This is an on the bubble for McElhinney, but you damn well know we’re talking a lot of Sparks here as well, so you are warned. This post is going to weigh-in on which replacement level goaltender is the ideal replacement level goaltender for the Leafs and I fully appreciate if this conversation isn’t for you. In fact, if you stop reading now I’ll probably respect you more. This entire series is somewhat ridiculous as we are focusing on the small impact changes at the bottom of the roster that will never be as impactful as the murderer’s row of talent at the top of this. We know that Freddie Andersen is likely to get 60 starts, and piecing together who gets the other 22 is ridiculous, especially since the guy who gets the gig out of camp is probably just wearing a ball cap for the entirety of October anyway.
If this hasn’t turned you off the idea of the goaltender debate yet, I guess you’re really going to do this, and the next 1000-ish words are for you, the weirdos who care a little too much about all things Leafs.
The Story on Curtis McElhinney
Here’s the thing on Curtis McElhinney, the story is always going to come back to ageism.
“How dare the Leafs keep a 35 year old goaltender around when they have a 25 year old who wants the job?”
“How many years does McElhinney have left in him? You’re not going give Sparks a chance because McElhinney put up good years in his mid 30s?”
A lot of this seems to be around a sense of entitlement for Garret Sparks, who did have a very good season in the AHL last year. There’s no denying that. A skeptic may point out that he had Dermott, Borgman, Rosen, Liljegren, Holl, and Marincin on his blueline at points throughout the season and playoffs, and that the blueline is far more impressive than he was, but at the end of the day, Sparks still needed to stop pucks, and he did that. Pickard did too, but Sparks did slightly better with it.
What Sparks’ season did was earn him a very real shot at taking the job in training camp and the preseason, it was never his job to lose, it was his shot. You could say that his underwhelming preseason blew his shot, but whether that’s true or not, it remains to be seen. Unfortunately the small sample of training camp does matter a little, and Sparks doesn’t have the NHL body of work to fall back on to justify cutting a solid veteran goaltender loose.
Dammit. I didn’t plan on making this about Sparks so damn early, we’re supposed to be talking about McElhinney.
Anyways, McElhinney’s career path has been a slow one, and a little underwhelming. He was a 6th round pick by the Flames in 2002, and spent the full four years in the NCAA to develop. In his senior year he posted a .927 save percentage. That’s not shabby.
McElhinney then spent the next three seasons in the AHL before getting his shot as Mikka Kiprusoff’s backup. Like his situation with Andersen, McElhinney was behind a goaltender who was the unquestioned starter, and was capable of starting 60+ games a season. This low volume backup situation would end up defining McElhinney’s career, and you could argue that if he had the chance that many are arguing for Sparks getting back in his first few seasons, he could have been more or developed into a 1B goaltender.
Instead McElhinney bounced to Anaheim and then to Ottawa, and then on to Arizona, with Tampa in there somewhere too. He never really played a lot, I think 28 games split between Anaheim and Ottawa was his most active NHL season, but he never really put up numbers that warranted his use beyond being a cheap backup to an established starter who the team was running into the ground.
McElhinney’s time with the Coyotes organization saw his return to the AHL, and his movement over to the Blue Jackets organization, who helped resurrect his career. He would post a .923 save percentage in 49 games in Springfield in 2012-13, and get his shot in the NHL as Bobrovsky’s backup the following year. Nothing McElhinney did was outstanding, but he was decent and cheap, and hit his career best of 32 games in 2014-15. He followed that up with a return to being a sub .900 goaltender, so really, whatcha going to do? How about rebound again the next season with a .924 save percentage before being waived and claimed by Toronto.
That brings us to now…
|data is all situations, and sourced from corsica.hockey|
I don’t think anyone is denying that these are the best two years of McElhinney’s NHL career, and that as a goaltender in his mid-30s it’s going to become increasingly difficult to repeat these numbers in the upcoming seasons.
I do think that people are quick to dismiss that recent history is important, especially when backup goaltenders are essentially short term solutions at the best of times. McElhinney’s recent history was good enough that he landed work on Team Canada at the World Hockey Championships, so I don’t think I’m reaching when I say people are liking what he’s done lately.
Best Case Scenario for McElhinney?
Maintaining the status quo for as long as possible is probably the ideal outcome here. McElhinney probably should get a few more starts later on in the season when the playoff picture is a bit more clear, especially if he earns them, but generally we’re getting last few games of productive hockey out McElhinney at a reasonable price. McElhinney isn’t going to rock the boat and suddenly start challenging for a starters job, but he’s a bit more of a known for the Leafs coaches and players. The biggest concern with McElhinney is that he’s purely a backup, and if Andersen gets hurt, is he a goaltender that the Leafs want to start for a prolonged period. I’m guessing no, but I’m guessing that he’s not the only option that exists.
There is a very real chance that the organization prefers Garret Sparks, and that McElhinney will again find himself on waivers. While there is a good chance that team picks him up, there’s also a good chance that he goes unclaimed and finds himself on the Marlies. If somehow both Pickard and McElhinney find themselves on the Marlies, with Kaskisuo, do we see McElhinney minimalized into retirement? Possibly. The stakes are pretty high for this guy, luckily he’s had a good preseason.
Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.
The fact that this section is here is just staying consistent with the other posts in the series.
To be fair, I think any claims of Sparks or Pickard having starter potential need to be considered equally ridiculous, but people sure do love the mystery box.
What’s Likely to Happen?
#Leafs still in two practice groups here on day 15 of training camp. But interestingly, it’s Garret Sparks & Calvin Pickard who are on the ice ahead of practice for the group that didn’t play last night. The goalie pairings had been Andersen/Pickard & McElhinney/Sparks until now.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) September 27, 2018
Moving McElhinney over to work with Andersen and the NHL group at Leafs practice is a pretty good sign for McElhinney. It’s starting to look like the backup job is his to lose, but that also doesn’t mean that Garret Sparks will be waived and/or claimed. The Leafs may attempt to carry three goaltenders to start the season to see which one can be traded. The Leafs may also choose to play Sparks ahead of McElhinney to start the year in order to get an extended look at him before committing one way or the other.
No matter what, I feel like we’ve moved away from Calvin Pickard a little too quickly and ultimately feel he’s been the happy medium between these two goaltenders all along.
The fact that McElhinney has done well for the Leafs probably means he stays with the Leafs. His past hasn’t been great, but maybe it’s just a matter of him finding a goaltending coach that he’s clicking with, or the Leafs play a style that compliments his own abilities. Either way, the Leafs aren’t risking a whole lot with any decision they make in net. Toronto could lose all three of McElhinney, Sparks, and Pickard and sign Reto Berra tomorrow and not lose a step.
In closing, the backup goaltending battle has provided a nice distraction from the very real problems the Leafs have with the blueline. We should thank them for that.