Mitch Marner: ‘Wildflower’ Calvin Pickard will help Leafs

Mike Babcock and Tyler Bozak discuss the challenges that Nico Hischier and the New Jersey Devils will bring in Wednesday night's tilt.

TORONTO – Mitch Marner views Calvin Pickard as an NHL goaltender even though the Toronto Maple Leafs’ most recent trade acquisition is starting with Toronto’s AHL affiliate.

“For sure he is,” Marner asserted Wednesday. “He’s going to help that Marlies team a lot, and if he gets up here, he’s going to help us out a lot as well.”

Marner played with Pickard on Canada’s silver-medal-winning squad at the IIHF World Championship in May. The crafty forward isn’t sure Canada would’ve medalled at the tournament were it not for the spectacular play of the country’s starting netminder.

Canada coach Jon Cooper selected Pickard over Chad Johnson to backstop the team, and it’s hard to argue with the choice. (Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, too, flew over to Europe to scout some unnamed players the worlds.)

In seven games’ work, Pickard went 5-1-1 with a 1.49 goals-against average and sparkling .946 save percentage—outshining the likes of Tampa/Russia No. 1 Andrei Vasilevskiy and matching Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist save for save in a 2-1 gold-medal thriller that finally ended in a shootout.

“That game against Sweden in the finals, he was unbelievable for us. He made so many big saves and he kept them off the scoresheet on all of their power plays,” Marner gushed.

“He played against the world’s best, he kept us in so many games and got us to the final. Without him, I don’t know what place we would’ve finished.”

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When the Leafs traded forward prospect Tobias Lindberg and a 2018 sixth-round draft pick to secure Pickard from the Vegas Golden Knights Thursday, Marner texted his friend to congratulate him and welcome him aboard.

“He’s a great guy. He’s fun to be around,” Marner said.

Pickard, a 25-year-old Moncton, N.B., native, was a surprise addition to the waiver wire last week after Vegas scooped up Boston goaltending prospect Malcolm Subban.

Once Pickard cleared waivers, Toronto signed off on the trade.

“It became a good move for us,” coach Mike Babcock said. “We’re in a better situation because of it.”

Better and more intriguing.

The Leafs re-signed veteran backup Curtis McElhinney to a two-year, $1.7-million contract on July 1, but the 34-year-old journeyman isn’t so naïve to believe he was the club’s first choice.

“Every team does their due diligence. They look at all the options,” McElhinney told us last month. “The biggest thing was that I wanted to be back and continue what I started last year. There’s a bit of hype around the team now with the way things went. I want to be part of that. I’m grateful more than anything.”

With Frederik Andersen’s status as the Number 1 chiseled in granite, McElhinney is expecting little action outside of mop-up work and starts in the club’s 14 consecutive-night games this season.

Toronto’s first back-to-back doesn’t take place until Oct. 17-18.

A legitimate question: With Pickard in the fold, has McElhinney’s leash shortened? (You’re forgiven if you just had a Jhonas Enroth flashback.)

“We give [McElhinney] all the terrible starts, all the back-to-backs,” said Babcock. Then the coach added wryly: “We like those. In this organization we like to have as many of those as we can. I think it’s about TV or something.”

McElhinney told us he’s at the “tail end of his career now” and isn’t certain how the season will play out.

At six-foot-one and 200 pounds, Pickard meets Babcock’s criteria of a big goalie. He’s heavier but shorter than the six-foot-three Marlies tandem of Garret Sparks and Kasimir Kaskisuo.

“Now with our [three] guys in the minors, we gotta sort that out. We want them all to play in the American Hockey League,” Babcock said.

“Maybe someone’s looking for an American Hockey League goalie, and we’ll get that done as well.”

Pickard did not dress for the Marlies over the weekend. He carries a $1 million cap hit and will be eligible for arbitration as a restricted free agent on July 1.

The second-round pick is coming off a season playing behind the abysmal defence of the last-place 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche, yet still has a career NHL save percentage of .914 over 86 appearances.

The book on Pickard is that he’s a patient goalie who sits farther back in his crease than most. He relies on quick reflexes and efficient movement as opposed to cutting down shooters’ angles.

“It’s confusing as a forward to see how he plays. It’s hard to figure out how to get around him. He’s kind of a wildflower. It’s hard to describe his style of play, but he gets it done,” said Marner.

“It’s great to have him in this organization. He’s a special guy.”