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Tryouts are for training camp: The Leafs shouldn’t change goalies on a whim

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Goalie carousels are a thing of the past, at least in Toronto.

Detroit Red Wings v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Obviously, after that last game, the Maple Leafs should change their backup goalie.

It’s easy to argue that. It’s easy to decide that a particular goal scored by Alex Ovechkin proves that Curtis McElhinney is bad. It’s easy to argue some AHL stats prove some other goalie under contract is the right man for the job.

It’s just as facile to claim neither of those goalies can stop Ovechkin when he’s hot.

No one on any side of that argument is doing anything but speculating about alternate realities. It’s fiction, and a particular kind of fiction where it’s easy to sound certain about things you don’t know.

How much does an AHL all-situations save percentage tell you about a goalie’s quality, anyway? Whatever you need it to mean to make your case, I guess. What about McElhinney’s all-situations save percentage for the Leafs this year? What does it mean? Or is that irrelevant in the face of a loss?

Forget the fiction on either side of that fruitless argument.

Tryouts are for training camp

Fans don’t like that saying. Fans like the idea that a team should give chances to players whenever a likely situation arises, or they’re sufficiently tired of the old guy in that role. Fans can be sure that the guy they want to see won’t be worse. At least try it, you have to try it, right? Never mind that you are risking that the call-up is terrible — something that’s a little more serious when it’s a goalie under discussion than a fourth line winger. Forget all the potential downsides, and give the guy a chance!

It’s easy to ignore the waiver rules when you’re steamed over a goalie not making a save.

There’s a reason the Leafs can’t just give Garrvin Spickard a chance, even if he totally would have made that save. It’s the same reason the Leafs were right to watch Malcolm Subban go to the Vegas Golden Knights and to wait to see if Calvin Pickard cleared waivers before they traded for him instead of grabbing him for free.

The waiver rules exist to stop teams from stockpiling talent in the AHL. You aren’t actually supposed to have three goalies in the top echelon of the AHL that you can just move up and down on a whim. This is meant to be difficult.

The Leafs currently have a roster of 23 completely healthy players who they took on a plane to Calgary and will use to form the playing rosters for the next three-game road trip. Curtis McElhinney is one of them. Out of those 23, the following players are waiver exempt:

  • Auston Matthews
  • William Nylander
  • Mitch Marner
  • Andreas Borgman

That’s it. Nikita Soshnikov played his 70th NHL game against Carolina and needs waivers to be sent to the AHL, which there is no chance the team will do because that would trigger his KHL out-clause.

To call up a goalie, the Leafs have to either lose Borgman for the duration of the tryout and play a third pair of Polak-Carrick, or they have to risk someone on waivers. And while it’s easy to claim that McElhinney himself would never get claimed so why not waive him, it pays to remember that the Columbus Blue Jackets thought that too. That team, by the way, who know him and really like him, are running three goalies in total on NHL contracts. They have no backup plan B of any kind for any emergency illness or other disaster. I think it’s reasonable to argue that waiving McElhinney would mean losing him without even mentioning that Antti Niemi was claimed twice this season.

The loss of McElhinney is not the loss of what he might fetch in trade, it’s the loss of him as a fallback if the AHL studs turn out to fizzle in the NHL. One of them already had a tryout this year, in training camp two months ago (when and where tryouts are supposed to happen), and he didn’t lay claim to the job then.

When the Leafs do make a change, they need to be sure it’s the right one, because while Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard have both cleared waivers earlier this year, their situations are very different now. There’s nothing like centre of the hockey universe hype to make sure everyone knows your name and wonders if you might not at least be better than Niemi or Eddie Lack.

Who

The Leafs should make a change in backup, though. Absolutely. I’ve never argued that McElhinney is anything but a very good impersonator of a qualified backup. Deciding when and how is more difficult than coining a hashtag, however. I’ll leave the issue of who it should be up in the air for right now. But I’ll just mention that Antoine Bibeau also has a really high AHL save percentage this season, and I vividly remember the excitement generated when he was given a chance. Playoffs seemed like a distant possibility then, but things are very different now.

Whoever finishes the season as backup, that decision won’t be made on ten games of save percentage.

When

When a change happens is not right now. It’s not even after this road trip ends. It’s not even on December 9 when the next back-to-back is nigh. The experience with Bibeau provides a clue as to what the Leafs might do. They might simply wait out the absurd December schedule with two more back-to-backs after the December 9 and 10 set, have a nice Christmas break, and then find a way to get someone on the roster for the trip to Arizona and Colorado between Christmas and New Years. No matter how glorious the man in the AHL really is, making a high pressure appearance in net in a game that might decide his career is a lot easier on the road than it is in the pressure cooker of Toronto.

How

How it can be done is still a sticky problem. When you’re actually running a team responsibly, you can’t just toss aside players. The Leafs either need to be very sure, in which case they could trade McElhinney to Columbus for a conditional seventh, or they might make some temporary space to run three goalies on that short trip west. They finish up in Vegas on New Year’s eve and then come home right after.

At some point, being handcuffed by the surfeit of depth wingers sitting around in the press box is a problem that needs a solution. If one or more of Josh Leivo and Nikita Soshnikov get dealt, then the resulting hole can provide the opportunity for that rare thing, a mid-season try out.

I’m saving this article to repeat it all the next time everyone wants Kasperi Kapanen or Miro Aaltonen on the roster. That can’t be done easily either.

Another sneaky trick, if it’s needed, could be a quick paper transaction to waive Roman Polak. It’s not an ideal solution, even if it is a very small risk, given his salary. But it is an affront to his status, and NHL teams actually do care about that because their players are real people with ordinary human emotions that aren’t actually suppressed by their big salaries. You’d need to see a much more dire situation that this for that to happen.

Life in the NHL being what it is, an injury bad enough to put a player on IR might open up the window for a goalie to be brought up temporarily. But as much as everyone likes to chortle about “Lou-pholes” it’s not exactly easy to manufacture a timely injury out of nothing. Placing a player on IR means they must miss seven days from the date of the injury, so it’s not something to do lightly. The only way around the IR rules is if the injury or illness is to one of the goalies themselves. But a miraculously timed emergency call-up seems equally unlikely to pass muster with the league.

The best possible scenario is if the Leafs are certain about who they want on their roster, and they make arrangements to have that happen at the right time and without risking anyone on waivers.

Domino Effect

An orderly change in personnel benefits the whole organization. Fans can ignore the existence of the AHL and the ECHL, but GMs shouldn’t.

The Chicago Wolves of the AHL are using Toronto’s third extra goalie, Kasimir Kaskisuo, and they just acquired Micheal Leighton on loan from the Arizona Coyotes. The Vegas Golden Knights, the NHL affiliate of the Wolves, just got Malcolm Subban back from IR, so as soon as the Wolves can get someone back from Vegas — either Maxime Lagace, who Vegas still needs on the roster, or Oscar Dansk, who is still on IR — they don’t need Kaskisuo anymore.

The Leafs likely could just yank Kaskisuo back today, but having a good relationship with the GM of a team that will spend years making a lot of trades seems like a good idea to me. There is no actual need to rush this.

Once Kaskisuo is back, calling up one of the Marlies goalies doesn’t hurt them and doesn’t require disturbing the now calm waters in Orlando where their two AHL-contracted goalies are settling in, and the team is winning some games finally.

All these considerations are boring and tedious and don’t compare to how it felt to watch the Leafs lose to the Washington Capitals. So, by all means, holler for a change right now! Just don’t be surprised when it’s done in an orderly manner, not in a panic.

If you want to watch endless goalie manoeuvres, I recommend following Montréal or Arizona. Because more than anything, we should want those days to be gone in Toronto forever.