Curtis McElhinney hasn’t written a book — it sure seems like he’s got a good title, at least — but he’d have quite a few stories to tell once his playing career has a come to a close. But for now, he’s just hoping to make sure those final few chapters include a return to the National Hockey League.
The 29-year-old was Calgary’s sixth-round pick in the 2002 draft, and rather unexpectedly established himself as a prospect in the organization with strong play for their then-AHL affiliates in Omaha and Quad City. He made his NHL debut during the 2007-08 season for the Flames, and established himself as the full-time backup the following season.
And then frequent flyer miles started piling up.
At the 2010 trade deadline, he was shipped off to Anaheim in exchange for Vesa Toskala. After less than a calendar year in Orange County, he was again traded for a goalie; this time to Tampa Bay in exchange for Dan Ellis. Just four days later, he was claimed on waivers by the Ottawa Senators.
Prior to the 2011-12 season, he signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Phoenix Coyotes, for whom he appeared in two NHL games. But he didn’t last the year there either, getting dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Antoine Vermette deal.
“It’s a lot of travel,” McElhinney told The Trentonian through a laugh.
“I think the first time you get shipped out of somewhere, it’s a little difficult to accept, but after that, I think it’s just the nature of the beast unfortunately. There’s some positives to it in getting to meet a new group of guys and some new people, and you try and the most of it.”
Now, McElhinney has found some stability…if there ever is such a thing for him. But, to be clear, McElhinney does not fit the textbook definition of “suitcase goalie.” Talent has never been an issue, and that much has been on full display this season — his 2.28 goals against average and .926 save percentage earned him a second career appearance in the AHL All-Star Game with the Springfield Falcons.
“I’m pretty good at fitting in in new areas nowadays,” joked McElhinney, who understood having to come back to the AHL this year.
“The situation just with the injury and Phoenix having to unload a contract was totally understandable. I wasn’t doing much for them at the time sitting out, so I think the situation worked out for both organizations. Fortunately for me, I was able to find a home in Springfield this year.”
The trade-off is an interesting one for the approachable London, Ontario native.
On one hand, he found himself stuck behind workhorses like Miikka Kiprusoff and Jonas Hiller during his time in the NHL and never was going to get an opportunity to be a regular starter. In the AHL, he’ll get the bulk of the games, but be further away from the spotlight.
“It was tough (establishing yourself),” he said.
“Obviously, I’d like to think if I was able to go back and do it now, it would be a little bit easier just based on the experience, but to do that when you’re so used to playing so many games, it certainly presented its challenges. It was a learning experience for me, it was where I wanted to be.
“Now, it’s nice to get into a routine again. You’ve always been used to playing, especially growing up…but when you get up to the NHL, and you’re talking about 30 guys (who start), it’s tough. There’s not a lot of guys and there’s not a lot of movement at that position, so there are going to be backups regardless of how we’ll you’ve done at juniors or the AHL and whatnot. It’s certainly a transition, and for people that have been used to playing so much their entire lives, it’s challenging at times.”
Now, McElhinney finds himself in an interesting situation yet again. With the Blue Jackets goaltending situation in a perpetual state of flux — Sergei Bobrovsky was brought in to challenge Steve Mason for the starting job, but they currently rank 26th and 27th out of qualifiying NHL goaltenders in GAA, respectively — the well-traveled backup could be in a perfect position to get another opportunity at the big time.
“I’d like to think so,” said McElhinney when asked if he could get a chance there.
“It’s tough to tell with the shortened season as far as what their views are going to be on it and what they do, but you don’t want to wish anybody any negative results in their games. But at the same point, you’re still looking for a break and another chance yourself. Hopefully, there will be one at some point this season.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com