Sage advice for Irving: ‘You never fold. You just keep taking cards’
Even though prospect has fallen on hard times, getting demoted in Abbotsford, Flames goalie coach Malarchuk believes in him
If Clint Malarchuk has any one piece of advice for goaltenders low on chips, it’s not to cash in and walk away from the table.
“We’re all dealt cards,” says the Calgary Flames’ puck-stopping coach. “And, yeah, sometimes they’re crappy cards. You’ve got to wait until the next hand is dealt.
“Thing is: You never fold. You just keep takin’ cards. And eventually you’re going win a hand. And then, if you have talent — and he has talent — a big pot.
“I told him, ‘Things change. At the drop of a hat.’ You see it all the time. It’s not just goalies. If you’re a survivor, you’re going to have success. Just be mentally tough and survive.”
Leland Irving is low on chips.
At 24, he’s reached a delicate point in his pro career, that hazy netherworld between bright light and fading potential. The Flames have invested a lot of time and money in their first-round pick (26th overall) of 2006; their apparent. But now he very rightly feels neglected, abandoned.
The youngest goaltender in Abbotsford, the only one with an NHL contract, and yet he has been continually passed over by Heat coach Troy Ward this season in favour of Barry Brust and Danny Taylor, playing only six games to Taylor’s 18 and Brust’s 15.
This measure of rejection, after getting into 61 and 39 games the last two campaigns, has been hard to accept.
Yet the third man in the minors is here trying to beat out Henrik Karlsson for the backup job in the big leagues, one of the few true roster-spot battles in this abbreviated camp.
“He hasn’t played a lot,” says Flames’ GM Jay Feaster of Irving. “But when you get right down to it, his status is no different than what Karlsson’s was. Last year he earned that opportunity. So now there’s competition.
“Unless we play 28 games to win the Stanley Cup then Kipper probably won’t play in 70 or more this year — but that doesn’t mean he’ll play in 48. That’s all up to the coaching staff. It’s Bob (Hartley). It’s Clint. But we’re going to need our backup.
“May the best man win.”
The four or five starts either Karlsson, Irving or some As Yet Unnamed goaltender Feaster adds to the mix are going to be absolutely pivotal this season. Those precious few nights off for Miikka Kiprusoff could, in a murderously competitive, schedule-condensed Western Conference, mean the difference between playoff participation or another springtime of subservience.
“It’s been a tough year,” acknowledges Irving. “But I’ve got a great support group. I’ve got a great wife. Jordan (Heat goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet) has been great. Talking with Clint has helped, too. He has a lot of insight.
“It’s all about opportunity. I didn’t think I’d lost the starting job in Abbotsford, but as things went on it got longer and longer between starts. And that’s a tough way for anyone to try and play. I can’t let me beat myself, though. I’m trying to make the most out of every practice, just trying to earn a spot back in the game. But the way things are going I don’t know if there’s anything I could’ve done to earn another start down there.
“It almost came to a point where we had to do ... something. Whether it was Europe or another team. I’ve got to play to develop. I’m just thankful to be here in Calgary now and be able to battle for the backup spot.
“I feel like I play better up here. That may not make sense to a lot of people, but it’s a faster game, a little more structure. I feel like I’m able to read the play better and have less time to over-think things.”
Malarchuk, the voice of experience, is there whenever Irving, or any of the Flames’ goaltenders or prospects, needs to bend someone’s ear.
“I don’t know,” he notes ruefully, “if there’s a situation I haven’t been in myself. At whatever level. Gee whiz. I had 24 starts consecutively in the NHL. I’ve been a backup. I’ve been in the minors. I’ve been through the wars. So I think, I hope, he sees a certain credibility in that.”
Out of the ashes of a lost season, an organizational support eroded, Leland Irving can still salvage much. Maybe even a start to resurrecting a promising career. By sticking here, and not going back to third-string status at a lower level. He has a week, not long, to set about on that path.
One of his mentors, the support group who’ve kept his spirits up during a trying professional time, advises to just stay at the table and wait for the next hand.
“I know exactly how he feels,” says Clint Malarchuk. “EXACTLY.
“I don’t think he’s lost his confidence. It might be a little shaky. And it should be, under the circumstances. That’s part of sports. Part of being an athlete.
“I think he’s a very good goaltender. In today’s game he’s not the big guy. But he’s not a little guy, either, 6-1 or 6-2. He’s in phenomenal condition. He’s got great quickness and great technique. He’s got a lot of things going for him. A lot. He’s just got to keep the mental focus.
“Hang in there. Hang in there.
“It’s the survivors that succeed. You’ve just got to keep going, keep working.
“Don’t fold. Keep takin’ cards.”
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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