Struggling Canadiens have little roster flexibility with Price out

Justin Bourne joined Sportsnet Central to discuss why the NHL isn't doing enough to protect goaltenders, Connor McDavid's dominance, how to fix the Maple Leafs' powerplay, and what hurt the Flames this season.

If you’re looking for a silver lining, Cayden Primeau is going to gain some more valuable experience in the NHL over the coming days.

The 21-year-old has worked extremely hard for another opportunity at this level — he got a brief look a year ago and did remarkably well — and, with Carey Price sidelined for at least a week with a concussion, this is his chance to prove the vaunted goaltending depth of the Montreal Canadiens isn’t an aberration.

Primeau, who’s 1-1-0 with a .931 save percentage in his two NHL starts, has come a long way from when he was drafted 199th overall by the Canadiens in 2017. He followed up two standout seasons at Northeastern University with an excellent professional debut in Laval last year.

It is with the Rocket that he’s won 11 of 14 starts this season, and he joined the Canadiens after winning seven in a row and notching shutouts in two of his last three.

“We like how the kid is handling himself,” said coach Dominique Ducharme after Tuesday’s practice. “He's been really solid with the Rocket. It's that time of the year when young guys come in and play in big games. We're confident that when the time comes, he's going to be sharp.”

There are more reasons to believe that than there are reasons to doubt it, and to have a stable option behind Jake Allen is a big positive.

A big positive is somewhat necessary to balance out the overwhelming negatives the Canadiens are dealing with right now. They’ve lost five of their last seven games, struggled immensely to score goals and the complexities of icing their most competitive roster grew with Price’s injury.

If Ducharme had the go-ahead to use the team’s last non-emergency call-up on Cole Caufield, that bridge was temporarily blocked by the sudden need to have Primeau on the roster on an emergency basis. Currently, with Primeau in, the Canadiens don’t have the space to fit Caufield’s $1.3-million cap hit, and exercising their only options to create that space would only handicap them.

Say they chose to place one of Paul Byron or Alex Romanov on the taxi squad to do it, they’d not be able to recall either of them before the end of the regular season, unless multiple injuries occurred. And for as much as we’ve been banging the drum to have Caufield be given a chance to show he can help this goal-starved group, the Canadiens shouldn't do it this way.

Byron, an assistant captain of the Canadiens, has been a whipping post of sorts for long stretches of this season, with his play not coming close to justifying his $3.4-million salary.

But he’s also owned that bad play and bounced back with seven points in his last 12 games, and he’s played an important role at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill and has acquitted himself better than a number of other forwards who aren’t eligible to be loaned to the taxi squad. Icing him out for the rest of the season just to get a look at Caufield wouldn’t make sense, nor would it play well with the team.

And the idea of pushing Romanov aside right now, when he’s playing up to reasonably high expectations on a defence that’s falling short of loftier ones, is a non-starter.

So, yeah, this whole roster freeze of sorts is pretty complicated and not entirely encouraging.

Neither is Price being concussed. And how that came to be has to be a source of frustration.

Ducharme wouldn’t say it, but we will: That Price suffered this injury on a play that went unpenalized is unacceptable. And not because the result is what it is, but because goaltender interference has become a joke — and that goes well beyond the general (nauseating) discourse of what constitutes allowable or disallowable interference on a scoring play.

This used to be a penalty but, since the coach’s challenge was instituted in 2015-16, it seems to only garner attention to discuss what should and shouldn’t be a goal. The rule itself was created to protect goaltenders and, with the amount of them suffering concussions over the last few years, it’s something the NHL is long overdue in cracking down on.

According to the fine people working in our statistics department, there have been 59 goaltender interference penalties called over 692 games played this season. That’s a five per cent decline from what the numbers were in the last season played before the coach’s challenge was instituted.

That might seem like a small difference, but it’s enough of one — especially considering that the penalty was under-called back then, too. That’s a lot of crease crashes missed or willfully ignored.

And if you aren’t going to call goaltender interference on the play that saw Alex Chiasson fly through Price’s crease and knock him hard enough in the noggin to shake some cobwebs loose, when are going to call it?

That this incident happened on a scoring play, with both officials entirely focused on the crease and staring right at it, says much about how secondary enforcing this rule has become.

“I know it happens fast on the ice sometimes,” said Ducharme.

He’s right, which is why perhaps part of the review process should include being able to assess a goaltender interference penalty when one is merited. Not to open a can of worms to have every missed penalty subject to review, but it’s certainly logical to have it done in cases where you’re deciding whether or not a goal should count based on an infraction.

We know, we know; a lot of these plays involve “incidental contact.”

That’s a term — as my friend (and hero) Michael Farber has argued on several occasions — should be removed from the rulebook. Either a player has interfered with a goaltender or the goaltender’s teammate has shoved them in, and both plays should be considered penalties.

But if we’re not winning over the NHL with that, we’d still like to appeal to them to at least call the ones that can’t be considered incidental. You know, like the one where Chiasson dashed through the blue paint without care or concern for avoiding Price and hit him in the head and concussed him.

And we’re not saying Chiasson was trying to do precisely that. But his reckless play caused that to happen — like an unintentional reckless high stick or trip often causes damage — and it’s his job to avoid it.

“I know he wanted to get close to him and take his eyes away, making sure he was not seeing the puck,” said Ducharme. “He went pretty close.”

And now Price is out for an indeterminate period because of it.

That’s just one more storm for the goaltender to weather in this tumultuous season. It’s one more hurdle for the Canadiens to clear, too.

But, as we said, at least Primeau’s there and getting a chance he’s earned. He’ll likely first play Friday or Saturday, when the Canadiens play the Flames in Calgary.

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