McCollum steps up for Griffins

by Alan Cross || AHL On The Beat Archive

In the wake of Petr Mrazek’s recall to the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 11, fifth-year pro Tom McCollum has filled the primary role between the pipes for the Grand Rapids Griffins, backed up by rookie Jared Coreau.

“My transition has been fairly seamless. When I was in juniors, I played all the time. I wasn’t used to having too many days off,” McCollum recalls. “I went through a few stretches last year when Petr was called up, and I played quite a bit when he was gone. I’ve had a few spurts here and there, but this is definitely the most games I’ve played in a row. It’s a lot of fun.”

Much of Grand Rapids’ success this season can be attributed to the strong performances of McCollum and Mrazek, who both rank among the AHL’s top goaltenders. McCollum sits ninth in the league for goals-against average (2.24) and posts a 13-6-1 record, including a 5-0 shutout against the Milwaukee Admirals on Dec. 14, his first of the season.

McCollum’s 56th career win on Dec. 20 put him in sole possession of third place on the Griffins’ all-time list. To kick off the season, McCollum enjoyed a six-game winning streak from Oct. 4 to Nov. 6, tying with Mrazek’s 2012-13 franchise-best goaltending start.

For McCollum, though, it’s not all about the numbers.

“I don’t really pay any attention to stats because nobody cares about what you did yesterday, it’s all about what you’re going to do in the next game,” McCollum said. “You just need to come to work every day and try to get better and improve.”

Improvement has been a long, tumultuous road for the Sanborn, N.Y., native. Detroit’s first-round choice, 30th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, McCollum became the youngest goaltender (19 years, nine months) to play for the Griffins when he made his professional debut between the pipes in a 3-1 triumph over the Peoria Rivermen on Oct. 3, 2009.

As the years progressed, McCollum struggled to meet the high expectations of a first-round draft pick, posting a 27-44-4 record alongside a 3.43 GAA with the Griffins from 2009-12. On Mar. 30, 2011, he debuted in his first — and so far only — NHL game with the Red Wings in a 10-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues, when he played just 14:37 and allowed three goals on eight shots during a relief effort for starter Joey MacDonald.

But when others may have succumbed to frustration, McCollum kept working. When the 2012-13 season rolled along, McCollum’s hard work began paying off, sparked by the arrival of head coach and former Ferris State goaltender Jeff Blashill.

During the team’s run to the Calder Cup last season, McCollum played backup to the storybook rookie season of Mrazek, who was a fifth-round draft pick of Detroit in 2010. Still, he had many chances to shine throughout the season. The duo backstopped Grand Rapids to its first-ever championship and, along the way, McCollum earned a multitude of personal victories, including an 18-11-2 record, a 2.63 GAA and a .904 save percentage.

Good things come to those who wait.

“You know, I think as long as you put in the time and the hard work, the numbers will take care of themselves,” McCollum said.

As his numbers continue to skyrocket, McCollum finds himself equipped with an aspect of his game that went awry after his first few seasons with Grand Rapids: confidence.

“I think confidence leads to success and success leads to confidence. One leads to the other. The more success you have, obviously the more comfortable you’re going to be,” McCollum said. “And if you’re not confident in your game and your teammates, you’re not going to be successful.”

When his contract with Detroit expired at the end of the 2012-13 season, it was unclear whether or not he would return to his home at Van Andel Arena. However, on July 22, 2013, the Griffins signed McCollum to a one-year contract, an investment that has paid dividends for the organization.

Actively defending the Calder Cup, the duo of McCollum and Mrazek has provided remarkable depth in the net for the Griffins. To further help the cause, McCollum is backed by a handful of players returning from last season’s lineup, some that he has spent years playing with.

“Playing with the guys we have here really gives me a lot of extra confidence, because I know that they’re going to help me out,” McCollum said. “They give me clean lanes to see pucks, block shots and clear rebounds.”

All of the parts have finally come together for the 24-year-old McCollum, who increasingly trusts in his breadth of experience. McCollum’s work ethic, determination and positive attitude have yielded the most successful season of his career, and there’s no end in sight.

His personal mantra doesn’t hurt, either.

“I need to just go out there and make the first save and everything will take care of itself.”