When Curtis McElhinney was claimed off waivers by the Toronto Maple Leafs in January of last season, the consensus was it was a stop-gap move to give starter Frederik Andersen some much-needed relief while allowing the Leafs’ young goaltending talent to develop in the American Hockey League.
However, when the veteran netminder was re-signed this past offseason, more than a few eyebrows were raised around the National Hockey League. After all, the goaltending market had been soft the year or two previous; was McElhinney really the best the Leafs could get?
The writing then seemed to be on the wall for McElhinney when the Leafs made a deal with the Vegas Golden Knights earlier this season to bring in Calvin Pickard, a younger – and, by all accounts, better – puckstopper.
And yet, McElhinney’s still here, still starting games, and just shut out Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers 1-0 Sunday night in Toronto.
McElhinney Better Than Expected for Leafs
When McElhinney was first claimed by the Leafs, one can forgive Leafs fans and pundits for having been somewhat sceptical. Yes, McElhinney held a .924 save percentage in seven appearances with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but he was still a 33-year-old journeyman with a career .905 SV%.
Despite posting a very mediocre 6-7 record in 14 games with Toronto, McElhinney registered a thoroughly serviceable .914 SV% and showed up when it counted including, amongst other games, a win in relief against the Pittsburgh Penguins to clinch the Leafs’ first playoff berth since 2013.
And this season? After the game against the Oilers (a 41-save shutout), McElhinney is 3-2 with a sparkling .925 SV%. Like every goalie, he’d probably like to have a goal or two back. And he was certainly given some help by his goalposts Sunday night.
But a backup goaltender that keeps his head above water and gives his team a chance to win every single night, and all for less than $1 million per season? Most teams in the league would kill for that.
Only time will tell if McElhinney will continue to surpass expectations. But the Leafs’ backup goaltender position certainly looks to be his for the foreseeable future.
McElhinney Appeals to Emotion
So, it’s clear McElhinney’s been earning his keep between the pipes, but what about in hearts and minds?
Well, what stands out in your mind when you think about Curtis McElhinney? There were the two breakaway stops on Connor McDavid Sunday night (amongst many other highlights), those are probably front and centre.
But how about him making the Leafs’ biggest save in over a decade when he robbed Sidney Crosby (of all people) to secure a crucial late-season win last spring?
And let’s not forget the way he first burst onto the Maple Leafs scene against the Ottawa Senators, making 35 saves on 37 shots to win his very first Battle of Ontario.
My point is, McElhinney is the type of goaltender that makes you happy. Yes, armchair netminders (myself included) might squirm when we see his technique and get a bit clenched whenever he ventures outside the crease, but no one can deny he’s a thoroughly entertaining goaltender to watch.
While literally every generation likes to talk about how wonderful the “good ol’ days” were (oftentimes despite mountains of evidence to the contrary), they might actually have a point with goaltending. Not so much from a quality standpoint of course, but damn, was it ever fun! If the goal of modern netminding is to be quiet and restrained in the crease, McElhinney’s style is a pinball machine; bouncing around, flippers flapping, and yet still, somehow, racking up points.
Boy, is it ever fun to cheer for.
McElhinney a Good Insurance Policy for Leafs
No matter what you think of his technique, keeping McElhinney around isn’t such a bad idea for the Leafs.
Second Fiddle Can’t Fizzle
Every good team needs a reliable backup and, even if McElhinney hasn’t proven to be the most reliable (i.e. giving consistent performances, whenever called upon), he has a penchant for the spectacular including, as we saw against the Oilers, an ability to steal games. That’s a valuable trait that should give the Leafs some confidence in giving Frederik Andersen the night off every once in a while.
Injuries (*Knock on Wood*)
Next, like all teams, the Leafs are not immune to injuries, making a serviceable backup essential for more than just fatigue prevention. Even if Pickard, who has some experience as a starter (mostly consisting of getting shellacked in Colorado), is tapped to play more games, McElhinney appears to be both willing and able to rise to the occasion to cover the Leafs’ netminding needs, whatever they may be.
McElhinney Experienced, Understands Role
Third, the Leafs have been running their entire organisation (their ECHL, AHL and NHL teams) as one cohesive unit for a few years now. Especially considering the AHL’s Toronto Marlies are (obviously) located in the same city as the Leafs (they both practise out of the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence, too), I can’t imagine the Leafs wouldn’t take advantage of McElhinney’s veteran status and have him contribute to the development of Toronto’s goaltending prospects.
As long as Andersen keeps up his sterling play, he won’t be ceding the Leafs’ crease anytime soon. Some McElhinney mentorship should go a long way towards preparing the netminders of tomorrow for NHL duty, whether that be as a backup, batterymate or even a starter.
Curtis McElhinney: Trade Bait?
And hey, with a short-term contract (one more year after this one at a very affordable $850,000), a team in need of goaltending depth for a playoff run might give the Leafs something for McElhinney at one of the next two trade deadlines.
I mean, ideally, your backup’s getting splinters in his rear during the playoffs. But even the most successful teams need depth, whether that be for injury coverage or even just a shock to the system.
Scott Darling won three opening-round games for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, after Corey Crawford struggled early on against the Nashville Predators. Crawford would return to the crease en route to (yet another) Chicago Stanley Cup, but backup Darling played a critical role in making that championship possible in the first place.
McElhinney Showing Leafs’ Faith Well-Placed
Now, I can’t picture head coach Mike Babcock or general manager Lou Lamoriello being prone to excessive emotion or sentiment towards anything, let alone backup goaltenders. So McElhinney could well be put on waivers an hour after this article is published.
But that would really be a shame because, as much as the odds – and the future – have been stacked against him since he arrived in Toronto, he has, time and again, proven he belongs.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.