Canadiens must explore free-agent market for reliable backup to Price

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Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Cam Talbot (33) defends the goal against the Dallas Stars. (LM Otero/AP)

The plan, according to Carey Price, was to play 60 games this past season.

The Montreal Canadiens goaltender said as much with several weeks remaining on the team’s schedule, as he was trending towards finishing at that number. And then backup Antti Niemi faltered — allowing 14 goals in his last four starts and being pulled from two of them — and the plan went out the window.

The 31-year-old Price made 66 appearances for the Canadiens during the 2018-19 season, or one less than NHL leader Devan Dubnyk. And down the stretch, he made four starts in back-to-back situations and then appeared in a career-high 13 consecutive games before the Canadiens were officially eliminated from post-season contention on the penultimate day of the season.

In the aftermath, Niemi, a pending unrestricted free agent, was told by management on locker cleanout day that his contract would not be renewed in Montreal.

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Now the search for a backup — a cost-effective, ego-parking veteran — who can ease the burden for Price and prove capable of floating the Canadiens should the starter suffer an injury (as he has in one form another in six of the last seven seasons), is presumably on.

If it’s not, it should be. As colleague Chris Johnston pointed out so eloquently in this Sportsnet piece Friday, the days of successful NHL teams riding a No. 1 goaltender for over 80 per cent of the regular season are all but done, with six of the remaining eight starters in the Stanley Cup playoffs having made less than 50 appearances. Rest has become an essential ingredient of a successful goaltending recipe, and the Canadiens have to find a way to get Price more of it.

That quest starts outside of the organization. Even if 25-year-old Charlie Lindgren is coming into the final year of a relatively inexpensive one-way contract ($750, 000 cap hit), his limited experience in the NHL isn’t enough to be blindly banked on for the job behind Price. That’s not to say he can’t earn the position by beating out the competition—his .912 save percentage and 2.89 goals-against average in 18 NHL games suggest he might very well prove capable of doing so — it’s just that there needs to be a competition in order for him to do it.

With no disrespect to Michael McNiven, the 21-year-old goaltender who just split his second professional season between the AHL’s Laval Rocket and the ECHL’s Brampton Beast, this is not a job for someone who’s never made a start at the NHL level. By the same token, it’s also not a job for blue-chip prospect Cayden Primeau.

The 19-year-old is expected to suit up for the Rocket next season, and the hope is that he’ll be given a significant workload in order to keep him progressing on the promising development path that saw him earn the Mike Richter Award this past season as the NCAA’s most outstanding goaltender. Parking him behind Price for close to 60 games would be detrimental to that process.

This is a job for an experienced player who accepts that Price is the clear-cut No. 1. A player who has proven he can win when counted on sporadically. A player who is willing to sign a deal that doesn’t force the Canadiens to spend much more at the position (they’re already paying Price a $10.5-million salary). And a player good enough to step in and stem the pressure the Canadiens would face if Price suffered a short-, medium-, or long-term injury.

It’s a job that seems ripe for current Philadelphia Flyers goaltender and pending UFA Cam Talbot. The 31-year-old from Caledonia, Ont., is coming off a three-year, $12.5-million contract that paid him to be a reliable starter for the Edmonton Oilers. Though his numbers were respectable — he had a .906 save percentage over the term of his contract — they declined year after year and fell short of expectations after he posted a .917 save percentage in his first 56 appearances with the Oilers during the 2015-16 season.

But Talbot proved appealing to the Oilers in the first place because of the work he did behind one of the only other goaltenders in the league of equal status to Price. In 57 appearances spread over two seasons with the New York Rangers as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup, Talbot won 33 games and posted a .934 save percentage.

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In other words, he’s familiar with the role and thrived in it, he’s played under the bright lights, and he has experience as a starter at this level.

Whether or not Talbot would consider resuming his career as a backup to a workhorse like Price is the question. If he isn’t, 34-year-old Brian Elliott has a similar background and could be a good addition to the Canadiens. The UFA-to-be has a .912 save percentage over 441 games of NHL experience.

There are other options for the Canadiens to consider, too.

Curtis McElhinney could be available if the Carolina Hurricanes deem it too expensive to pay him and starter/pending UFA Petr Mrazek to stay while Scott Darling rides out the remaining two years of a $16.6-million contract in the AHL. With 23-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic on the rise, it seems likely the 36-year-old McElhinney will be free to test the market.

Anders Nilsson is a 29-year-old UFA with a .907 save percentage over 141 NHL appearances, and he would likely cost less to acquire than Talbot, Elliott or McElhinney.

• A pair of 29-year-old UFAs in Keith Kinkaid and Michael Hutchinson have both shown signs of being reliable backups at this level and either one can probably be had on the cheap.

With 21 players under contract and over $14 million in cap space to work with for the upcoming season (according to CapFriendly.com), expect general manager Marc Bergevin to explore at least some of these options — and potentially a few more through trade if need be. Committing to one would enable the Canadiens to set a target number of games for Price to appear in and stick to it, and that’s imperative if they hope to get the best out him next year and for the six more he’s under contract for thereafter.

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