The Last Word: Stakes higher than ever for Canadiens' Price

Price enters the first season of his gargantuan eight-year contract. And the situation around him is bleak. His only option is to try to recapture some of his magic
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Whither Carey Price? If you’re searching for a Burning Question™ heading into the 2018-19 NHL season, they don’t get much more scorching, or vexing, than that one. All right, we’ll concede it’s not quite as white-hot as whether or not Bert and Ernie are gay – duh, they’re puppets – or precisely when Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers’ new mascot, goes on his first murderous rampage, but it’s safe to say no star/superstar player in the NHL faces more uncertainty than Price does.

And both the short- and long-term fates of one of the most tradition-steeped franchises in NHL history hang in the balance depending upon the answer to that very question. It wasn’t long ago Price was at the top of the food chain when it came to the best goalies in the world and not even four years ago he was named both the best goalie and best player in the NHL. But when TSN compiled its list of the top 50 players at the start of the season, Price was nowhere to be found after being ranked fifth the previous year. We at THN were more charitable. Our Ryan Kennedy had Price 39th on his list of the top 50 players in the 2018-19 THN Yearbook, and when we ranked players by position, Price graded out as the fifth-best goalie, which was, ahem, generous.

That Price is entering the first season of an eight-year deal that will pay him $84 million – $70 million of it coming in guaranteed signing-bonus money – one year after enduring the worst season of his career, sets the stakes even higher. Only John Tavares will take home more money than Price this season. Tavares will make $15.9 million, while Price and Connor McDavid will have to make do with just $15 million. When it comes to cap hit, Price’s $10.5 million places him third with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, behind McDavid and Tavares. At 31, Price is the oldest among those players.

It was a spectacular plunge for Price, who really could not have had a worse season than the one he turned in last year. Among goalies who played 500 minutes, Price had a .746 save percentage on high-danger shots in 5-on-5 play, which placed him 64th among the 68 goalies who met that criterion. When it came to medium-danger chances, Price’s SP was .895, which put him 61st. That basically meant that last season, not only could Montreal not count on Price to bail them out when they gave up a 10-bell chance, they couldn’t even really rely on him to make the more routine saves.

If the Canadiens are to salvage anything from this season, that simply cannot happen again. There is not a lot to feel good about when it comes to this team, both for this season and the next couple, and not having Shea Weber anchoring the defense for at least half the season won’t help. And if one terrible season turns into two consecutive terrible seasons for Price, that will put the Canadiens in an almost untenable bind.

If that indeed does happen, Montreal will be looking at seven more years of an ironclad, likely untradeable contract, with what looks to be a rapidly declining asset on their hands. The Habs knew they were taking a risk signing a goalie who turned 31 this summer to a maximum extension last summer, but nobody could’ve envisioned Price would respond by turning in the worst season of his career. But Price would have turned down anything less than a maximum-term deal had he been offered it last summer and the Canadiens would have been faced with the prospect of losing him for nothing in unrestricted free agency. So they did what almost every team in the NHL would do in that situation and they took the path of least resistance. Instead of daring Price to be one of the best goalies and risk losing him, they signed him to a deal that would keep them beholden to him for nine more years and that’s where things sit now.

Price cannot do anything about the fact the team he will be backstopping is sure to be a bottom-feeder this season. He can’t change the fact the Canadiens’ search for a No. 1 center has again been a fruitless endeavor and it’s likely Max Domi will be the one to carry that load. Price cannot control Weber’s injury status, nor can he do anything about a roster that is sorely lacking depth at both forward and defense.

But he can control the way he plays. By all accounts, he came to camp leaner and fitter and with a fresh attitude. Last season, a bout of chronic fatigue was blamed for his first-half woes when both he and the Habs fell hopelessly into a hole from which they were never able to extricate themselves. It’s safe to assume that even if Price can rebound, he won’t be the same goalie who ruled the world just four years ago, given his age. But he can be better. And he must.

This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.



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