Now that we’re wrapping up our breakdown of prospects, and getting ready to start previewing the roster players, I’ve been handed the distinguished task of pooper scooping the other guys who are sitting around with NHL contracts, and want to play for the Leafs. Basically the guys who could just as equally be A) Marlies B) Leafs C) claimed off of waivers.
Some of these guys aren’t bad, and are quite deserving of a serious look in the NHL (like today’s subject.) Others we (read: I) might be a little less enthused about (read: Igor Ozhiganov). Anyway, we’re doing this, so strap yourselves in for some AHL/NHL tweener talk.
The Story on Calvin Pickard
In 2016-17, Calvin Pickard had the opportunity/curse of assuming the starters role for the Colorado Avalanche. After the past two seasons of putting up save percentages north of .920 in backup roles, Pickard played 50 games in front of an absolutely miserable team and saw his numbers save percentage drop to .904.
With teams only able to protect one goaltender in the expansion draft, it’s worth noting that Pickard was targeted by the Vegas Golden Knights as the likely backup to Marc-Andre Fleury, but he lost the role either through merit, or through perceived upside to Malcolm Subban, and Pickard was placed on waivers. Pickard was quickly dealt to the Marlies, where he played 33 games as the 1B of a tandem with Garret Sparks. He finished the year with a .918 save percentage on the Marlies, and an impressive .958 playoff save percentage, although he only appeared in 3 games for the Marlies on their way to the Calder Cup. Sparks and Pickard shared the award for best AHL goaltending duo, which isn’t too shabby, but it’s important to remember that Sparks was the AHL goaltender of the year, and Pickard’s path to the NHL would have to go through Sparks.
Pickard signed his qualifying offer from the Leafs for one more season at $800k, and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018-19 season.
Looking at the numbers Pickard put up last season, it’s very easy to make a case for him to get a look as a potential replacement for Curtis McElhinney. He did very well, especially after his initial adjustment to Toronto in October and early November. The problem was that Sparks was better. Sparks had a Sv% of .936 in 43 games, compared to Pickard’s .918 in 33 games. Sparks is the goaltender with a GAA under 2.00(sigh, I know it’s a bad stat put some people still look at these) and Sparks was the goaltender selected to be the playoff starter, although Spark’s save percentage did drop to .915 in the playoffs, but games and wins matter when it comes to organizational confidence in a goaltender, and Sparks seems to have that over Pickard.
The NHL level numbers tell a different story:
Pickard in 2014-15 and Sparks in 2015-16 were the same age, and Pickard managed across the board better numbers than Sparks in his debut, and he wasn’t aided by a debut shutout propping up his numbers. Pickard returned in 2015-16 with reliable limited duty backup numbers before being thrown into the starter role and struggling, although with a still salvageable 5v5 save percentage, at least in comparison to Sparks.
All of these numbers were on bad teams, although the 2015-16 Leafs are probably the worst of the lot, and Sparks did have to take the reins early in his career due to injuries, although not for the length of time that Pickard did.
Based off of what we’ve seen to date, Pickard looks like the safer bet to be a stronger NHL backup, but excited fans seem to have a hard time ignoring the mystery box that is Sparks.
Best Case Scenario For Pickard
Well, the best case scenario is probably he steals the starter job from Andersen and goes on to win the Vezina and Cup. The more realistic version of this tale is probably that Pickard earns the backup over McElhinney and Sparks. He does well enough in early spot duty that Babcock trusts him enough to play a bit more down the stretch, and the Leafs give Andersen some much needed rest in March and April (PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO THIS!!!)
And the Worst Case Scenario?
Being claimed off of waivers is probably a better fate for Pickard than winding up on the Marlies this year. I don’t think he’s got anything to prove at the AHL level, and there are plenty of goaltenders under contract around the NHL that Pickard would be an upgrade over. To spend a contract year in the AHL for a 26 year old is a career limiting move, if not a career ending one. Throw in the fact that the Leafs might have vested interested in seeing if Kaskisuo can step up into a bigger role, Pickard might find himself fighting to hold down the starter gig at that level.
Probably not. Pickard is a little older, and becoming a backup in the NHL is most likely career trajectory. That being said, the Avalanche starter season/Marlies redemption season could put Pickard back on track. It seems like teams are more comfortable missing the boat on a goaltender than a position player, and with the Leafs feeling confident in Andersen, missing out on a potential starter seems like a chance they’d be willing to take.
What’s Likely to Happen?
The way this probably plays out is a bit unfortunate. Calvin Pickard is already being shopped by the Leafs, and whether that is before or after waivers, it seems like it is going to happen. Curtis McElhinney really hasn’t done anything to put his backup role in jeopardy, and the organization’s interest to see what they have in Sparks really has made Pickard the odd man out before camp even starts.
Pickard seems to be on track to be a solid backup goaltender, and it would be interesting to see what he can do in front of a NHL team that isn’t completely terrible. If he can become the kind of backup who can be trusted with longer term assignments when the starter gets hurt, he might have an upside beyond McElhinney and Sparks.