With his debut last night for the Marlies, new Toronto Maple Leafs acquisition Calvin Pickard got his first win in a 3-2 game over the Providence Bruins. He had a chance to speak to Todd Crocker after the game.
First thing you’ll notice is that Pickard has that post-game goalie intensity where he looks like a cat about to pounce on anything that happens by. He talks about the game he just won but also about how well the organization treats everyone, and this is a refrain you hear over and over from players. He then discusses the communication issues on a new team and how he chose to over-communicate with the Marlies skaters.
Communication between the goalie and the players in front of him is an important thing to consider. The Leafs struggled to an extreme last October, and into November and December, with a radically new style of goaltending from Frederik Andersen. Last night, while Pickard was getting his win, Andersen was setting up Auston Matthews’ first goal.
You have to wait through to the replay before they show you the pass from Andersen that set this amazing play up. But this time last year, this wouldn’t have worked. Matthews wouldn’t have known it was possible, the Leafs defence wouldn’t have been ready to transition so rapidly, and it would have been one of many Andersen attempts that failed on the half boards or at the blue line, often resulting in a turnover.
Back to the AHL, where you ride the buses, get little glory, but still have to work. Ben Smith, who scored the game winning goal, talked about Pickard too:
Smith went through training camp last year with Colorado and played on the team for a few games. Pickard is no stranger to him. He says Pickard is quick, solid overall, and he does credit all three Marlies goalies with the ability to contribute to wins. It’s true that the Marlies didn’t need Pickard particularly, and could coast along with Garret Sparks and Kasimir Kaskisuo for the entire season.
The coach says they relied on Pickard a bit too much:
With the win in the bag for Pickard, the conversation has already turned to his future on the Leafs, not the Marlies.
The hunger for a new guy, a player perceived to be better, a dramatic move, a bold change is never ending for hockey fans and media. But there is no need to rush into anything. This is not last year where Jhonas Enroth was failing to play at anything like an NHL level and the alternatives were a list of AHL goalies who either had never been tested or had never produced better. No snap decision needs to be made. No one needs to reassemble the carousel a host of goalies rode last year for months.
The next two games for the Leafs are their first back-to-back games of the season. They face the Washington Capitals on Tuesday and the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday. Curtis McElhinney will get one of those games, his first start of the season. If he continues his recent trend of performing over his average historical ability, something he did in pre-season, there’s no pressing reason to rush him out of his job and Pickard into it.
Is the end game likely to be Calvin Pickard as a regular on the Leafs’ roster? Yes, I think so, and beyond that, the Leafs need to be bringing someone younger in at the AHL level. But the process is going to take a lot longer than most fans want. Pickard had a terrible season overall last year, for all that he frequently played very well. He switched teams in the offseason and spent training camp in a whole new system, expecting to be the backup on a team with a starter that might give him a lot of opportunities to play. Now he’s in the AHL again, on a new team, learning a new system.
Deep breath, everyone, there’s every reason to give Pickard a chance to figure out the way the Marlies play, and to get used to a defence with a heavy emphasis on offence. And if, in the meantime, McElhinney performs well, there’s no problem. That is hanging over his head though. If he starts regressing to his mean, then all bets are off.
The November Leafs’ schedule is more densely packed with a back-to-back on the road in California, a home and home against Boston, and a second set of games with travel in between. December is worse.
The Leafs come back from the Christmas break, after having faced three back-to-backs already that month, to the classic Arizona one night, Colorado the next road trip. Last year they did that one before Christmas, and Antoine Bibeau sat on the bench watching Andersen play both games and give up only one goal between them. Mike Babcock was hesitant to even try Bibeau in a game, despite the hype machine touting him as the answer to the Leafs’ backup woes.
Pickard can play nine NHL games or be on the NHL roster for 29 days without needing to clear waivers to go back to the AHL. There is time in December to call him up and try him out. All the Leafs need to do to make it work is to send down one of their waiver exempt defenders if there’s no one on IR to free up a roster spot. There is no need for a irrevocable decision to be made first, no need to waive McElhinney.
My guess is that sometime in December, maybe even as late as that Arizona/Colorado trip after Christmas, the Leafs will call him up and see how Pickard plays with the big club. Until then, he can remain the backup to the backup, the plan B for plan B.