Most Flames fans recognize that this summer represents a big opportunity for the organization to trade Miikka Kiprusoff. The 35-year old is coming off one of his best seasons in years, his NMC goes away in July and his two remaining contract seasons are cheaper in dollars than they are in cap hit.
All those things should help his value in the trade market. The problem for Calgary is they have no obvious replacements to step in and take Kipper’s place one he’s gone – Henrik Karlsson has proven to be mediocre at best at the NHL level, Karri Ramo is probably at least a season away and an unproven commodity in the league while youngsters Joni Ortio and Laurent Brossoit aren’t anywhere near being ready for the big league.
Absent signing Tomas Vokoun or Josh Harding this summer, the last apparent option for a Flames goalie is former first rounder Leland Irving. Unfortunately, the 24-year old has only had mixed results over four seasons as a professional (recently losing his position as the Heat’s starter to the undrafted Danny Taylor), so it’s an open question whether he’ll ever be able to make the leap from AHL regular to NHL starter.
The High Road and Low Road
I’ve noted previously that there tends to be two paths to the NHL for puckstoppers – The first are those rare occassions when a kid jumps in more or less straight from junior and becomes a starter immediately. For example: Patrick Roy, Cam Ward, MA Fleury, Martin Brodeur and Carey Price all spent a season or less in the AHL before becoming their club’s crease incumbent.
The second path is the long, hard road. Unlike skaters, who rarely become anything more than a fringe contributor if they haven’t made the leap by age 24, many goaltenders face an extended apprenticeship in the lower leagues before finally establishing themselves in the bigs. Kiprusoff himself spent multiple seasons in Finland, Sweden and the AHL before finally becoming a starter for Calgary at 28-years old.This is due to the fact that the stakes are higher for promoting a rookie to the crease (can’t hide a shaky goalie on the 4th line) and because they are very few spots available (two per team – starter and backup).
Leland Irving is obviously walking the latter path.
With that in mind, I set out to find some Irving comparables – current NHLers who had spent significant time in the AHL but nevertheless went on to become starters in the NHL. I figured This would allow us to put his results in context and perhaps forecast his future as well.
To form a list, I focused on players who made the jump after the age of 24 and who spent more than one season plying their trade in the American Hockey League. I also limited the inquiry to guys who had proven they could be starting goaltenders to one degree or another in the NHL (so mediocre career backup types were excluded).
In the end, I settled on 10 names: Pekka Rinne, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson, Corey Crawford, Brian Elliot, Mike Smith, Ray Emery, Ryan Miller and Josh Harding:
|Player||AHL GP||AHL SV%|
The table includes each guy’s total AHL games played (absent things like conditioning stints that occurred after they became regulars in the NHL) and their cumulative save percentage over that sample. The average games played and save percentage includes all 10 comparable players. Leland Irving is excepted from the mean, but his current pro results are included at the bottom for comparison and contrast.
There is only limited good news for Flames fans and management in this inquiry – two of Irving’s closest matches are Pekka Rinne and Corey Crawford. The latter has been okay in Chicago over the last two years while the former has unexpectedly developed into a star in Nashville. So on the bright side, it’s possible to have completely underwhelming outcomes in the AHL and still become a goaltender of value in the NHL.
The bad news is, Leland’s results place him right at the bottom end of the comparables list. The populations average was .915, clearly higher than Irving’s career pro SV% so far (.909) and only Crawford managed a lower save rate than Irving during his time in the AHL. Eight of the 10 goalies managed a SV% of .910 or higher and half of them were above .915. In addition, only Crawford and Howard played as many or more games than Irving in the AHL before becoming NHLers.
In addition, keep in mind this method of inquiry suffers from a survivorship bias – by only looking at the guys who managed to make it as NHL starters, I excluded the multitude of puckstoppers who toiled for years in the lower leagues, put up middling save rates, and never became a player of note. So while it’s possible to go from a .909 SV% in the minors to a .930 in the majors, the chances of any particular guy pulling a Pekka Rinne is probably vanishingly small. A more through examination would include all pro goalies over the last X amount of years to see how Irving compared to his peers who both succeeded and failed.
Irving’s showing in his brief stint with the Flames during the regular season featured some outstanding performances, including a 45 save outing versus Ottawa in which Calgary was thoroughly dominated in every way but in net. It’s those sorts of glimmers that will likely keep the pending RFA in the fold this summer and a guy the team will continue to patiently groom in the AHL.
That said, Irving’s pro results just haven’t been noteworthy thus far. Even amongst unlikely ‘tenders who faced an uphill climb to make the show, his results are ho-hum. This also means, absent a sudden and sizable step forward, that he probably isn’t a player the team can bank on to step in and replace Kipper.
Not yet at least.