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Kinkaid needs to make the most of big opportunity with Canadiens

After cycling through several backup goalies over the past decade to sit behind Carey Price, Montreal hopes Keith Kinkaid is the right man for the job.

It’s debatable as to whether being Carey Price’s backup in Montreal is a good thing or not.

Historically, it meant not playing much each season unless the Vezina Trophy winner went down with an injury. But as time has worn on, that’s been a big issue for Price, who is currently on the sidelines with a hand injury.

The issue with the Canadiens is that when Price has missed significant time due to injuries, the club hasn’t been able to rally around it. Many backups have tried and failed: Alex Auld, Peter Budaj, Mike Condon, Ben Scrivens, Antti Niemi and Charlie Lindgren come to mind. In Lindgren’s case, he looked destined for the backup spot thanks to a crowded group in Laval for 2019-20, but will now start the season back in the AHL.

And that’s because the Canadiens made bringing in Keith Kinkaid a top priority over the summer, someone with recent experience as a starting goaltender and capable of facing a heavy shot count each game. Kinkaid, 30, was perfect in his Habs pre-season debut against Ottawa, stopping all 27 shots he faced in a 4-0 win. He had another 49 shots against Toronto on Wednesday but didn’t get much defensive support in front of him in a 3-0 loss. It’s hard to argue that he wasn’t one of Montreal’s best players early on, which is a significant consideration at a time when Price’s health remains in question. These are the types of performances that you want to see if Price isn't 100-percent ready to start the season.

Kinkaid brings a calm, steady presence to the crease that was often lost during Niemi's two-year tenure in Montreal. While Kinkaid did scramble around a bit in the opening stages and was caught down earlier than he should have been on a few occasions against Toronto, he displayed a keen sense of resilience when the going got tough.

“I played a lot of games last year right before the trade deadline," Kinkaid said. "Now, I feel refreshed. I never want what happened to me last year to happen again.”

You see, last season was a wild one for Kinkaid. After assuming the starting duties in New Jersey over the past few years – unintended by the club or not – he was sent to Columbus at the trade deadline last season as extra depth for the team’s playoff run. Kinkaid had a 15-18-6 record for a Devils team that couldn’t find any consistency between the pipes, but was still a sought-after trade asset. The Blue Jackets went on to upset Tampa Bay in a post-season shocker, but Kinkaid left Ohio without a single game played. So when he finally got an opportunity to play against Ottawa in the pre-season – a spectacular outing at that – it was his first game action in seven months.

Expectations are simple when your Price's right-hand man: play a limited number of games to give the star a rest and steal a couple of wins along the way. But that's not as easy as it sounds when you're playing for a bubble playoff contender. When Price went down with an injury after just 12 games in 2015-16, Scrivens, Condon, Lindgren and Dustin Tokarski proved to be incapable of keeping Montreal in the playoff hunt. So while another major injury for Price this season will almost certainly mean the team misses out once again, the Habs must think that Kinkaid, a goalie with 82 games played over the past two seasons, has enough experience as a starting goaltender to get the job done.

If Kinkaid can show the flashes of brilliance that has filled his career in short bursts, the Canadiens should look to utilize him for 25-30 starts this season. This goes on the assumption that Price stays healthy, but cutting those chances down in the first place can be key. As Price gets older and the injuries continue to rack up, it might be worth resting Price more often, something the Canadiens haven't really done in the past – at least on purpose, with injuries playing a factor. Kinkaid is signed until the end of the season, when the Habs can decide whether or not Lindgren or Cayden Primeau are ready to assume the role or if Kinkaid is worth bringing back for another season.

Kinkaid hasn't faced this much pressure in his career, but he hasn't had the chance to play for a playoff contender, either. If Kinkaid wants to join the crop of solid NHL backup goaltenders, a group that includes Curtis McElhinney, Jaroslav Halak, Anton Khudobin and Thomas Greiss, being a reliable option behind Price is the way to do it.

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