, Alex Nedeljkovic, Joonas Korpisalo, Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta and Semyon Varlamov will be available. The first three will be 30 and under and could sign long-term, but if the Habs think one of their prospects is ready, they can sign one of the other four to a shorter-term deal as they will all be over 35 and can help guide the young goalie along.

It doesn’t look like Price will be back, but who knows? Either way, Price will be 36 with bad knees and on the downward slope of his career, and the Canadiens will need one of their prospects to step up in the next two to three years, or they will have to look elsewhere for another star goalie.