Imagine you’re a 19-year-old kid and Don Cherry is on “Coach’s Corner” during Hockey Night in Canada talking about you in the same breath as Carey Price.
“I had Carey Price in the [annual CHL] prospect game and I thought he was terrific. This guy [McNiven] is as good as Price right now.”
That’s a pretty big compliment coming from one of the biggest stages in hockey. So what did McNiven think when he heard Cherry praise him in this way?
“Pretty amazing,” McNiven said. “Obviously I don’t think I’m at the same level as (Price) yet, but it was amazing to hear my name mentioned like that, especially coming from someone like Don Cherry.”
McNiven, who signed with the Montreal Canadiens in 2015 three months after every NHL team passed him over at the draft, is in his third—and best—year with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack. After playing a career-high 53 games last season and posting a .902 save percentage, McNiven has taken his game to the next level in 2016–17 with an OHL-best 2.11 GAA and .924 save percentage.
One of three goalies at Canada’s WJC selection camp, McNiven was among the final cuts when the roster was set for the event. Beaten out by Connor Ingram and Carter Hart, McNiven has continued to focus on developing his own game, which his coach, Ryan McGill, says has improved in big ways from last season.
“He’s matured immensely off the ice. He’s matured with how he takes care of himself with nutrition,” McGill said. “The biggest thing he improved was his mental maturity, his patience. He’s more even keel on a daily basis…. He’s not busy. He’s very in control of his positioning and his saves.”
Listed at six-foot-one and 212 lbs., McNiven actually attended the draft in 2015, which took place in Florida. He was sure that someone would select him in one of the seven rounds, so he flew down with members of his family to be there for the moment.
But at the end of the two-day event, his name hadn’t been called.
“It was mind-blowing when I didn’t hear my name called because I had such a good start to my rookie season,” he said.
Why wasn’t he drafted? There are a few potential factors, but the biggest was likely that he only played 24 games that season, so scouts didn’t get to view him as much. This is something that impacts the draft stocks of many 18-year-old goalies in major junior.
The silver lining in that disappointment, though, was that he and his agent were actually receiving calls of interest from about five teams during the draft, and shortly afterwards he received some invitations to rookie camps. It gave McNiven an opportunity to examine each organization, measure the pros and cons, and pick out a situation and a destination that he felt comfortable moving forward in.
And although he grew up a fan of the Ottawa Senators, McNiven felt most comfortable becoming a member of the Canadiens.
“He was on our draft list, but we didn’t feel the need to take a goalie at that time,” said Trevor Timmins, vice president of player personnel for the Habs. “We were one of those teams calling during the seventh round. We got on him right away.”
So has McNiven met the goalie who Cherry compared him so favourably to?
“Yeah, I met him at my first main camp,” McNiven said. “My partner was Carey Price and we had to do these games like go on stage and introduce your partner. You had to ask your partner things about them then go up and be like, ‘This is Carey, these are his hobbies…’”.
Among his strong suits, McNiven mentions work ethic and how he never gives up on a puck. He thrives in situations late in games where the skaters may be getting a little tired and need a big save from the last line of defence. He says he’s very aggressive in his crease and that if you watch, you’ll notice he doesn’t stand on the goal line very often.
“We liked his competitiveness. He competes on pucks and has high athleticism,” Timmins said. “He’s a guy that comes up big in big games.”
Interestingly, when it comes to something he still needs to work on, McNiven points to Price as a kind of style he’d like to emulate.
“I think trying to be more technically sound—Carey Price is a good example of that,” he said. “He’s very calm in his net and doesn’t move around too much. He makes it look easy.”
McGill, who also coached seven years in the AHL and two as an assistant with Calgary in the NHL, notes that for the most part, goalies who graduate from junior to the pro ranks all need to learn to be more patient and settled in traffic. So it seems McNiven is well aware of the kinds of things he needs to work on to bring his success to the next level.
For now, McNiven will keep plugging away with the Attack and hopes to bring his underdog team to the OHL Championship and then the Memorial Cup. And the fact Cherry mentioned his name alongside Price on Hockey Night in Canada is something he, his team, and his coach can have a little fun with.
“I was thinking I’d have to put Vaseline in his stall to get his head through the door,” McGill joked when he heard Cherry’s comments.
“Kids, people look up to those guys. They’re icons. So I’m sure he’s proud to hear his name mentioned by someone like that.”