EVERETT – Leland Irving lingered on the ice following the Everett Silvertips’ practice at the Everett Events Center community rink Thursday. A wide grin spread across the goalie’s face as he bantered with a handful of teammates. It was as if he’d never been gone.
Yes, the Silvertips’ star backstop is back, and his timing couldn’t have been any better.
Irving practiced with the team for the first time since leaving for training camp with the NHL’s Calgary Flames, arriving just in time for Saturday’s season opener at Chilliwack. And fresh off his first NHL experience he’s raring to get the WHL season started.
“I’m excited to be a part of the season opener,” Irving said. “I’ll be with these guys through every step of the way. We’re going to have a great team this year and I’m ready to get things going.”
Irving was reassigned to Everett on Wednesday after spending two weeks with the Flames, who selected the 18-year-old from Swan Hills, Alberta, with the 26th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft.
Irving’s return solidifies the goaltender position for the start of the season. Last season he was 37-22-1-3 with a 1.91 goals against average and .925 save percentage en route to being named a second-team Western Conference All-Star.
“He’s just such a big part of our team it was certainly nice from our standpoint to see him back in town,” Everett coach Kevin Constantine said. “He’s our guy. He was our No. 1 guy last year at the most important position, so it’s a huge boost for our team.”
The first half of Irving’s time in Calgary was spent with the Flames’ other rookie hopefuls. However, the second half was spent with the veterans, meaning Irving received an introduction to hockey at the highest level.
“It went really well,” Irving said. “It was a great experience to see what level those guys are really at.
“It’s just a huge increase in speed,” Irving added. “Also, the shots are more accurate and harder. It took a little while to adjust and get my timing down, but after that I was able to stop a few.”
Irving also had about as good a role model possible in Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary’s No. 1 goalie and the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s top netminder.
” (The highlight) was probably just getting to skate with Miikka, getting to see the kind of guy he is,” Irving said. “He’s a great guy on and off the ice. I’m just amazed at how effortless he make it look. He reads the play so well and is so flexible and dynamic.”
Irving’s return takes the heat off Matt Esposito, who won a tight three-way battle for the backup job. Esposito would have started Saturday had Irving not returned.
But for Esposito, the real pressure was released when it was revealed he made the team. The 17-year-old from Edmonton, Alberta, served as Irving’s backup last season. However he had to fend off challenges from fellow 17-year-olds Shayne Barrie and Chris Ward. His spot was secured when Barrie was reassigned Wednesday upon news of Irving’s impending return.
“It was definitely a nervous training camp,” Esposito said. “The other guys played well and it was a hard battle. But it’s a relief, and now I can go out there and practice, work hard and earn some ice time.”
With Irving back, only center Peter Mueller remains to return from the NHL. Mueller won’t be back in time for opening night. He returned home to Minnesota this week to attend his grandfather’s funeral, then is scheduled to rejoin the Phoenix Coyotes, who selected him eighth overall in this year’s draft.
It’s not known how long the 18-year-old Mueller, the reigning WHL Rookie of the Year, will remain with Phoenix, and it’s still possible he’ll make the Coyotes and not return to Everett at all.
“He’s made a good enough impression on them that they want to keep having him practice and play with Phoenix for a while,” Constantine said. “We’ve lost one guy every year, so if he were to stay it wouldn’t be a complete shock to us. From our end we’re hopeful. If he makes it then that’s the way it goes, we’ll be happy for him. But at the same time from our own selfish viewpoint we’d love to see him come back.”