Chet Pickard is exactly where he expected to be two seasons into his professional puck-stopping career, sitting in an National Hockey League locker room, shedding his sweat-soaked gear after another hard practice with the Nashville Predators team that drafted him in the first round, 18th overall, in 2008.
Unfortunately Pickard’s ascension to the NHL has been nothing like he planned.
The polar opposite, in fact.
Pickard was with the Predators to start the second round of the playoffs after being called all the way up from the ECHL, where he spent most of a miserable season compiling a 9-14-3 record, 3.39 goals-against average, and .877 save percentage. He was called up to help ease the workload on Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback, who was fighting a nagging injury, in part because the Predators’ American League affiliate in Milwaukee was still in the playoffs.
That Pickard wasn’t part of that postseason run is tough enough to take. That he was fourth on the Admirals depth chart – behind Mark Dekanich, Jeremy Smith and late-season Finnish import Atte Engren – makes it even harder.
“Rock bottom,” was how Pickard described his drop from top prospect to struggling in the ECHL.
That the 21-year-old is so upbeat as he begins to remove his layers of Vaughn equipment is revealing. So too is the brutal honesty about how his season has gone, the role his ego and poor attitude played in a downward spiral that saw him go nine months and 18 games without a professional win, and the determination to turn things around.
For a highly touted goaltender that dominated while being named the Canadian Junior Hockey Goaltender of the Year in 2007-08, his first year as the starter after two backing up Carey Price with the Tri-City Americans, and was part of a gold-medal winning Canadian World Junior squad, playing twice but backing up Dustin Tokarski in the medal rounds, it has been a precipitous fall from grace. The spotlight and expectations from his past don’t help.
Pickard, who came into training camp talking about winning the Predators’ backup job, took some time to sit down with InGoal Magazine and talk – with admirable openness – about where he’s at now, how he got there, and what he’s doing to get back (including dropping 15-20 pounds already) in this week’s Ask A Pro.
“It’s been a frustrating year. Obviously it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, and I learned a lot. I learned more than I’ve ever learned. Going into camp my goal was to make this team and that didn’t work, and I went to Milwaukee and my goal was to get off to a great start, and I had a bad first game. And when you get to professional hockey it’s all about winning and I just wasn’t playing great, and one thing led to another, I was sent down to the East Coast, and that’s where I started pointing fingers at other people.
“It was my fault there for a while because I was blaming other people when really I needed to just go there and focus on hockey and stopping the puck. But I was focused on all these other things. And I guess that’s kind of when I hit rock bottom. I went on a four-game losing streak to start there, and then is started talking to people and taking advice and kind of got over myself and my ego and that sort of thing and I just started to accept the fact I was there and for good reasons.
“I know everybody here in the Predators organization believes in me, and that’s the biggest thing. So I just started to work. I worked the hardest I ever worked on and off the ice, and as the year went on I wasn’t getting results on the ice, I wasn’t winning games, but it was just me and I needed to learn some things and I did learn a lot, and hopefully I can restart and it gets better from now.”
~ Was it harder because of your status as a first-round pick, maybe a sense of ‘what am I doing in ECHL?’
“For me it was tough. I’ve always been really hard on myself. I’ve always had really high expectations for myself and I played junior with Carey Price and I saw him go right from junior into the NHL and right into the spotlight. Whether it was the right thing for him no one will ever know, but look at him now, he’s playing great.“So my expectations coming out of junior were ‘I am going to play in the NHL next year.’ And my first year pro I was blessed with a great opportunity to be with Milwaukee all year (backing up Dekanich). I had good stretches, I played really good games in stretches and then I had bad stretches. So I was lucky enough to be in that league and play in that league and see what the pro life is about.
“For me being a first-round pick I did put pressure on myself and still do. I know for Nashville that is a bg investment for them to pick me in the first round and I don’t want to disappoint and I’m not going to disappoint. This year for me – and I’m sure for everyone else – was a disappointment. So I’m here now and it’s great for me to get this opportunity to travel with the team and see what that pro lifestyle is like in the NHL and it makes me want to get here even more.”
~ What are you learning watching Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback on a daily basis? From the outside watching them in practice, even now in the second round of the playoffs, it seems they compete to stop every puck.
“Obviously they are both very good goalies and their practice habits are unbelievable. Those guys battle for every puck, they don’t stop. Fifth, sixth rebound they are still going even if they are diving across the crease and that’s something I try to put into my game. And then you see how they carry themselves off the ice, they are both awesome guys. Even though they are competing against each other, they are both laughing together and having a lot of fun and that’s great to see too. So I can take something from everybody here. And you get on the private plane. That’s pretty cool and just makes you want to be here even more.”
~ What have you had to change in your game these last two years working with Nashville goalie guru Mitch Korn?
“Something that we’re working on is depth and positioning. You look at a guy like Corey Crawford and that’s kind of who I am looking at right now in terms of taking certain things from. It’s about positioning. He doesn’t get caught outside his parameters too much. In junior guys would bury their head to take a slap shot and I would come way out on top of the crease and it would hit me in the chest every time.”
~ Did you come out early and retreat, or start back, read that shot and then come out in junior? In other words, were you playing more of an outside-in, backwards flow game in junior?
“No, I would see them put their head down and I would come out and keep coming out and I wouldn’t get set. My big thing now is I have to get set all the time before a shot. Guys can make plays, guys can snap the puck. I can’t be drifting. You can’t get away with drifting at this level. Not at all.
“And there are lots of things. Quickness was the biggest thing. Last year every single day I was working on quickness. I lost 15 pounds. I worked on everything off the ice, my body fat has gone down big time. When I as in junior I was 215 points, now I am 195.
“So there are a lot of changes. And just you gotta be sharp at all time. If the puck is crossing the red line, you have to be sharp, and that’s another thing I learned. All 60 minutes, you have to be sharp for all of that. You go into the intermission and you relax, or TV timeout, you relax. But for every second you are on the ice, you gotta be sharp because plays happen so fast compared to junior.”
~ You talk about getting quicker, and foot speed has clearly been an issue in the transition from junior to the pro game, so other than dropping the weight, how do you do it between the pipes?
“On ice when I work with Mitch everything we do has to be quick. If it’s easy, we make it quicker, we make it more challenging. For me it’s about getting out of my comfort zone is what we call it, and then off the ice it’s everything from sprints to all my lifting has to be quick, low reps, powerful.
“The learning curve for me – I learn every single day and I learn so much every single day. And now that I am here I am loving this. I am probably the happiest guy here right now and I really appreciate the (Predators) organization doing this for me. It’s cool to get a taste and it makes me want to be here even more.”