Montreal Canadiens goalie Cayden Primeau just got his first taste of NHL action this season, appearing in relief of Jake Allen in Game 1 of the preseason against the New Jersey Devils. While he played competently enough stopping 11 of 13 shots, the hope should be he sees little to no more once the regular season starts.
The reasoning is simple. The Canadiens seemingly have their goaltending for the upcoming 2022-23 season all set in Allen and projected backup Samuel Montembeault. While things can certainly change over the course of the season, it’s abundantly clear the Canadiens are in the process of rebuilding.
As a result, there are only a few good reasons to rush the development of their top goaltending prospect. Here they are in decreasing order of how justifiable they are:
3. Primeau Proves He’s Ready in the AHL
Primeau took major steps to proving he was ready for the NHL last spring. That’s when he helped lead the Laval Rocket to within one win of the American Hockey League (AHL) championship series.
Going 9-5 with a .a 2.17 goals-against average (GAA) and 936 save percentage (SV%) in the AHL playoffs, Primeau at least temporarily silenced his doubters. However, in the NHL, it’s a different story, as he’s got a 3-10-2 record with a 4.21 GAA and .874 SV% in parts of three seasons with the Canadiens.
So, in some respects, Primeau proving he’s done all he can in the AHL is the likeliest scenario on the list. In others, Primeau proving he’s actually ready for the NHL instead is impossible to know for sure, making it arguably the best course of action to give him the 200 AHL games ex-Canadiens goalie coach Stephane Waite initially anticipated as being key to his proper development.
Including the playoffs, Primeau’s up to 96 AHL games. So, he’s got significant runway left to go, and, with the Canadiens having Allen and Montembeault as fodder for the rebuild for all intents and purposes, there should be little reason to rush him and risk his development.
2. Canadiens’ Defense Proves Competent
Based on Primeau’s success last AHL playoffs, the Canadiens seemingly dodged a bullet in that last regard. For example, Primeau was given 12 games last season, playing behind one of the NHL’s worst defenses, which allowed a third-worst 34.4 shots against.
The indisputable fact is Primeau may have had a horrible GAA last season (4.62), but the Habs as a whole allowed the most goals against in the entire league (317). In other words, even though he got pulled on five separate occasions, it wasn’t just him. Nevertheless, the Canadiens made a conscious decision to throw, again their top goaltending prospect, to the wolves, time and again without an NHL-caliber defense to adequately support him.
There may come a time when it makes sense for the Canadiens to play Primeau. However, with Jordan Harris, Justin Barron and Kaiden Guhle conceivably set to get their fair of games in as part of what is slated to be a largely inexperienced defensive corps, it’s probably not this season.
Hell, with Joel Edmundson out indefinitely with an injury, Corey Schueneman, a veteran of a grand total of 24 NHL games, is a good bet to play regularly himself. Needless to say, this is going to be a transitional season on defense to put it kindly. Some may say you can’t handle Primeau with kid gloves and you have to see what he’s got by throwing him in the deep end, but this must be more so common sense than tough love. If you can avoid it, don’t risk wrecking his confidence (again). Just because he escaped relatively unscathed last time, there are no guarantees he does so again.
1. Last Resort in Case of Injury
To a degree, it wasn’t all on the Canadiens last season, as they were in a bad place from an injury perspective. Setting an NHL record with 731 man-games lost, the Canadiens also led the league in the cap hits of injured players, especially in net.
Ultimately, the Canadiens went through six goalies, including journeyman Andrew Hammond, who they acquired as an unofficial admission that Primeau needed to be kept as far away from the tire fire that was their 2021-22 season. Proof of that came in Primeau’s demotion as soon as they made the trade for Hammond. You have to believe that’s why they got him, to even have that option.
Of course, then Hammond got injured a month later. The Habs recalled Primeau on an emergency basis, ultimately giving the now-23-year-old goalie one last appearance in relief a few weeks later against the Arizona Coyotes.
So, there is a situation in which the Canadiens could conceivably play Primeau, especially with the injuries piling up in training camp as we speak. However, it should only be as a last resort, with the Hammond acquisition also going to show there are ways for the Canadiens to properly insulate Primeau, be it via trade or waivers. For a season seemingly dedicated to the growth of their young players, the notion may seem superficially counter-intuitive, but keep in mind they’ve already got a glimpse of what they’ve got in Primeau and that’s someone who’s simply not ready.
Oh, there have been flashes of brilliance, but not to the point that they can realistically expect Primeau to carry a team on his own, which is what the Habs would need to stand a shot at the playoffs. The playoffs aren’t even a top priority for general manager Kent Hughes, but Primeau should be, without a clear No. 1 goalie in the organization at this juncture.
Primeau may be the best chance at one, but going back to the well of what hasn’t worked in the past is the worst thing the Habs can do. While there’s a level of optimism in the air that wasn’t there last season, a fair bit has stayed the same in terms of the quality of roster. If Primeau wasn’t able to find NHL success last season, he’s not going to right now playing for a defense that could end up being just as bad if not worse, without a No. 1-caliber defenseman in Jeff Petry, who they traded away this offseason.
Primeau may never become a No. 1 himself in all honesty, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt and the benefit of the original projected timeline for his development into an NHLer. Rushing him ironically won’t get him there faster. It may not get him there at all.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.