How the Canadiens stole elite prospect Cayden Primeau in Round 7

Montreal Canadiens prospect Cayden Primeau. (Photo from Northeastern University Athletics)

MONTREAL—Cayden Primeau was Bill Berglund’s parting gift to the Montreal Canadiens.

The Boston-based, 72-year-old scout was retiring, but not before pressing Trevor Timmins to take a chance on the 6-foot-3, 180-pound goaltender from Voorhees, N.J. And Berglund wasn’t just hounding Timmins as the seventh round of the 2017 NHL Draft was unfolding, when it was becoming clear a great opportunity might be slipping through everyone else’s hands.

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“Bill was pushing hard in earlier rounds, too,” Timmins said in a telephone interview with Sportsnet this past weekend.

The Canadiens’ assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting had done his homework, too. Timmins had seen Primeau play and came away impressed, saying he would have acquiesced to Berglund’s prodding sooner than the 199th pick if the organization wasn’t relying on superstar Carey Price at the NHL level and hadn’t already filled its pipeline at the position—from Charlie Lindgren to Michael McNiven to Zachary Fucale.

What’s more perplexing is how it came to be that 30 teams continuously overlooked the kid who was earmarked by virtually everyone making a pre-draft projection to be a third-to-fourth-round selection. Primeau had backstopped Team USA to gold at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament the summer before, he had been a standout at the World Junior A Challenge, and he had put together a solid rookie season with the USHL’s Lincoln Stars, posting a 14-11-2 record and an .895 save percentage.

Maybe those numbers don’t jump off the page, but as Lincoln general manager Jon Hull told Sportsnet, “The USHL is a really hard league to play in for a young goaltender and people know that.

“We thought his numbers were what we expected,” Hull said. “We had no doubt he’d be a draft pick.”

But there was plenty of doubt that developed when 18 goaltenders—including two from the USHL—were chosen ahead of Primeau last June. There was no reason to panic when five of the six North American goalies NHL Central Scouting had ranked ahead of Primeau were selected before the 10th pick in the fourth round. But by the time the Dallas Stars stepped to the podium at pick 194 and took their second goalie, neither of whom were Primeau, things looked ominous.

“Towards the end of it, my dad [former NHLer Keith] leaned over to me and said, ‘Just prepare yourself that you might not get drafted today,’” Primeau told Sportsnet.

You can imagine what was running through the kid’s mind in that moment. He said that if you were watching closely when the Canadiens acquired a seventh-round pick from the Philadelphia Flyers and finally called his name, you would have seen how relieved he was.

But that all seems like a distant memory now that Primeau has authored one of the best hockey stories outside of the NHL over the past six months—stealing the starter’s net at Northeastern University early on, helping the Huskies beat the other Boston-based universities by stopping 73 of 75 shots at the annual Beanpot Tournament, and posting the type of numbers that saw him become a candidate for Rookie of the Year in the Hockey East Conference and one of five finalists for the Mike Richter Award (given to the NCAA’s most outstanding goaltender). Let’s just say he’s feeling pretty good about everything.

PRIMEAU NCAA RANK
SP% 0.931 6th
GAA 1.92 7th
SO 4 T-12th
W 19 13th

Timmins is, too.

“We might have another Tom Brady on our hands,” he quipped, referring to the five-time Super Bowl champion and Hall-of-Fame-bound New England Patriots quarterback who was chosen 199th overall in 2000 NFL Draft.

All jokes aside, Timmins said he was impressed and somewhat surprised to see the third-youngest player in the NCAA put up a .931 save percentage and 1.92 goals-against average with a 19-8-5 record and four shutouts.

But he wasn’t completely shocked.

“Sometimes you have to separate the noise from what you see, and what you believe, and what you project,” Timmins said. “That’s what we did.”

If other teams did the same, Primeau probably wouldn’t have landed in the Canadiens’ laps.

Timmins mentioned that he had heard “rumours and rumblings” that Lincoln goaltending coach Clay Adams wasn’t exactly enamoured with Primeau, and scouts from two other NHL teams, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told Sportsnet earlier this season that they had spoken to Adams prior to the draft and been told that Primeau was “emotionally disengaged at times,” and “not fully receptive to coaching.”

Late last week when we caught up with Adams, whose contract was not renewed by the Stars at the end of last season, he said he “gave honest feedback,” and that he would “never purposely negatively affect someone’s hockey future.”

When asked if he thought his evaluation may have hurt Primeau’s stock, Adams said, “I highly doubt it,” but added, “Ultimately, if some teams might have cooled on him, that might have been the case.”

Another aspect that didn’t help was, down the stretch of Lincoln’s season, scouts were showing up to watch Primeau play only to find him stapled to the bench.

“I try to take ‘frustrating’ out of my vocabulary, but it wasn’t ideal,” Primeau said of his predicament. “It sucked, I’m not going to lie. I felt at the start of the year I struggled, but in the second half I ramped it up. I had one slip and then [Stars goaltender Josef Korenar] took over from there.”

Nonetheless, Primeau figured NHL teams would see through all of that and recognize what had made him a higher projection on most prognosticators’ lists.

Hull did, too. He was baffled and perturbed to see Primeau slide down the draft board.

“We were shocked that some of these teams never called the head coach (Chris Hartsburg) and myself,” he said. “Maybe certain people aren’t doing their homework on certain kids or they’re listening to the wrong guys. This kid was here to learn, here to take direction, and I thought he did all of that very well. He’s a kid that showed no resistance, had elite character while he was here, battled through everything that was put in front of him, and we certainly felt he had a really good season.”

Thankfully for Primeau, the Canadiens were among the few that had spoken to Hull.

“That’s where area scouts have to do their homework and develop relationships with coaches, GMs, junior scouts,” said Timmins. “You learn from the people who you can trust.

“At the end of the day, the biggest thing is what you see on the ice. So long as the character checks out, that’s good enough.”

It took character for Primeau to turn the biggest disappointment of his young career into ammunition for an outstanding breakout campaign at Northeastern.

“I wanted to prove people wrong,” he said.

What Primeau ended up doing was proving Berglund, Timmins and the Canadiens right, and there’s a sense that he’ll continue to do that as time moves along.

“If you look at him, I don’t even know if he’s even shaven yet,” said Timmins. “There’s a lot of growth potential there. We saw the upside and we’re happy about that.”

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