Montreal’s signing of Vasili Demchenko last month has put their backup goalie situation back into the spotlight. It’s an area that they clearly need to improve upon but there is one big limitation that they have to deal with that limits the type of goalie they can target.
That limitation, of course, is Carey Price. It’s not that he wouldn’t be willing to work with a veteran goaltender. Look at his relationships with players like Peter Budaj, Alex Auld, and Al Montoya. Those were never a problem.
Instead, the issue stems from Price’s situation. The organization hasn’t hidden that they view him as the top goalie in the league. He’s the highest-paid netminder in the NHL and with the salary cap about to take a hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s going to be the case for a while yet. That means he’s always going to get the benefit of the doubt and a lot of playing time. To a potential free agent signing, that’s not very appealing.
Who wants to go to a team where the opportunity for extended playing time will be non-existent? The Habs aren’t going to sit Price for any lengthy period of time even if the backup happens to be out-performing him. With his contract and the way they view him, that’s not something they can justify doing.
So if you’re Anton Khudobin, Thomas Greiss, or Cam Talbot, a group of backups that are near the top of the upcoming free agent class, where’s the incentive to go to Montreal? Even though the Habs will have one of the better cap situations to work with and could actually outbid other teams for their services, that probably won’t be enough to sway them. They’re going to want to play and when you’re on a team with Carey Price, there’s only going to be a limited amount of playing time unless Price gets hurt. It’s not like they can sell a winning environment and Stanley Cup contention either.
So what type of backups can the Habs attract? The ones that have struck out on a more ideal situation and are looking for a place to catch on to avoid risking being left without a place when the dust settles. Those players are the ones that are willing to take a one-year, minimal-risk deal. I don’t think the Habs have necessarily targeted the cheaper backups in free agency lately; we know they’ve had plenty of cap space to work with where they could have shopped at the upper end of the market. But there isn’t any sort of appeal for those top backups to come to the Canadiens.
This particular summer will see a lot of goalies getting two-year deals to ensure the exposure requirement for Seattle’s expansion draft in 2021. That will only bolster the leverage of the top free agents which isn’t good news for GM Marc Bergevin if he is indeed looking to add someone on the open market.
That’s what made the Demchenko signing at least a little bit interesting. With him, they get someone with a fair bit of professional experience already and a reasonable amount of success, 2019-20 notwithstanding. Instead of a veteran hoping to hang on for another year, he’s someone that provides some potential upside while being close to recall ready now. That’s a different approach than what they’ve gone with in the past. But with him and now Cayden Primeau in the system, that’s only going to make the Habs less appealing to free agents knowing that their eventual successor is already signed and should be knocking on the door fairly soon.
Where am I going with all of this? While I’m among the large group that wants to see the Canadiens add an impact backup goaltender in free agency, it’s probably not going to happen. Instead, even though they have the money to spend on an upper-tier option (and will probably try to do so), they’ll almost certainly wind up with the same type of backup that they’re normally able to attract. At least for next season, Demchenko and Primeau should both be interesting insurance policies which is at least a small upgrade on hoping for late improvement from Charlie Lindgren who is no more than a third-stringer at this point. That’s not the ideal situation for the Habs but it’s the one that they will likely have again.