When it comes to head coach Mike Babcock and his lineup decisions; as he says, “the tie goes to the veteran.”
Babock on moving Mitch Marner to the 4th line: "Let’s not read too much into this. Their line wasn’t going. Tie goes to the veteran."
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 16, 2017
We saw this last week, when the James van Riemsdyk- Tyler Bozak- Mitch Marner line wasn’t paying their dues defensively, it was the sophomore Marner, not van Riemsdyk or Bozak, who was demoted to the team’s fourth line.
Josh Leivo was arguably one of the Leafs’ best forwards at training camp and looked to be NHL quality in his limited action with the team last season.
But despite some pushback from the fanbase, Babcock stuck with Martin’s hard-hitting presence from the lineup, and because of that, Leivo, 24, sits in the press box as the eight-year veteran Martin skates on the team’s fourth line.
It’s clear that in tight positional battles, Babcock typically chooses his veterans.
This rationale helps explain the Leafs decision to assign Calvin Pickard to the Marlies upon being acquired from Las Vegas back on October 6th, as opposed to sending 34-year-old career backup Curtis McElhinney, to the minors.
“It’s a work in progress–it’s been a bit of an adjustment switching organizations [for the third time in five months],” said Pickard in an interview after the team’s 6-4 loss to the Charlotte Checkers on Sunday afternoon.
Packing up and leaving Vegas was hard on many fronts for Pickard, as he had to leave his newly-rented house, a city he had worked with throughout the summer promoting the team, and most importantly–an opportunity at the NHL level.
While Pickard’s even-strength save percentage of .913% for the Avs’ last season wasn’t terrible if you consider the historically low 48 points that Colorado finished with, Pickard’s performance for Team Canada at the World Championship’s was simply fantastic. Pickard, Canada’s starting netminder throughout the tournament, helped his country capture a silver medal while finishing the tournament with an outstanding 1.49 goals against average and a .938 save percentage through seven games.
Fast forward seven months and Pickard has gone from shining on the international stage to rotating starts with Garret Sparks, in the AHL.
“[Sparks] is a great guy,” said Pickard. “You can [talk about anything] with him and he’s a great goalie as well,” said the Winnipeg native.
The mutual admiration between the two is evident, and while both would surely like to have the crease to themselves, the relationship, or rather, partnership, seems to be working smoothly.
“It’s nice even at TV timeouts to come to the bench be able to talk to a guy and say ‘Hey what did you see there?’ ‘What would you have done?’, and bounce ideas off him,” said Sparks, who backstopped the Marlies to a 4-0 shutout on Saturday afternoon.
“He’s a great teammate,” said Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. “(He’s) a guy that’s come down with a good attitude, and the guys like having him around,” said Keefe.
Pickard has handled the demotion in stride, and while that’s a good sign for the Leafs organization, we aren’t talking about a washed up NHL goaltender that’s been sent to the minors for the first time — we’re talking about a 25-year-old goaltender that has paid his dues at the NHL level and could potentially boast an upgrade at Leafs the backup position.
But for now, Curtis McElhinney will get his opportunities as the Leafs backup, at least for the next little while. Perhaps with the knowledge of Sparks and Pickard’s development with the Marlies, McElhinney will up his game when slotted into the crease.
Nevertheless, it’s plain and simple, the Leafs need a reliable backup goaltender, as Frederik Andersen could undoubtedly use a night off every so often, as the Leafs look to take a serious run at the Cup.
Andersen’s 66 starts last season was second to Talbot (73) for most in the league, and ideally, for the Leafs, that number has reduced a tad, to keep Anderson fresh for the playoffs. The Leafs need a backup that can play 20-25 games, and Pickard is their best option, within the organization, to do just that. Pickard’s 2015-2016 campaign saw him suit up for 20 games for Colorado and recording a 7-6-1 record, to go along with a .922 save percentage.
Having Pickard with the Marlies might complicate matters as it clogs up the Leafs depth chart, and minimizes opportunities within the system. The domino effect is apparent, as Sparks gets fewer reps, and Kasimir Kaskisuo goalie in is down in the ECHL. However, the Leafs have long-needed a steady backup goaltender, and Calvin Pickard is a good bet to provide that if given a chance.