When asked after Thursday night’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets what he thought of the play of his goalie, newly minted Montreal Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme could not have possibly come up with a more appropriate response. Had he hit the nail any more on the head, he would have driven it clean through a four-by-four.
“Like the team,” Ducharme said when asked to comment on Carey Price’s work, in which he stopped 24 of 29 shots in a 6-3 loss. “That’s it. He’s part of the team. For me, it was the same thing.”
It was a stinging, but equal, indictment of the Canadiens’ $10.5 million goalie and the players performing in front of him. Both are struggling mightily at the moment. It’s a toss-up as to which is more putrid currently, the Canadiens’ attempted zone entries when they have the puck or their willingness to give up large swaths of the ice when their opponents are entering their zone. Their game is full of mistakes, their puck management is atrocious and a good number of their veterans look as though they’re mired in quicksand.
And then there is Price, the biggest headache of all for the Canadiens. After looking as though he was coming out of his now years-long funk with his play in last summer’s bubble playoffs, Price has regressed badly and is playing arguably his worst hockey as an NHL player. His .888 save percentage would have looked pretty good in the mid-1980s, but ranks him tied for 62nd among NHL goaltenders this season. As the last line of defense for a team that doesn’t play very good defense in the first place, Price has been alarmingly porous.
And perhaps this isn’t fair, but it is the truth. Carey Price has to be better, even if those in front of him are not. After all that’s why the Canadiens signed him to an eight-year deal worth $84 million that still has five years remaining on it after this season. Even though the extension was signed almost four years ago and kicked in for the 2018-19 season, Price still has the highest cap hit among goalies in the NHL and the 10th highest in the league overall. The fact that Price remains at the top of the heap that long after signing his extension tells you something about where the goalie market is going and how Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin misread it. You pay your goalies that much and give them that much term because they’re supposed to be, at least, consistently one of the best goalies in the league and, at best, regularly give your team chances to win games they have no business winning. They’re supposed to make up for all those mental mistakes and defensive shortcomings.
Price has not done that. In fact, he’s done the opposite and exacerbated them. There were a lot of things wrong with the way Claude Julien was coaching this team, but as many NHL coaches often say, “Show me a successful coach and I’ll show you a good goaltender.” A goaltender almost always shoulders an inordinate amount of responsibility for his team’s (and his coach’s) success. They learn that soon after they sign up to play the position.
In Price’s defense, he wouldn’t be able to merit the money he’s making and the cap space he’s occupying even if he were the greatest goaltender to walk the face of the earth. And if you’re going to devote almost 13 percent of your cap space to a position where there are so many competing for so few jobs, you need one of the NHL’s elite. Price used to be that. He is no longer that and, with the exception of the bubble, has not been that for quite some time. (In the 1990s, a player who was very active in the NHL Players’ Association told me that it’s unfair to equate a player’s salary to his production. I always thought that was preposterous. If that were the case, professional sports would be the only occupation where that is done. It was true before the salary cap, but even truer now that one exists in the NHL.)
For his part, Price took questions after the game against the Jets and give him credit for doing that. He was asked five questions and responded with a total of 74 words, which works out to fewer than 15 words per answer. “I just think maybe I’m overthinking things,” Price said in one of his responses. “That’s all I’ve got for you.”
Ducharme was probably right to give Price the start in his first game, even though the evidence suggests that backup Jake Allen would have been the better choice, particularly against an offensively talented team such as the Jets. The Canadiens have a myriad of woes right now, among them a Carey Price problem that needs attention. Because if it isn’t solved, this team could be in for a world of hurt for a long time.