With how things went for Michael McNiven this season, a change of scenery might be best for him. However, a situation outside of his control entirely could ultimately result in him sticking around for another year.
But before we look ahead, let’s look back at the year that was. With Cayden Primeau turning pro and Charlie Lindgren still under contract but moved back to number three duties with Keith Kinkaid initially slated to serve as Carey Price’s backup, McNiven was the odd man out. Carrying three goalies in the AHL is rarely a good idea so they decided to send him to the ECHL.
Of course, the Habs don’t have an ECHL affiliate. They have an arrangement with Maine (the affiliate of the Rangers) to send a few players there but they had already sent Connor LaCouvee (on a one-way deal with Laval) there so there wasn’t a spot for McNiven. Thus began somewhat of a nomadic journey that saw him bounce around with three different teams – Adirondack, Jacksonville, and Norfolk – to cover when injuries or recalls opened up a roster spot.
Once those spots were closed, Laval recalled him and proceeded to effectively ignore him until McNiven inquired about how to rent a facility to get some skating in. Seriously. At that point, he was invited to skate with the Rocket while awaiting yet another ECHL assignment which never came. Instead, he spent a lot of his time as their third-string option until Kinkaid was eventually sent packing to Carolina’s farm team where he seemingly rediscovered the form that was eluding him in Montreal. (Sometimes a change of scenery can indeed do wonders for someone’s confidence.)
All told, McNiven played in a whopping 25 games between the four teams, three with the Rocket and 22 in the ECHL. This is not ideal from anyone’s perspective but their goaltending depth made it a reality.
Now let’s look ahead to next season. Price is still signed and pretty much everyone expects a veteran backup to be added. That leaves Primeau, Lindgren, and newcomer Vasili Demchenko fending for two spots in Laval. Having three goalies is hard enough to manage and McNiven would make four. Even though I think Lindgren is ultimately heading for a number three job elsewhere in a trade at some point, that move would only bring them back to the situation they were at this season, less LaCouvee’s AHL deal. (And I wouldn’t be against them renewing that contract either depending on what happens as he’s a good depth option to have.)
From McNiven’s perspective, going elsewhere where there is AHL playing time available would be ideal. He’s shown that he’s good enough to play at that level and a stagnated development path is something no one wants. To Montreal’s credit, they’re usually pretty good at noticing that and letting players in that situation move on.
Why might they not do so here? Blame Seattle.
While the expansion draft is still a year away (or slightly longer depending on what happens with the 2020-21 NHL calendar), the exposure requirements could very well force the Habs and McNiven into a situation neither particularly wants to be in.
In a nutshell, teams must expose one eligible goalie. Players with two or fewer years in North American pro leagues are exempt. Pending UFA’s aren’t eligible. Players with NMC’s must be protected. Demchenko and Primeau are wiped out in the first group. Lindgren, if he’s still around, goes out of the second group while Price has a no-move clause and let’s face it, even if he didn’t, he’d still be protected anyway.
That leaves Montreal with three largely unappealing options:
1) Give Lindgren a one-year extension and expose him. But Lindgren won’t want to stick around in his current role (he may very well be #4 or #5 on the depth chart by this time next year) so that’s probably off the table.
2) Sign a veteran backup to a two-year deal this offseason. This is a likelier scenario but do the Habs really want to go two years for a backup? Primeau’s play this year suggests he’ll be worthy of more NHL time reasonably quickly and I suspect they’re hoping Demchenko plays himself into the second spot for 2021-22. (Why else would they sign a 26-year-old KHL goalie out of nowhere?) Also, many teams will be giving UFA backups a two-year commitment for this reason so the extra year won’t boost Montreal’s negotiating position. But it’s a likelier scenario than extending Lindgren.
3) Re-sign McNiven and make him the unprotected player. He remains effectively the odd man out in Laval (unless Demchenko really struggles early on or someone gets hurt) but they meet the requirement. The kicker here is that they’d either have to tender him his qualifying offer before exposing him or give him a two-year deal this summer. That’s not ideal for either side but that’s what required.
(McNiven could be qualified but opt to sign overseas and avoid being the odd one out with the Rocket again but the pre-qualified RFA requirement would still be in place next year. He’d either have to do a two-year deal in another league or do something with an NHL opt-out in 2021-22. It’s an option but not ideal from his point of view either.)
Of the three scenarios, keeping McNiven around is probably the safest option. By the time 2021-22 rolls around, there might even be a regular spot in Laval for him. After the season he had, moving on would almost certainly be best for him but Seattle’s entry into the league a year from now could have him tethered to the Habs for a while yet.