Colorado Avalanche goalie Calvin Pickard (31) celebrates after stopping a Detroit Red Wings’ Brendan Smith shot in a shootout during an NHL hockey game in Detroit Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. Colorado won 2-1. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Calvin Pickard was at home in Winnipeg on Wednesday night, surrounded by family and friends who shared the same secret. The 25-year-old Avalanche goalie was going to be selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL expansion draft, which coincided with the league’s awards banquet in Las Vegas.
“I found out in the morning,” Pickard said Thursday in phone interview. “I was walking into the gym and got a text from my agent. I called some family and kept it quiet all day and last night it was revealed.”
Because the Avs finished last in the 30-team league in 2016-17, they became the first team to lose a player in the worst-to-first format. Pickard became Vegas’ first drafted player.
“It was good to get it out of the way early in the show. So you just relax and see who the teammates are going to be,” Pickard said.
He added: “It’s sad to leave the Avalanche. I’ve been there nearly seven years to the day and I’ve been treated so well. They didn’t rush me. They played me through all the tough times in the minors, brought me up, gave me a ton of chances and got my NHL career started on the right foot. So I definitely owe the organization a lot of credit. And the fans, too. The fans were amazing there. It seemed like they never got on me, even in the tough times. They were always so supportive.
“That being said, it’s definitely exciting to be picked and feel wanted, and go to an expansion team. It’s going to be fun. There’s a lot buzz around the team and it’s going to be very exciting playing in Las Vegas.”
Colorado surprisingly protected goalie Semyon Varlamov, 29, instead of Pickard, who statistically outplayed Varlamov in his three seasons in the league. Varlamov, who is perhaps more athletically gifted than Pickard, is coming off season-ending groin and hip surgeries and has a $5.9 million cap hit the next two seasons, presumably making him unattractive to the Golden Knights. In addition, Knights general manager George McPhee held the same position with Washington in 2011 when he traded Varlamov to Colorado.
“I thought it might have gone either way,” Pickard said about which goalie the Avs would protect. “When I was unprotected I wasn’t shocked. Varly is a (2014) Vezina (Trophy) nominee and one of the most exciting and best goalies in the league when he’s healthy. And I think it was a good move for him to get the surgery done, get healthy and hit the ground running for training camp. He is the guy for the team. He’s going to be the starting goalie and as long as he’s healthy the Avalanche are going to be in good hands. A healthy Varly is one of the best goalies in the league, for sure.”
Pickard said he had a feeling the Knights would select him, after originally thinking he would remain an Av.
“Taking you back to Sunday, I thought there was a possibility I wouldn’t be protected, so I didn’t think that was a shock. But I didn’t think I was going to get picked up. I thought we were just going back into the season with the same tandem and find a way to have both of us back there,” Pickard said. “And then Monday became Tuesday, the day before the big reveal, and it just seemed like it was happening, or becoming more of a possibility. I didn’t get much sleep Tuesday night and I woke up Wednesday and said, ‘Today’s the day.’ I just had a feeling.”
Pickard will compete with three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury and Jean-Francois Berube for playing time in Vegas. The Knights selected Fleury, 32, from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Berube, 25, from the New York Islanders. Berube likely will be Vegas’ top minor-league goalie.
“It’s a pretty similar situation I had in Denver,” Pickard said. “Fleury has a great track record and I’ve heard great things about him as a guy. He’s won a lot, he’s got three Cups and it’s going to be exciting to play with him. I’m sure I’ll get my chance to get in there and have a lot of opportunities to play. Nothing changes. I just have to take advantage of that, play well and make sure I earn the confidence of my team in front of me. So it’s very exciting times to go to a new team.”
Pickard led the Avs in save percentage the last three seasons, at .932, .922 (tied with Reto Berra) and .904. Colorado’s second-round pick in 2010 (49th overall); Pickard made his NHL debut in 2014 and played in 86 games with the Avs, with a career 2.77 goals-against average and .914 SP. He was the only Avs’ goalie with an SP above .900 last season, when Colorado finished with a club-record low 48 points.
Pickard won gold and silver medals with Canada at the last two World Championship. In May, he started the gold-medal game against Sweden, losing 2-1 in a shootout. As Canada’s No. 1 goalie, Pickard played in seven games in May, with sterling goals-against average and save percentage numbers of 1.49 and .938.
Pickard signed a modest, two-year $2 million contract last summer and will have a $1 million cap hit next season before becoming a restricted free agent a year from now.
An interview request to discuss Pickard’s departure has been made to Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic.