No matter how many punches he takes, he just won’t stay down. And even as his career reaches journeyman status, he continues to believe, against all odds, that he will prevail in the fight.
So, when the Canadiens announced on April 21 that they signed 26-year-old Vasili Demchenko to a one-year, $700,000 contract, Lindgren didn’t take it as a slight, or as an affront to his place on the team. He took at as one more hurdle to jump over on his long and muddled path to a secure an NHL job.
“I saw that they signed a goalie from the KHL, and to be honest it didn’t really have too much of an effect on my psyche at all actually,” Lindgren said on a conference call with Canadiens reporters Thursday morning. “I still feel like I’m in a good position. I feel like it’s my job to lose and I just gotta keep on… I need to seize the opportunity. And I thought I played pretty well in the games I got with Montreal (this past season), so (I) gotta work hard and gotta have a good training camp next year. Nothing, I know, is given to me, and I’ve got to earn it.”
Lindgren was a highly-coveted prospect. A talented, southpaw goaltender who turned heads over three seasons at St. Cloud State University before signing a two-year, entry-level contract with the Canadiens and burning the first year of it with a 26-save win in his first-ever NHL start in April of 2016.
But four years later, at age 26, he remains on the bubble, having accumulated a 10-12-2 record and posted a .907 save percentage over just 24 NHL appearances. Every time it looked as though Lindgren would be given a real opportunity to seize the backup job behind Carey Price, the Canadiens turned in another direction.
Discounting the signing of Al Montoya in 2016, because Lindgren was being given time to get his feet wet in the American Hockey League, the competition has continuously gotten in the way of Lindgren’s ascension. It started when Price went down with an injury in the fall of 2017 and Lindgren stepped in and won three of his first four games and collected an overtime point in the fifth.
Three losses in a row that followed were all it took for Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin to claim Antti Niemi off waivers and give him a chance. We’re talking about Niemi, who had lost all five games he had played to that point of the season. Niemi, who had allowed 21 goals on 118 shots faced as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers before the Canadiens were laughed at for scooping him up.
Lindgren took being bumped for the big Finn in stride. He did it again when the Canadiens re-signed Niemi to a one-year, $950,000 contract just three months after he had put pen to paper on a three-year, $2.25-million extension of his own.
And this past season, when Canadiens backup Keith Kinkaid faltered early on and was demoted to the AHL, Lindgren watched as 20-year-old Cayden Primeau was promoted to the big club ahead of him.
“I was upset,” Lindgren told The Athletic on Dec. 3. “I was upset, 100 per cent. And as a competitor that’s completely normal. Personally, I feel like I’ve been ready since November 2017, to be quite honest.
“I’ve always thought very highly of this organization, but obviously I want an opportunity, and I think I deserve an opportunity. I spent a lot of time in the American Hockey League, I played very well in the NHL. I was hoping for a shot, but I just have to wait for my time.”
Lindgren’s recall to the NHL eventually came at the end of December, but it came because the Canadiens were far behind in the playoff race, and because they were going to ride Price and didn’t want an upstart goaltender like Primeau twiddling his thumbs on the bench behind him.
The Minnesota native watched Price do his thing and played in just six games from Dec. 31–Mar. 7. And right as it appeared he would get a chance to start more frequently and perhaps earn his place as the full-time Canadiens backup, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and put the NHL season on pause.
Despite all that, Lindgren’s positive attitude — and his belief in himself — never wavered.
When he was asked on Thursday if he believes he’s prepared to be a full-time backup, he responded that he’s 100-per-cent ready.
“I fully believe that,” Lindgren said. “I know you ask the guys on the team and they would fully believe that. And I think I’m a great teammate. I think I can give the team a chance to win every single night I’m in the net. And I work hard. So, I fully believe that, and I know my teammates do, too.”
It’s Lindgren’s most admirable quality that he never gives up. It’s that quality that has prompted several of his Canadiens teammates to refer to him as the hardest-working player on the team, the quality that has seen him dubbed “a battler” by Canadiens coach Claude Julien.
It’s got to serve him well as he pushes forward in the final year of his contract.
Lindgren will be in tough to secure his spot with Montreal now that Demchenko is in the fold, and with Primeau on the rise and Michael McNiven waiting in the wings. It’s a competition that could get even thicker if the Canadiens attempt to fill the backup position with one of the many veteran goaltenders potentially available via free agency this coming off season.
But Lindgren remains committed to the fight.
“I know I’ll get my chance again,” he said. “I’ve just gotta stay patient and be ready to go.”