Written by: Tanner Henkel – Staff Writing Intern (@thenkel)
Hockey is a team game. There’s no question it takes 19 players working together to succeed.
But the Montreal Canadiens are avoiding conventional wisdom and are sitting at the top of the NHL thanks to one guy, Carey Price.
First place is a far cry from last year’s. Montreal missed the playoffs by 11 points and finished an embarrassing 13th in the Eastern Conference. So with much of the same roster in place what changed?
The Habs have a good group of forwards, solid top six defenseman, and two goalies. Sure they made a couple big acquisitions in the offseason. Bringing in top pairing defenseman Shea Weber, and top nine forward and Stanley Cup winner Andrew Shaw. While Shaw and Weber are both welcomed additions, the early season success is thanks to the return of Price.
Price has been the best player on the best team in the NHL, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s the most valuable goalie in the NHL. Here’s why.
Almost one year ago, on November 25, 2015 the Canadiens were 17-6-2 and in first place in the NHL, Price was 10-2 with a 2.06 GAA, and a .934 save percentage in just 12 starts. The Canadiens were rolling, thanks to a healthy split between Price and backup Mike Condon. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, Price went down with an MCL sprain and missed the rest of the season.
In an attempt to avoid scenarios like this, NHL teams are placing increasingly high value on second and third string goalies. Teams have moved away from the traditional dead set number one goalie.
In 2006-07 Martin Brodeur started 78 regular season games for the New Jersey Devils. An impressive feat, and along with Brodeur, four other goalies started more than 70 games that season. Since 2014 when Braden Holtby started 72 games, no goalie has more than 70 starts. Last year the LA Kings’ Jonathan Quick led the NHL with 68 starts. A full 10 starts less than Brodeur made in 2006.
This is not an accident. Teams are putting more resources into recovery and injury prevention, and as a precautionary measure staff are closely monitoring their goalie’s starts. Sitting a goalie in November, December, or January can very well mean he’s rested and available come April, May or in some cases June. There’s no point in running a goalie into the ground with games early in the season. To help take the load off of their starters, coaches are looking for more goaltender parity.
However, Price remains irreplaceable. Without Price, the Canadiens finished the remaining 59 games of 2015-16 with a 21-34-4 record and ended up 13th in the Eastern Conference.
Condon and Ben Scrivens did their best in Price’s absence but they simply couldn’t fill his role. Price is the glue that holds the Canadiens together. Without his calming presence in net things unravelled for the Habs, and GM Marc Bergevin made major offseason moves to keep the Montreal fan base sensible.
Overall it was disappointing end to the season, and it can all be traced back to when Price went down.
During his career, injuries have been Price’s detractor. But the upside to that is that Price has played significantly less games than other elite goalies like Holtby and Quick, as well as New York’s Henrik Lundqvist and Chicago’s Corey Crawford. This could mean a rested Price has more to give coming down the back half of his career.
After winning the World Cup of Hockey in September, Price has put together a solid start to the 2016-17 season and he looks poised to eclipse his numbers from his last full season. He is second with a .952 save percentage, and third with a 1.57 goals against average, among goalies that have started at least five games. But the most telling start might be a 7-0 record.
Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out one thing is certain, at 29 years old Price is at the top of his game and the top of the NHL.
Who do you think is the NHL’s best goalie? Leave a comment below or tweet me @thenkel.