Maple Leafs claim Curtis McElhinney off waivers from Columbus

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Photo Credit: Aaron Doster/USA TODAY SPORTS

The Toronto Maple Leafs will take yet another crack at solving their backup goaltending situation, looking to Curtis McElhinney as the latest mystery man. The 33-year-old was claimed off waivers from the Columbus Blue Jackets this afternoon.

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McElhinney has a bit of an interesting career path to his name. The native of London, Ontario was drafted as a college freshman by the Calgary Flames in the sixth round of the 2002 Entry Draft, and left to play his full four years. After three seasons of AHL grooming, in which he had put up above league average numbers under solid workloads, he was brought up to the Flames to back up Mikka Kiprusoff. That didn’t go so well; he was a sub-0.890 goaltender for the first 30 or so games of his career, and when Calgary needed a bit more than that, they ate some salary and decided to take on Vesa Toskala in a one-for-one trade.

From there, McElhinney spent a year and a half with the Anaheim Ducks, did a surprisingly decent job supporting Jonas Hiller, but went cold again and was traded to Tampa Bay in another backup swap (this time, Dan Ellis was the other goalie). They never played him, he moved on to the Senators and Coyotes, and in 2012, the Coyotes traded him to the Blue Jackets.

Since then, he has mostly stayed put within one organization. His first two years with the Blue Jackets saw him get the heaviest workloads of his NHL career, playing in 28 and 32 games, and while he wasn’t brilliant, he posted “decent backup” numbers, posting save percentages of 0.909 and 0.914 respectively. He disappointed last year with another 0.890 effort, but in five starts and seven games this season, is riding a 0.924 save percentage.

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All of this put together places him at a bit of a below-average low-cost backup, with stretches of consistency being a concern, compounded by his career 44% Quality Start Rate that hasn’t improved very much over the years. 

On the other hand, Toronto doesn’t really have many options in the middle of January, and if you’re going to take a no-risk flier on a guy, he’s about as good as anybody. McElhinney passes the Mike Babcock size test at 6’3, plays a positioning-based style rather than an athletic one, is getting decent statistical results in the now, and has all the fun good character, veteran experience stuff that we all seem to love to integrate into rebuilding teams. He’ll carry over some of the vibe that the Blue Jackets, who went from everybody’s basement to chasing the all-time Win Streak record, had flowing through their room, and maybe that matters a little bit.

It also puts the Toronto Marlies back in a fun little mess in goal, as they need to find time for Jhonas Enroth, Antoine Bibeau, and Garret Sparks. Many are wondering why the call wasn’t to just keep testing Bibeau, and I suppose there’s some validity to that, but there wasn’t much outside of blind hope to lead you to believe that he could continue to be a 0.927 goalie in the NHL while barely sniffing the league average as an AHL starter.

Maybe this will be the last time we talk about backup goalie issues this year; I’d hope so, because it feels endlessly time-consuming and involves a handful of good people in awkward positions. The jury will still be out for a bit, though; who knows when McElhinney even draws into his first game in blue and white, given that their next back to back is a must-win against a Senators team in the thick of the divisional standings race.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      Because McElhinney plays sound positional hockey may be the reason they see a spot for him. I think Bibeau did as well and it helped him. It is when the Leafs get into one of those scrambles in from of their own net one needs an guy that can pull a rabbit out of the hat. Hey maybe the guy is good on shootouts, Anyone know?

  • Glen

    Interesting, we will have to wait and see what happens. I guess it is a “nothing to lose” move. Bibeau is better off settling in and playing with the Marlies.

  • Tigon

    I suspect this was nothing against Bibeau and ensuring he still plays this season instead of sitting most of it on the bench. I would assume a Bibeau/Sparks battle will continue now and into the preseason when one of them will backup Andersen next season, it would be nice to start turning out goalies in the NHL.

  • Stan Smith

    I wonder, with all the stats these days, has anyone ever taken the time to compile stats for backup goalies? By that I mean goalies that were clearly in a backup role. Not ones that battle for the starting job, or play close to half a teams games. i would think their save % would be much lower then the average starting goalie.

    Looking at McElhinney’s career numbers he doesn’t look any better than Enroth. In fact he looks worse. .905 sv% to .909, GAA of 2.96 to 2.84, and 44% quality starts to 53.8% for Enroth. But the one thing with goalies is you never know. And the risk the Leafs are taking is negligible. If he plays well, he stays, if not, he is back on the waiver wire again.

    I still would rather see Bibeau and Sparks get some more NHL starts.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    McElhinney comes with a $800,000 price tag for this year. The Leafs would be on the hook for about half of that. The Leafs also need to sign one more goalie for next year to expose to the expansion draft.

  • #@RealDeplorableBill

    Sh_t in, Sh_t out and one more pro contract on the books that could negate some of the Leafs trade flexibility as the trade deadline approaches.

  • jimithy

    You could put two goalies in the Leafs net and they would still be in trouble because of their defence corps. And there is no one in the system to remedy this. Dave Morrison and Tom Watt have proven they are not capable of spotting talent. But they’ve been promoted. Weird how the center of the hockey universe can never ice a winner and yet be so smarmy and rich.