“I feed off it. It motivates me’: Kings goaltender Cam Talbot unfazed by skeptics

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Like the perfect rug that pulls a room together, found in the markdown section of a furniture store, Cam Talbot was the find the Los Angeles Kings needed last summer when it came to to recruit a starting goalie and keep him. their stature as a playoff team.

When it comes to value buys, Talbot has the argument to be the best buy in the league among players not on entry-level contracts. For the very low price of $2 million in total salary – and a very significant $1 million on the cap – the pride of Caledonia, Ontario was either in the top 10 or close to it in terms of wins, goals against average and save percentage among goaltenders who have played 40 or more games this season.

Still, Talbot, 36, presents a questionable proposition for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Throughout his career, he has largely been a quality 1A guard, good enough to win games but maybe not to win a championship. For example, two years ago in the first round, Minnesota selected Marc-Andre Fleury to replace Talbot, even though Talbot had won 32 games in 48 starts.

Kings coach Jim Hiller hasn’t revealed his starter for Monday’s opener against Edmonton, but signs are pointing in Talbot’s direction. And he’s grateful that they trust him.

“It’s humbling,” Talbot said Athleticism Saturday as the Kings began their on-ice preparation in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd at their training center. “I never take it for granted. Nothing is ever guaranteed in this league. Never. I come here every day ready to work hard, ready to do everything I can to put myself in the best situation possible and give this team a chance to win.

“If everything goes as I hope and it’s Monday, it’s something I don’t take lightly. It’s obviously an honor to start for a team in the playoffs. I think this will be the fourth team I’ve had the chance to start for in the playoffs, which, again, is humbling in itself. Few goalkeepers have this opportunity.

“I’m just looking to take that and run with it. Do something special with this group.

The Kings appear to be in an uphill battle against a favored Oilers club that has bounced them in the first round two years in a row and is eager to hoist the Stanley Cup after losing to the eventual champions in the last two series. playoffs. Edmonton, with its superstar duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, learned to play a more patient game against Los Angeles and found success against the Kings’ 1-3-1 system that clogged the neutral zone.

Ultimately, for Los Angeles to advance and win its first series since 2014, Talbot will have to outperform his Oilers counterpart, Stuart Skinner. This is one of the matchups that should lean in the direction of the Kings. But outside of a mid-season stretch in which he and the team struggled and lost badly, Talbot has been their go-to in net. All Hiller would say Saturday is “we’re pretty sure” of a Game 1 pick, but Talbot has gotten the nod in 19 of the last 25 regular-season games.

It would be shocking if Hiller turned away from Talbot at this point. After signing a one-year contract with the Kings, Talbot made 52 starts and compiled a 27-20-6 record after a one-year stint with Ottawa filled with injuries and inconsistency on a Senators club in below average. His 2.50 goals-against average was the best since his breakout season with Edmonton in 2016-17, while his .913 save percentage was a marked improvement from last year’s .898. MoneyPuck had Talbot with 10.7 more saves than expected, which is significantly better than the equally stable Skinner’s 2.0.

Those numbers would have been better if Talbot hadn’t struggled through a 10-start winless streak from Dec. 28 until the All-Star Game — which he played in for the second time after a stellar first two months of his Kings career . But as David Rittich provided solid play during a tumultuous time, Talbot enjoyed the mid-season break. Playing in the All-Star Game was liberating, even though it’s common knowledge that players are looking to show off their offensive skills.

“After the break, I just did a mental reset,” Talbot said. “Physical reset. I took some time. Income. I knew I was going to be ready to go as soon as I got the chance.

“Every goalkeeper goes through this. I have experienced it several times during my career. You don’t lose the ability to play the position. This is simply not the case. It’s 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. And if you lose it between your ears, just get it back. Do a mental reset and just remember that you are here for a reason, that you have been doing this for a long time and go out there and do what you do.

Cam Talbot has provided great value to the Kings this season. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

It’s a competitive streak that has fueled Talbot since he entered the league from Alabama-Huntsville as a backup to New York Rangers legend Henrik Lundqvist. He scored and lost in his 11 seasons. Talbot signed with Los Angeles because of his familiarity with then-coach Todd McLellan – they had a history with the Oilers, for whom Talbot played for four seasons – and because of the chance to win the job of No. 1, released by departure. by Joonas Korpisalo.

With the return of Pheonix Copley and the signing of Rittich as insurance and competition, Talbot landed the No. 1 job and hasn’t let go. The team fired McLellan on February 2 and replaced him with assistant coach Hiller on an interim basis. But Hiller was already sold on Talbot’s ambition to re-establish himself as a primary goaltender, and Talbot now has 245 career wins. “Someone really needed to fill that void,” the coach said. “He did this.”

Perhaps the way Talbot reacted after the All-Star break impressed him more.

“He’s got a big personality,” Hiller said. “He’s an outgoing guy. He is very confident. He’s been in the league, he’s accomplished so much in the league. You worry when you arrive, why does he still have to play? I was immediately struck by his passion for the game. Obviously, he played his way to the All-Star Game. He’s a guy at the end of his career who is still pushing and playing well enough to make the All-Star team. He’s a real pro. He hit a low point in his season. No question. But being able to bounce back, I think, is a testament to his mental toughness.

“I think it would have been more difficult for a younger goalkeeper to do that. For him, he has confidence, he has been through wars and he has just ensured a really stable presence – certainly since February. And we’re all comfortable with that. He has a lot of saves under his belt.

A big part of Talbot’s successful season is his ability to make the first save. Additionally, a normally tight Kings system is generally good at eliminating any rebounds it can leave. He doesn’t need to carry the team, and at his advanced age he can’t steal competitions. The Kings don’t expect it either. They need Talbot to make the saves he’s supposed to handle.

“Our goalies were great for us,” said Drew Doughty, not forgetting Rittich’s contribution. “When you talk about Cam, he’s usually there for the simple saves you always want. You don’t want a goalkeeper who makes big saves and lets simple ones through, because that deflates your team in some way. He makes simple saves. He makes big saves.

“And then he just has a calmness about him when he’s in the net. It makes everyone in front of him, all his teammates, feel calm as well. And I think that’s his greatest asset for me. How calm and serene it is there.

The Kings needed Talbot to qualify, as the signing of Vladislav Gavrikov and the sign-and-trade of PL Dubois last offseason left little financial room to front their net.

But for all the value Talbot brought, the question of whether the Kings had enough goaltending never went away. Its last start on Thursday renewed the concern, as lowly Chicago scored four times on just 13 shots – including three on a four-shot stretch in the five minutes of the third period. Talbot has a .921 save percentage in 33 playoff games.

The perception of him as a solid, competent, unexceptional guard won’t change until he’s the backbone of a team playing to win the conference, or better. But Talbot feels up to the task. This season is about proving that his difficult year in Ottawa was unique and that he loved his place in the Los Angeles landscape. “The guys in front of me play a big part in that,” he said. “I’m lucky to be part of this group. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to sign here.

Healthy and motivated to show he can still carry a heavy load, Talbot laughs when he thinks back to how he played in 73 games and 13 more playoff battles during that defining 2016-17 season. his career. He is no longer a young man. But perhaps it’s fitting that the Kings, underdogs against the Oilers, have someone hungry to eliminate opponents.

“Personally, I have been questioned throughout my career,” Talbot said. “All I do is continue to prove people wrong. I’m looking to do that again in the playoffs and do what I can to give this team a chance. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m still here. I have a little chip on my shoulder, and every season I feel like I have to prove myself because nothing has ever been given to me.

“But I like it that way.” I feed off it. This motivates me. That’s what I’m looking to build from these playoffs.

(Top photo by Cam Talbot: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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