Dec. 6, 2019. Cayden Primeau makes his NHL debut at the Bell Centre. His Montreal Canadiens are down in the standings, welcoming the highest-scoring team in the NHL—the Colorado Avalanche—and he’ll have to play his very best to have any hope of winning.
Primeau manages it, but only after allowing three goals—two of them early in the game—and ends up turning aside 32 shots on the night. The Canadiens lose 3-2, and the young goaltender comes away from the experience knowing it’ll be different next time he plays this team.
On Saturday, in Colorado, 759 days after that first start, Primeau led the 32nd-ranked Canadiens onto the ice against the highest-scoring team in the NHL, an Avalanche juggernaut averaging 4.15 goals per game and riding a 14-game winning streak at Ball Arena. Once again, he—and they–lost 3-2, but there was one big difference in this one.
“That first game, I think the nerves of it being my first game kind of got the best of me,” Primeau said. “We went down 2-0 in the first period.”
This time around, Primeau was as composed as can be.
He made his first two stops of the game against superstars Nathan McKinnon and Cale Makar and only allowed an unstoppable power-play goal to Alex Newhook in a first period that saw him peppered with 23 shots.
The 199th pick in the 2017 draft was calm. He played excellent and looked very much like the goaltender who was a standout over his two years at Northeastern University. He looked comfortable, and he used that exact word to describe how he felt after the game.
Primeau made 43 saves against the Avalanche. He did so just days after being pulled out of the net before the third period of an embarrassing loss for the Canadiens to the Arizona Coyotes, and that was a sign of how much he’s matured in his brief time as a professional.
Primeau’s going to have to tap into that now. With Carey Price still on the mend from off-season knee surgery, with Jake Allen suffering a lower-body injury that will keep him out until the third week of March, and with Samuel Montembeault suffering from a wrist injury that might require surgery if a bit of rest doesn’t help, the Canadiens net belongs to him.
The hope is that it will be Primeau’s full-time down the line, when all the experience he’s currently racking up serves him as a No. 1 goaltender at this level.
But you need to walk before you can run, and that’s what Primeau’s doing.
He served notice during and after Saturday’s game that he’s taking strides. First, he played sensational, but he wasn’t sitting there gushing about it after losing to the Avalanche. He said, “You just need to park it, stay consistent and put up a great effort every night.”
That’s what he did after the game in Arizona, which Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said, both on that night and this one, wasn’t his fault.
“I just told him to stay positive and go back to work, and that the move was made to spark the team,” Ducharme said. “He went back to work with (Canadiens goaltending coach) Eric (Raymond) and he was really solid tonight.”
There are clear signs of growth here. Even if Primeau has only played 66 games—55 with the Laval Rocket and 11 with the Canadiens—as a professional.
Time to see how many more steps forward he can take.
Tyler Toffoli is back to his old tricks
If I told you Tyler Toffoli was producing at a higher clip this season than he has on average throughout his NHL career, I’d imagine you’d be surprised.
We’re talking about a player who struggled so badly out of the gate that former Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin remarked after 10 games how odd it was that Toffoli didn’t even have a scoring chance, let alone a goal.
Still, he’s got seven goals and 21 points in the 29 games he’s played. That’s hardly production to sneer at—especially on this team.
But we can all agree that Toffoli has looked like a very different player over his first three games back from hand surgery than he appeared to be over his first 26 games of the season. He looks like the guy who led the Canadiens with 28 goals and 44 points in 56 games last season.
“It’s the Tyler we know,” said Ducharme. “We saw him last year. I think for a player like him, he had a tough start to the season (because it was a) short summer. Unfortunately, he got hurt.”
Toffoli was given eight weeks to recover after injuring his hand against the Nashville Predators on Dec. 4. He caught COVID-19 towards the end of December, too.
Maybe it was the 10 days he spent in isolation, or the month away from his teammates, but he said he gained some perspective over that time.
“I think honestly just realizing that it’s fun playing hockey,” Toffoli said. “It’s hard, but it’s fun.”
It wasn’t fun to start. Not with the Canadiens falling apart and losing every game they played, and not with Toffoli’s confidence dipping by the day.
“I think that’s what it all kind of comes down to is confidence and being able to make plays,” he said after registering an assist in Saturday’s game to extend his point-streak to four games.
With him playing as well, Canadiens GM Kent Hughes’ phone will start ringing. Other teams will be interested in acquiring the Stanley Cup winner who’s proven to be a clutch player in the playoffs, and Hughes will have to determine whether or not he wants to accept what’s on offer.
For all the reasons Toffoli will be attractive to teams trying to make the playoffs and teams already positioned to move through them—not the least of which is his cap hit, at only $4.25 million prorated for the rest of this season and on the books for two more—he could prove to be someone Hughes wants to keep around.
It’s all going to depend on the market, because there’s really no urgency to move Toffoli. Even in a year where he has been far from his best, he’s producing at a clip that’s more than respectable, and there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to do that, or more, over the remaining years of his contract. So, if the Canadiens don’t receive top compensation for his services by Mar. 21, they can continue to benefit from his leadership as they season their young players like Nick Suzuki (whom Toffoli has great chemistry with) and hold off until next year or even the year after to trade him.
But you have to think at least a couple of teams will bid on Toffoli. I can already think of two.
The Calgary Flames rank 13th in the NHL in goals per game, and they can certainly use what Toffoli can give them. With Darryl Sutter, who coached him in Los Angeles, there—along with some former Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks teammates Toffoli remains close to—it’s not hard to see a fit.
The other team that comes to mind is the Carolina Hurricanes, who average the fourth-most goals per game in the league. They definitely understand the value of adding a proven, clutch scorer.
If Justin Williams could still play, he’d be Carolina’s guy. But Toffoli, who won a Cup with Williams (who now works in the Hurricanes’ front office), is practically Williams’ clone.
There will be other teams interested, even if Toffoli said earlier this week that he wants to remain in Montreal.
We’ll see if the Canadiens want to keep him there. The way he’s currently playing, on top of how he played all of last year, is making that option more compelling.