Veteran goaltender Curtis McElhinney has been inside his fair share of locker rooms, home and visitors, throughout his 11 seasons in the National Hockey League.
The 36 year old joined his eighth team after signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning on the first day of free agency July 1, his third team since the previous free agency opening day. McElhinney started 2018-19 on the second year of a two-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs tried to slip McElhinney through waivers to their AHL team a day before the beginning of the season, but Carolina, needing another goalie after presumed starter Scott Darling was injured in the final preseason game, scooped him up to provide depth.
The move was "frustrating" initially for McElhinney. He put up quality numbers, going 11-5-1 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .934 save percentage as the backup to starter Frederik Andersen the year prior in Toronto but was passed over to remain the backup in favor of Garrett Sparks, who was named the AHL's top goalie and led the Toronto Marlies to the Calder Cup in 2017-18.
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In Carolina, there was uncertainty. And a logjam in net with McElhinney, Petr Mrazek and Darling, who was expected to miss just a couple of weeks with a lower-body injury, all vying to be the main guy.
Through the chaos, the season turned out to be the best of McElhinney's career. He posted season highs for games (33), starts (33) and wins (20), and his successful goalie partnership with Mrazek - Darling was waived at the end of November and eventually bought out by the Hurricanes following the season - was a key component in the Canes unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Final. McElhinney made his first career playoff start at age 35 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Islanders and competed in five postseason games total with Carolina, compiling a 3-2 record, 2.01 GAA and .930 save percentage.
"I've been in it long enough that I've seen quite a few things, but at the beginning of every season you kind of have a plan or how you want everything to go," McElhinney said. "It doesn't necessarily unfold that way. The situation last year turned out to be a pretty good one and nothing I could have expected at the beginning of the season. It was definitely a pleasant surprise playing in Carolina. It was special, a special place. I had a lot of fun and obviously with the Surge and everything that we got into there, it was a surreal year."
Now McElhinney is on his third team in less than a year after coming to an agreement on a two-year contract with the Lightning in the summer. A move to Tampa Bay was a bit curious considering the Bolts already had Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy - and locked him up for the next nine seasons after signing him to an eight-year extension on July 29 - along with backup Louis Domingue, who excelled in 2018-19 when Vasilevskiy was injured or needed a rest.
Domingue, Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois reasoned, had resurrected his career last season with Tampa Bay and would be looking for a job as a starter once his contract was up following the 2019-20 season. The Lightning aren't in the market for a starter with Vasilevskiy set for the foreseeable future. And with no goalie prospects knocking on the door of becoming a NHL regular, the need arose for a cost effective backup goalie.
"Considering our cap situation and what I anticipate our cap situation to be next year where we're going to be even more crunched than we are now, I was given the opportunity to address that backup need for 2020-21 today," BriseBois explained on July 1 in announcing the McElhinney signing. "We got to sign Curtis McElhinney who's a goaltender that we've always liked, who's a veteran backup, who knows the role, has a strong track record in that role and can bring a veteran presence to our locker room. So the more I thought about it, the more it made sense if we could agree on a two-year deal at a cap number that was I feel advantageous for us, it made sense for us to do that."
For McElhinney, the decision to come to Tampa Bay was simple. He got his first significant taste of postseason hockey last season with Carolina - he made relief playoff appearances previously with Calgary in 2009 and Toronto in 2018 - and wanted a chance at a bigger bite.
"I think at this point in my career, it's more about having an opportunity to be there in June," he said. "When you weigh your options and you look at organizations and where they're at and what their expectations are, that's usually the number one deciding factor, especially for somebody like myself. Last year was the furthest I've ever been in the playoffs. I'm hoping to go a little bit further this year. But yeah, that's kind of what it comes down to is just is there an opportunity to win and there's certainly a pretty good one here right now."
And that's where we come back to the numerous locker rooms McElhinney has found himself in over the course of his NHL career. You see, many will be hard-pressed to remember, but McElhinney is beginning his second stint with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Back in 2011, a then-27 year old McElhinney was traded to the Lightning by Anaheim for fellow netminder Dan Ellis. Four days later, the Lightning waived McElhinney in an effort to send him down to their AHL affiliate, in Norfolk at the time.
Ottawa, however, claimed McElhinney, and he finished out the season with the Senators having never suited up for the Lightning.
McElhinney's first go-round with the Lightning might have officially lasted four days.
In reality, it was even shorter.
"I literally flew in about 1 o'clock (a.m.), had a morning skate and then I may have been on a flight by 1 (p.m.) the same day," he said. "I walked through the dressing room for a morning skate and walked right out the other door."
McElhinney is hoping his second chance with the Lightning proves to be lengthier and more fruitful. But the journey he's taken to get here, through nearly every locker room in every NHL arena, is part of what makes him such a valuable addition to the Bolts.
"I came into Calgary with expectations to be kind of their starting guy," said McElhinney, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Flames at the 2002 NHL Draft and started his NHL career in Calgary in 2007. "That's I think every young goalie that comes into the league wants that opportunity and expects to be that No. 1 guy. But we all have roles to fill. For myself personally, it never materialized as the No. 1 guy, but I think I've embraced the role that I've come into. Last year, obviously, there was an opportunity to play some more games. I think when the need arises, I'm definitely capable of handling that workload. But I've also learned how to go multiple weeks without playing a game and then being able to jump in there and have success. Yeah, I wanted to be a No. 1 guy and I wanted to stay in one city for 10 years and create something there, but this journey, it's been pretty fun too. It's fun to walk into teams where you've played and there's a lot of familiar staff, not just in the dressing room but around the arena and stuff. We've met a lot of good people along the way. I don't think I'd really change anything at this point."