“THE PITTSBURGH PENGUINS ARE AFRAID OF CAREY PRICE.”
They downplayed the headline as much as possible, but that was the simplified interpretation once the report came out. It was May 2020, shortly before the NHL unveiled its 24-team play-in tournament to finish the 2019-20 season. With teams ranked by points percentage in each conference under the proposed format, the Penguins, owning the seventh-best record in the NHL, were matched with the Montreal Canadiens, owning the 24th-best record in the NHL. The league hadn’t finalized the length of the play-in series yet, and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on a radio show that the Penguins players wanted nothing to do with a best-of-3 format.
“Pittsburgh looked at its matchup and said, ‘Two out of three against Carey Price is not fair,’ ” Friedman said at the time.
The Penguins worked to publicly brush off the idea of a Price fear factor in the ensuing days, with GM Jim Rutherford insisting his team was ready to play “wherever and against whoever,” but there’s no undoing what was reported. A team with a two-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie in Matt Murray was hell-bent on avoiding a best-of-3 format because of Price. The Penguins were right to complain given they, more than any other team, got jobbed by the 24-team setup. But it was tough to interpret their sentiment as anything but fright.
And what happened? Price snatched away a playoff series in a shortened format, just as the Penguins feared. The 5-on-5 shot margin was almost even for the series, but Pittsburgh held a decided edge in scoring chances, and it didn’t matter. Price posted a .947 save percentage in Montreal’s 3-1 series victory, punctuated by a shutout in the deciding game, while the Penguins wavered in net between Murray and platoon mate Tristan Jarry. Price took over the series, even if, in typical praise-deflecting fashion, he played the experience off as something Montreal accomplished as one united and focused group.
“We were definitely all motivated going into this series,” Price said on a Zoom conference call after the series ended. “Nobody was giving us a prayer to beat them. That definitely played a factor into it. I thought we all took it with a grain of salt and went out there and just tried to prove everybody wrong.”
“He just played really well,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby in a Zoom call. “We know he’s a great goalie. I don’t think it was a matter of trying to play around him, but he did what we expected him to do, and he gave his team a chance to win.”
The fact Crosby was even asked about “playing around” Price is a testament to the effect he has on opposing shooters when he’s hot. There’s a perpetual mystique around him. It’s been five years since he captured the Hart Trophy and his lone Vezina Trophy, yet his opponents herald him as the king of goalies. The NHL Players’ Association’s annual poll, first published in 2017-18, has more than 500 players participating in it yearly. In 2017-18, an incredible 41.0 percent named Price “the most difficult goalie in the league to score on.” Second place was 12.1 percent. The next year, with the category changed to “best goalie,” Price won again, garnering 29.9 percent of the vote. In 2019-20, Price kept his undefeated streak going, earning 41.6 percent of the vote. Even if we factor in 2016-17, the season before the first vote, Price has finished as a Vezina finalist once over that four-season span. He played a single playoff series during that stretch. The only statistical category in which he’s led the league since his 2014-15 Vezina season is minutes played – each of the past two years. But the majority of NHL skaters still say he’s the game’s greatest goalie.
“Our league is so tight, so competitive, there’s so many great players, and you just don’t understand as a shooter how difficult it is to score on him, how much you have to be on your game and how prepared you have to be when you face a goaltender like him,” said Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares before the start of the post-season. “Even if he’s not having a year like he did when he won the Hart Trophy and Vezina, he’s still one of the best goalies in the world.”
Should we be as certain as the players are about Price’s deity status? Over the past three seasons, 77 goalies have logged 1,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5. Among that group, Price ranks 39th in save percentage; 41st in goals saved above average per 60 minutes; 54th in high-danger SP; 53rd in medium-danger SP; and 32nd in low-danger SP. Diving down to the deepest part of the analytics ocean reveals metrics such as shot location that indicate Price was actually quite good in 2018-19, but if you look at the larger three-year sample, the stats would suggest he barely grades out as a league-average goalie despite the NHLPA picking him as the world’s No. 1 every time.
When The Hockey News published its Top 100 Goalies of All-Time in 2018, Price ranked 27th. The only active goaltender ahead of him was Henrik Lundqvist at 24th. Roberto Luongo, who now ranks third all-time in career wins, was 29th. Two-time Stanley Cup winner and one-time Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick was 32nd. Three-time Cup champ Marc-Andre Fleury was 40th. Is it fair to ask, then, if the myth of Carey Price has begun to exceed the actual Carey Price?
First, let’s consider Price’s body of work. For Sportsnet Vancouver Canucks analyst and ex-NHL goalie Corey Hirsch, Price is still the pick among active goalies in the “you have to win one game” barroom debate, and Hirsch believes it’s important to look at Price’s entire resume, not just the recent one.
Price, who turned 33 on Sunday, broke into the NHL at 20, which is extremely rare for a netminder, so he already has 13 seasons to his name. Price’s 348 wins are fifth among active goalies and 23rd all-time. His .917 career SP ranks 16th. Per hockey-reference.com, Price already sits 19th in career goalie point shares. He’s an Olympic gold medallist, having backstopped a dominant Canadian team at the 2014 Games. He’s one of two goalies this century to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
“You have so much sample size with Carey Price,” said TSN hockey analyst and former NHL goalie Jamie McLennan. “So guys who have longer careers, people can point to the ups and point to the downs and go, ‘See, I told you, he’s this, he’s this.’ There’s no getting around that, if you’re just looking at raw data, his numbers have gone down. But players still have respect for that player because they’ve seen them at their best.”
Is it possible, though, that Price’s long list of early-career accomplishments overshadows what he’s done lately? Not according to those who believe Price’s supporting cast should be factored in. As McLennan puts it, we can’t say “all things being equal” when comparing Price to the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy or Tuukka Rask, because all things are not equal. The Habs missed the playoffs three of the past four seasons, or four of the past five if you don’t count the 24th-place play-in berth. So maybe Price’s numbers are suppressed merely because he’s played on weak teams.
Yet it was offense, not defense, holding most of those Montreal squads back. Revisiting the 77-goalie sample of the past three seasons, Price faced the 57th-most shots per 60; the eighth-fewest high-danger shots per 60; and the sixth-farthest average shot distance. In coach Claude Julien’s system, the Canadiens have been an above-average defensive club. Expected goals against per 60 is a stat reflecting the difficulty of a goalie’s workload, and while Rask predictably ranks first since the start of 2017-18 playing for the stingy Bruins, Price is fifth. As in, fifth easiest.
So if we can’t blame Price’s help for his relatively barren resume in recent seasons, the resume alone can’t be the reason for the Price mystique. He doesn’t really pass the regular-season numbers test these days.
But no one passes the eye test more decisively. Goalies gush over how Price, a graceful 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, looks in net.
“When you go to do a scouting report, and you try to think of how to score on a guy, typically most goalies have a place where you’re like, ‘OK this is where we can beat him, we just need to get that opportunity, a wraparound or whatever, or a backdoor play,’ ” Hirsch said. “When you look at Carey Price’s game, you can’t say, ‘OK, we’re gonna go high blocker every shot, because that’s where Carey Price is weak.’ Positionally, he’s so strong that there are not many glaring weaknesses. To score, guys try to get you to move to open up, and he just doesn’t move, and it’s hard for guys to pick him apart. I think that’s where guys get nervous about Carey Price.”
Another superstar goaltender who was known for a similar calm in the crease was Hall of Famer and all-time NHL wins leader Martin Brodeur, now the New Jersey Devils’ executive vice-president of hockey operations. His style was hybrid whereas Price is a traditional butterfly goalie, but when Brodeur watches Price, his athleticism and recovery speed stand out.
The only potential flaw Brodeur can see is more a reflection of all goalies today than of Price.
“To the naked eye, he looks really, really good and comfortable in any kind of situation,” Brodeur said. “For me, most goalies, they’re playing so much on their knees now and they get exposed on top a little bit, and Carey, if there’s anything, it would probably be around his posts and how he crouches a little too deep. Even on breakaways, he gets down really, really low to the ice. His shoulders and everything, especially on the shootouts. But in his defense, it’s the way that hockey goaltending is getting taught now. That’s the way they want to play. And I just don’t believe in it. (Laughs.) It’s just a personal thing for me.”
Brodeur believes Price’s trademark cool demeanor adds to the perception of his dominance.
“When he comes on the ice and when he puts himself in between the pipes, he’s got that swagger that he’s going to be unbeatable most nights,” Brodeur said. “The way he is, his interviews, it’s not an easy market to play in, and maybe that’s taken into account (by voters). Guys are like, ‘Man, he’s able to do that well while everybody’s all over him all the time.’ ”
So right now, the Price players fear is less the man posting elite numbers and more the man displaying elite body language and demoralizing shooters in game situations. As Tavares puts it, “He makes the position look as effortless and as easy as anybody. He’s just so gifted and so naturally talented.” And as Canadiens captain Shea Weber said after the Pittsburgh series, “Having him back there, he’s the backbone for us. He’s so solid every night, and that allows us to play with confidence and not worry about giving up chances.”
Even if the so-so Price we saw during the regular season returns at some point during the playoff tournament, and he isn’t able to help Montreal topple the Philadelphia Flyers in the Round of 16, is it guaranteed that we’ve seen Price’s best hockey and that he’ll keep declining in seasons to come?
McLennan believes each position peaks at a different age. Forwards are the easiest to insulate and thus can make significant impacts even as teenagers. Defensemen shoulder more responsibility and can commence their primes by their early 20s. But McLennan has spoken to many goaltenders who feel their games actually peaked in their 30s, when they understood the mental side of the sport better, from preparing their bodies for games to studying opponents.
Including years in which it was shared, the Vezina Trophy has been awarded 106 times. The average age of the winners: 31.8. The Norris Trophy has been awarded to 65 defensemen. Their average age: 28.4. There’s no “best forward” award, but if we look at the 75 forwards who have won the Hart Trophy, their average age is 26.4.
Price, then, could still add some memorable seasons to his resume, especially with the Habs’ prospect pool maturing. The likes of center Nick Suzuki, right winger Cole Caufield and defenseman Alexander Romanov could make the Canadiens an Atlantic Division power in years to come. Just as importantly, Price should have his best crease partner in a long time as prospect Cayden Primeau matures.
According to Brodeur, there’s a rule of thumb that every starting goalie today needs a backup who can contribute 22 points in the standings. Habs backups Charlie Lindgren, Keith Kinkaid and Primeau combined for 11 points this season. That said, they only accounted for 13 decisions, meaning only 26 points were available to win. Price was playing too much.
To mature gracefully and add to his legacy, he needs to be starting 50 games going forward, not leading the league in minutes played two years running. A good template to follow would be Rask’s workload in Boston. The Bruins have trimmed his starts significantly the past few years and supplied him with a top-end backup in Jaroslav Halak. Rask helped them get to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final last year and finished as a Vezina finalist this year. He’s five months older than Price.
So don’t be surprised if Price’s prime lasts a few more seasons and if his trophy case swells a bit more. Still, is the myth greater than the man at this point of Price’s career? Probably. The numbers say so. Then again, try telling that to the Penguin shooters the next time they bear down on Price, seeing his long frame, buttery-smooth movements and quiet swagger.
As the players trying to score on him tell us time and again, it’s a different game once you’re locked in the cage with the beast.