With regular back-up Henrik Karlsson out with a sprained MCL, the Flames have called up former first round pick Leland Irving from the Abbotsford Heat. Irving has been the farm club’s prohibitive #1 for the last couple of seasons and has started an AHL high 23-games so far this year.
I wasn’t thrilled when the Flames took Irving 26th overall back in 2006. Not because of the player in particular, but because goalies tend to be bad bets in general, especially as first round picks. Outside of the phenoms, goaltenders tend to take a long time to develop and projecting their future performance is incredibly problematic at any level (just look at the NHL) let alone when it comes to teenagers. As such, skaters tend to be a lot better gambles in the early rounds of the draft.
Goaltending prospects tend to take one of two development paths: very brief or rather extended. Some guys take a trip to the AHL, spend a few weeks or months there and then are called up to the parent club for good. Think Carey Price or Cam Ward. Other guys take a couple of years to find their legs and then spend a few more putting up good but not great results before they get a shot in the bigs (usually as a backup). Think Corey Crawford or Jimmy Howard.
Irving is travelling the second path. This is his fourth professional season, but only the second in which he’s been the definite starter. The 23-year old battled for playing time with other nominal puck-stoppers in the Flames farm system during his first two campaigns, even spending some time in the ECHL in 2009-10 when his save percentage slipped to just .905.
There’s no question he’s been the best ‘tender on the farm since that time, however. Last season, Irving led the AHL in games played (61) and shut-outs (8) and was second in wins (30). He’s a league leader in many of the same categories this year.
Some may wonder, glancing at the former paragraph, why Irving hasn’t been given a shot with the Flames earlier than now. The truth is, Irving’s save percentage (the most pertinent goaltending stat) remains just okay – last year was his best pro season at .913 SV% and this year he’s hovering around the same area (.914). He ranked 18th in the AHL in terms of save percentage amongst regular starters last season and is 14th by the same metric amongst goalies who have appeared in at least 10 games this season. Keep in mind, this is league where the guys who excel are called up – meaning the best tend to leave, thinning the ranks.
Leland has never once crested a .915 SV% as a pro goaltender, let alone a truly above average rate in the .925-.930 range. With incumbent Miikka Kiprusoff sitting on a big cap hit and with an enduring reputation as a above average starter, Irving would have to be knocking the ball out of the park to even get a sniff at the Calgary nets. Of course, it also hasn’t made sense to relegate Irving to the backup role before the recent Karlsson injury either – the player and the franchise have been much better served with Irving facing as many shots as possible for the Heat rather than opening the gate for Kipper.
Karlsson is likely out for awhile and the Flames face their busiest month in recent memory this December, meaning Irving is definitely going to get a few starts here and there. It will be interesting to see how he fares, but expectations for the youngster should be muted: his reuslts in the "A" have been good but not great and if he follows the long-path to the NHL (assuming he ever becomes a starter at all), he’s probably at least two years away from truly making the leap.