Leland Irving Called Up – Thoughts and Expectations


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.

  • JeffP

    While I like the idea of giving the young guys a chance, I can’t help but wonder how it will serve Irving to come up here and play 1 or 2 games out of 15?

    Sure he’ll be exposed to NHL caliber players in practice, but sitting on the bench for all that time can’t really help his development…can it?

      • jeremywilhelm

        Agreed kent. He has played all but maybe 10 of the heats games in the last two years. I dont think he will mind a few weaks of flying in planes and chilling with the team on his NHL salary. Kid has toiled for the last 4 years.

    • JeffP

      There is probably a psycholgical component to getting a chance to play some games at the NHL level. No matter how he fares, he will be exposed to things he wont see in the A. 2-3 games in a 1 month stint will be a huge boast when he returns to Abbottsford. There is also a chance that Karlsson will need a conditioning stint for a week in Abbottsford as well. Only one way for Feaster to find out what prospects are in the pantry is to let them succeed or fail in Calgary. Some will stay & Feaster finds out which is stale & which are past the due dates & needs to be removed.

  • JeffP

    Yeah, normally I’m a big proponent of guys doing time in the AHL, but I have to agree with Kent, Irving has done that and will do it again. Maybe a few weeks in the bigs (beyond just training camp) will help him see just how much work he needs to put in to make the leap. The change in lifrestyle might be enticing as well. Could be good for him and if not then nothing really lost I look forward to seeing him play, maybe he’ll elevate to the level of competition.

  • O.C.

    Glad to see Irving get some time up in the bigs. Karlsson has, for the most part, been mediocre in his starts (one game being the exception). If it is a true “meritocracy”, then someone else deserves a chance to be a reliable backup. I like Karlsson but he could use some regular playing time in the AHL as well to adjust his style to the NHL game.

  • O.C.

    It’s not just the couple of games Irving may get that could be a positive for him, it’s also practicing with an NHL squad every day.

    Keep in mind that when he does get into a game, we shouldn’t put huge expecations on him. This is a team that in recent years doesn’t show up when the back-up is in. While Karlsson hasn’t had great games (Except the BUffalo game), we should keep in mind there has been no run support for him either.

    Even if Irving does well and only allows 2 or 3 goals, it doesn’t do any good if we only score once.

  • Jeff Lebowski

    What other options do the Flames have? This isn’t about Irving and what it means to his development. Calgary needs a number two goalie until the incumbent is healthy.

    I may not understand fully but to me SV% is a somewhat misleading stat in terms comparing relative ability:

    Goalies don’t face the same quality shots against. The defense in front of them is not the same. These are are important variables.

    Let’s look at the Coyotes:
    Bryzgalov’s and Smith’s stats inside that team and system compared to outside highlight this.

    This maybe unfair (given struggles and subsequent reduced playing time) and I’m not saying the stat is irrelevant. I just wouldn’t solely use it to tell me who is a quality goalie and who isn’t.

    I think what’s needed is a qualification of the types of shots faced. I’d like that combined with median shots faced/appearance. If a guy routinely sees 25 shots against and are generally low percentage compared to a guy who sees 35 with a bunch being high percentage (location of shot or odd man rush against) I want to know that. SV% as it is now doesn’t tell me those things.

    Someone needs to Bill James this sport. That means start asking more in depth questions which leads to innovative tracking and better stats. It’s being done with basketball and soccer.

  • xis10ce

    So I’ve been a useless poster for the last… well mostly forever, so I took the liberty of doing some research for the common good. I went back 10years of first round draft picks that were Goalies and have found that not many players are making any degree of waves in the NHL right now unless the player is 2005 drafted or earlier baring a few rare exceptions.

    Name; DraftYear; DraftPosition; DraftTeam; Current Standing

    Jack Campbell 2010 11 Dallas Still in OHL

    Mark Visentin 2010 27 Pheonix Still in OHL

    Chet Pickard 2008 18 Nashville Currently in ECHL

    Thomas McCollum 2008 30 Detroit Currently in AHL

    Jonathan Bernier 2006 11 Los Angelos Back-up for LAK, most likely soon to be a starter somewhere

    Riku Helenius 2006 15 Tampa Bay Currently in SEL

    Seymon Varlamov 2006 23 Washington Starter this year in Col this year, made early impact, slowing down now

    Leland Irving 2006 26 Calgary Currently in AHL

    Carey Price 2005 5 Montreal Starter in Mon, solid goalie

    Tuuka Rask 2005 21 Toronto Back-up for Bos, will probably take over when Tim Thomas retires

    Al Montoya 2004 6 New York R Back-up for NYI? Numbers look decent but teams wins are poo

    Devan Dubnyk 2004 14 Edmonton Back-up for Edm, probably will take over starting role in future

    Marek Schwarz 2004 17 St. Louis Currently playing in Europe

    Cory Schneider 2004 26 Vancouver Back-up for Van, solid player who will likely end up starting elsewhere

    Marc-Andre Fleury 2003 1 Pittsburg Starting for Pitts since 2005-06, all star player

    Kari Lethonen 2002 2 Atlanta Started in Atl in 2005-06 with many medicore results, starting to put up solid number in Dal this year

    Cam Ward 2002 25 Carolina Starter in Car in 2006-07, putting up decent numbers

    Hannu Toivonen 2002 29 Boston Currently in AHL

    Given this evidence, we can, as Kent has pointed out expect Irving to need another year or two to be fully NHL ready, assuming he ever gets there. Also, despite not being shown here, there are 4 first round goalies from 11yrs ago (2001 draft) none of which have done anything of any significance as of yet.

    Edit: sorry for those who tried to read the unformated version of this post, it took me a while to fix it up to a semi “readible version”

  • everton fc

    I am glad he’s getting a shot, and think he will do well when given the opportunity.

    What if Kipper goes down? Losing Gio… Now Karlsson… it’s in the back of this fan’s mind.

  • SmellOfVictory

    I’m going to temper my expectations of Irving. I only expect him to end up stealing the starter job from Kiprusoff and being top-5 in save percentage. The Vezina expecations can wait until next year.

    @xis10ce: no immediate impact; it basically just indicates that they think he’s worth the contract spot. I think the only real effect it might have is that (correct me if I’m wrong, gentlemen) he can now be called up to the AHL for the playoffs if his junior season is over at the time.

  • RexLibris

    A busy month, the January playoff push is right around the corner, and the Flames can see daylight. This is actually a move by Feaster that I agree with. Having Karlsson go down at this point is probably a bit of fortuitous timing, but provided Brent Sutter proceeds with the philosophy that this goaltending prospect needs to be seen and plays perhaps a third of the games (back-to-backs, etc) then this could work out well, giving Kiprusoff a rest before the New Year.

    On the topic of goaltenders and prospects, I thought I should pass along that Laurent Brossoit (drafted 5th round, 2011) has looked good lately. He’s been extraordinarily lucky in a few games, but he has played very well and has been one of the keys to the Oil Kings success of late.

    Using late round picks on goaltenders is probably a better draft bet than using 1st rounders. If a team does one a year then they only need to get lucky once in about every ten years.

  • xis10ce

    I think Leland is a better goalie than Karlsson, and I thought he should’ve been the back-up this year, and the shouldn’t of re-signed Karlsson. He’s gonna get some playing time so it’ll be interesting to see his performance. When’s a game where Leland should get the start?

    On a side note: What do you guys think of the new alignment of the NHL for next year? I personally think Calgary and Edmonton got a raw deal, their conference will involve lots of travel. 4 conferences now, way different.

  • O.C.

    Yo’, Kent. Irving shoots right, hey? I sure hope so. Kidding, aside. 13 left handed / 5 right handed skaters against Van. All left d-core. I feel this imbalance is a serious system flaw that hangs the goaltender out to dry. Not sure if I’d want to throw the kid in to that fire.

  • Realignment = good

    -2 less visits to & from Minnesota, 1 more visit to & from Cali teams

    -8 teams will soon be 7 with Phoenix moving

    -Sid/Ovie/Stamkos/etc every year

    -1 less visit to & from Columbus & Nashville

  • mayhemsince1977

    The new division alignments seem to be fair. Well, that is when PHX moves east.

    What I do think is a mistake is the proposed playoff format. What’s wrong with the way things are?

  • the forgotten man

    It is the little things with Feaster that drive me nuts…he is like Stealth-Dutter…at least Dutter screwed up in epic, “crash & burn” proportions.

    Why was Karlsson given 2 years? He sucked and still sucks??

    Why was PL3 traded for a 5th and signed?

    Why was Modin Feaster’s big signing at the trade deadline when the Flames were literally fighting for their Playoff Lives?

    If a salary dump was needed, why dump Langkow when the team is so woeful up the middle?

    Why was Badsuck even signed???? especially in light of dumping Regehr who actually was still a good value contract – especially to also lose a 2nd round pick in a deep draft year?

    this all went down in one year – God forbid he is given 4 to 5 more years…maybe I am missing something but I just don’t see this guy leading us to the Promised Land which is what I thought this whole thing is about?

    In fairness, his only good move so far was picking up Horak for Erixon…although in the long term Erixon may still be a stud on the blueline.

  • the forgotten man

    irving was ready to start the season as the number two, would his limited starts have been any worse than karllsons, doubt it. karllson was never nhl talent.as for realgnment lets do it, 8 against avs,oil,wild way to much.

  • icedawg_42

    I’m not, nor have I ever been too high on Irving. I’ll be surprised if he ever becomes even a full time backup at the NHL level, that said, best of luck to him, and I hope he proves me wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Flames go try to find a cheap veteran backup if Karlsson’s injury turns into something long term. All remains to be seen.

    As far as realignment – I haven’t put a lot of thought into it yet, but at first glance I like it. Im a fan of seeing all the teams through here every season, and from the looks of the layout of the conferences, this will foster/nurture some real good rivalries.

    As far as Ferland goes – he’ll be a 4th line NHL’er some day. Good on him, that’s very much his game – gritty, in your face “pain in the ass” type of guy. Don’t let the current production fool you – he’s not a goal scorer.

  • O.C.

    Which is fine by me, since you need all sorts to win. But further to your point, this is why Calgary needs to pick up some more high picks and prospects or in 4-5 years we’ll see yet another version of the team with a strong bottom 6, a decent 2nd line and no true 1st line.