February 3, 2004
(St. John's, NFLD) -- Three years after arriving from Sweden as a highly-touted goaltending prospect, Mikael Tellqvist still finds himself the third wheel in the Toronto Maple Leafs' goaltending rotation, learning to control rebounds and his patience while toiling on the farm in St. John's.
The 22-year-old product of Sundbyberg, a city of about 35,000 near Stockholm, had a skate in the Leafs' door early this season as Ed Belfour's understudy while Trevor Kidd recuperated from off-season shoulder surgery.
Tellqvist handled himself well during his stint in Toronto, going 2-0 with a 2.51 goals against average in five appearances.
But Kidd's return in November meant a one-way ticket back to the American Hockey League and the St. John's Maple Leafs for Tellqvist. Since then, he's had two brief cups of coffee in Toronto, the latest recall coming Monday.
"It's not fun, but it's part of my development," said Tellqvist. "Toronto wants me in St. John's and I have to accept it."
To his credit, Tellqvist didn't report to Doug Shedden's AHL squad brooding. But, says the St. John's coach, it's time Tellqvist shows the hockey world he can be the best goalie in the top rung of minor pro hockey.
"Telly will probably be given the backup job in Toronto next year, if there is NHL hockey," said Shedden, alluding to a possible work stoppage. "But he has to earn the job, not because it's given to him."
Heading into a two-game series with the Syracuse Crunch this week, Tellqvist was 7-8-1 with a 2.62 goals against average and a very ordinary .918 save percentage.
|Tellqvist believes he's ready for the NHL. |
(Graig Abel Photography)
Those numbers are a far cry from the impressive stats Tellqvist had while playing in Sweden's first division league where, as a 20-year-old, he usurped veteran Tommy Soderstrom as Djurgardens No. 1 puckstop.
After leading his club to a league title, the Leafs picked the young netminder 24th overall in the 2000 draft.
But his first season in North America didn't go swimmingly. After being mentioned in the summer of '01 as a candidate to backup Curtis Joseph in Toronto, Tellqvist struggled through training camp and the NHL exhibition season before being assigned to St. John's.
The troubles continued in Newfoundland and he was eventually replaced by Central Hockey League callup Sebastien Centomo as the No. 1 goalie in St. John's, finishing the season 8-11-6 with a 3.12 GAA. Tellqvist made only one start in the playoffs.
The rookie Swede clearly had trouble adapting to the smaller ice and the shoot-first mentality of North American pros.
But he rebounded last season, leading the AHL in saves for a Leafs team that missed the post season. His stock continued to rise in the spring when he backstopped Sweden to a silver medal at the world championship.
Which makes it all the more frustrating to be back in this minors this season.
"People say you have to be patient, but of course it's easier said than done," said Tellqvist, who has paid homage to the Leafs' and Sweden's hockey heritage with a portrait of former Toronto defence great Borje Salming adorning his mask.
"When I was sent down it was tough, but at least there's a chance to play more games down here. It's a great bunch of guys too, so I'm enjoying myself.
"But I feel kind of ready (for the NHL). At the beginning of the season, I played a few games and I felt pretty good. But you can always learn a lot of things when you play a lot, and especially for me it's playing the puck. I need to improve in that area."
| "People say you have to be patient, but of course it's easier said than done." |
| - Goaltender Mikael Tellqvist |
On a team that's been hit hard by callups because of Toronto's rash of injuries, Tellqvist has been the one constant this season in St. John's, a fact not lost on Shedden.
"Ninety-five per-cent of the time," said the AHL Leafs' coach, "he's been real good on a team that's been not so good."
Meanwhile, there's a possibility Tellqvist could wind up in St. John's for a fourth season next year if labour strife shuts down the NHL.
But the goalie doesn't fear the sand is running out on his hour glass.
"A lot of goalies today play into their late 30s," he said, "and if I can play in the NHL, even for five or six years, it would be unbelievable.
"I feel like I have a lot of hockey in me."
Robin Short is the Sports Editor of the St. John's Telegram