The Montreal Canadiens finally have their No. 1 goaltender in the fold, and Carey Price didn't miss a beat when asked during a conference call Thursday how many games he's hoping to play in this season.
"Eighty-two," Price responded, drawing laughs from reporters.
"I'd like to play a lot," he continued, "but that's going to be up to (coach) Jacques (Martin) in the end. I feel ready to play a lot of games, but I'm going to have to earn them all."
One thing is for sure: Price, who received a two-year contract reportedly worth $5.5 million, is once again the undisputed top man in Montreal after playoff hero Jaroslav Halak was traded to St. Louis during the offseason. Halak had slowly but surely wrested the starting job away from Price over the past two seasons, but with Alex Auld now the backup Price shouldn't be looking over his shoulder.
"I didn't know what to expect," Price said in regards to what he thought the Canadiens might do about their young tandem. "I thought it was 50/50, I didn't know which direction team wanted to go. I knew they had to choose one direction or the other, and I'm really happy they chose me."
At one point, Price as the future of the franchise seemed a foregone conclusion. The No. 5 pick in the 2005 Entry Draft, he debuted during the 2007-08 season by going 24-12-3 with a 2.56 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. By all appearances, a star had been born.
Price led the Canadiens into the second round of the playoffs as a rookie and started his sophomore season strong, getting voted to start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game before his adoring Montreal crowd.
However, Price finished the season in a tailspin and the Canadiens were swept by the Bruins in the opening round of the playoffs as he posted a 4.11 GAA and .878 save percentage. This past season he played in only 41 games, going 13-20-5 with a 2.77 GAA and .912 save percentage. He started Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Capitals, but otherwise made just three relief appearances as Halak carried the team into the conference final.
"It was definitely challenging for me," Price said. "It's never easy not playing, but being able to learn lessons like that at a young age definitely helped. I learned ice time just isn't given to you, it's earned, and this past season really kind of instilled that in me."
It could have been Price on the trading block this summer, but Montreal GM Pierre Gauthier instead dealt Halak to St. Louis for forwards Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. Even after that move cleared the way for Price to regain the starting job, there was still the matter of coming to terms with the Canadiens on a new contract, a process that ended up dragging on into September.
"There's a lot of things that go into negotiations -- that's why I have my agent working on it. It was between Pierre and my agent, and both sides needed to do what they needed to do," Price said. "I knew it was going to happen eventually. I wanted it to happen before (training) camp. It did take a little longer than I expected, but I knew it was going to happen."
Price boasts career totals of 60-48-18 in 134 games with a 2.73 GAA and .912 save percentage.
"We are extremely happy that Carey has agreed to pursue his career with the Canadiens," Gauthier said in a statement. "Carey is a key member of our club. He has proven that he has what it takes to be a good goaltender in the league, and we are confident he will perform to the best of his abilities for years to come in a Canadiens uniform."
Now that a contract has been signed, Price can focus on starting training camp and working on regaining his old form. There's also the mental aspect of his game, as he admitted there were times last season when he "maybe could have enjoyed playing more" and that "I got down on myself a little last year and that turned things south for me."
Halak's departure could take a weight off Price's shoulders, but on the flip side it also puts the lofty expectations of the Montreal fans squarely on them. Asked several times during the conference call about the pressure he might face as the clear-cut No. 1, Price said the only challenges he worries about are the ones he sets for himself. On his experiences in Montreal to this point, he had a brief but all-encompassing take.
"It's been hard and it's been awesome," he said. "I had a lot of people talk to me before it all started and it's been about what I expected."