This weekend’s recall of goaltender Henrik Karlsson and subsequent assignment of Leland Irving to Abbotsford had many wondering what exactly the Calgary Flames were thinking. Over the past months since Karlsson’s injury in Vancouver, Irving has proven himself more than capable as an NHL backup and has given the team a consistent chance to win, something Karlsson hasn’t done as consistenly. There is little argument Irving gives the team the best chance to win when Miikka Kiprusoff needs a rest, so, why has he been demoted to the American Hockey League?
Well, not so fast. I firmly believe Calgary will rest Kiprusoff three to four times in the final 23 games of the season. I also firmly believe it will be Irving starting those three to four games when Kiprusoff earns his well deserved break. Ideally, the Flames would probably like to have Irving on the big team full time, but then there’s the issue of Karlsson and him being on the first of a two year, one way contract. Irving’s strong play has created logistic issues Calgary is working around.
I refer you to the 2010-2011 version of the Buffalo Sabres, who rode Ryan Miller as their workhorse goaltender to the tune of 66 games. While Patrick Lalime played seven games that year, it was Jhonas Enroth who saw action in 14 games and ended up being Buffalo’s first choice as backup netminder. What was odd about Enroth’s season? He also played 41 games in Portland of the American Hockey League, interspersed with his time in Buffalo. Between November and March of last season, Enroth was recalled on four seperate occasions by the Sabres when he was deemed a more capable backup needed to start.
Just as Enroth was a more viable option than Lalime last year in Buffalo, Irving is a much smarter choice in net than Karlsson if the Flames are to pick up the necessary wins down the stretch while also resting their top dog. Karlsson has proven he can play in the NHL, and thus the team should have confidence in deploying him on an emergency basis as a spot starter or mop-up artist. But when it’s time for a scheduled Kiprusoff rest, Irving should and likely will be the man getting the starts.
This serves two purposes. First and foremost, it puts the most capable goalie in net when wins and points are at their most crucial. But second, it also allows the 23 year old Irving to still play meaningful minutes just as a 22 year old Enroth did last year before serving as Miller’s backup full time this season. Irving benefits some from NHL practice time, but he benefits more from a full slate of AHL games played at a very high pace in a top tier league. It’s one of the rare circumstances where development and right now can exist harmoniously.
There is but one hurdle to this complicated plan. While an NHL team has no limit on the number of recalls and assigments they decide to carry out for the majority of the season, a cap is applied post trade deadline. The Flames (and the 29 other teams they play against) have a maximum of four recalls to use once Monday passes. Using a bulk of those for this scenario seems irresponsible, especially knowing how invaluable the Heat system has been during this injury plagued season.
Ahh, but I have a plan! By recalling Irving and making room on the roster for a third goalie prior to Monday’s deadline, the Flames would save one post-deadline recall by having him called up already prior to Calgary’s back-to-back set at the end of that same week. If needed, he could be returned shortly thereafter and recalled prior to the Phoenix and Edmonton back-to-back on March 15th and 16th. The same is true for the double bill on the 30th and 31st.
It’s not a perfect plan, and while ideally it should work in the remaining month plus of the season, it may have to be shelved if the team needs to utilize recalls at other positions. Having a healthy Karlsson in the fold serves as a decent security blanket, but there’s no questioning the fact Irving truly is the best choice at backup, even if the method to accomplish this isn’t the most conventional.