Joining a new team for the final stretch of the season is a tough task as it is. Add in some lost luggage and a 50-shot barrage to that and you have Tom McCollum’s first 48 hours as a Checker.
Acquired at last Wednesday’s AHL trade deadline, the netminder quickly departed to meet his new team in Winnipeg, where they would take on the Manitoba Moose Thursday night. After a series of airline changes and sprints through airport terminals, McCollum arrived in Winnipeg.
Unfortunately, his goalie equipment did not.
That delayed his Checkers debut a day, as he took the ice in Friday’s rematch as the starter. There was no easing in to his new team for McCollum, however, as he was peppered with a staggering 50 shots by the Moose. But the netminder stood tall, turning aside 49 of them to earn the win.
“It’s definitely not the easiest way to do it,” said McCollum of his first outing with his new team. “But like I told the guys they did a great job of keeping the shots to the perimeter and giving me clean lanes to see the puck. Yes it was a lot of shots but it wasn’t super taxing because the guys played so well in front of me.”
Making the jump to Charlotte represents a fresh start for McCollum, and a chance to showcase his skills that he wasn’t allotted earlier this season.
Selected in the first round of the 2008 draft, McCollum spent the first seven season of his pro career in the Detroit system, spending most of that time making an impact on the Grand Rapids Griffins’ record book. That changed when the netminder inked a two-year deal with the Calgary Flames just prior to the 2016-17 season. With the Flames’ goaltending situation solidified up top and a pipeline full of young talent, McCollum found himself the odd man out. He appeared in just one game for the AHL’s Stockton Heat, entering the contest in relief, and five games with the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder.
While he still remains property of the Flames, the deadline deal offered McCollum the chance to get back into the crease.
“It’s definitely been a little strange,” he said of his season so far. “I’m used to playing a lot more and for whatever reason things didn’t work out that way in Stockton, but fortunately there was a need here for me and hopefully I can fit in and help contribute.”
Keeping yourself prepared and in game condition while rarely seeing the ice is a tough task, but one that McCollum faced head on.
“I spent a lot of time working with Colin Zulianelo, who is the goalie coach in Stockton,” said McCollum. “We were on the ice early before practice and we stayed out late after, even at morning skates. I’d sit with him in the games where I wasn’t dressed and pick his brain about what both goalies were doing for each team just to keep my head into it. A lot of it is just visualizing when you’re away from the rink to keep your mind sharp.”
The real kicker in McCollum’s situation this season is that the 27-year-old has long established himself as a strong presence at the AHL level. He stands as the Griffins’ all-time leader in games played, minutes played and saves and ranks second in wins, and is just a year removed from posting 15 wins and a career-best .923 save percentage. Perhaps most importantly for the Checkers, McCollum was a key piece on a Grand Rapids team that was perennially contending for a Calder Cup.
With Charlotte in the midst of an uphill climb to the playoffs that is coming down to the wire, having a player like McCollum in the locker room is a definite plus.
“There’s a lot of guys here now who have been on good teams before,” said McCollum. “A lot of it is we know what it takes and the work you need to put in. It’s not so much guys like that telling younger guys what to do, it’s just showing up and putting the work in and leading the way in hopes that they follow.”
While he hasn’t spent a ton of time around the group, McCollum is already impressed with the squad he is becoming a part of.
“From what I’ve seen there’s a great team here,” he said. “These guys have a lot of skill. It’s a very close team too, which helps with that playoff push.”
Michael Leighton, out for nearly a month now due to injury, continues to work his way back to game action, but isn’t quite there. The veteran took the ice Monday in goalie gear for the first time since getting hurt, but was only out for a few minutes ahead of practice before heading back to the locker room.
With Leighton still on the mend and rookie Alex Nedeljkovic in Florida, the Checkers will send out McCollum and Daniel Altshuller as their tandem between the pipes for the time being. Head coach Ulf Samuelsson has been on the record this season as preferring to have one of his young netminders seize the starting role as opposed to going through a rotation. Whether that philosophy remains the same with the new faces is to be seen, but however it plays out, McCollum is prepared.
“As far as that goes, it’s just my job to show up and play,” said McCollum. “Ulf’s going to decide who plays and when. I’m comfortable in all situations. I’ve played a lot of games in a row, I went through a stretch this year where I didn’t play at all. So I’m used to every role. At the end of the day your job is just to be a great teammate and be ready to play when the coach gives you a chance.”