Five years, five months and 174 minor league appearances after being drafted, Leland Irving stood in the Calgary Flames locker room doing interviews with media, his face adorned with a pretty massive grin. You would be hard-pressed to find a happier man in all of Alberta.
Irving’s appearance in the National Hockey League comes after a long, long wait. When Irving was selected by the Flames in the 2006 Entry Draft, he was immediately anointed the team’s “Goalie of the Future” by fans and pundits. At the time, the Flames “boasted” recent draftees Kevin Lalande and Matt Keetley as far as net-minding prospects went, and Irving had just had a season where he won 37 games and posted a 1.92 goals against average. In the time from when he was drafted to when he turned pro, Irving appeared at the 2007 Super Series (going undefeated), the 2007 World Juniors (winning a gold medal) and posted a 61-33-6 record with 15 shutouts.
Maybe expectations were a bit high. But Irving didn’t throw cold water on them with a very respectable first pro year with the Quad City Flames, going 24-18-2 and posting a 2.23 GAA. But his next season was simply bad – a poor record, losing the starting job in Abbotsford to journeyman David Shantz and being demoted for a time to the ECHL’s Victoria Salmon Kings. But the next season, when some were writing him off, the childhood cancer survivor did what he tends to do: rally. He put together a fantastic year, racking up 30 wins, 8 shutouts, a 2.30 GAA and doing so on a team that didn’t give him much goal support.
He also found himself without a contract, and his Abbotsford Heat were without a head coach as Jim Playfair departed for the Phoenix Coyotes. The two situations resolved themselves at roughly the same time – with the Flames announcing Heat assistant Troy Ward as new head coach on June 30, and Irving’s return to the fold six days later.
“At the start of the summer it was kind of up in the air with the coaching and all that stuff,” said Irving. “I had a couple offers in Europe, but once Troy Ward was hired it made my decision much easier. Eventually, when I signed, they approached me and said that I was going to have a goalie coach in Abbotsford and I would even have some say in who that was. That made the decision that much easier.”
Once again, Irving has taken the ball and ran with it. Backed up by Finnish prospect Joni Ortio, he’s played in 23 of Abbotsford’s 25 games. He’s been relied upon by head coach Troy Ward over long road trips and even back-to-back games. And he continues to put up strong numbers. In the last two seasons, only Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Brad Theissen has as many wins (45) as Irving, and the prospect leads all AHL goalies with 11 shutouts. Some observers (including this writer) labelled him as best player in the Calgary Flames organization that wasn’t yet playing in the NHL.
But with Miikka Kiprusoff and Henrik Karlsson cemented in place in Calgary, Leland Irving seemed destined to continue in the AHL, until Karlsson went down with an MCL injury during Calgary’s 5-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on December 4. With that, the Swan Hills, Alberta native was whisked away to the NHL and finally given a chance to show his stuff. While Kiprusoff is likely to continue to start most of Calgary’s games, Irving seems likely to get a chance – particularly if Karlsson is out for a few weeks.
“I’m going to approach it like I’m going to be playing every game,” said Irving. “That’s the responsibility of a back-up goaltender. Obviously Kipper’s a workhorse himself. He’s going to be taking a lot of games, but you know, there’s a few stretches of three games in four nights where there’s a possibility of being there and that’s what I’ll be preparing for.”
Just two seasons removed from playing in the ECHL, Leland Irving has a renewed energy and a shot at the NHL level. His play over the past year and a half have seemingly given Flames fans and brass renewed faith in his ability to be one of the AHL’s best tenders. In turn the Flames have invested in Irving, giving him the lion’s share of starts in Abbotsford and a dedicated AHL goalie coach, hardly something a team would do unless they had future plans in mind. But they’re also arguably something Irving has definitely earned with his play.
So while the Calgary Flames continue to work on their present, chipping away at the rather large gap between them and a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they also have one eye on their future. Names like Roman Horak and T.J. Brodie have made strong cases for future NHL employment, and don’t be too surprised if Leland Irving is soon given the chance to do the same.
Despite the fact that he’ll need to likely displace at least one established NHL net-minder, history has shown that it would be premature to write Leland Irving off.
UPDATE: The Flames announced on Wednesday that Henrik Karlsson suffered an MCL tear and will be out of the Flames line-up until at least February.