It’s always an honour and an exciting opportunity for even an NHL player to be invited to represent his country. The downside of playing at the IIHF World Championship, though, is that it means your team is out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs starter Frederik Andersen got the call to play for Denmark as it hosts the event, which is anything but surprising. But backup Curtis McElhinney was invited by Sean Burke and Martin Brodeur to wear the Maple Leaf at the worlds, and he’s earned both of Canada’s wins so far. A career-long backup in the NHL, the 34-year-old wasn’t expecting his hockey season to be extended after his Blue and White Maple Leafs were eliminated by Boston in Game 7.
“There’s certainly a lot of Canadian goalies out there that are maybe a little more qualified than me to do the job,” McElhinney said on the Starting Lineup Wednesday on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “I’ve been in the league a long time now so to get this opportunity after my 13th season, I was a little surprised, but ecstatic at the same time. It was a no-brainer, I just had to pass it by the family to make sure everybody was OK with it and me taking off for a few more weeks.”
On Monday, McElhinney started against the Danes, a game in which he could have played against his teammate Andersen. But as the Maple Leafs starter had already played back-to-back games to open the tournament, he didn’t even dress against Canada. The Red and White went on to win the game 7-1 and McElhinney made 14 saves.
McElhinney has had many NHL stops, including Calgary, Ottawa, Anaheim, Arizona and Columbus, and has settled in as a trustworthy backup in Toronto. In 18 games this season, McElhinney posted a .934 save percentage, which was a 20-point improvement over 2016-17 and the best mark of his career.
There was a time earlier in the season, though, where it looked like McElhinney’s backup job was in jeopardy. Garret Sparks, 24, was a top-10 AHL goalie in 2016-17 and was making a case for an NHL look again this season as he posted stellar numbers that led to being named AHL Goalie of the Year. In October, the Leafs also acquired 26-year-old Calvin Pickard from Vegas — he had been a backup for two years in Colorado before playing 50 games in 2016-17 due to injuries, and posting a .904 save percentage. Toronto was armed with younger options to back up Andersen, so if McElhinney slipped at all this season, it could have cost him his NHL job.
But he didn’t seem too worried about it.
“That’s just reality of the business,” he said. “When they picked up Pickard earlier in the year that added another threat there. It makes you think twice about it, but I’ve been on a lot of teams and I’ve been through that situation before where you get pushed out by someone younger and maybe a little bit better, but it’s kind of nice to have that pressure. Obviously, with everything in Toronto there is plenty of pressure already, but to know you’ve got a couple guys who are a little bit younger and some of them have pretty good experience, it’s nice. It’s a good asset, good quality for the organization to have.”
McElhinney credited his strong season to the well-defined workload, knowing he would start one half of back-to-back situations, and maybe a few more times down the stretch to give Andersen proper rest. With these young run-and-gun Maple Leafs, McElhinney said it’s a luxury to know you’re going to get enough goal support more often than not and it makes the job that much easier.
But ultimately, this team is expected to win in the playoffs and eventually go on an extended run. Toronto has suffered back-to-back first-round exits, and though last year was viewed as a learning experience, this year’s loss was a little more disappointing and a lot more frustrating. The Leafs had bad luck in the playoff draw, lining up against the league’s fourth-best regular season team after finishing seventh overall themselves.
Soon, the Leafs will pay big money to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, plus they’re still looking for a top-pair defender and maybe another top-four to push them closer to contention. Matthews struggled against Boston and received heat for scoring just once in seven games while finishing with a minus-4 rating. Jake Gardiner got most of the flak on the backend for his risky plays that burned the team and more was expected from other players such as Connor Brown and Nylander.
While it’s easy to view these two post-season losses as a wasted opportunity on cheap contract years for some core players, or to turn this year’s subpar playoff performances as a negative, McElhinney takes a more optimistic and long-term outlook that these are learning experiences which will pay off in the end.
It’s a perspective that can be lost in a hyper-hockey-made city like Toronto, where expectations are always sky-high.
“Toronto and cities like Montreal and New York bring a different atmosphere and what the expectations are,” he said. “In Columbus you can kind of hide as a hockey player, but in Toronto there is no hiding.
“It’s been interesting to see the guys go through their ups and downs, how they kinda of handle those droughts. I think as far as long-term, it’s better for them to go through those things early on.”