The 20-year-old goaltender has looked solid again in a four-day rookie camp with 26 other young hopefuls that ended at the Bell Centre on Tuesday, but the real challenge comes Friday when the NHL camp opens.
Price will try to dislodge No.1 goalie Cristobal Huet and backup Jaroslav Halak for the starting job, otherwise he is likely to begin the season with the Hamilton Bulldogs, the team he backstopped to an AHL championship in the spring.
“I’m happy whatever they decide to do because whatever it is, it will be the best thing,” the Williams Lake, B.C., native said.
“If I’m up, it’s great and if I’m down, that’s good, too. We have a good team in Hamilton. But it would be a lot of fun to play up here and obviously, I want to play here.”
No-one’s betting against it.
In 2005, when Montreal lucked out with the fifth overall pick in the lock-out year draft lottery, they surprised many by taking the six-foot-three Tri-City goalie even though the club looked set at the time with Jose Theodore in the net.
But Price helped Canada win gold at the 2006 world junior championship and then, after Tri-City was eliminated from the WHL playoffs, joined Hamilton and took them to the Calder Cup.
That sparked comparisons with former great Patrick Roy, who arrived in 1985-86 after winning an AHL title and led Montreal to a Stanley Cup, but coach Guy Carbonneau and his staff have cautioned against piling pressure on Price.
Carbonneau said he will only keep him with the NHL team if he wins the starting job. Otherwise, he prefers to give him regular work in Hamilton.
“It’s all in his hands,” Carbonneau said. “We have a good group of goalies, especially the top three.
“Halak came up last year and he was one of the best goalies in the AHL. That’s what we want from our players – to dominate at whatever level they play. If Carey comes into camp and dominates, maybe the plan will change. It’ll be fun to see in the pre-season who’s going to be on top.”
Huet had a brilliant 2005-06 campaign after he was acquired from Los Angeles and played his way into the all-star game last season before he had injuries and his play tapered off.
Halak starred in the AHL before moving to the NHL club in mid-season when Huet was hurt and acquitted himself well at the top level.
The Canadiens, who cut loose former backup David Aebischer this summer, see goaltending as their deepest position and feel no need to rush Price into the NHL.
“I like Carey, I think he’s going to be a great goalie,” added Carbonneau. “But Cristobal was an all-star last year. Don’t push him out too fast.
“We haven’t played games yet. I want to see what he can do in the NHL. There’s a big difference between junior and the AHL and a big, big difference between the AHL and the NHL.”
There will also be a battle for goaltending jobs in Hamilton, with the capable Yan Danis still in the picture and with former junior star Cedrick Desjardins knocking at the door. Desjardins was one of the top goalies in the ECHL last season.
“It’s true there’s a lot of goalies here, but you have to be better than them,” said Desjardins, who went to consecutive Memorial Cup tournaments with Rimouski and Quebec in 2005 and 2006, winning it on his second try. “My goal this year is to be No. 1 in Hamilton. I think I’m ready.”
While Price is the organization’s top prospect, a handful of other rookies will be candidates to make the NHL club, including six-foot-five defenceman Ryan O’Byrne and forwards Kyle Chipchura and Matt d’Agostini, all from Hamilton’s AHL championship team.
“You can’t find a guy who says it didn’t make them a better player,” Chipchura, a 2004 first-round pick, said of his AHL experience. “You find things out about yourself and about the team.”
Two newcomers, Russian defenceman Pavel Valentenko and 25-year-old Finnish forward Janne Lahti, also have a shot.
After three days of skill development drills, Tuesday was given over to scrimmages, with youngsters Ben Maxwell, Sergei Kostitsyn and P.K. Subban also looking good.
Carbonneau said it will up to the young players to take a job away from a player on the current NHL roster, just as he did when he snagged Dan Daoust’s spot at centre at the Canadiens camp in 1982.
The Canadiens will have three days of on-ice workouts before they begin the pre-season with a pair of home games against Pittsburgh next Monday and Tuesday.
They will play their first six exhibition games in a seven-day span. Carbonneau said he will divide the players into two squads, each with an equal number of NHL players, for that first week, then pare the roster to 26 or 27 for the final two pre-season matches.