Mike Cammalleri has been around some. Five National Hockey League organizations — two of them twice — and closing in on 900 games played.
So, when he heard that one of the key players in the Edmonton Oilers leadership group was goaltender Cam Talbot, he just sat back and observed his new team teammates for a while. The way a veteran does when he lands in a new dressing room.
“I played with Jonathan Quick,” began Cammalleri. “He’s talking in the room, a Cam Talbot-like personality, but even more so. Then, I played with Miikka Kiprusoff, who was a great leader because he was such a great player. But he was almost invisible (off the ice) at times.”
We asked Cammalleri if it was a prerequisite that a top goalie also be a team leader.
“I don’t think it’s a ‘should’ or a ‘shouldn’t.’ What’s important is that it is organic. That you are who you are,” he said. “It has to come from an organic place, otherwise you see right through it. It’s too transparent. Be who you are, and your leadership skills will present however they do.”
Across the Oilers dressing room, Talbot found himself in a tough spot early in the season. His game was about 20 percentage points below his lifetime .919 saves percentage, and his team was losing.
As a leader, it was his job to help pull the club out of its tailspin. But as the goalie, there were pucks getting past that he had been stopping only a few months before. How was he supposed to lead?
He needed to focus on his own game, but the team psyche needed attention as well.
“I’m not really a vocal leader, to be honest,” Talbot said, the morning after his seven-game win streak was snapped in Winnipeg. “I’m more of a lead-by-example kind of guy. I try to carry myself the same way every day: Work hard in the gym, work hard in practice and just battle it out. Just work on getting better. Stay out late (after practice). That’s the kind of leadership that I do.”
There is a body language that exists in hockey, shared by the 18 skaters who play a certain “way” in front of their starter, and a different “way” when the backup is in between the pipes. This is an accepted, collective gait in hockey, but one that gets thrown into a confused state when the starter begins playing like the backup.
As this season began in Edmonton, Talbot wasn’t the same goalie they’d ridden to Round 2 the previous spring. And the players in front of him weren’t the same either.
“I wasn’t as good at the start of the season as I needed to be, but we were probably giving up a few too many Grade A chances as well,” he said.
Thus began the chicken-and-egg scenario.
“I wasn’t making some of the saves that I needed to make, so some of the guys were playing differently in front of me,” he agreed. “As a result there were a few more chances than there usually would be.”
Fast forward to today, and Talbot’s numbers (2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage) are inching closer in to what we expected of him. Since Nov. 22, his .923 saves percentage ranks 10th among starters. The only pucks getting past in this past month have seen him chanceless.
And as the Oilers pull out of their malaise, so too is Talbot being spoken of as a major reason why.
“It starts with his play, and the confidence he gives his teammates with his play,” Cammalleri said. “In practice, he’s hard to score on. You can tell he’s a good goalie, and that gives you confidence in your netminder in games. Goalies can become leaders that way.
“Even his appearance. He’s a physically fit guy. He’s in the gym. The way he carries himself in the room, his personality is that of a leader. Like you would normally see in a non-goalie. I can see his role here is more significant than a guy who just stops a lot of pucks.”
His team has a long road to climb to make the playoffs, needing to play .667 hockey the rest of the way to qualify.
Can they do it?
“I know we can,” Talbot said, smiling. “Everyone in this room believes we can do it. There are going to be some tough (losses), but last year we were good at losing one and coming back and winning three or four.
“We have to get back to that again.”