It‘s easy to second-guess the Montreal Canadiens whenever head coach Claude Julien plays Antti Niemi over Carey Price, like he did against the Philadelphia Flyers. It shouldn’t be about winning individual games at this point, though. It’s more about the long game.
Niemi Loses to Flyers
Obviously, considering the theoretical goal for the Canadiens is to compete for a playoff spot, results like their 5-2 loss to the non-playoff-bound Flyers don’t really help. There were a few other factors at play here, though.
Firstly, Niemi had played exceptionally well the other night against the Florida Panthers, stopping 52 of 53 shots. Secondly, like the Panthers, the Flyers represented the second half of games on consecutive nights.
It would be much easier to second-guess any decision on the part of the Canadiens that involves a loss under those circumstances with Price in nets instead. Worse yet, what happens if Price, who’s not even a month back from injury and isn’t going to the All-Star game to rest, re-aggravates it in the process?
Les #Panthers devraient représenter une proie facile. Le match de ce soir a donc le potentiel d'être un piège. Je comprends que le #CH tient à reposer Price et Niemi a connu de bonnes sorties lors de ses derniers matchs, mais j'aurais préféré voir le #1 devant le filet ce soir https://t.co/IvJJV7UTpE
— Francois Gagnon (@GagnonFrancois) January 15, 2019
Obviously, losses to sub-par competition are harder to take, but, if you’re not going to play your backup against sub-par competition like the Flyers when you have games on back-to-back nights, when are you going to play him? Because riding Price the rest of the way simply can’t be an option.
Price at the Top of His Game
There’s no denying at this point that Price is at the top of his game. He may have a decent .914 save percentage this season, but it’s been elite for the last few months, even dating back to before Shea Weber returned on defense. Since Nov. 24, he has a .929 save percentage. Since he returned from injury at the start of the year, he has one of .951. He’s nevertheless just 4-3 in that span, indicating having him in nets is far from a guarantee. Unfortunately, neither is his health.
Price is the Canadiens’ most valuable player, but that was true all along and not just since he started playing lights out again. It’s largely because of the position he plays and the Habs’ precarious depth at there, which was on full display when Niemi lost to the Flyers. They need Price. More importantly, they need him healthy. And not just for this season.
When general manager Marc Bergevin signed Price to his current eight-year, $84 million deal, both parties made a long-term commitment to the other. It really shouldn’t have been about paying Price back for the success he enjoyed over the term of his previous contract for a number of reasons.
For example, Price had signed that six-year, $39 million one largely on the basis of the potential he had not yet consistently reached. He ultimately surpassed expectations, giving the Canadiens good value over the course of those six seasons (with exception to the first in 2013 and the last, in 2017-18).
Price vs. Halak
Granted, it’s not like the Canadiens had much of an alternative option but to place their trust in Price panning out. The amount of time and organizational resources they have spent on their 2005 first-round draft pick over the years kind of dictated they would go with him to the degree they have all along. They were always going to choose Price over Jaroslav Halak. They were always going to ride Price as long as they could. Now, because of that deal, “as long as they could” translates to “up until his contract runs out in 2026.”
Julien has a job to do: to get this team into the playoffs. It’s understandable from his perspective if he doesn’t care how much Price has left in the tank by the time 2026 rolls around. It would be an absolute shock if he’s still behind the bench three years from now, let alone eight, and that’s not because he’s necessarily doing a bad job. It’s just the nature of the business. The same goes for Bergevin, who could justifiably be fired as soon as the end of this season following a hypothetical non-playoff finish.
The problem is owner Geoff Molson has a different mandate, to keep the Canadiens as profitable as possible for as long as he decides to stay at its helm. Because Price owns a no-movement clause and it’s unlikely anyone in the system now or in eight years will be given a realistic shot to usurp him, he’s the No. 1 goalie from here on out.
It’s in Molson’s best interest to make sure Price lasts. Considering Price’s injury history, the Habs as a whole had better realize that taking things as conservatively as possible is the only way to get him there in one piece.
After all, since Price became the team’s undisputed No. 1 goalie with the Halak trade for the 2010-11 season, he’s failed to play the Habs’ final game of the season due to injury on four separate occasions. The key to making sure he plays the last game this season is ensuring he doesn’t start every single one up to the point at which he inevitably gets injured.
Canadiens Need Price for Playoffs
The Canadiens are a good team this season and Price is a big part of that. They may make the playoffs by having him put the team on his back, but, if they do, it will likely be as a wild card with a potential first-round date with the Stanley Cup-contending Tampa Bay Lightning.
It makes more sense to let the chips falls where they will by playing Niemi six times more at least (once for each remaining set of back-to-back games). Ride Price come the playoffs if they end up making them, but not during the season. The Canadiens and Price have got seven left after this one to make it work. There will be other, better chances. Why take an unnecessary one now, when the potential negative repercussions vastly outweigh the benefits?
Bergevin recently said he was not looking to be a buyer at the trade deadline. The team should heed that same advice with regard to Price and build for the future. If the Habs are on board with being non-aggressive with regard to their playoff chances, how would they be able to justify handling arguably their best player in the exact opposite fashion?
The Canadiens may no longer have faith in Niemi. In spite of how Niemi has gotten the job done with an 8-5-1 record this season, he does have an admittedly poor stats line (3.66 goals-against average and .894 save percentage).
If that’s the case though, maybe Bergevin should revise his trade-deadline strategy and acquire a new backup instead, because Price has enough on his plate already. He doesn’t need to start acting like his own backup. It kind of defeats the purpose of having one in the first place if you’re not going to use him. Just like it defeats the purpose of signing a goalie for eight years if you don’t take proper precautions to make sure he lasts that long.