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Coaches Room

Canadiens, Maple Leafs struggling without viable backup goalie

Marcoux says Montreal, Toronto having issues filling toughest job in hockey

by David Marcoux / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight. 

In this edition, Marcoux, former goaltending coach for the Carolina Hurricanes and the Calgary Flames, looks at the value of having a strong backup goalie. 

 

The position of backup goalie is the toughest job in hockey.

Some teams are finding that out the hard way.

The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs have each encountered recent issues in their attempts to find solutions for that role. They've struggled at times this season because of it.

The Canadiens have won one game that Carey Price did not start this season. The Maple Leafs have not won any game when Frederik Andersen was not the starter.

Because of the intense local spotlight on teams like the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, the subject gets more traction and more publicity, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Of course, it does put some of the backups in a potentially awkward position.

Let's start in Montreal.

Video: NJD@MTL: Hischier beats Kinkaid for SHG

Keith Kinkaid, who was 1-1-3 with a 4.24 goals-against average and .875 save percentage in six games (five starts) backing up Price this season, was placed on NHL waivers Monday. He subsequently cleared and was assigned to Laval of the American Hockey League in the hopes that he can rediscover his game there.

The Canadiens called up Cayden Primeau from Laval. The 20-year-old is the son of Keith Primeau, who played 15 seasons in the NHL as a center with the Detroit Red Wings, Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers.

The Canadiens have two sets of back-to-back games within the next week, and coach Claude Julien said Primeau will make his NHL debut when Montreal hosts the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; TSN2, RDS, ALT, NHL.TV) before playing at the New York Rangers on Friday. The Canadiens have another back-to-back set next week; they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday and host the Ottawa Senators the next night.

The Canadiens have been struggling. Their 4-2 win against the New York Islanders on Tuesday ended an eight-game winless streak (0-5-3). 

It's a tough position for Primeau. He's 7-4-1 with a 2.58 GAA and .910 save percentage with Laval, but there will be far more eyeballs on him with the Canadiens.

Remember the old adage that you only get one chance to make a good first impression? It applies here.

Here's hoping it goes better for Primeau than it did for Kasimir Kaskisuo with the Maple Leafs.

Michael Hutchinson started the season 0-4-1 with a 4.44 GAA and .879 save percentage backing up Andersen. He cleared waivers and was loaned to Toronto of the AHL on Nov. 11.

Kaskisuo was called up the same day. The 26-year-old was 6-1-1 with a .928 save percentage before his call-up but had never started an NHL game. He made his NHL debut against the Penguins on Nov. 16 with Toronto in the midst of an 0-3-1 stretch and rumblings about coach Mike Babcock's job security. 

Toronto lost 6-1. Players said they were at fault for hanging Kaskisuo out to dry. It certainly wasn't his fault.

Video: TOR@PIT: McCann completes 3-on-2 rush with score

Four days after the loss in Pittsburgh, Babcock was fired and replaced by Sheldon Keefe. Kaskisuo was returned to the AHL, where he hopefully can rebuild his confidence.

Two seasons ago, the Maple Leafs had Curtis McElhinney backing up Andersen. I coached Curtis early in his career in Calgary. He was outstanding for the Maple Leafs in 2017-18, going 11-5-1 with a 2.14 GAA and .934 save percentage. But he turned 35 that offseason and was allowed to leave on a waiver claim before last season because management wanted to give Garret Sparks a shot at the job.

True, Sparks, who was 25 at the time, was the younger goalie and had helped the Marlies win the Calder Cup in 2018. But he had a great team in front of him and wasn't always relied on to win games on his own.

Things didn't go as planned for Sparks, who went 8-9-1 with a 3.15 GAA and .902 save percentage. The Maple Leafs turned the page and brought veteran Michal Neuvirth in for training camp, but Neuvirth's inability to stay healthy nixed that idea.

Now they continue to look for a solution.

To repeat: The backup goaltending job is the toughest in hockey. It's a revolving door. Though some teams, like the Islanders, have a 1 and 1A goalie in Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov, most teams have a No. 1 who gets the bulk of the starts. 

Every point is precious in the NHL. If a team is in position to get more than a 50 percent point percentage from its backup, it's that much more valuable a commodity.

The Canadiens and Maple Leafs are finding that out the hard way this season.

 

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