New Maple Leafs Backup McElhinney Understands Role
Curtis McElhinney may need time to get comfortable with his new team but the veteran backup goaltender is already well versed in the role is expected to fill with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
McElhinney was claimed off waivers from the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday but the 33-year-old isn’t expected to play a lot in Toronto. McElhinney will likely continue his role as a seldom-used backup behind first-year No.1 Frederik Andersen No.1, a role the 33-year-old goalie got used to behind workhorse starter Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus. Rarely playing comes with unique challenges but it’s a job description McElhinney has discussed several times with InGoal Magazine over the years.
“You are getting mop up duty and a couple starts here and there so it’s challenging but it’s far more rewarding now that I am a little more experienced at it,” McElhinney said before watching Bobrovsky play a mid-December game in Vancouver. “I think you just become more comfortable with yourself more than anything. I don’t think you get caught up in as much when you are older, especially if you are still doing the same role and I have essentially been in this role from start to finish in my career at this level. I think now I’m just more comfortable with it, used to your own skin I guess.”
McElhinney has played 154 NHL games over parts of nine seasons with five teams, and never made more than the 32 appearances he had for Columbus in 2014-15. His career save percentage of .905 is actually lower than the .909 career record of Jhonas Enroth, who was demoted by Toronto after struggling with sporadic starts early this season before being traded to the Anaheim Ducks after acquiring McElhinney. But McElhinney, who at 6-foot-3 is five inches taller than Enroth, had a .924 in five starts and seven appearances behind Bobrovsky this season and seems to understand his role.
“The hardest part is if you look at any starting goalie throughout the year start to finish you see there are going to be ebbs and flows, they ride those highs and lows and I think the big things for backup goalies is you do the same thing, it’s just most of yours you have to sit on them longer,” McElhinney said.
McElhinney wasn’t the only veteran goalie to end up on waivers this week. The Edmonton Oilers waived and demoted Jonas Gustavsson (.878 save percentage in seven games) and the Boston Bruins did the same to Anton Khudobin (.885 in eight appearances). But several puck-stopping peers were admittedly surprised by the demotion of McElhinney, even coming off a 5-4 loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday in which the Blue Jackets blew a 4-1 lead and gave up the winning goal in the dying seconds.
McElhinney only had one other start below .900 this season and the goals against the Rangers included one admittedly bad one on a shot off the wall but otherwise featured three odd-man rush chances, two of which were finished by shot just under the cross bar, and a similarly placed power play shot high on the blocker side through a screen. Expecting McElhinney to keep cruising along at .924 might be a bit too much, especially when you consider his “high danger” save percentage this season leads the entire NHL at a likely unsustainable .9459 so far, but don’t expect him to be phased too much by one start. Learning not to dwell on losses knowing you might not get a chance to redeem yourself for a week or two is part of the job.
“If a game happens to come while you are riding a high everything is great and you sit on that for a bit and it’s the same if you are kind of in a lull where you are not feeling the puck as well as you normally do and you are trying to get back to that high,” McElhinney said. “It’s hard. You just hope the time is right and you are getting that uptick when you are working your way up to a game and if you are in one of those down spells when you are not feeling it you hope you get the practice time and can re-establish it there.”
That is sometimes easier said than done as a backup.
It’s not just that most team practices include wave after wave of shooters with more time and space to pick corners or make late lateral passes to streaking teammates than they ever get in a real game, but the job description for the backup also includes staying late after practice, effectively serving as a target.
“I’ll tell you right now nobody likes shooting for rebounds in practice,” a chuckling McElhinney told InGoal Magazine prior to the 2015-16 season. “You just have to be that tool for the shooters out there and challenging them to the best of your ability but still trying to maintain that fine line between the success in a game and doing well in a practice. … I love the challenge of practices and going out there trying to stop these guys. But in the back of your mind you are constantly trying to keep that focus of, ‘OK, stick to what works in a game but still try to make sure these guys are challenged as well.'”
The problem is stopping a lot of pucks in the more open practice situations often requires a different approach than a game. For a backup goaltender facing hundreds of shots every day in practice and going a week or longer between starts, playing different in practice can creep into the game.
“You do it over and over and all of a sudden you think that’s how to play a rush in a game, but you’ll get burned every time at this level,” McElhinney said. “The way you perform in a practice doesn’t really translate into a good performance in a game. You kind of have to find a happy balance.”
It’s something McElhinney has learned to manage, balancing the need to get position-specific work in with the goalie coach before practice with expectations he’ll help the shooters after. That should help in Toronto but don’t confuse McElhinney comfort in the backup role with complacency.
Generally speaking the backup role is better suited to a more technically sound goalie, one that relies less on the rhythm and timing that comes with extra movement. Goalies that put themselves in position to have pucks hit them even when they aren’t necessarily feeling great can buy themselves time to work off the rust after long stretches on the bench. Goalies that play too aggressively and rely more on reads and the timing required to make the right ones, tend to be more easily exposed when that timing is off.
McElhinney used to be one of the latter but took advantage of the extra time between starts to work with Columbus goalie coach Ian Clark, adding technical elements that were missing early in his career.
That may help explain how McElhinney, who arrived in Columbus at the 2012 Trade Deadline as an already injured throw-in to make the contracts work, grew into the job with the Blue Jackets. He has been better in spot starts than he was getting chances to play more early in his career, and has come to believe that consistency is a function of improved technique.
“The mental side of the game was always there but there were some tools on the technical side I did not possess,” McElhinney said last season. “All of a sudden I have a whole bunch of new tools to work on and things to improve and that’s allowed me to build up that consistency a little more where I can fit into a season on a regular basis and help a team out. They always talk about experience, experience, experience and now I have got that, where I can feel comfortable in those games and those tools, the simple things we build on every day, allow me to have success, whether it’s been five days off or six weeks off.”
There’s likely to be more of the latter than the former in Toronto. McElhinney is used to that.