How Calvin Pickard has affirmed his spot on the Oilers

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EDMONTON — The organizational goalie swap the Edmonton Oilers made in November was supposed to be temporary.

It was done to provide a chance for the expensive Jack Campbell to clear his mind and find his game in the minors. The plan for his replacement, Calvin Pickard, was to be nothing more than a seat-filler at an awards ceremony.

But something happened along the way. And Pickard, 31, has found himself in the right place at the right time.

Just like Cosmo Kramer getting pulled onstage at the Tony Awards, Pickard is along for the ride with a top team in the NHL that has designs on winning a big prize of their own.

“You never knew what was going to happen,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to play behind a good team and have some good games.”

There’s more to it than that, of course.

Pickard has had more excellent or at least average appearances than bad ones. He’s won eight of his 11 starts — the latest a 23-save effort in a 6-1 win over a gassed Pittsburgh Penguins squad Sunday.

The only puck that got by him was an odd bounce that landed on the stick of future Hockey Hall of Famer Evgeni Malkin right in front of the net midway through the third period.

Pickard has played so well that GM Ken Holland said at the start of February the he wasn’t willing to make any moves with his goaltenders. With a below-league-minimum $762,500 cap hit, Pickard would have been a prime candidate to be plucked off waivers — if the Oilers ever exposed him.

Holland told The Athletic heading into the weekend that he’s not in the market to add another netminder to the mix in Edmonton before Friday’s trade deadline. Pickard’s steady work factored into that thinking.

“If I was paying attention to it, I don’t think I’d have a ton of success,” Pickard said. “I’m just trying to go about my job, and I think I’ve done that pretty well so far.”

He sure has.

Pickard’s winning ways and .909 save percentage have led to one of the most pleasant surprises of the Oilers season.

Pickard started the campaign as an organizational extra but was recast on Nov. 8 when he was thrust into a supporting role in a box-office flop. The Oilers — full of A-list stars with expectations of a Broadway masterpiece — were a mess, having won just two of their first 11 games.

Pickard met his Oilers teammates in San Jose that evening to serve as Stuart Skinner’s understudy. Skinner’s scene partner Campbell had been written out of the script for the time being after being waived and demoted to AHL Bakersfield.

Pickard did what anyone in his position should do. He came in with a positive attitude and with the intention of doing whatever he could to get the group’s performance back on the rails.

That first day on the ice in San Jose on Nov. 9, Pickard stayed out after all the Oilers had left the ice for the morning and took extra shots from Connor Brown and Mattias Janmark — two players recovering from injuries.

“He’s a bubbly, social-butterfly guy,” defenceman Brett Kulak said. “He shows up every day and prepares. He gets himself ready to play, and he’s a good goalie.”

The Oilers lost that night to the woeful Sharks, which led to a coaching change.

New bench boss Kris Knoblauch wanted to see what he had in Skinner — the Calder Trophy runner-up last season. He started Skinner 10 of the first 11 games he coached.

It seemed like Pickard would never really get a chance to see if he could shine.

He earned his first victory with the Oilers on Dec. 10 when he turned aside 25 of 26 shots in a 4-1 decision against New Jersey. It was his first NHL win since Jan. 28, 2022.

The last start he made before the All-Star break was a shutout over Chicago.

“He’s the perfect backup goalie,” Kulak said. “He’s an old, veteran, professional guy.”

“The most important part is he’s good at stopping the puck,” Knoblauch said. “He’s a great team guy. Guys love him. He puts in the extra work in practice.

“He’s been able to play really solid, really good for us for a very long stretch.”

Oilers management had witnessed that over a three-month stretch.

As a result, Pickard was given the green light to bring his wife, Courtney, and their two daughters, Blakely and Ryla, up from Bakersfield once the team returned to action in February.

Visits with them from early November onward were few and far between. Pickard made trips to Southern California during the Christmas and All-Star breaks.

“That was tough for a couple months there with the question marks,” he said. “It’s good to have them here. Now that we’re together, it’s nice to go home. They’re everything to me.”

Their arrival in Edmonton, plus Pickard’s dad, Dan, driving up their 8-year-old dog — a Mini Aussie named Ari — meant it was time for the family to rent a house.

“There’d be no way we could do it in a hotel,” Pickard said.

This stint with the Oilers is proving to be one helluva storybook second act to his NHL career.

It wasn’t that long ago that Pickard started 48 games for the Colorado Avalanche in 2016-17.

The Avs were a trainwreck that season, finishing with just 48 points, yet Pickard still managed a .904 save percentage. He recorded a .922 and .932 save percentage in the previous two campaigns in 20 and 16 appearances, respectively.

He was then Canada’s starter at the 2017 world championship and battled the great Henrik Lundqvist in the final, allowing just one goal on 41 shots before Sweden won the gold medal in a shootout.

At 25, it sure seemed like Pickard was establishing himself as an NHL goalie — until suddenly he wasn’t.

Vegas picked him in the expansion draft but waived him just as the regular season began.

“That’s kind of what started it. They didn’t really believe in me at the time,” Pickard said. “I just couldn’t catch on anywhere, really.”

Toronto ultimately traded for him, but Pickard wound up on its AHL team and was the backup in the playoffs in its championship run.

From the fall of 2018 until this season, he’d been so many places Johnny Cash could have written a song about him. The list of places and teams: Philadelphia Flyers, Arizona Coyotes, Tucson Roadrunners, Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit Red Wings, Vienna Capitals (in fall 2020 due to COVID-19), then back to Grand Rapids and Detroit again before his first season in Bakersfield, for the Oilers’ top affiliate, the Condors, in 2022-23.

“I went through some ups and downs. There were times when I was definitely fighting it in the minors — and in the NHL,” Pickard said. “But I know I can play. With a clear mind, I know I can be successful at the NHL level. I just had to believe it.

“I’ve bounced around the last six, seven years, but I’m just grateful to be here.”

It looks like Pickard has found a home in Edmonton for now even if his future beyond this season is uncertain because he’s a pending unrestricted free agent.

Not only is Pickard’s spot secure for the weeks ahead past the trade deadline, but Knoblauch said his workload will increase down the stretch.

The Oilers have three four-game weeks and four sets of back-to-back games left on the schedule, so there are some built-in starts bookmarked for Pickard. The Oilers have 23 games left, and Knoblauch said he envisions Skinner getting between 57 and 60 starts — and he’s already at 43.

“Picks will be getting more games,” the coach said. “We’re OK with that — especially with the way he’s playing.”

That sounds good to Pickard.

Once little more than an afterthought, he’s now hit the stage and more than held his own with the spotlight bright.

Not bad for the guy who was just supposed to be Campbell’s fill-in.

“I feel like I’m a part of this team now,” Pickard said. “It’s been good so far, but I just want to keep it going.”

(Photo of Calvin Pickard making a save on a shot by Pittsburgh’s Rickard Rakell: Perry Nelson / USA Today)

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