MONTREAL - Rookie goaltender Carey Price will start the season with the Montreal Canadiens, and so will rookie centres Kyle Chipchura and Mikhail Grabovski.
The Canadiens opted to send goalie Jaroslav Halak, defenceman Ryan O'Byrne and forward Maxim Lapierre to Hamilton of the AHL on Monday, reducing their roster to the 23-man limit. None of the three needs to clear waivers.
General manager Bob Gainey warned that if any of the three rookies falter or end up not playing, they will quickly be replaced by the players who were sent down.
"There is nothing permanent about the decision on any player sent down," he said. "I see our team has having 25 or 26 players, but only 23 can be here."
That maxim is particularly true for Price and Halak, who Gainey said will not be allowed to watch from the bench for weeks at a time in either Montreal or Hamilton.
"In our evaluation, we have two very good young goalies," he said. "We have the flexibility to move them between the NHL and AHL unencumbered by waivers.
"That's an advantage I need to use."
Price, the fifth overall draft pick of 2005, is considered the club's goaltender of the future. He understood Gainey's message.
"That's part of the deal," the 20-year-old said. "Halak's a very good goalie and he's going to be pushing me and I'm going to be pushing Huet.
"That's what we need - competition within the organization. I'm very happy and I just hope I stay."
Price led Canada to a gold medal at the world junior championship last winter and was named MVP of the tournament. He then led Hamilton to a Calder Cup, earning MVP honours for the playoffs.
But some, including coach Guy Carbonneau, have suggested he would be better off playing regularly in Hamilton than staying in Montreal as a backup to the 32-year-old Huet.
Gainey has said since the start of camp that Price could stay with the NHL club in the backup role. He made the call to keep him after consulting with his hockey department, including his coaches.
The apparent rift between Gainey and Carbonneau was hotly debated in the media throughout camp.
"In this case, I accept his experience and his point of view, but I went in a different direction on this particular decision, which I believe is my decision to make," said Gainey.
Carbonneau avoided adding fuel to the fire, saying he had only been concerned about Price's long-term development.
"But for the past week, I'm thinking more like a coach," he said. "We picked Carey because we feel he'll help us win matches more than Halak.
"He's a first-round pick. He's high on our list of prospects. We want to see what he can bring to this team. How many games he'll play, I don't know. I think Cristobal's going to start the season and we'll go from there."
The Canadiens open the season with three games on the road, starting Wednesday night in Carolina.
Chipchura, 21, who was captain of Canada's team at the 2005 world junior championship, is coming off a full season in Hamilton and went into camp a strong bet to make the NHL team.
The Westlock, Alta., native is a strong defensive centre who will likely play on a checking line to start.
"I'm fine with that," he said. "Anywhere I can fit on the team, I'm proud to do. I'll just go out and give all I have on every shift. Now is the real test - proving I belong here."
The much flashier Grabovski, 23, played three games for Montreal last season without registering a point and spent most of the season in Hamilton.
He had a strong camp, particularly while playing with Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn.
"He has character," Carbonneau said of the five-foot-11 180-pound Grabovski. "He's not afraid to go into traffic.
"We said we need more goals at even strength and that's the type of player who can give us that."
Lapierre went back to Hamilton for the playoffs last spring after playing 46 NHL games in which he had six goals and six assists and proved to be a useful checking centre.
He admits he had a weak camp, but was hoping the Canadiens would cut him some slack because of his play last season. Gainey said Lapierre needs polishing.
"As a third and fourth-line player, his defensive play, his penalty killing and his faceoffs are three areas he can still take up a notch," Gainey said, adding that Lapierre would only get time to work on those skills in Hamilton.
The 23-year-old O'Byrne said he spent a restless night waiting for the final cuts. The mobile, six-foot-five blue-liner was a victim of numbers, with eight experienced defencemen ahead of him on the team.
"It's never nice getting cut, but it's the best league in the world and no one said it would be easy," the Victoria, B.C. native said. "There are guys here ahead of me in NHL experience. It was my job to come in and prove I could take someone else's spot."
Carbonneau said he wants O'Byrne to play at least 25 minutes per game in the AHL in order to refine some areas of his game. Halak was an AHL star last season before he was called up in the second half when Huet was injured. He went 10-6-0 with a 2.89 goals-against average in 16 NHL matches.
"It's part of the game," he said of his demotion. "Only two goalies can stay and I was the third one."
The 22-year-old was prudent in deflecting any questions about his future in the organization after losing out to Price. Huet's contract runs out after this season, and Halak and Price could be the team's goaltending duo in 2008-09, or even before then if Montreal opts to move him ahead of the trade deadline in March.
At practice Monday, Chipchura skated with Steve Begin and Tom Kostopoulos; Grabovski centred Kovalev and Kostitsyn; Saku Koivu was between Chris Higgins and Michael Ryder; and Tomas Plekanec centred Guillaume Latendresse and Bryan Smolinski.
The defence pairs were Andrei Markov with Mike Komisarek; Roman Hamrlik with Patrice Brisebois; and Francis Bouillon with Mark Streit.
The odd men out were defencemen Mathieu Dandenault and Josh Gorges and forward Garth Murray.