Fresh on the heels of two solid wins including Wednesday’s victory over a good Toronto Maple Leafs team, Curtis McElhinney is officially the Carolina Hurricanes starting goalie.
As a player who played preseason with another team and was only acquired via waivers to fill in for an injured Scott Darling, he is an improbable #1 but significantly has earned the role.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at the past and also the future for Scott McElhinney.
A self-made man
As a sixth-round draft pick in the 2002 draft, Curtis McElhinney was not a player with a high probability of every making it to the NHL when he was drafted. But he made progress during four years of college hockey, spent two years in the AHL proving he was capable and then made the jump to the NHL fairly quickly. Since making his NHL debut with the Calgary Flames during the 2007-08 season, he has played for seven NHL teams and three AHL teams. As a journeyman backup nothing has ever been handed to him. Instead, McElhinney has had to earn his limited ice time and be ready when called upon to fill in for whoever was ahead of him on the depth chart. After years posting respectable but not great numbers, McElhinney seemed to find a higher gear over the past few years. In 2016-17 with Columbus, he posted a .924 Save Percentage and 2.39 Goals Against Average. Then in 2017-18 with Toronto, he upped that to a .934 Save Percentage and 2.14 Goals Against Average with an impressive 11-5-1 record. But even during his rise, he was always a backup.
So the short version is that the recent trajectory of Curtis McElhinney has been decidedly upward.
Entering the 2018-19 season
Entering the 2018-19 season, McElhinney had momentum as noted above. But he was also a 35-year old netminder who last started more than 15 games during the 2014-15 season. It made sense to project him as a capable or better backup with a good amount of NHL experience. But projecting him to be a starter figured to be a stretch given his age and the fact that he had yet to pin down such a role at this stage of his career.
During the 2017-18 season, McElhinney played more than one game in a week exactly once. Interestingly, he won all of those games during a short mid-March burst including a shutout in the last of the three games. The 2016-17 season saw him play more than one game in a week four times. That maybe makes it seem more possible that McElhinney could play a run of games and not be out of his element. But for a player whose start totals have peaked at 15 recently, one has to wonder what the limit is for McElhinney in terms of playing at an effective level.
The here and now
Put simply, right now Curtis McElhinney is the best goalie that the Carolina Hurricanes have. He won three straight games upon arrival before fading a bit. More recently, he currently owns a two-game winning streak. Very clearly, if Friday’s game against the Florida Panthers was a do or die for a playoff spot, McElhinney would be the starter. But the Hurricanes season right now is not solely about winning on Friday. Rather, it is about finding a way to win enough over the 82-game NHL grind. Therein lies the dilemma for Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour and the challenge for the team. No doubt, Brind’Amour will ride McElhinney as long as he keeps his current trajectory. But at some point, Brind’Amour likely will have to find another goalie who can either seize the reins or at least offer an effective way to split games.
Believing in Cinderella
Very clearly, McElhinney’s story would be an attractive one for the team and the NHL if at 35 years old, he is suddenly ready to excel as an NHL starter. Though the volume of games has not been there, the level of play actually has for a couple of years now.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you make of McElhinney seizing the Canes starting goalie slot? Do you think he can maintain that role all season, or do you think he will soon yield that slot to a team mate?
2) What is your best guess for how many games he can play and still be effective?