by Bob Crawford | AHL On The Beat Archive
Two seasons ago, Hartford Wolf Pack goaltender Jeff Malcolm reached the pinnacle of success as a collegian, right down the road from the locale that is his current business address.
As a senior at Yale University, the Lethbridge, Alberta-born Malcolm helped buoy the Elis to the 2012-13 NCAA Frozen Four championship, the first hockey national title in school history.
Shortly after that triumph, Malcolm strengthened his Connecticut ties by signing an AHL contract with the Wolf Pack, but his college glory did not immediately translate into more than a glimmer of opportunity at the AHL level.
Last year, despite some Wolf Pack struggles in net after the recall of Cam Talbot by the parent New York Rangers, Malcolm only earned six AHL appearances, totaling 316 minutes, and posted a 2.85 goals-against average and an 88.8% save percentage.
This season started out much the same way, with Malcolm being dispatched to Greenville of the ECHL out of training camp, and twice seeing other goaltenders’ names called over his for recalls to the Wolf Pack. He did get a quick call-up right before Christmas, and beat Worcester in his first AHL action of the season December 12, but only stayed for a week as an injury replacement.
Even after Malcolm’s number came up February 4 for another AHL summons, after New York lost Henrik Lundqvist to an injury and recalled Mackenzie Skapski from the Wolf Pack, it took four games for Malcolm to get a chance to see action with the Pack.
Once Malcolm did get the call, though, starting a home game against Albany February 14, he started to show the form that made him an NCAA champion. The 25-year-old was the Second Star that night, making 29 saves in a 5-2 Wolf Pack win, and chalked up two more victories after that, to improve to 5-0-0 on the year, before his first loss February 27 in Manchester. Even in that game, a 4-2 defeat, he nearly stole the Wolf Pack a point or two, coming up with 41 saves and holding the Monarchs at bay until late in the third period.
“I just think I’ve stuck to it,” Malcolm said recently of his AHL career track. “The position of a goaltender is all about a process. Getting to that next [pro] level, playing a lot down in Greenville, really helped. I think my confidence is where it needs to be to play in those [AHL] games, and I think the team we have here right now is very good. You look at our back end right now, and they’re really helping Yann [current Wolf Pack stablemate Yann Danis] and me out.”
Even during the time when he was on the outside of the Wolf Pack goaltending rotation looking in, Malcolm’s confidence that he would eventually get a chance never wavered.
“It’s all about coming to the rink every day and just putting in the work, because eventually you’re going to get your shot and you’ve got to take advantage of it,” he said. “So you’ve just got to be ready for it, and I think this year I’ve just stuck to it, and I think I’ve been pretty successful so far.”
Being counted on to carry the mantle for several games in a short period of time, too, made a big difference for Malcolm.
“It’s tough when you go down [to the ECHL], a couple months in between [AHL] starts there,” he said, “but it’s nice to get into a bit of a rhythm, going on back to back nights. It’s my first time in the AHL that I’ve been able to do that.
“It’s big, in our position, to get that confidence, get that rhythm and start feeling the puck more on back to back nights.”
The Rangers’ goaltending coach, Benoit Allaire, comes to Hartford regularly to work with Malcolm and Danis, providing both on-ice and video input. Allaire and Malcolm have “tweaked” his game slightly, but have emphasized using Malcolm’s strengths, which he identifies as “my positioning, and anticipation, trying to read the plays and trying to out-think the shooter.”
“Every step is that next level you’re just trying to get accustomed to,” Malcolm continued. “Coming from Greenville to here, everyone’s one step faster, their shot’s one step harder, the plays happen a lot quicker. So I’m just trying to play a little bit deeper in my net and use those reading abilities to make those saves.”
The guidance of Allaire, who has contributed significantly to the NHL success of Lundqvist and Talbot, has been invaluable.
“Every minute spent with him is something you’ve got to learn from and take advantage of,” Malcolm said of Allaire. “You look at Hank [Lundqvist] and you look at Talbs up there, they’re doing great things, Skaps, he’s had some success now too as a young goaltender. So every opportunity you get to be in his [Allaire’s] presence, you’ve got to take it in.”
The fact that neither Malcolm nor Danis is on an NHL contract at this point has not lessened the attention that Allaire has paid to the Wolf Pack’s goaltending duo, and Malcolm sees that as typical of the parent club’s commitment to giving all of their players the best chance to succeed.
“It speaks volumes about the New York Rangers and what they provide to us here in Hartford,” he elaborated. “The facility here [the XL Center], after that renovation [this past summer], is next-level, and the way they treat us and everything like that, from the [training] meals to the staff and everyone, it’s just been unbelievable.”
Another major boost to Malcolm’s development was Greenville’s long playoff run last spring. The Road Warriors went all the way to the ECHL semi-finals before losing in six games to the Cincinnati Cyclones, with two of the losses in that series coming in overtime. Malcolm’s fellow Ranger hopeful Jason Missiaen was Greenville’s number-one man for much of that postseason action, but Malcolm took the ball when Missiaen was injured in Game One of the Cincinnati series.
“Those playoff runs, you build a lot of relationships, and it’s unbelievable to be in those opportunities and those positions,” Malcolm said. “The hockey at those stages of the year, it’s pretty good, and you’re all competing for the same thing, you’re all pulling the same rope, so you can learn a lot, you can take a lot away from that. I reflected on that this summer and used it towards this year.”
Being back in the Nutmeg State has returned Malcolm to the vicinity of his college home, and despite nearly two years having gone by since Yale’s NCAA title joy ride, the memories are still fresh for the man who pitched a shutout in the championship game against Quinnipiac.
“I still go down there [to Yale] as much as I can,” Malcolm said with a smile, “I’ve been down to see a couple of games now. I love being here in Connecticut, I’m always very fond of coming back. It’s like yesterday that that national championship happened, I’ll never forget those moments.”
Malcolm and his fellow Eli alumni have done a good job of carrying the school banner into the pro ranks. Mark Arcobello has reached the 100-game mark in his NHL career, Manchester’s Brian O’Neill is challenging for the AHL scoring lead, Kenny Agostino has seen some NHL time with Calgary and O’Neill’s Monarch teammate, Sean Backman, has carved out a solid AHL career.
“That speaks volumes about [head coach] Keith Allain and the program down there at Yale,” Malcolm said. “I think the rink renovation (finished prior to Malcolm’s freshman year of 2009-10) was very big and important for that program, and you’re starting to see the product of that and of Keith coming in.”
For Malcolm’s part, he knows that Lundqvist is going to be back in action at some point up in New York, and that is going to have a trickle-down effect on the netminding slots down the pecking order. With that in mind, Malcolm is focused on doing his best to continue improving his AHL resume, and building a case for his being kept in the mix.
“It’s part of the job,” Malcolm said of the necessity of taking one day at a time. “I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but I’m just trying to take advantage of every rep, every shot and every game that I get put into.”