Why Carey Price's backup will be key for Canadiens playoff hopes

Oct 18 2019, 7:25 pm

The Montreal Canadiens’ crease primarily belongs to Carey Price. It’s been that way for many years. Considering he’s only in the second year of an eight-year, $84-million contract, it will likely be that way for a while longer.

He was worth every penny on Thursday, earning the 45th shutout of his career, albeit on a night he wasn’t busy, having to make just 17 saves in a 4-0 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Price isn’t the only netminder on the roster, though. His new backup this season is Keith Kinkaid. A 30-year-old native of Farmington, NY, Kinkaid signed a one-year, $1.75-million contract with the Canadiens in July after playing parts of six seasons with the New Jersey Devils.

As much as the Habs will continue to count on Price to be the backbone of their team, Kinkaid’s performance will also be a big factor in whether Montreal can avoid a third straight spring without playoff hockey.

Last season Price was one of just eight goalies to start 60 or more games. The amount of goaltenders to do so has dropped in recent years. As many as 12 goalies did so as recently as the 2014-15 season. There were also two goalies who started more than 70 games that year, but those days may be over. Over the past four seasons only one goaltender has played that much, when Cam Talbot started 73 games for the Edmonton Oilers in 2016-17.

Meanwhile, Price’s 64 starts last year were the second-most in the NHL as well as the fourth-highest total of his career, and highest since his 2014-15 MVP season. The positive way to look at that is Price was healthy enough to play that much, and also played fairly well, posting a .918 save percentage. Price quelled some of the concerns fans had after he struggled with performance and health in 2017-18, posting a .900 save percentage in 49 games.

Ideally, though, Price wouldn’t have to play that much. The 32-year-old has played a lot of hockey and suffered a lot of injuries, and given the Habs’ long and expensive commitment to him, they need him to age well. But with head coach Claude Julien lacking confidence in last year’s backup, Antti Niemi, and Montreal locked in a tight playoff race, he leaned heavily on Price.

Kinkaid made his Canadiens debut last Wednesday in what ended up being a 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. The five goals against made for a somewhat inauspicious start with his new team, but he didn’t get a lot of help from his teammates. The Habs allowed 39 shots on goal and gave the Sabres five power plays, two of which they scored on.

Last year was a tough one for Kinkaid. He posted an .891 save percentage in 41 games for the Devils. Kinkaid posted a .913 in 41 games the year before, though, and a .916 in 26 games in 2016-17. If Kinkaid can get back to that type of performance, Julien can trust him to give the team a chance to win and will be able to give Price an appropriate amount of rest. But if he plays like he did last year, Julien may have to ride Price as much as he can again.

That won’t only hurt the Canadiens this year. Risking burning out Price could hurt their future, too.

The Habs aren’t asking Kinkaid to be a Vezina candidate. That’s what they’re asking Price to be. All they want from Kinkaid is for him to be a solid, reliable backup. If he can get back to the level he played at from 2016-2018, Montreal will be thrilled.

If Kinkaid isn’t up to the task, Charlie Lindgren may get an opportunity if he’s playing well with the AHL Laval Rocket, or the Canadiens may look outside the organization. Either way, Montreal can’t continue to lean on Price as much as it has in the past. A second reliable goaltender will be crucial to the team’s success.