Cam Talbot had a bad start to his year.
You can try to argue around it. He was hurt. He was being overworked behind a defensive structure not conducive to getting that many starts.
And that’s certainly true.
Compare Cam Talbot’s 2016-17 season to Martin Brodeur’s 2002-03 season. Both goaltenders played in 73 games, although one went on to win the Stanley Cup – and the other, after falling early in the postseason, struggled to replicate his performance the following year.
The difference? When Brodeur made 73 starts in 2003, he faced an average of just 23.3 shots per game (yes, that is actually real life).
Last year, Talbot faced 29 shots per game, an average of just under six more per contest. Needless to say, he had a slightly heavier workload than Brodeur used to handle with his own heavy start percentages. Brodeur had Scott Niedermayer; Talbot had Kris Russell.
Regardless of what happened, though, Talbot’s numbers weren’t where they should be. He was well below league average in all situations, and – as I detailed earlier in the season – it wasn’t just bad luck. He was, from a technical standpoint, playing with fire when he faced a large number of shots.
On Saturday afternoon, though, he finally made his return.
Facing 31 shots, Talbot stopped 29 and took home a win over the Minnesota Wild, putting the Oilers on the board with a promising – and quality – win over a conference rival.
That couldn’t be more promising.
Last season, Talbot characterized himself as a calm, collected, conservative goaltender for the Oilers that didn’t succumb to old-fashioned pressure to overcommit in the name of cutting down shooter angles.
He played on the edges of his crease, but not much farther out, and relied more on positioning and lateral movement than he did reactionary saves. He tracked well, and he didn’t overcommit or open up to give shooters a lot of room.
This year, he started off playing like a completely different netminder.
As always, Talbot stayed on his skates a little longer than some of the league’s other taller goaltenders, but he burned himself with poor centering to shots and counterrotation issues that left him lagging on shots that beat him clean in areas he rarely failed last year.
I won’t immediately say that’s all been fixed. We’ve seen just one game from Talbot since the team got him back from an undisclosed soft-tissue injury yesterday.
What we saw on Saturday, though, suggests that he’s moving more freely, and looked a lot more like the Talbot we know and love.
I want to take a look at one save in particular, which I thought exemplified everything that Talbot did wrong to start the season – and did right in this last game:
Take a look at how Talbot approaches both the initial shot and Granlund’s rebound attempt.
We see Talbot square up to the shot, not the shooter, staying centered over his hips instead of cheating to the post side in what would prove to be a valuable time-saving effort when he needed to square to Granlund’s shot attempt, instead.
Then, we catch the lack of counterrotation on his shift to center.
Counterrotation is an easy problem to catch with goaltenders, and it was a big problem with Talbot at the start of the season. He would start to rotate his lower half to move and square to a new shot, but his torso would either stay behind or pull him back in the opposite direction. It not only slowed him down, it left him off-angle when the puck finally hit his net.
See example A, from October 9th:
On Saturday, we see him instead turn his legs and torso as one, moving to face the front of the net and stop what could have been an opportunistic rebound for Granlund.
I’m still not sure that Talbot was perfectly set for the Dumba shots, but credit where due; we not only saw him correcting an initial mistake from the start of the season, we didn’t see one of the five-hole goals he had a tendency to allow last year.
At this point, the question remains whether or not he had a strong outing back in net before struggling again, or if he’ll truly be able to bounce back and give Edmonton the performance he did last year.
It’s a concern, of course, that he joked he may have to start the rest of the way out. There’s no guarantee the team doesn’t agree with that.
It’s time for some bright-side thinking, though.
Talbot is back. He’s healthy. He looks good. At the moment, we can’t ask for too much more.