photo: News and Observer
What should a dynasty player do when faced with a player who has been irrelevant in fantasy his whole career but is suddenly relevant? Should you jump at the chance to target him with a waiver claim? Try to sneak him into the back end of a trade? Leave him to be someone else’s problem?
Curtis McElhinney broke into the NHL in 2007 with the Calgary Flames. In 11 seasons, he has managed 136 starts with a .909 save percentage. During the years of his career, the NHL average save percentage has ranged from .906 to .911 — keeping McElhinney right at in the middle. Keep in mind that this doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” For every star goalie putting up that .930 save percentage over a bunch of starts, there must be another goalie somewhere melting down each night, dragging that average back down. Getting an average performance isn’t a bad thing, especially for an NHL team. Still, of all the backup goalies in the NHL, McElhinney has been the backuppiest.
If you look at all 88 goalies who have totaled at least 100 career starts since 2007, McElhinney ranks dead last at average starts per season with 12.36. McElhinney has been on eight NHL teams. He has been traded mid-season three times and claimed off mid-season waivers three more times. He’s toiled away in the AHL five seasons — three from ages 22-24 when he was looking for his first chance to break into the NHL, and again from 2011-2013 waiting for a second chance at the show. McElhinney has earned $6.3 million over his long career and could add $850,000 this year. He will no doubt retire in not many more years knowing he was very likely one of the 50 best on earth at his profession over the span of his career. We should all be so lucky.
But that’s not the story here. The story here is that last year, McElhinney had a career-best year with the Toronto Maple Leafs and is looking interesting early this year for the Carolina Hurricanes. Last year in 18 games (15 starts), he posted a .934 save percentage. Of his 15 starts, 13 were on the back end of a back-to-back. Toronto’s starter, Frederik Anderson, had a very respectable year, his second in a row putting up a .918 save percentage.
Corsica.hockey is even more glowing about McElhinney’s 2017-18. Among goalies who played at least 10 games, his save percentage was the best in hockey and his goals against average was second. The following chart shows 5 on 5 stats for the 68 NHL goalies with at least 600 minutes played (McElhinney had 798.23). His high-danger save percentage (a better measure of skill over luck) was .910. That was the best in the NHL and it was not close.
5×5 save percentage, data courtesy Corsica.Hockey
Of course, none of this stopped the Maple Leafs from cutting him loose at the beginning of this season, allowing the Carolina Hurricanes to become his 8th team.
Carolina remains in the midst of a multi-year tire fire in goal. Fans of the team have to wonder what would have become of recent young teams if they had been backed by competent goaltending.
|Year||Sv%||Sv% Rank||McElhinney Sv%|
Carolina and McElhinney team save percentage, courtesy hockey-reference.com
In 2018, Carolina finally let go of Cam Ward, who certainly contributed to many of those totals. With Scott Darling on the injured list and Petr Mrazek nicked up as well, McElhinney stepped right from the waiver wire to the starting lineup and has outplayed Mrazek so far in three contests for the first place Canes (though with a tepid .900 sv%). Four of the eight goals he has allowed have come against the power play, placing him 3rd from worst in the NHL in PK Sv%. The good news is this statistic tends to be less predictive of future performance for a goalie.
Pessimists look at all this and say his performance last year was a small sample fluke backed by a strong Toronto team, an outlier that should not convince us Curtis McElhinney is anything different than what he showed us over a long career. Dynasty owners, in particular, are likely not remotely interested in him.
My take is McElhinney has been a better goalie over the past two years than his competition in Carolina this year. It will be very difficult to stay on the roster once both the other higher-priced goalies get healthy. If McElhinney continues to outperform one of Darling or Mrazek (both of whom played far worse last year) there is a chance he will stay relevant. Except in the deepest of dynasties, you will likely have a chance to pick up McElhinney in your league before this situation resolves. I would try it, as the opportunity cost and recent record mean our man probably has the best chance he has had in a long career to get the interest of fantasy players.