MONTREAL — It’s a conversation that should have ended before it even got started, but here we are anyway, because the Montreal Canadiens are trending towards missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a third consecutive season and for a fourth time in five years and Carey Price’s spotty performance has had a considerable influence on that probable outcome.
We get it. When a team is 10 points out of a playoff spot with 32 games remaining, when it flounders for several seasons in a row, the demand for wholesale change rises. And no player, no matter how big a star they are, is immune from being included in that conversation.
But anyone who thinks now is the time to trade the 32-year-old franchise goaltender of the Canadiens hasn’t seriously considered everything (or anything, really) involved in such a decision.
To start with, Price has a full no-movement clause in his contract. Unless he asks to be traded, he isn’t being traded. And as Price’s agent, Gerry Johanssen, put it to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman last week, "There’s nothing going on," on that front.
And if anyone thinks Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin should test the market, regardless, and then broach the subject with Price, Bergevin has already gone on record with The Athletic to say that not only will he not do that but that he won’t even listen if rival GMs call to talk to him about Price or Montreal’s 34-year-old captain, Shea Weber.
Even if Bergevin had interest, he’d have to consider the fact that supply heavily outweighs demand on the goaltending market, which makes this the worst possible point in time to consider moving Price and his $10.5-million cap hit through 2026.
Check the following list of goaltenders who are currently not under contract for next season:
Braden Holtby (WSH), Craig Anderson (OTT), Robin Lehner (CHI), Corey Crawford (CHI), Jimmy Howard (DET), Matt Murray (PIT), Jaroslav Halak (BOS), Jacob Markstrom (VAN), Thomas Greiss (NYI), Cam Talbot (CGY), Anton Khudobin (DAL), Brian Elliott (PHI), Mike Smith (EDM), Linus Ullmark (BUF), Joonas Korpisalo (CBJ) and Pavel Francouz (COL).
And those are just some of the pending unrestricted free agents who have made at least 15 appearances this season. There are also some RFAs, like Alexandar Gorgiev (NYR), who could move between now and the trade deadline.
Talk about market saturation.
Going by a golden rule of trade in pro sports — that you don’t move a player who has significantly more value to your organization than they do on the market — moving Price right now makes absolutely no sense. Especially when you consider that the goaltender ranks 30th in save percentage (.908) and 26th in goals-against average (2.84) amongst peers who have appeared in at least 15 games this season.
Even if Price’s numbers were above board, the Canadiens would have a hard time getting any kind of reasonable return in a trade when he’s still owed $44 million in signing bonuses over the length of his contract. Never mind that he’s due an actual salary of $13 million for the 2021-22 season.
Even still, some fans in these parts have suggested the Canadiens should retain some of Price’s salary on their cap and accept what would be considered an awful return just to get him out of town and get the majority of his contract off the books.
Not exactly what they teach in Management 101.
With all the terrible ideas out of the way, the conversation needs to shift to how the Canadiens can move forward with Price. And before we get there, his season needs to be put in proper context.
Most of the consensus best goaltenders in the world — all of them playing on better teams — have struggled just as much, if not more. Even with a dramatic surge over the last month, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy (the reigning Vezina Trophy winner) has a .917 save percentage. Toronto’s Frederik Andersen has a .909, Vegas Golden Knights ‘tender and future Hall of Famer Marc Andre Fleury is at .907, Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky is on the second page of the NHL.com stat sheet with a .898, and behind Brobrovsky is Holtby, who has played 33 of the league-leading Capitals’ 49 games and has a .897.
The expectation has to be that most (if not all) of these players will bounce back, and it shouldn’t be any different in this market regarding Price.
He had an average October relative to the rest of the league’s goaltenders but still posted a .914 save percentage and went 6-3-1. What hurt his numbers so much was the fact that his worst stretch of play — in November, when he went 4-5-2 and had a 3.77 goals-against average and a .883 save percentage — coincided with the Canadiens falling apart defensively and allowing a high frequency of rush chances and the fifth-most scoring chances from the high-danger area (according to www.naturalstattrick.com).
Since then, Price posted a .923 save percentage through his first nine December starts, and then he rebounded from his final two performances of 2019 (a 5-4 loss to the Lightning and a 6-5 loss to the Panthers on consecutive nights) with a .935 save percentage through his eight starts in January.
That he did that, despite the Canadiens still giving up the 11th-most slot chances in the league from Dec. 1 to now, shows that his game hasn’t come close to eroding.
Even so, it’s unreasonable to expect Price to play at that level over the course of an 82-game season. Even if he’s being paid the highest salary in the league and even if the Canadiens do a much better job in front of him, there isn’t a single goaltender in the league who has appeared in at least 25 games and breached .929 in save percentage this season. So it’s time for people to adjust their expectations.
What is fair to expect is for Price to find a way to rebound quicker from bad performances, like he did in transitioning out of December and into January. And it’s entirely reasonable to expect he not dip as drastically when he’s off his game.
But in order for those things to happen, the Canadiens have to make a stronger commitment to the defensive game plan to give him a chance to get his legs underneath him when he does struggle. And they have to find a goaltender who can win some games at this level and reduce his workload, giving him a chance to bring a more even performance from month to month.
Those changes are a major priority moving forward. As for trading Price, we can close the book on that conversation.