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Basu: Keith Kinkaid is the most important Canadiens backup goaltender in a decade

July 18th, 2019 by Arpon Basu -

Keith Kinkaid’s first public words spoken in Montreal as a member of the Canadiens missed the point entirely.

They were humble, appropriate for someone coming off the worst season of his career and who signed a one-year contract to play behind the highest-paid goalie in hockey. But they were off track.

“I’m just happy to be here,” Kinkaid said Monday at the Canadiens’ training facility, “happy to have another opportunity to play in the best league in the world.”

Sure, that’s fine. A hockey career is fragile and a player in Kinkaid’s position never knows when that fragility can hit, when the music stops and you’re left without a chair. So yes, those words are perfectly appropriate and realistic.

But they also suggest Kinkaid doesn’t realize just how important he is to the Canadiens’ hopes for success next season.

It’s been a long time since the role of Carey Price’s backup was as attractive as it is right now, which makes Kinkaid’s arrival in Montreal a very unique opportunity. This offseason, this one-year, $1.75-million, show-me contract represents the perfect marriage of a league-wide trend, an aging goalie whose legs need to be managed and springtime aspirations for a team that hopes those legs will be nice and fresh once the playoffs begin.

Though Kinkaid let it be known how happy he is simply to still be playing in the league, he is fully aware of that perfect marriage and how that made Montreal a good place for him to bet on himself this offseason.
“I think to take a load off Carey’s workload would help,” Kinkaid said. “They did that to Tuukka Rask in Boston, but you see it all over, any team, not just Boston. I wouldn’t put a certain number on it, but a lot of people are doing 1A/1B. With Carey, I’m just going to be the best teammate I can for him. Work with him, learn from him and push each other to be better.
“It’ll be a good relationship, a strong, competitive relationship. I think that’s key to getting the most out of each other.”

That should be music to the ears of Price, who expressed to The Athleticjust before the opening of free agency that he’s not ready to be a mentor to a young backup at this stage of his career. He wants someone pushing him, working with him and not necessarily looking up to him.
Kinkaid, who turned 30 on July 4, fits the job description in that sense because being a backup goaltender is all he’s really known in the NHL. He served as Cory Schneider’s backup in New Jersey for the first three years of his career until Schneider’s difficulties thrust Kinkaid into a bigger role. But the unique mentality required of a backup is something Kinkaid understands and accepts. That’s important.

“Just going through long stretches of not playing and just managing your energy level and what you need to do,” Kinkaid said. “I’ve been the backup to Cory Schneider in my earlier years, so I think I know how to handle it … It’s more of a mental mindset that you have to embrace.

You’ve just got to do your job.

“You want to be there for the team, so you’ve just got to do whatever it takes for the team to get in the playoffs again.”

Kinkaid is hoping a steady workload will allow him to extend his career by several more seasons after this one. Prior to last year, when Kinkaid put up a career-worst .891 save percentage, he was a steady backup goaltender for four seasons with the Devils, averaging a .913 save percentage over that time. He wants to prove that is the real Keith Kinkaid.

“We were just looking for the right opportunity and this seemed like a great fit to have a bounce-back year from last year and get back to where I was the year before,” he said.

It used to be that Montreal was the last place you would hope to do that because if he was healthy, Price was playing, and he was playing a lot. But this is easily the biggest opportunity a Price backup has had since Jaroslav Halak took his net in 2010, a magical playoff run that also marked the birth of the version of Price we know today, the one that finally understood the preparation and hard work necessary to ward off the fragility of a goaltender’s place in the NHL, the same fragility Kinkaid is coming to Montreal to strengthen.

“To work with a guy like Carey Price is going to be tremendous,” he said. “Hopefully I can take his workload and lighten it up a little bit. I want to be a guy they can count on when they need to win a game and give Carey a night off.”

Since Halak played 45 regular-season games and another 18 in the playoffs in 2009-10, a Price backup has played more than 20 games in a season twice, and both times it was because Price was hurt. Peter Budaj played 24 games in 2013-14 when Price returned from the Sochi Olympics with a lower-body injury and missed the first eight games after the break. The second time was when Mike Condon took over the starter’s role and played 55 games in 2015-16 after Price was lost for the season in late November.

Otherwise, the most a backup was used behind a healthy Price since 2010 was the 19 games played by Al Montoya in 2016-17 (Antti Niemi played the same number of games in 2017-18 but Price missed 23 games to injury).
Kinkaid doesn’t know how many games he is expected to play next season, but it would be a safe assumption the number will be higher than 19 regardless of Price’s health. The Canadiens are hoping Kinkaid will play well enough to keep Price’s regular-season workload below 60 games.
The reasoning is simple enough; the last starting goalie to win the Stanley Cup and play more than 60 regular-season games was Jonathan Quick with the L.A. Kings in 2012. Since then, of the 14 goalies to reach the Stanley Cup final, only five played more than 60 games (or was on pace for that number in the case of Rask in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) and each of them lost to fresher goalies.

Last season only eight goalies played 60 or more regular-season games and five of them reached the playoffs. Of those five, three made it out of the first round and one – San Jose Sharks starter Martin Jones – made it as far as the conference finals.

Therefore, Kinkaid’s job is to cut down on the 66 games Price played last season. The key risk factor for the Canadiens is Kinkaid successfully bouncing back from his down season. He was clearly Montreal’s primary target in free agency and goalie coach Stéphane Waite had to be a big reason for that. If Kinkaid finds his game next season, Waite will be a big reason for that as well.

The power play was tabbed as the biggest reason why the Canadiens missed the playoffs by three points last season, justifiably so, but Niemi completely losing his game was an important factor as well. Our contributor at Athlétique Olivier Bouchard looked at the difference Kinkaid would have made had he played in Niemi’s place last season– based on the worst numbers of Kinkaid’s career – and found that he would have prevented an additional nine goals which, in theory, would have been worth three standings points to the Canadiens, or just enough to make the playoffs.

But the loss of trust in Niemi had a far greater impact than just the games he played because it led to a flagrant over-reliance on Price in the second half of the season. After Niemi’s start in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Devils on Feb. 2, Price played in 28 of the next 29 games, including four occasions where he played on back to back nights with travel (he came on in relief of Niemi 15 minutes into a 6-3 loss in Florida on Feb. 17 after playing in Tampa the night before).

It would be difficult to argue the heavy workload had a major impact on the quality of Price’s work – he allowed more than two goals in only nine of his final 28 games – but it would be fair to assume that even had the Canadiens made the playoffs, their goalie would not be in peak form to start the marathon because he had just finished running one.

Looking at the Canadiens 2019-20 schedule, it is easy to identify 16 games where Kinkaid would likely play through Feb. 22, when they would play their 64th game of the season at Ottawa, by giving him starts on back-to-backs and against seemingly weaker opponents. In other words, by giving him a normal backup’s workload.

It is those final 18 games where it gets tricky. The Canadiens have one set of back to back games over the final six weeks of the season: Game 80 in Chicago on March 31 and Game 81 in Nashville on April 1. They have at least two days between games on six occasions in that stretch. And they finish the schedule with 10 of their final 15 games on the road. The Canadiens, if all goes well, will be fighting for their playoff lives at that point, so the temptation to ride Price will be very high. Which means if they want Kinkaid to reach a number hovering around 25 starts, give or take, he’s going to have to play some games where you would normally expect to see Price earlier in the season, games against quality opponents, games where Price is well-rested.

And Kinkaid will need to win more than half of his games for the Canadiens to have any chance of reaching the playoffs.

“It’s time for a fresh start for me,” Kinkaid said. “They’ve expressed to me many times that they’re happy to have me, so you want to play for a team that wants you to play.”

Kinkaid might simply be happy to still be playing in the best league in the world, but he will be of vital importance to the Canadiens next season. Because they will want him to play.

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