Inside the NHL

An interesting situation has developed in Montreal involving a player widely viewed as the surest Kraken pick in the upcoming NHL expansion draft.

Canadiens backup goalie Jake Allen, 30, was acquired from St. Louis last offseason to spell incumbent Carey Price and keep a spot warm for minor-league prospect Cayden Primeau. With teams allowed to protect only one goalie in the draft, Allen was supposed to be exposed for the Kraken to select as one of their three required netminders, and everybody would go along their merry way.

That’s still likely to happen, except Allen has outperformed Price for much of this season. And now, with Price injured for most of April and Allen keeping his team in the final North Division playoff spot, there’s a growing clamor from anxious Montreal fans for Allen to be the starter in the postseason.

There’s also been buzz from fans and pundits — which I was asked about in a Quebec City radio interview last week — about whether Price might be approached to waive his no-movement clause so he can be exposed in the draft. And believe me, if Allen starts in the playoffs and somehow wins a couple of rounds, the pressure on Montreal to keep him over Price would grow exponentially.

The basic statistics for Price and Allen this season are fairly close: Price as of Wednesday was 12-7-0-5 with a 2.64 goals-against average (GAA) and .901 save percentage, and Allen was 9-9-0-4 with a 2.50 GAA and .913 save percentage.

But dig deeper, and the gap favors Allen.

A Sportsnet chart using proprietary Sportlogiq data showed Allen has allowed fewer goals despite facing nearly three more shots per game than Price from the dangerous inner-slot position.

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The Evolving-Hockey analytics website had Allen as of Tuesday saving 2.17 more goals than “expected” given the quality of shots faced — 13th-best among NHL goalies with at least 20 appearances. Price had allowed 8.11 more goals than expected, only 28th-best under that criteria. 

Fueling the Price-to-Seattle chatter: He is a British Columbia native who played junior hockey for the Tri-City Americans; his wife, Angela, is from Kennewick; and they make their offseason home in the Okanagan town of Kelowna.

So Price might be motivated to lift his no-movement clause and escape Montreal’s intense hockey media glare for friendlier confines.

But this clearly isn’t the same Price once considered the planet’s top goalie.

Price, when he’s on, can still swing a game or playoff series in a way I’m not yet convinced Allen can. But notwithstanding last fall’s play-in-round shocker over Pittsburgh and near-upset of Philadelphia in the playoffs, Price’s “on” switch isn’t being flipped nearly enough of late.

He’ll turn 34 in August with — ouch! — five years remaining on his contract, with a $10.5 million annual salary-cap hit. Montreal would need to eat a whole lot of that money and probably can’t choke down enough of it to make things palatable.

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After all, Kraken general manager Ron Francis could just draft Vancouver Canucks netminder Braden Holtby if he wants a veteran starter plagued by recent inconsistency but with potential upside. Holtby won a Stanley Cup with Washington in 2018, is two years younger than Price and has just one remaining contract year at a far lower $4.3 million cap hit.

Francis actually has a few goaltending options, and Canadiens backup Allen appears to fit given his age, experience and contract status. With two contact years remaining at a reasonable $2.875 million each, he’s certainly a financial fit.

“As we get into the last month of the season and the playoffs, we’re going to get a better read on some of the guys that are going to be the best fit for us,” Francis told local media members this month, adding: “Ideally you’ve got the mindset of figuring out who’s your starter, and a great No. 2. Maybe you go with two ‘No. 1b’s’ or maybe you go with a No. 1 and maybe a younger guy. That remains to be seen.”

Allen could be paired with a younger goalie the Kraken might draft, such as Chris Dreidger, 26, of the Florida Panthers, or Adin Hill, 24, of the Arizona Coyotes. Or, in a veteran tandem with Cam Talbot, 33, of the Minnesota Wild, or Holtby, 31.

And the Kraken is getting a bonus look at Allen as a No. 1 guy to better gauge his limits. He’s struggled when holding the No. 1 role in previous seasons.

Price suffered a lower-body injury April 5, then a concussion his second game back April 19. In 10 outings since Price’s first injury, Allen is 4-6 with a 2.83 GAA and a .902 save percentage — a slight numbers dip, which you’d expect with increased playing time.

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He has allowed more than three goals just once and kept his team in most games.

One thing I haven’t seen Allen do much is “steal” wins when his team fails to outplay an opponent. The lone exception this stretch was a 2-1 win over Calgary two weeks ago in which the Flames were clearly the better team. Otherwise, Allen tends to win only when the Canadiens outplay opponents and loses when they don’t.

Yeah, it doesn’t help that Allen’s team struggles to score. But it’s for that very reason I’d expect Price to start the playoffs if he recovers soon, as expected, from his concussion.

These Canadiens don’t look capable of outplaying anyone for an entire playoff series, and their best bet might be hoping Price can summon his past and steal some wins. At his cost he’s likely staying put, anyway. I can’t envision him risking the indignity of waiving his clause and the Kraken not picking him.

So the Canadiens would need to bend over backward financially in a predraft deal to get the Kraken to take Price, and I don’t think they will unless Allen starts the playoffs and forces their hand with some heroics. And it would likely take one heck of a side deal offer to steer the Kraken from Allen if he’s the one exposed.

Keep an eye on things, but assuming Price recovers, Allen’s tenure in Montreal will most likely end.

And fortunately for the Kraken, he already has shown enough as more than a run-of-the-mill backup to fit within any number of goaltending combinations they go with.