MONTREAL – Carey Price is looking for peace and quiet after a pressure-packed rookie season in the Montreal Canadiens net.
“It seems like I’ve been playing for two years straight,” the 20-year-old said Monday as the Canadiens got together for a last team meeting before going their separate ways for the summer.
“It’ll be nice to get away and go fishing – and turn my phone off for a month.”
Price played a big part in getting the Canadiens to first place in the NHL Eastern Conference this season and helping them advance in a nervy, seven-game first-round series against the Boston Bruins, in which he posted two shutouts.
But it all ended Saturday night as the opportunistic Philadelphia Flyers ousted Montreal in the second round, a five-game series in which Price was pulled for the third period of Game 3 and sat out in favour of backup Jaroslav Halak in Game 4.
In the end, the goaltender always gets more blame or sometimes more praise than he deserves, but the playoff defeat was certainly a team effort. Price still took it hard.
The stellar play of the six-foot-three goalie from Anahim, B.C., moved the Canadiens to trade veteran Cristobal Huet to Washington at the Feb. 26 deadline. Price then got on a roll that carried Montreal to 104 points and its best finish in 15 years.
But it appeared to take a toll on the gifted goalie.
“I love playing, but I think at the end I was getting a little worn out,” Price said. “The biggest thing that got on my mind was letting my team down. That was the biggest thing nagging me.”
The previous season, Price led Canada to gold at the world junior championship and then, after his junior season ended, he joined the Hamilton Bulldogs and led them on a long run to an AHL title. After a short summer break, he made the Canadiens roster out of training camp.
The Canadiens look at the progress made by the large group of young players on their roster and feel it will make them a stronger team next season.
Fellow rookies Halak, Sergei Kostitsyn and Ryan O’Byrne also got some valuable experience, while second-and third-year players like Andrei Kostitsyn (26 goals) and Tomas Plekanec (29 goals) established themselves as front-line NHL forwards.
“It’s a great group of players here,” said Plekanec, who will join the Czech team at the IIHF World Hockey Championship this week. “I’m sure we learned from this year and we’ll be even better next year.”
General manager Bob Gainey’s off-season work includes making decisions on potential unrestricted free agents Mark Streit, Michael Ryder, Bryan Smolinski and Patrice Brisebois, and signing restricted free agents Halak, O’Byrne, Josh Gorges, Andrei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre.
Streit may pose the toughest problem after a breakthrough season in which he amassed 62 points while switching back and forth between defence, where he is most comfortable, and left wing. He also mans the right point on the power play.
He may draw big offers from clubs looking for power-play help and it is unknown how much he will be offered by Montreal, which prefers to use him on the wing.
“I’d love to stay here,” said Streit, a late-bloomer who earned only US$600,000 this season. “I hope we’ll find a way for me to be here for a long time.
“Right now, we’ve just had a heartbreaking end and I don’t want to think about that yet. I have to think about playing defence or taking the same role I have now.”
Gainey is expected to shed some light on the team’s plans when he meets with the media on Tuesday.
Ryder, whose goal production dropped from 30 to 15 this season, looks to be on his way out as he was dressed for only four games in the playoffs and looked to have lost his job to Sergei Kostitsyn.
Smolinski and Brisebois, both in their mid-30s, signed one-year deals as free agents last summer and now hope to be back for another season.
If Streit leaves, the team may need Brisebois as insurance for the power play. The Montreal native can no longer play every game, but doesn’t object to sitting out from time to time.
Management will decide whether it’s better to keep Smolinski or bring youngster Kyle Chipchura up to centre the checking line.
Among the restricted free agents, there are reports that Russian club Ak Bars Kazan may make Andrei Kostitsyn an offer, although he is unlikely to leave without his brother, who has two years left on his entry-level contract with Montreal.
Gorges, who was considered a throw-in when he was acquired late in the 2006-07 season in the deal that sent Craig Rivet to San Jose, blossomed as a solid defenceman this season and is sure to be a priority to be signed.
Among the veterans, captain Saku Koivu, who returned from injury to post nine points in only seven playoffs games, and winger Alex Kovalev, the team’s player of the year who struggled in the post-season, both have one year left on their contracts.
The same goes for young winger Christopher Higgins and Mike Komisarek, who emerged as one of the team’s top defencemen.
Management must decide whether to extend their contracts or risk letting them become free agents next year.
One veteran who may be gone even though he has a year remaining on his contract is Mathieu Dandenault, who plays forward and defence but lost his spot in the lineup as the playoffs progressed.
On defence, big Russian Pavel Valentenko has completed a year’s apprenticeship in Hamilton and likely will be looking to crack the NHL roster next season.
Top defenceman Andrei Markov, bothered by knee and shoulder ailments in the playoffs, has decided he is well enough to play for Russia at the world championship, although he won’t start play until the quarter-finals.