TORONTO — For the most of the past decade, the Canadiens have attempted to distance themselves from the notion that the franchise consists of goaltender Carey Price and a collection of plumbers.
Price has rejected that notion, noting that a team’s success depends on contributions from every player. But there is irrefutable proof that the team’s fortunes are linked to Price’s performance or, in some cases, his health.
As the Canadiens prepare to open the regular season against the Maple Leafs Wednesday (7 p.m., Sportsnet, SN360, RDS, TSN 690 radio) Price is coming off the worst season of his career and his failures were reflected in the standings. The Canadiens finished 28th overall and, while the offence struggled and opposition power plays licked their chops when a Montreal player headed to the penalty box, teams don’t win when their No. 1 goaltender has a 3.11 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage.
During the era of general manager Marc Bergevin, the Canadiens have finished first in their division three times and each time, Price was at the top of his game. In one of those seasons, he won the Vézina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender and became only the fifth goaltender to win the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player.
The Canadiens have also missed the playoffs twice in the past six years. In 2015-16, the team faltered after Price suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for most of the season. A year ago, there was a battle with chronic fatigue syndrome and Price missed more time after he suffered a late-season concussion. In between, he was less than ordinary.
So what can we expect as Price enters the first year of an eight-year, US$84 million contract that makes him the highest-paid goaltender in NHL history?
Price, whose laid-back persona defines the word “chill,” had a so-so preseason but he didn’t seem worried this week when he was asked how close he was to his best game.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “It’s like golf, what’s your best game? It’s a never-ending process, you’re always trying to get better. You never feel that you’re at your pinnacle, but it’s definitely starting to feel good.”
When asked wether he felt anxious about the new season, Price said: “I wouldn’t say anxious is the right word; I would say excited. I think we have great chemistry in our locker room. It’s been showing in our work in practice and we definitely have lots of energy in the room.”
Price is aware there are expectations that come with the new contract and the disappointment over last season, but said: “I’m still trying to do my job and do it to the best of my abilities.”
The team in front of Price is stocked with young players, but the goaltender said that doesn’t change his job.
“I’m there to cover old mistakes or new mistakes,” Price said. “Regardless of who’s screwing up out there, I’m there to help out. I’m just trying to continue that.”
What if the goaltender is screwing up? Price was less than stellar in his last two pre-season appearances. He went the distance in a 5-3 home loss to the Leafs last week and then played two periods Saturday in Ottawa, giving up all the goals in a 3-0 loss.
“Obviously, statistic-wise, the last two games weren’t great, but I feel the overall process has been going well,” said Price. “My plan at the end of last season and going into the summer was to feel good coming in and I feel I’ve taken all the right steps and the hard work will pay dividends going into these first few games. It would be nice to see results early, but I’m just going to stick to the process.”
If the Canadiens do get some results early in the season, it will be a bonus and it will be a sign that Price is back because there are no easy games in the first two weeks. After Wednesday’s opener, the Canadiens travel to Pittsburgh for game Saturday. They come back to the Bell Centre for a game against the L.A. Kings Thursday and a rematch against the Penguins on Saturday.