MONTREAL - A year after being the goaltending toast of the 2005 NHL Draft at No. 5 overall, Carey Price is now that much closer to protecting the Canadiens' net. Having blown out the candles on his birthday cake last week, the 19-year-old is eager to blow away the competition at this year's training camp.
Next month's rookie camp can't come soon enough for Price, who is anxious to take the next step towards having his own personal stall in the Canadiens dressing room.
"Having that prior experience under my belt will be a huge asset," admitted Price, who took part in last year's training camp, as well as the Canadiens' development camp in July. "When I came in last year, the only guys I really knew were Guillaume Latendresse and Kyle Chipchura, but arriving this time around and knowing what to expect will be a big help.
"The drills Rollie starting teaching me a year ago made everything I needed to do last season that much easier," added Price. "Rollie is a great coach and a lot of fun to work with. But the main thing is that he really knows his stuff."
Not to sound like Bob Barker, but Price is right about Melanson whose resum certainly speaks for itself. After taking a young Jose Theodore under his wing and molding him into an NHL All-Star, Melanson then helped develop Mathieu Garon into an eventual No. 1 goalie. Not to be outdone, Melanson was up to his old tricks last season by taking a virtually-unknown Cristobal Huet to new heights.
With Price waiting in the on-deck circle as one of Melanson's next pet projects, the Canadiens' goaltending guru may soon need a foot stool to talk eye-to-eye with the 6-foot-3, blue-chip netminder.
"I'm not sure if I'm still growing, but I am taller than last season," said Price. "My knees still get achy every once in a while, so I'm not sure if this is it for me height-wise, or if I still have a little ways to go."
With Price being the first goalie to be selected in the first round by Montreal since Michel "Bunny" Larocque in 1972, the urge on the part of Canadiens fans on message boards and call-in shows everywhere to fast-track his development is understandable, though not always recommended.
The 2005-06 season was proof positive that when it comes to sprouting a young goalie in the NHL, patience is not just a virtue, it's absolutely vital. Whether it's the Sabres' careful grooming of 25-year-old Ryan Miller until he was ready for primetime, or the Hurricanes' rolling the dice with would-be Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward at age 22, the determination of when a goalie is ready cannot be taken lightly. Twenty-three-year-old Ray Emery seemed prepared to carry the load for the Senators only to be humbled in the playoffs, much like 24-year-old Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers whose knees also buckled during the postseason.
"Sure I look around and take a snapshot of what's happening around the league, but I don't let myself get caught up with that," admitted Price, who is heading into his third junior season with the WHL's Tri-City Americans. "Every goalie is different. So, I just believe that it's going to take whatever time is needed before I'm ready to make that jump."
But anything is possible. Just ask former Canadiens goalie Jocelyn Thibault who likely never dreamed of reaching the NHL at age 18, before doing exactly that with the Nordiques in 1993-94. Same goes for Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins who got his first taste of the NHL as an 18-year-old with the Penguins in 2003-04.
Regardless of what the immediate future holds for Price, his mindset heading into this year's camp remains unchanged.
"Whenever I arrive at a training camp, even last year straight out of the draft, my goal is the same," said Price. "Going back to junior doesn't cross my mind until I'm told that I'm headed to Tri-City. My plan is to stick around as long I can while making the team's choice to send me down as difficult a decision as possible."
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com