Over the last four seasons, Dustin Tokarski has played for five AHL teams. At 30 years old, the Saskatchewan native’s role is pretty much set in stone, and it’s unlikely he’ll get to add to the 34 NHL games he’s played, barring an emergency situation. Once considered a starter in the AHL less than three years back, he’s now reserved to primarily a backup role. He’s the no-frills goalie every team wants, and it’s funny to think that less than seven years ago, he was the face of the Montreal Canadiens franchise. For a few games.
The 2013-14 season is, in my opinion, the best season the Canadiens have had in recent memory, finishing with a 46-28-8 record and an electrifying run to the Eastern Conference Final. That season, Carey Price recorded a 2.32 goals-against average (GAA) and six shutouts, with Peter Budaj playing behind him.
However, after Price went down with a knee injury in Game 1 of the third round, it was Tokarski who stole the show, helping the Canadiens extend the series to a Game 6, which they ultimately lost. Since then, the team has used eight different goaltenders. Welcome to the backup’s odyssey.
2014-15: Dustin Tokarski and the Division Title
Towards the beginning of the 2014-15 season, the backup job was still undecided, as Canadiens general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin had to choose between a proven veteran in Budaj or a promising rookie in Tokarski. In the end, Bergevin went with the latter, trading Budaj to the Winnipeg Jets. (from ‘Canadiens trade goalie Peter Budaj to Winnipeg Jets,’ Montreal Gazette, 10/05/2014) With this, the job was Tokarski’s to lose — he played in 17 games, posting a 6-6-0 record and a 2.75 GAA. With Price playing the best hockey of his career, recording 9 shutouts and a 1.96 GAA, the Canadiens finished with a 50-22-10 record.
Winning another division title, fans were hopeful for another long playoff run. Instead, the team got past a pesky Senators squad in six games, before falling in six games in the second round to an equally powerful Tampa Bay Lightning team. However, with a stacked offense and defense comprised of players like Max Pacioretty, P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, Habs fans still had every reason to be hopeful for the season ahead. Right?
2015-16: Mike Condon and the Second Half Collapse
With the Canadiens in the midst of one of their best starts in recent memory with a 17-4-2 record heading into November, Price went down with an injury to his MCL in a game against the New York Rangers. Cue, Mike Condon.
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An undrafted free agent out of Princeton University, Condon had to mind his time in the ECHL before becoming the Hamilton Bulldogs starter in 2014-15. The next year, he was now the Canadiens starting goalie, with Tokarski having had a disappointing 1-3 start to the season.
At first, things continued as normal — the team roared to a 20-9-3 record heading into mid-December. However, Condon’s inexperience with the NHL game eventually reared its head, and the Canadiens’ record dropped to 23-20-4 by mid-January.
Former Edmonton Oilers starter Ben Scrivens was acquired to try and lessen the load, but it didn’t help much as he recorded a 5-8-0 record with a 3.07 GAA. In the end, the Habs rode Scrivens and Condon to a 38-38-6 record, missing the playoffs and ending what seemed to be an upward trend for the team in general. With two games left in the season, the team announced Price would not come back.
2016-17: Al Montoya and the Return to Glory
As the sixth-overall pick of the New York Rangers in 2004, Al Montoya didn’t live up to the hype. He was expected to be the Rangers’ future in net — instead, an unknown seventh-round pick named Henrik Lundqvist joined the team and the rest is history. Montoya had to wait until the 2010-11 season to make the NHL full time and became known as a solid backup goalie from there on out. On July 1, 2016, he signed in Montreal, giving Price a solid backup option once again.
Led by newcomers Alexander Radulov and a 40-point season from former bottom-six winger Paul Byron, the Canadiens won another division title, with Price posting 37 wins in his comeback season. Montoya gave the team the stability it needed, posting an 8-6-0 record with a 2.67 GAA. Despite this, the Habs fell in the first round to the Rangers in six games and went into the next season with a mix of optimism and uncertainty, and players like Radulov needing new contracts.
2017-18: Antti Niemi and the Lost Season
It should’ve been the end for Antti Niemi. The former Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks and four-time, 30-win goalie had been relegated to the lowest of the lows when he was placed on waivers for the second time that season on Nov. 13, 2017, by the Florida Panthers. By that point, the Canadiens were struggling with an 8-9-2 start to the season, and both Price and Montoya were playing mediocre at best. The next day, the Habs claimed Niemi off waivers and he would become one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise dismal season.
Struggling with a lack of offensive consistency, the Canadiens finished the season with a 29-40-13 record. Along with Brendan Gallagher having a strong comeback campaign with 54 points, Niemi posted a 7-5-4 record with a 2.46 GAA, redeeming himself in the eyes of the hockey world and earning a one-year extension.
2018-19: Carey Price Stands Alone
Last season brought a lot of changes to the Canadiens’ lineup. Former third-overall pick Alex Galchenyuk was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi, star forward Max Pacioretty was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights for Nick Suzuki and Tomas Tatar, and there was an overall feeling of change when it came to the team’s strategy. Riding this newfound youth and optimism, the Canadiens finished with a 44-30-8 record on the season, led by a 72-point season from Domi and a new career-high in points for Tatar.
On the flipside, support was something Price lacked as Niemi struggled to find his groove, finishing with an 8-6-0 record and bloated 3.78 GAA. Towards the end of the year, Price was starting most of if not all of the games, and despite incredibly strong performances, the team still fell short, losing the last playoff spot to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
2019-20 and Beyond: Vasili Demchenko, Charlie Lindgren, and Keith Kinkaid
Charlie Lindgren was never meant to be the backup goalie this season. The Canadiens signed former New Jersey Devils starter Keith Kinkaid to be Price’s backup, but he struggled, eventually being loaned to the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. Lindgren stepped in until a more reliable option could be found, which never happened. The long-time AHL starter, who has been solid in past starts, struggled this year, recording a 1-3-0 record in limited action.
To compensate for this, the Canadiens signed KHL veteran Vasili Demchenko to offer Lindgren some competition for the backup job, and Cayden Primeau looked incredibly promising as the starter for the Laval Rocket. However, all of this means little until the Canadiens find the one thing they need — a consistent backup for Price. With the NHL season now on hold and likely canceled, it remains to be seen whether they find that option or continue on with this backup’s odyssey.