Talbot crucial to Oilers' hopes of playoff return

Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports

EDMONTON, Alberta -- It was one simple conversation and it completely changed Cam Talbot's perspective on his situation. Henrik Lundqvist was sidelined after taking that scary shot off his throat and things weren’t going particularly well for Talbot, his replacement. Rather than bringing in a veteran band-aid solution in goal, the Rangers stuck with the backup, who had always performed admirably in short stints while giving Lundqvist a breather.

But Talbot was struggling. The Rangers kept on winning but it had to do more with the goal-scoring than goaltending. New York won five of the first seven starts for Talbot after Lundqvist went down, but Talbot had a save percentage higher than .900 in just one of those February starts.

The opportunity was there. The magnitude of what was happening was just a bit overwhelming.

“I was trying to do too much and play a little outside my comfort zone,” Talbot explained when we chatted recently after an Edmonton Oilers practice. “I was thinking too much about who I was replacing and the city I was playing in.”

His goalie coach noticed. Benoit Allaire pulled him aside for a chat. He told him that the Rangers didn’t need Henrik Lundqvist in goal. They needed Cam Talbot. They needed the guy who posted a .941 save percentage in 21 games the previous season, the goalie who showed perseverance in climbing his way from the University of Alabama-Huntsville, through a couple of seasons in the AHL, two games in the ECHL before finally arriving at Madison Square Garden.

That’s the guy they needed.

“We need you to play like you,” Allaire told Talbot.

Play within yourself. Don’t do anything you don’t normally do. Play your game.

“I settled down,” Talbot said.

He finished February with a .906 save percentage. That jumped to .946 in 12 games in March.

Along the way, he caught the eye of then-Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli who might not have known he’d soon be in the goalie market, but was still impressed nonetheless.

“I saw a real improvement in his play,” Chiarelli said on Monday after the Oilers' first morning skate of the preseason. “That’s a testament to Cam and the coaching he got in New York.”

Perseverance is a word you’re starting to hear a lot in Oilers camp, perhaps because this hasn’t been a team that has necessarily powered through rough patches particularly well during the past several years.

New coach Todd McLellan knows that all the adulation and hype that is surrounding his team now with the new coaching staff, front office and box-office star in Connor McDavid will turn quickly when the young team inevitably hits its first rough stretch.

He knows it’s coming, and he’s preparing his young team now so they’re ready for it. So they can persevere through it.

In Talbot, they have a goalie who has shown that ability with stakes incredibly high last season in New York. All that was on the line was the playoff positioning of a team with Stanley Cup hopes and his future as an NHL starter.

That pressure hasn’t necessarily lifted. With all the good that is happening in Edmonton, if the Oilers don’t get better goaltending than they’ve received the last couple seasons, it’ll get sour in a hurry.

This isn’t meant to pin things on the previous goalies in Edmonton, because this team hasn’t been an easy team in which to play goal.

“You guys said that,” responded Ben Scrivens when that was suggested to him on Monday. “I never said that.”

But the results have been ugly. Last season, the Oilers had an even-strength save percentage of .902 -- No. 30 in the league, by a long shot. The season before, that even-strength save percentage was .913 (No. 26 overall). In 2012-13, the Oilers were in the middle of the pack, with a save percentage that was .925 at even strength, and one that kept the Oilers at least close to a playoff race.

In 57 career games, Talbot has a career even-strength save percentage of .934.

“You shouldn’t expect the same numbers because that’s a different defense in front of him,” said one Eastern Conference GM. “But I like him.”

The Oilers weren’t the only team to aggressively pursue Talbot this offseason. At different points, Calgary, Dallas, Buffalo and Florida all showed interest in Talbot after it became clear he wasn’t going to return to the Rangers.

And even the Rangers wanted him back. Talbot did his exit interview with coach Alain Vigneault and then-assistant GM Jeff Gorton.

“At the time they told me basically they were going to try and keep me at all costs,” Talbot said. “In my meeting, they acknowledged that not many guys could have stepped in and did what I did when Hank was out, which was really nice to hear. It meant a lot to me personally. Obviously, circumstances didn’t allow for it.”

Cap space is at a premium in New York, and the Rangers had to start recouping some of the draft picks they’ve shipped away in attempts to win the Stanley Cup. A trade became inevitable. So every time Talbot saw the name of his agent, George Bazos, show up on his cellphone in the weeks leading up to the draft, he answered with a bit of trepidation, knowing that his life could change dramatically depending on what Bazos said.

Most of the times, the calls were just updates. But on the Saturday morning of draft weekend, after Talbot had just finished making a pot of coffee and was about to settle in to watch the second round of the draft at home, the call came from Bazos that ended the wait.

Bazos told him to expect a call from Peter Chiarelli. He was headed to the Oilers for draft picks.

His reaction?

“Excitement,” Talbot said. “They had gotten Connor the day before. They’d bring in guys like Griffin [Reinhart], [Eric] Gryba, [Andrej] Sekera -- you can tell they’re trying to work on the back end. It was a lot of excitement for me, especially coming to a team that’s up and coming.”

Things are certainly up and coming in Edmonton, but just how high is still yet to be determined, and a lot of the initial success could hinge on how quickly Talbot seizes the starting job.

“I feel he’s a No. 1. In my experience, it takes some time to get that No. 1 experience,” Chiarelli said. “It’s different being a one than a two.”

On Monday, Talbot made his first start of the preseason for the Oilers. He allowed one goal on 14 shots before handing the baton to Laurent Brossoit. The Oilers were playing a split-squad game, and the early goaltending reports from Calgary to McLellan were also positive. Scrivens stopped 12 of 13 shots. Anders Nilsson was perfect on 17 shots on goal against the Flames.

Nobody is drawing any conclusions from one night of split-squad games, but Edmonton’s hope of showing serious growth this season rests on those goalie reports remaining positive.

“The great thing we have created here now is competition for the net,” McLellan said after the game. “It really doesn’t matter to me who plays. We just want to win games and give our team the best opportunity.”