Curtis McElhinney goes from a stop-gap goalie pickup to a reliable stopper for the Canes

McElhinney makes his mark with Canes

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney talks about his play with the Canes and goalie Scott Darling being placed on waivers after the Canes' practice Nov. 29 2018 at Raleigh Center Ice.
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Carolina Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney talks about his play with the Canes and goalie Scott Darling being placed on waivers after the Canes' practice Nov. 29 2018 at Raleigh Center Ice.

Curtis McElhinney and his father, Bob, recently took a tour of North Carolina’s Smith Center.

“That was pretty cool and neat to see it,” McElhinney said. “I didn’t realize how big it was, that venue.”

In telling the story, the Carolina Hurricanes goalie said he couldn’t remember the arena name. He’s just that new to the area and not a hoops aficionado, and he’s still learning about such things as the name Dean E. Smith.

McElhinney said his dad took in basketball games at both UNC and N.C. State last week, saying, “He’s a sports fan.”

McElhinney himself? Not so much.

“I’ll go fishing if I have any down time,” he said.

For McElhinney, down time is scarce. Claimed off waivers by the Canes on Oct. 1, he was viewed as a stop-gap move, a fill-in until injured goalie Scott Darling was healthy and back, whenever that might be -- a few days, a few weeks.

But in two months time, McElhinney, 35, has gone from stop-gap to stopper. A journeyman backup goalie throughout his NHL career, he has become the Canes’ most reliable goalie and Darling, placed on waivers Thursday, cleared Friday and was ticketed to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL.

“I’ve been on the other side of it and I know what Scott’s going through,” McElhinney said Thursday. “It sucks.”

Bargain goalie

The Toronto Maple Leafs signed McElhinney and goalie Garret Sparks to two-year contracts on July 1, 2017. McElhinney is 10 years older than Sparks and the Leafs in preseason this year decided to keep the younger guy on the roster, placing McElhinney and goalie Calvin Pickard on waivers in hopes of sending both to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

The Canes, needing a goalie to support Petr Mrazek with Darling out and the season about to start, didn’t pass on McElhinney. It was an $850,000 expenditure approved by owner Tom Dundon that has become one of the bigger bargains in the league.

McElhinney, who will start Friday against the Anaheim Ducks, is 7-2-0 and has won his last four. He’s allowed five goals in that stretch with a .967 save percentage, lowering his goals-against average to 2.12.

“I think Mac’s earned the right to be here. We all would agree on that,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

In the Canes’ 2-1 win Tuesday at Montreal, McElhinney matched his career high with 48 saves, causing Brind’Amour to say his goalie stole the game.

“I wasn’t sure what the situation was when I came in here,” McElhinney said. “I’ve always been behind a No. 1 guy and that’s a challenging situation in itself. You can play one great game, then be back on the bench for three weeks. This has been nice.”

Family in Toronto

The hockey part, that is. The personal part has been difficult with his wife, Ashleigh, and their two kids -- ages 9 and 7 -- living in Toronto.

When McElhinney first came to the Canes he said the family was treating his absence like something of an extended road trip that would keep Daddy away from home for a while. It has added up to a lot of hotel living and FaceTime with the family, although he’ll soon move into a bigger place.

McElhinney has had the family down to Raleigh once and been able to visit them in Toronto once, passing on the Canes’ recent team bonding trip to Fort Bragg for an extra day in Toronto.

“It certainly hasn’t been easy,” he said. “Now I’m trying to get them down here, get them situated, settle in as a family once again.”

Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) reaches for the puck in front of New Jersey Devils’ Kyle Palmieri (21) and Hurricanes’ Calvin de Haan (44) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018 Karl B DeBlaker AP

McElhinney said he has gotten around the area, driving through the campuses at N.C. State, UNC and Duke. He has navigated I-40, I-540 and I-440. He’s getting more and more acclimated.

The Canes have quickly gotten acclimated to having McElhinney around and a part of the team. They’re responded well to his calm demeanor on the ice and his professional attitude off it.

“These guys don’t survive how they have if they’re not only a good player but a good person,” general manager Don Waddell said. “Certainly Curtis has both aspects going for him.”

It’s hard to say how the rest of this story will unfold this season. McElhinney smiled Thursday when asked if he could play 40 or more games, if need be, mindful his career best in the NHL is 32 for the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2014-15.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You’ll have to ask me after 40.”

The way things are going, he may get that question.

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.