EDMONTON — Peter Chiarelli had arrived in Edmonton on April 24, 2015 as the new general manager of the Oilers. They should have given him a hard hat.
He took over the project the way a new contractor assumes a bankrupt project that had languished as an unattended construction site for months or years.
Edmonton’s rebuild had faultily been built from the wings in, so the first thing Chiarelli did was turn that fallacy around, acquiring Henrik Lundqvist’s backup on the Saturday of the 2015 draft. He gave up second- and third-round picks for the unproven Cam Talbot, and let’s be honest: No one knew for sure if Talbot would be able to fly on his own in Edmonton, the way he had behind the New York Rangers defence with the security blanket that was King Henrik.
After his league-leading 64th start Saturday night, a stunning 34-save, 2-0 shutout of the pesky Vancouver Canucks, Talbot was asked if even he was certain that he could carry the ball in Edmonton.
“Can I say no?” Talbot asked.
Honesty and larceny on the same night. What more can a reporter ask for?
“I had that stretch in New York when Hank went down,” he recalled of a prolonged starting stint after Lundqvist took a puck to the neck, when Talbot stepped and went 12-2-3 with a .923 save percentage. “But it’s different, knowing you’re going right back to the bench (when Lundqvist got healthy). As opposed to now, where I know that night in and night out I’m going back into the nets.”
The 29-year-old thought about it for a moment. And it should be said, in today’s world of sports psychologists, positive affirmation and the like, it is seldom that a professional athlete is this honest about his own self doubt.
“You can never be too sure,” Talbot said. “You want to be confident in yourself, but I still had something to prove to myself, and to this organization when I got traded here. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
In his second season between Edmonton’s pipes, Talbot now represents the biggest gamble of head coach Todd McLellan’s two-year tenure here in Oil Country. Talbot has had six more starts than the next busiest NHL goalie (Frederik Andersen), faced the most shots, made the most saves, and has played all but three Oilers games since Dec. 9.
At this point, backup Laurent Brossoit is ice cold and unlikely to perform. Like an Indy car driver pushing his fuel gauge to reach the finish line without a pit stop, McLellan needs Talbot to ensure the Oilers’ first playoff berth in a decade.
Even if he gets there with an exhausted goaler.
“He’s in tremendous shape and he’s an efficient goaltender,” McLellan reasoned. “He’s not all over the place. Between whistles he’s not having a seance. He’s resting and relaxed and he’s trained for it.”
Ironically, it was the lack of a Grade A goaltender that likely cost McLellan a Stanley Cup through his eight seasons behind the San Jose Sharks bench. Now he has one, and the coach is riding him hard.
Talbot is likely going to end up starting 72 games for the Oilers.
“It worked out that way. That wasn’t the plan,” said the coach, who then relayed an off-day story: “Yesterday we had an optional practice and Cam was in the office with (goaltending coach) Dustin Schwartz. I asked him how he felt and he said, ‘Great.’ I asked, ‘Should we keep playing you?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’”
And so he’ll play.
In a game where the Canucks deserved a better fate, outshooting Edmonton 34-22, Connor McDavid took advantage of some soft Alex Edler coverage to rip a wrist shot over backup Richard Bachman’s glove hand in the second period. The point returned the lead in the NHL’s scoring race to McDavid, who becomes the first player to hit the 80-point mark this season, with 25 goals.
Mark Letestu ripped home a tidy one-timer on the power play to make it 2-0 with 4:38 to play, but it was Vancouver’s strong third period that had Talbot hopping. The luckless, rebuilding Canucks, who have entirely switched roles with this Edmonton franchise, hit two posts on the same shift and had several other close calls, outshooting Edmonton 11-1 at one point in the final period.
The win vaults Edmonton back in front of Calgary, as the two Alberta clubs leapfrog each other nightly. Anaheim won in San Jose to remain two points clear in second in the Pacific.