Frustrating. Weird. Disappointing.
And, ultimately, demoralizing.
“Obviously, that was the low point of my career,” Stalock said, when asked about the end to his 2015-16 season.
It will be top of mind Thursday as the veteran goaltender gets the call for the Minnesota Wild with the Leafs visiting Xcel Energy Center. He’s come a long way since enduring the torment in Toronto.
What hurt Stalock most was not being given much of a chance after he was acquired from San Jose at the 2016 trade deadline. The Leafs were in full churn mode at that point – selling cap space and roster spots for futures on their way to the last-place finish that helped secure Auston Matthews.
You can count Stalock among those who ended up as collateral damage in their calculated rebuilding efforts.
By his own admission, he had lost his game that season. It prompted Sharks GM Doug Wilson to make a deal for James Reimer to solidify San Jose’s backup goalie position and set his team up for a run to the Stanley Cup final.
The Leafs took on Stalock and centre Ben Smith in the trade while adding a conditional pick that wound up becoming a 2018 third-rounder. They still own that selection in the upcoming draft.
Stalock was immediately passed through waivers and assigned to the American Hockey League, where he says he was told in no uncertain terms that the organization had little interest in him during a meeting with Marlies GM Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe.
“Obviously I got put on waivers, which was fine,” said Stalock. “I needed to go and play games. Just not to even really get a chance with the Marlies kind of stunk. They had a good team that had a chance to win a Calder Cup that year.
“It wasn’t like I wanted minutes handed to me, but I wanted to be in there and compete for playing time and I was told I wasn’t even going to be allowed to do that early on when I got there. How do you show up and compete, you know?”
What exacerbated his situation is that he was essentially stuck in career limbo while living out of a downtown Toronto hotel with his wife and young son. His world had been turned upside down.
Stalock played three games for the Marlies and served as Antoine Bibeau’s backup in eight others, but saw the crease get really crowded when college free agent Kasimir Kaskisuo was signed on March 28. That knocked the 28-year-old down to fourth on the AHL depth chart behind three younger goalies: Bibeau, Kaskisuo and Garret Sparks, who was playing for the Leafs at the time but earmarked for a playoff return.
“I was basically told I was their fourth guy,” said Stalock. “There was a couple meetings, but it’s just like: How do you get up and want to play if you’re told you’re not in any plans or anything? You know, it’s kind of a weird spot to be in as a professional athlete.”
Eventually, on April 16, the Marlies announced that they had let Stalock return home to Minnesota after a stretch of six games where he had been scratched completely.
While stressing that he enjoyed his time with teammates at Ricoh Coliseum, it was a relief to get out of Toronto.
“It really was,” he said. “It was. It was kind of nice just to go home and clear my head and get away from it a little bit.”
That helped pave the way for a career renaissance with his hometown Wild. The organization signed Stalock to a two-way contract on July 1, 2016 and immediately saw him regain form – posting a .926 save percentage in 50 games with AHL Iowa last season.
He’s spent this year backing up Devan Dubnyk and now finds himself temporarily holding the No. 1 role with his counterpart nursing an injury.
Stalock was supposed to start when Minnesota visited Air Canada Centre on Nov. 8, but ended up rushing home when his wife was in labour with their second child.
Now he’ll finally get an opportunity to face the Leafs. It’s part of a reunion tour that saw him play the Sharks for the first time – and pick up a victory – last weekend.
“That was pretty cool,” said Stalock. “A lot of old friends. It was obviously a little different than to be playing against Toronto. Where San Jose, it was Day 1 I’ve been with them for my career, and the way they treated me through injuries I had and how loyal they are as an organization.
“With Toronto, I spent such a short time there it’s a little different, but at the same time I just want to go and win.”