Leafs’ McElhinney talks Calvin Pickard: ‘The threat is always there’

Red Wings GM Ken Holland tells HC at Noon that he thinks the Maple Leafs are one of the elite teams in the East, and that they're already Stanley Cup contenders.

TORONTO — Curtis McElhinney’s long, lonely wait is over.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ backup goaltender will draw into his first real game under his new contract Wednesday, as the Leafs host the rested and resurgent Detroit Red Wings on the sleepy end of a back-to-back.

"It’ll be nice to hop back in there and get a feel for things again," McElhinney told Sportsnet in an interview.

After inking a two-year, $1.7-million commitment on July 1 and moving his family to Toronto for a contract McElhinney understands could be his last in the NHL, the career No. 2 is antsy to perform after an uneven showing in pre-season.

McElhinney says he prepares for each Frederik Andersen start as if it were his own, finding confidence through routine. The journeyman knew, barring injury or blowout, he’d have to wait until Game 7 of the season to taste the action.

"Goalies have tough jobs. You’re out there on an island, it feels like," sympathized Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly.

"The way he played at the end of last year was outstanding. There’s no reason not to have confidence in him. Mac’s a great pro. He’s been doing it a long time. There’s never a doubt that when he gets his chance to go, he’ll be ready."

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The 34-year-old has carved a good living wearing a ball cap and cradling a clipboard. Simple habits, McElhinney explained, help him deal with a jagged schedule where he could be called upon every couple days or sit dormant for four weeks at a time.

"When you’re in those longer stretches, the hardest part is getting the feel of the game back," McElhinney said. "Even nights I’m not playing, I’ve found for me to have success, I prepare as if I am playing. The routine stays the same."

Head coach Mike Babcock has said flatly that McElhinney will get "all the horrible starts" this season, and Andersen’s shutout of Washington’s high-octane offence Tuesday only underscored the great Dane’s No. 1 status.

Flip the calendar to last October, and fans will recall just how tight a leash Babcock can give his backup, a man who must spin horrible starts into wins. Jhonas Enroth was unable to do that, and vanished in a blink after four lost starts.

McElhinney says he feels no extra pressure to perform now that the Maple Leafs made a trade with Vegas for Calvin Pickard, a younger NHL backup who backstopped Team Canada to a silver medal at the 2017 world championships.

"The reality is, if I wasn’t doing my job, they’d go out and get someone anyways. That’s the road they wanted to take. Whether it’s somebody now or somebody when I don’t do my job, it’s the same thing," McElhinney said.

"The threat is always there."

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Few understand the position’s tenuous job security like McElhinney.

Backing up Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky on an excellent Columbus Blue Jackets outfit last spring, McElhinney had posted a nice .924 save percentage — his best mark in four seasons as a Blue Jacket — when he fell out of favour with coach John Tortorella and was waived.

McElhinney understands why GM Lou Lamoriello traded for Pickard but was not given a heads up that the Leafs were looking to add another NHL-calibre goalie.

"I’m not privy to that type of information, and I don’t think I’m entitled to it, to be honest with you," he said. "It’s the nature of the beast. You’re blessed to have more than less."

The 25-year-old Pickard, an impending restricted free agent confident he belongs in the majors, sparkled in his first outing with the AHL Marlies, making 33 saves en route to a 3-2 victory over Providence Saturday.

"He looked like a goalie that was on another level," Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe told the Canadian Press. "That’s really positive for us and them."

But is it positive for McElhinney’s own NHL status?

"You’re trying to solidify as much as you can," McElhinney said, taking the organizational viewpoint.

"If you put yourself in a situation where you want to have success, depth is an important thing. At the end of the year, Fred got hurt at some critical times. I don’t know if it’s one of those things where you just want to add to your stable.

"I think [Pickard] is a good goalie. He’s definitely proven himself in Colorado and done very well, so depth will never be an issue. That’s a good thing."

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