By Kyle Kujawa –
Tom McCollum won three straight games for the Grand Rapids Griffins from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3, and he was rewarded with more playing time.
Unfortunately, that playing time wasn’t with the Griffins.
It was the result of poor timing more than anything else. Following McCollum’s team-best three-game winning streak, starting goaltender Joey MacDonald was declared healthy. MacDonald had missed the past month with a concussion suffered on Nov. 2 versus Charlotte, but he had posted statistics that ranked in the top 10 of virtually every goaltending category in the AHL prior to his injury.
The organization determined that it was not in McCollum’s best interests to be taken out of the line-up and start sporadically while MacDonald was given time to regain his early season form, so they reassigned him from Grand Rapids to the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye on Dec. 7.
“Detroit’s thinking was, let’s keep him going, let’s keep him playing,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “That’s what we did, and it worked.”
As McCollum discovered, what’s best for him isn’t always the same thing he wants. However, instead of letting his demotion affect his performance on the ice, he used it as motivation to continue improving and work to get back to the AHL.
“Obviously, it was a little frustrating,” said McCollum. “I thought I was playing well enough, but at the same time, I understand why I was sent down. I just tried to go down there with a positive attitude.”
After he sputtered initially on a Toledo team that was dealing with several top players called up by a few different AHL teams, McCollum rattled off three straight wins with the Walleye, sporting a 0.99 goals-against average and a 0.967 save percentage during that stretch.
Although he would have rather stayed in Grand Rapids, McCollum thinks his situation in Toledo allowed him to build his confidence and find a way to move back to Grand Rapids.
“It’s a fantastic city to play in,” McCollum said. “I’ve been playing there for parts of three years, so I’ve got the hang of where everything is. I know the coaching staff and training staff really well. It’s a great arena to play in, too. It’s nice, and they have great fans.”
In a league that is traditionally more free-flowing and not as friendly to goaltenders’ statistics, the streak helped McCollum climb higher on the ECHL goaltending leaderboard, where he ranked seventh with a 2.68 goals-against average at the time of his recall. McCollum was quick to pass on the credit for his strong play.
“Both teams I’ve been on have been playing well,” said the Sanborn, N.Y., native. “They let me see pucks clearly and make my job a lot easier.”
Fraser has coached McCollum in each of his three professional seasons and believes that the biggest difference is in McCollum’s approach this season.
“He’s making himself a lot bigger now,” explained Fraser. “He’s more confident, he’s using his big frame, and he’s letting the pucks come to him and hit him instead of overplaying them.”
McCollum was reassigned to the Griffins on Dec. 31 and skated out as the starting goalie against the Midwest-division leading Milwaukee Admirals that night. He made 29 saves in a 3-2 Griffins victory, and followed that performance up with a 32-save outing in a 2-1 win over the Abbotsford Heat on Jan. 7. It was the first time McCollum won five straight games as a professional goaltender.
“I’ve been trying to be more patient when I play,” said McCollum of his recent success. “I’m trying to let the play come to me and be more relaxed in net.”
McCollum was the Red Wings’ first-round pick (30th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Although finding consistency is something he believes he’s struggled with, Fraser has no doubts about the potential of his streaking netminder.
“Look at a guy like Eddie Belfour,” said Fraser. “He was 26 years old before he started playing in the NHL. [McCollum’s] just a young guy, he’s only going to get better. We’ve been waiting a long time for this, and it’s finally here. It’s great to see Tommy start to win hockey games.”
While Eddie the Eagle’s numbers landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame this year, McCollum isn’t getting ahead of himself. He’s focused on doing what he can to extend his winning streak and stay in the AHL.
“As long as I keep playing well and winning games, it’s going to make it a little tougher for them to send me down,” said the third-year pro. “I’ve just got to focus on trying to get better every day. I’m working on my game every day.”
For a goaltender who turned 22 on Dec. 7, having the right influences can play a factor in finding consistency and winning games. McCollum doesn’t need to look any further than MacDonald, who is the Griffins all-time goaltending wins leader, or Chris Osgood, who has been working with McCollum after becoming the Red Wings’ goaltending development coach this season.
“Both are extremely experienced guys,” said McCollum. “I see how relaxed Joey is before games. Even Ozzie has been a very calming influence on my game. He’s talked to me about how to mentally approach things.
“That’s really how he’s helped so far, just seeing how a guy with that much experience approaches things had really helped to calm my game.”