McElhinney Happy To Avoid Free Agency Musical Chairs
Curtis McElhinney won’t miss the NHL’s free agency frenzy.
McElhinney is happy to watch this summer’s game of goalie musical chairs from the sidelines after signing a two-year contract extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets worth $800,000 per season.
Coming off four consecutive one-year contracts and with a free agent market that once again has more goalies than NHL jobs, the security was welcomed. With two young kids, knowing he was staying in Columbus made it easier to watch other goaltenders getting dealt like trading cards during the NHL Draft last weekend. And as much as he got used to the annual scramble that is free agency, McElhinney was looking forward to skipping it this July 1.
“It can get stressful, especially for backup goalies,” McElhinney, 32, told InGoal Magazine. “Once you get to my age you are just kind of fighting for your life with the young guys coming up.”
McElhinney, who was a sixth round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2002, has only had one other two-year contract in a 10-year career that has seen him play for the Flames, Anaheim Ducks, Ottawa Senators and Arizona Coyotes before arriving in Columbus. Six of his previous seven NHL contracts have been one-year deals, so he knows all about reading the free agent landscape and trying to find the right fit. It’s a balance between what a team has and what it has coming between the pipes, both in terms of experience and skill.
“You are trying to keep the young kids at bay and it all depends on where they are in their development and where the team is at with their starters,” McElhinney said. “When the season wraps up you look at the landscape for your position and you kind of try to slot yourself into some teams and figure out where you might fit, but there is certainly a lot of anxiety and stress that comes with it.”
When McElhinney looks back at earlier experiences in free agency, he also sees a totally different goaltender from the one that posted a
12-14-2 record, .914 save percentage and 2.88 goals-against average behind the injury ravaged Blue Jackets last season, setting new career highs for wins and games played in an NHL season.
McElhinney’s technical game has evolved significantly since arriving in Columbus as an injured contract dump throw-in part of a deal with the Coyotes at the NHL Trade Deadline in 2012.
“I look back all that time ago and I would hate to see some of the video footage of myself in goal back then,” McElhinney said. “It seems like I’ve made so many strides since then thankfully that have allowed me to stick around the NHL for the time being. To be honest I think the mental side of the game was always there, but there were just some tools on the technical side that I did not possess.”
It’s an interesting statement considering McElhinney had played on four NHL teams before arriving in Columbus, but he has since built up his toolbox under the guidance of Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark, adding net play elements and situation-specific stances while also tightening his movements and game management strategy.
“It’s almost been a complete remodel of my game,” he said. “There have been a lot of game management things in terms of my stance and positioning depending on where the puck is at in the zone or on a rush. Plays in tight around the net and scrambles behind the net, I made a lot of changes. It’s been an evolution and it’s nice to know at 32 you are still adding stuff to your game. It makes it exciting.”
The work paid off for the Blue Jackets as well. Instead of scouring the free agent market for a backup to workhorse starter Sergei Bobrovsky while they wait on promising European prospects like Anton Forsberg, Oskar Dansk Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins to develop, Columbus has confidence in McElhinney to do a tough job.
Not everyone is cut out to manage long gaps between starts, and it’s hardly an ideal role for any young, developing goaltenders.
McElhinney feels his improved technical approach has allowed him to manage the sometimes-long gaps between appearances. The raw skill was always there; it’s what allowed him to stay in the NHL. But with an improved technical and tactical approach he’s less reliant on pure skill all the time, and therefore less prone to ups and downs.
“Yeah (the skill) was there and I think the fact they were so unrefined at the time is probably the reason I wasn’t able to establish any consistency,” McElhinney said. “I look back at all the opportunities in Calgary and Anaheim and even Ottawa to an extent and I would have good moments but I wasn’t able to string things together and really put it together for a full season. That was the frustrating part.”
When McElhinney was traded to Columbus as part of a package of draft picks that sent center Antoine Vermette to the Coyotes, he had torn groins and a broken pubic joint and was included in the trade mostly to keep Arizona under the maximum 50 NHL contracts.
He spent 2012-13 playing for the Blue Jackets’ American Hockey League affiliate, Springfield, and posted a .923 save percentage to earn the back up job to Bobrovsky the past two seasons. He has posted a .912 save percentage in 60 games in that time.
McElhinney also worked with former NHL goalie Manny Legace in Springfield, who he said, “brings the perspective of playing the game himself so he’s kind of that got that knowledge he can pass on.” And he still works in the offseason with Mark Sample and Timm Lorenz at In The Crease Goaltending in Denver, “building on what we started with Ian,” he said. “But I would say Ian been the Godfather for me personally in terms of technical stuff that helped evolve my game.”
To think it all started because he was thrown into a trade.
“Sometimes I look back and the injury a few years ago and you just kind of get shipped to Columbus in a package as a contract unload and it ended up working out for the best,” he said. “I run into a guy like Ian Clark and 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 at 32 I have got that where I can feel comfortable in those games and those tools, the simple things we build on every day are the things that allow me to go out there and have success, whether it’s been five days off or six weeks off.”
“I feel comfortable,” McElhinney concluded.
As a result, he doesn’t have to worry about that uncomfortable feeling of being a backup goalie in free agency this July 1.
~ McElhinney shared details on some of the specific changes he has made in his game, as well as tips for how to deal with the being a backup and manage team practices that can be detrimental to goaltenders. Look for more from McElhinney here at InGoalMag.com and in future editions of InGoal Magazine.