Why Maple Leafs’ Michal Neuvirth followed his heart to Toronto

Michal Neuvirth has a huge opportunity to earn a spot as back-up goalie, and growing up in Czech Republic as a Maple Leafs fan means he has a chance to fulfill his childhood dream.

Allow us to back up.

Because somebody will need to.

Just one September ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs would have loved to finagle a way to keep all three of the goaltenders angling for crease time behind sure-shot starter Frederik Andersen.

Mild-mannered Curtis McElhinney was coming off a stellar season in quiet support. Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard had just backstopped the AHL Marlies to the city’s first professional hockey championship in a half-century.

There was a bounty of viable options, or so it seemed.

Well, what a difference a year can make.

In a single afternoon in the fall of 2018, waiver-bound McElhinney and Pickard got scooped up by opposition as the Leafs’ camp cuts came down, and the bet on Sparks ended precisely the way no one imagined it could have — with a trade for ex-Leaf David Clarkson.

With the flip of calendar, Toronto has gone from too many backup candidates to scrounging for more.

Prized goaltending prospects Joseph Woll, 21, and Ian Scott, 20, are too young and too valuable to sit around holding the clipboard, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the sluggish half of the next back-to-back. They will be better served getting steady starts with the Marlies.

Joseph Woll suiting up for Team USA at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Rocketing up the depth chart in the wake of McElhinney and Pickard’s departure, the undrafted Kasimir Kaskisuo, 25, showed well down the stretch for Marlies — and superbly in the AHL post-season — but only posted an .896 save percentage in the minors last season and has yet to make his NHL debut.

This leaves Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock with a choice between one of two Micha(e)ls: Hutchinson, who entered camp on a one-year deal for the league minimum ($700,000), or Neuvirth, who was granted a tryout and a series of free appointments with the club doctors.

From a mental standpoint, the upbeat Hutchinson has embraced the hard fact that if he’s going to stick in the highest league it will be as No. 2. But, as his three goals allowed in two periods of pre-season work against the Senators reminded, the front-runner hasn’t exactly sprinted away with the gig.

On paper, journeyman Neuvirth, 31, would appear the more reliable of the duo — if he can stay healthy. Which, after seeing his games played tumble over the past four seasons, from 32 to 28 to 22 to a measly eight over the past four seasons, is a massive if.

Saturday’s pre-season start for the Leafs in Buffalo will mark the first game action for Neuvirth since Jan. 3.

One of the main reasons Neuvirth chose to sign a PTO with Toronto was to gain access to its deep and distinguished staff of doctors and trainers — “the best I’ve seen,” he touts — and fix his nagging lower-body injury once and for all. Fingers crossed.

MLSE’s investment in medicine and sports science was the major selling point Dubas used to lure Neuvirth here without promise of employment.

Alas, Neuvirth’s participation in practice was already hampered in St. John’s due to another minor health setback.

And Friday’s waiver-wire additions of familiar backups Mike Condon and Louis Domingue serve as a dual reminder that (a) cuts are a-coming and (b) other cheap options could pop up on the wire for Toronto as clubs are forced to become cap-compliant.

“It’s not ideal for him,” Babcock said. “If he wants to battle for a job, he’s got to be in a position to do that.

“No. 1, he had to get himself healthy and feeling good. You gotta get feeling good as a goalie. The second thing is, you’ve got to get some game action.”

Meeting with the Toronto press for the first time Friday after a full on-ice session, Neuvirth professed clean health and excitement for Saturday’s long-awaited audition in Buffalo, against one of his four former teams.

Once the buzzer sounds, camp will already be half over.

“A huge opportunity. It’s such a great team here. It’s the best organization in the NHL,” said Neuvirth, who had been training with a Czech league club this summer. “They take care of me pretty good. It’s a great opportunity, a huge honour for me to be here and battle for the spot.”

Yes, the free agent said, other clubs came calling, but those others weren’t “the mecca in hockey.” They didn’t build a statue of his boyhood favourite, Mats Sundin, bronzed and smiling outside of their rink.

“Me as a kid, I was always a fan of Toronto. When Kyle called me, I was following my heart with the decision,” Neuvirth said. “Toronto was always my favourite.”

When it comes to backups, Neuvirth has precious little time to establish himself as Toronto’s favourite.

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