Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Is this year the crossroads for Thomas McCollum?

     This is the first of a three part series I'll be doing on the goaltending situation for the Grand Rapids. 

     The Grand Rapids Griffins are off to a somewhat disappointing start that has me confused. I think there are a lot of reasons they've struggled so far, but perhaps the most interesting (and most fun for me to break down) is goaltending.The situation in Grand Rapids is interesting because we have Thomas McCollum and Jordan Pearce coming into this season as the veterans in the AHL, and we now have young, dynamic, talented, enthusiastic, thrilling to watch phenom Petr Mrazek thrown into the mix. But I'm not going to focus on Mrazek... yet.

     Thomas McCollum has been the recipient of a lot of criticism and disappointment in the last couple years, and I think this is the year for him to show whether or not he has a future playing professional Hockey. Fun fact, McCollum started playing Hockey when he was 4 and he played defense. One season in Mites his team's goalie quit, next practice Thomas put on the pads, took over in net and never looked back. McCollum was drafted by the Wings 30th overall in the 1st round of the 2008 draft. Prior to being drafted by the Wings, McCollum played in the OHL for 3 years. He played '06-'09 with the Geulph Storm, was named to the 2009 World Juniors Championship roster, and then traded to the Brampton Battalion where he played out the rest of the '08-'09 season. While in the OHL, McCollum had a respectable 2.27 GAA .922 SV% with an 85-51-20 record.

     At the beginning of the '06-'07 season McCollum started out as the backup, but quickly won the starter position and set the Geulf record for shutouts by a rookie netminder with 5 and was named to the OHL All-Star Game and nominated for OHL goaltender of the Year.

     In the '07-'08 season McCollum played in 51 games, went 25-17-3-3, with a 2.50 GAA and a .914 save percentage. He was named the Academic Player of the Year as well as OHL goaltender of the month in December '07.

     The '08-'09 season saw McCollum split time between the Storm and the Batallion while also playing in an 8-2 USA win over Germany, stopping 16 of 18 shots, in the '09 World Junior Championships that saw the USA finish 5th. From the research and really crappy video clips I could find of the World Junior's it sounds like McCollum had a rough time and had confidence issues (more on this later). He finished the season with an overall 2.11 GAA and .927 SV%. After being traded to the Battalion, he posted an impressive 1.94 GAA and .929 SV% in 23 games and finished the season strong.

     After being drafted by Detroit, McCollum spent the '09-'10 season splitting time between the Toledo Walleye (ECHL) and the Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL). He played 3 games in Toledo posting a 2-1-0 record with a 4.48 GAA and .864 SV%. He became the youngest goalie to ever play for the Griffins at 19 years old. That year he played 30 games in Grand Rapids and posted a 10-16-2 record with a 3.48 GAA and .881 SV%. Part way through the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs McCollum was called up by Detroit to serve as a Black Ace but never saw any ice time.

     There must be a glitch in the'10-'11 stats because there's something showing up that I'm sure didn't happen. But let's look at McCollum's stats in Grand Rapids before getting to that. This was a very rough year for Thomas. After 20 games in Grand Rapids, going 6-12-2 and posting a 3.33 GAA and .879 SV%, he was sent down to Toledo where he improved a little; playing 23 games and going 11-9-2 and posting a 2.76 GAA and .909 SV% Now here's the glitch in this season's stats. The official reports weave a twisted horrifying tale that I would definitely remember had it actually happened. On the night of March 30, 2011 the Red Wings were "supposedly" scheduled to play the St. Louis Blues. Now in this horror story, Chris Osgood was on IR for a groin injury and Jimmy Howard sustained a shoulder strain the previous game. Had this unfortunate series of events actually occurred, that would have left the goaltending responsibilities to *gulp* Joey MacDonald (who had been backing Howard up in Osgood's absence) and *gulp gulp* Thomas McCollum (who had no prior NHL experience whatsoever). Midway through this imaginary second period, St. Louis had scored 5 goals on Joey MacDonald and Babcock made the decision to give the rookie a shot. Thomas McCollum was put in net and unfortunately gave up 3 goals on 8 shots. Poor McCollum. Joey Mac was put back in net after that and.. I'm told... we lost the game 10-3. I still don't believe it, but the horrifying images are somehow stuck in my head and I can't make them disappear.

     In '11-'12, his third pro season, McCollum started out with the Walleye going 6-8 wtih a 2.62 GAA and .909 SV% in 15 games. He was called up by the Griffins in mid November and stayed there until returning to Toledo on December 4th. At the end of December he was recalled back to the Griffins and spent the rest of the season there; with the exception of two games wtih Toledo in early March. That season with the Griffins, McCollum went 11-16 with a 3.49 GAA and .891 SV% in 28 games.  Neither the Griffins nor the Walleye reached the playoffs that year. This season saw McCollum set a career best 5 straight victories and also a new career high in wins with 11. He led all Griffins goalies with 28 games played and tied for the team leading 11 victories. For context, the other goalies in Grand Rapids that year were as follows:

Ty Conklin 12 8 4 2 2.40 .915
Joey MacDonald 26 11 11 3 2.63 .913
Jordan Pearce 19 3 8 1 3.68 .871

     Goaltending is the most mental position to play. Go ahead and make your "goalies ARE mental" jokes... I'll wait.......... It's been well documented and discussed that goalies have to be mentally tough or they'll crack, and a cracked goalie won't do anyone any good. I always though I understood this before, but now that I AM a goalie, I understand this idea on a deeper level. As a goalie you have to be able to completely shake of goals and not let them bother you. Once the puck drops after a goal is scored, you have to be able to erase the last goal and play as if it didn't happen, this is especially true of bad goals or ugly ones you'd like to have back. Your full focus has to be on this game, this period, this play, right now.. all the time. There are no breaks, no shifts, you're on the ice all the time and have to be aware of everything going on at all times. Where the players are, where the puck it, where it's most likely to go etc... More than any other position, possibly in any sport, you have to be mentally tough. Chris Osgood is one of the best examples of mental toughness in a goalie. I've heard and watched interviews with him after games where he let in goals that would have made most people want to cry. Even after absolutely brutal goals or games, he would always shrug them off, say there's nothing he can do about it now, not let it get to him and be ready for the next game. I overheard someone comment once that it sounded like Ozzie didn't even care, that maybe he SHOULD care or cry about it. I emphatically disagree. If you let a bad goal or game get to you, if you obsess about it or let is shake your confidence, it will adversely affect your ability to be your best.

     Watching McCollum play on the Griffins this season, even in only 5 games, a few things have become apparent to me. I've seen him make some really good saves, sometimes his positioning and body language is fantastic and I have confidence in him; but that confidence has never lasted a whole game. He seems to get shaken when there's a lot of pressure, or a goal or two gets in. His body language changes and he seems more flustered and hesitant. Hesitant and unsure are killers for a goalie, and it just seems to get worse the more the game goes on. I also think this is one of the roots of the issues Grand Rapids has had this season. They've been off to a rough start and when you know your goalie is struggling and if you think he can't handle the pressure, the players can't focus on their game like they need to. Everyone has to do their job, and if even one player can't perform their duty at the necessary level, the whole team will struggle. I don't know if McCollum was traumatized by that nightmare of a game against St. Louis, or if he would have had the same struggles regardless. I think McCollum has average skills and his confidence/mental issues are proving to be his downfall.

     I like McCollum, and as a fellow goalie I feel bad for him and wish he wasn't struggling so badly. I'll be doing posts later on both Jordan Pearce and Petr Mrazek, so I don't want to get into them too much here; but with both of them also working to earn their spot in Grand Rapids, I think this may be the year that determines if McCollum stays in Grand Rapids, gets relegated to the Walleye, or maybe doesn't get re-signed at all. He's in the last year of his 3 year contract and will be a RFA at the end of the season and if things don't change and he doesn't improve, I have a hard time imagining the Griffins keep him around... especially with Mrazek getting his shot in the AHL.

     But all hope is not lost for McCollum, even if he doesn't have a long career in the professional Hockey, perhaps he could take the path of another goalie with a similar story. Let's take a brief trip together shall we? It was the '83-'84 season and the Red Wings called up a young goaltender who had only played in one NHL game, and after 6 years in the AHL, he was about to get his shot in the big leagues. The Red Wings called him up, he played 3 games, went 0-1-1 with a 4.11 GAA and .811 SV%. This goalie played the next season in the AHL, and that was the end of his professional career. BUT, to our good fortune, he remained in the Hockey world and became the General Manager we know and love. Yes, our very own Kenny (Tick Tock)  Holland. Who knows, maybe someday Thomas McCollum will be the next Ken Holland.

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