Maybe, just maybe Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price needs another Jaroslav Halak.
Following an impressive pre-first-round series victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Habs are flying high as an official playoff team. However, it’s clear Price was the key difference-maker, which is a usual formula for success or lack thereof of the lasting variety for the Canadiens, with Price having failed to steal more than a single round in any given season.
The four-month layoff leading into the qualifying round should give fans pause. If this is how Price can play when well-rested, two thoughts come to mind:
- Not only might the Canadiens have more of a shot this postseason than in past years and
- Maybe general manager Marc Bergevin should invest in a higher-quality backup than he has, kind of like the No. 1B Halak has become behind Tuukka Rask.
The Habs have certainly had enough practice going the other route. Since Price became the Habs full-time starter, coincidentally after the infamous Halak trade in 2010, the Habs have played a total of 10 other goalies, with varying degrees of limited success. In effect, it’s clear, strategically speaking, something needs to change on that front (excluding the backup goalie himself, that is).
To drive the point home, here are the top three backups Price has had under Bergevin:
3. Mike Condon (2015-16)
In retrospect, handing over the net to a rookie after Price sustained a serious, eventual-season-ending injury to start the 2015 season was not a good idea.
It shouldn’t have been at the time either, but what’s done is done. Ultimately, not only did Bergevin and the Habs mismanage the entire Price injury situation that season, but Mike Condon’s development as well.
Under the circumstances, Condon performed as well as can be expected, going 21-25-6 with a 2.71 GAA and .903 save percentage. More to the point, up to Price’s second injury on Nov. 25, Condon had been doing perfectly all right… better than all right even. He had been 7-2-2 with a .917 save percentage. Take away a single poor, four-goal outing against the Colorado Avalanche and that stat rises to .928.
In effect, Condon had earned a shot to be the Habs’ starter in Price’s absence. Things just went spectacularly bad almost from the get-go, prompting Bergevin to finally acquire some relief in the form of Ben Scrivens by the end of an up-to-that-point 2-10 December. By then, despite the Habs having started the season as Stanley Cup contenders with nine straight wins, their playoff hopes were on life support.
The only problem is Scrivens, having been demoted to the American Hockey league by the Edmonton Oilers of all teams, shouldn’t have been anyone’s idea of a savior. He went 5-8-0 with a .906 save percentage and 3.07 GAA for the Habs, who, maybe wisely, continued to go with Condon down the stretch. Nevertheless, the Habs, almost predictably, missed the playoffs… just through little fault to Condon.
Bottom line: If there’s just one entry on this list that gives a good argument as to why the Canadiens need a legitimate 1B to back up Price, this is it.
2. Antti Niemi (2017-19)
Recency bias is a killer. The last memories Habs fans have of Antti Niemi are of his 3.78 GAA and .887 save percentage in 2018-19. Those are bad numbers. He still went a respectable 8-6-2 that season, effectively getting the job done as Price’s backup. Keep in mind that’s the same points-percentage (.563) he had earned the previous season when he went 7-5-4, just with a 2.46 GAA and .929 save percentage.
Really, for all intents and purposes, Niemi vastly exceeded expectations instead of disappointing, which is the impression with which many are left. Niemi had actually been picked up off waivers from the Florida Panthers as a warm body following injuries to Price and then-backup Al Montoya back in 2017. He then forced Bergevin’s hand due to his strong play, leading to Montoya getting traded.
As far as career resurgences go, it wasn’t too shabby for a guy who had “played” his way out of jobs with the Dallas Stars, Penguins and Panthers, after having drastically declined. Niemi’s eventual departure (due to not being re-signed) theoretically meant youngster Charlie Lindgren would get a shot at the job, but that’s not exactly how it has worked out in practice. Bergevin went on to sign Keith Kinkaid last summer.
Both Lindgren and Kinkaid failed to gain traction in the backup role, each making six appearances, each earning losing records in the process, with upstart rookie Cayden Primeau stealing the show. Primeau went 1-1 with a 2.52 GAA and .931 save percentage this past season, giving hope that maybe the stretch of sub-par backup goaltending is nearing its end.
1. Peter Budaj (2011-14)
With 54 games played over a three-season span, including 24 in 2013-14, Peter Budaj is arguably the closest the Bergevin has come to having signed a legitimate 1B. There are a few sticking points, though.
For instance, much like Price, Bergevin inherited Budaj, who had been signed as a free agent in 2011. So, don’t give Bergevin too much credit. In fairness, Bergevin did re-sign Budaj to a two-year deal in 2013. It was somewhat of a curious decision at the time, though.
Budaj had come in, in relief of an injured Price against the Ottawa Senators in the previous postseason’s first round, with underwhelming results (two games played, 6.72 GAA, .774 save percentage). It kind of defeats the purpose of having a backup when that backup can’t effectively back up the starter in high-pressure situations.
Regardless, after having been re-signed, Budaj went on to play 21 starts in 2013-14. He also served his purpose relatively speaking, going 10-8-3 with a 2.51 GAA and .909 save percentage. However, during the playoffs, Budaj was fed to the wolves in Game 1 against the New York Rangers, after Price had been crashed into by Chris Kreider.
Budaj allowed three goals on eight shots, prompting then-head-coach Michel Therrien to go with Tokarski from there on out. To his credit, Tokarski got the Habs back in the series, winning two before ultimately winning the backup job the following season out of training camp, as Budaj got traded to the Winnipeg Jets with Patrick Holland for Eric Trangradi.
It was a minor deal that was more about opening up a roster spot for Tokarski than anything else. The fact that Therrien trusted Tokarski against the Rangers to a greater extent than Budaj showed the writing was on the wall. Unfortunately, Tokarski falling out of favor with the Habs could have been just as easily predicted, considering the short shelf lives of everyone else on this list.
It’s a trend that must stop, hopefully with Primeau. Price is now 33, so the Habs can ill afford to take him or whatever time he has left as an elite goalie for granted. That means both resting him whenever possible… and nurturing the development of a potential replacement for the future. Whether or not that’s Primeau, who knows? But it will have to be somebody else other than Price. That much is for sure.
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 written for such publications as 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 cover the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.