I vividly remember Calvin Pickard's first NHL game. It was 2014, and the Colorado Avalanche were coming off their amazing season where they had won the Presidents' Trophy, flamed out hard in the playoffs, and had became the case study for Corsi, PDO, faith, the eye-test and analytics.
The Avs headed east on an early road trip after a very rough pre-season where the team tried to completely re-imagine defensive systems and then decided that was hopeless. Their goalie situation seemed set, even if the rest of the roster was riddled with names of players who have moved right out of the NHL in the years since. The man who'd contributed mightily to all that PDO the year before, Semyon Varlamov, was the starter, and the Avs had traded for Reto Berra as backup.
Behind the bench was one of the greatest goalies of all time in Patrick Roy, and the team had just added François Allaire as goalie coach after he'd exited the Maple Leafs organization with recriminations all around. Allaire was Roy's old mentor, and it seemed like the single most important role on the Avalanche was solidly looked after.
But Varlamov wasn't right from the very first game, and was obviously struggling with a groin injury. Berra was getting minutes, getting starts and playing very well. No one was worried.
The Avs played in Toronto, and Varlamov got a start, played very well facing an absurd 40 shots on goal and only getting beat by Phil Kessel in OT. But in the start of the cycle that would help drive the Avs to depths even the Leafs would never reach, Varlamov was hurt by the end of the game. He had played to the point of exhaustion, and when he had stopped, he had a serious groin problem.
Why you might ask, was he allowed to? It's a thing to keep in mind as I tell the tale of Calvin Pickard, that he lived in a world made by very foolish people.
While the Avs were losing games and playing badly even when they won, Pickard had been in Cleveland, playing for the Monsters of the AHL. He'd spent two full seasons there, gradually getting a feel for pro hockey and turning in serviceable but not great performances for them.
As the Avs flew into Ottawa, after losing to the Leafs, they called up the conveniently close Pickard since Varlamov couldn't start. Pickard had played two good games for the Monsters, but his first trip to the NHL was supposed to be as a backup who never saw the ice after warm-up.
Berra took to the ice, and less than three minutes in, he was hurt in a collision at the net. Roy was astonished. Pickard looked stunned, and the jokes started that they should just put Roy in net. No one expected the AHLer with no real NHL experience to do anything but bomb.
He put up an 85% save percentage, let in four goals and the Avs lost 5-3 to a team that put up a lot less shots than the Leafs had managed.
Pickard looked nervous, his team was freaked out and trying way too hard to help him out, and that's a recipe for disaster for a team with no defensive system to speak of.
So, he got sent back to the minors and that was his career. Well, it would have been, except Varlamov stayed hurt and Berra was only just recovered enough to fake it as backup as they rolled into Montréal for their next game. Pickard wasn’t sent back, he got the start. And he looked like a decently competent backup in that one.
The Avs went back home, and Berra was well enough to start, and that did seem to be the end of Pickard's career as unexpected NHL goalie. He went back to the AHL.
Berra was terrible, and it gradually became clear that he was a goalie who could turn in wildly inconsistent performances from night to night, and that his occasional good games were too rare to be relied on. Varlamov rode to the rescue (came back too soon) and was terrible, and the Avs, with a lot to prove, were in danger of sliding off the cliff before October was even over.
Roy always said the goaltender had to be the best player on his team. He said this without irony, I should add. Varlamov stayed in as starter, put up his own wildly fluctuating results — lights out on heavy shot volume one night, unable to make any saves the next. The team in front of him was slowly being revealed as what we know them as today — a few good players, terrible defensive systems and some sub-replacement-level depth.
This disastrous cycle continued through the autumn as the team slogged through a set of games equally as bad as their season last year. I don't exaggerate. They were truly, madly, deeply bad, and there was only occasionally a hero between the pipes to save them.
And then in late November, it was finally obvious enough to whoever was making the decisions that Varlamov was not okay, and the Avs called up Pickard again, intending him to sit as backup. The Hurricanes came to town, and it was a game of systems vs chaos. Berra was abysmal, giving up three goals in less than one period, and Pickard was back in the net.
This time, he didn't bomb. He pitched a shutout for two-plus periods of play, and the team played in front of stability in the goal crease for the first time all season. In effect, Pickard's NHL career began that day in that game, and it set the tone for his entire Avalanche career.
One of the hallmarks of Roy as a coach was that he was both mercurial and stubborn. He would change his mind about the entire team's defensive system on the last day of training camp, or he would try a line combination for one shift and never return to it, but other ideas were permanently fixed in his mind and he would not stray from them. For the average Leafs fan who saw the Avs twice a year in those days, the team was a Corsi joke and Roy was just a bad coach.
But for anyone who followed the team, the source of most of the chaos on the team was actually in net.
Berra was not capable, and as Roy slowly realized that, he kept calling Pickard back up to the team. The Avs ran three goalies with one of Berra or Varlamov on IR a lot of the time. This continued, not for a few weeks or months as you might imagine, but for two years.
No one on the Avs seemed able to make the decision to cut Berra loose, in part because the Avs had given him an extension sight-unseen after acquiring him in trade. But it also seemed like Roy wanted him there to be the object of his ire. Berra sat in the press box as the third or as backup to Pickard for so long, even Frank Corrado would sympathize.
In 2014-2015, Pickard played in 16 games. The team in front of him managed a five-on-five Corsi For percentage of 44, but their Goals For was 55% while he was on the ice. His save percentages were amazing, and in a small sample of games for each man, he was beating John Gibson on the stat charts, even the meaningful ones, not just unadjusted save percentage.
It seems incomprehensible still that the Avs didn't just make him their backup. He walked into Montréal with Roy and Allaire looming over him on his second ever game, and he did better than Varlamov did on many a night after. He proved his nerve and then he proved his ability.
Instead, he spent another entire year flitting between Colorado and San Antonio (the new AHL franchise and a worse team by far than the Monsters) while Roy dithered over Berra, who he obviously didn't want, but he would only make an unseemly spectacle of that dislike rather than actually solve the problem.
Pickard was getting starts as a backup; he had 20 his second year. But, it felt like he was wasting years.
Well, that's how it goes sometimes. The movie of his life needs a sad song about now.
Before Roy left the building in the summer of 2016, the Avs finally cut bait on Berra and traded him away. Pickard was the backup, and everything had settled down. The sad song was over, and Pickard had won his backup job.
But the new coach wasn't invested in a hero narrative for his netminder, and he went through one cycle of Varlamov playing, getting hurt, coming back too soon and playing wildly inconsistently, and he made a decision. He shut him down for the rest of the season, and Pickard became the starter.
Scratch the soaring tones of the soundtrack meant to lift your expectations, because Pickard was not redeemed by this opportunity. The plot went sideways as the team went south. This was their 2016-2017 season:
In 50 games, Pickard had an all-situations save percentage of 90% and he was the best goalie on the team.
He had to play. After Varlamov's bad 24 games, the next man up was journeyman minor-leaguer Jeremy Smith, who was almost as bad as Garret Sparks on the tanking Leafs.
So, what do you make of a goalie who can't take the scraps of two years of high-quality NHL backup play and turn it into a star turn behind a team that had multiple players turn in career worst seasons? It's odd to me that while there seems to be clarity that Matt Duchene isn't suddenly bad, the goalie who suffered along with him is now thought of as permanently tainted.
The Avs decided to assume Varlamov would be fine after his surgery, but they were done with Pickard. They let him go in the expansion draft and signed Jonathan Bernier as their new Reto Berra.
Vegas picked Malcolm Subban over Pickard (largely because he's younger, I think), but the league decided Pickard was not worth taking on waivers, and he cost in trade one AHL grinder and a pick that likely won't even turn into a player that good.
Buy low, kids.
But if this is Pickard's low, how high can he go? I don't have much patience for sifting through the ashes of his previous season and trying to find clues. The team was indescribably bad, and just like with Ian Scott, I'm not sure anyone has a good handle on how much that affects goalie performance. But the odd assumption that a goalie exists separately from the team in front of him and is unaffected by them, so just look at his save percentage and judge by that, is, well, odd.
Varlamov was famous for stunning performances behind terrible play. Marc-André Fleury won the Golden Knights their first game that way. That's what both the Avs and the Golden Knights want and need.
The Leafs, on the other hand, might be a bit wince-inducing in the defensive zone, but they aren't terrible. The Marlies aren't either. And in the AHL for the Rampage, Pickard dominated behind a weak team. He should be more than that for the Marlies.
We shall see! It's not a cop-out to say that, it's anticipation. Let's have the man play some Marlies games, maybe lots of them.
Babcock basically said with the acquisition of Calvin Pickard the #Leafs are open to trading another of their AHL goaltenders— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) October 7, 2017
Let's see what he's got. Let's see what Piero Greco can make of him.
He's only an average-sized goalie, not overly tall or big, but agile and quick, something Frederik Andersen has worked to improve on. He has good foundations to his game, and he isn't making saves by accidentally hurtling his big body in the general direction of where the puck is going, like Curtis McElhinney does so often.
The skill and execution have to be there, for Pickard to move to the NHL, but there is not one stupid thing any defender on the Marlies or the Leafs can do, not even all those young rookies, that could possibly shock him now. He really has seen it all.
Is this finally the heart-lifting denouement to his story? Will he get another NHL opportunity and take it and run with it? I sure hope so. But life isn't a movie, and you never know how the story will end. We might need another sad song.