As no doubt everyone knows by now, Miikka Kiprusoff did not play the third period of the Red Wing game last night due to "lower body" injury. The extent of his malady is currently unknown, although apparently he isn’t going to dress for practice this morning so the problem is a bit more than a bruise.
This obviously presents a problem for Calgary. Kipper has been the franchise’s workhorse since he took the reins from Roman Turek in 2003. The last time he was injured was that very season and since the lock-out, no other goaltender has played more games. In addition, the Flames currently have no other readily available puck stopper with an NHL deal aside from Leland Irving – Joni Ortio is on loan in Finland and his team’s primary puck stopper – he’s not likely to make a trip across the pond to dress as a back-up to Irving. Prospects Laurent Brossoit and Jon Gillies are having good seasons, but aren’t inked to entry-level deals yet. Barry Brust and danny Taylor are the best goaltending duo in the AHL, but both are on minor-league contracts only. Karri Ramo, the current heir apparent for Kiprusoff, is Flames property but doesn’t have a contract with the club. He’s also the starter for one of the KHL’s top teams.
Meaning if Kipper is hurt for longer than, well, today, the team organization will have to find someone they can sign or acquire to back-up Irving at the very least. Henrik Karlsson was dealt to Chicago, so that option is gone. Some other names like Ben Bishop or Jonathan Bernier may be available for trade, but it’s doubtful Feaster will want to yield any assets for such a stop-gap measure.
Aside from the logistics, there is also the obvious issue of performance and what Kiprusoff’s absence might mean for the Flames playoff chances if he’s out long-term. He’s had a poor start to the season, but there’s little doubt Kipper is a better option in goal than Leland Irving even at 36-years old given Irving’s struggles in the AHL both this season and last. Despite the aura that tends to surround him, Kipper isn’t the Vezina trophy winner he once was (his SV% has settled into NHL average territory over the last five years), but the chances of Irving providing even league average netminding over more than a week or two are slm.
The clearest, most obvious option for Calgary is to ink one of Barry Brust or Danny Taylor to a one or two year two-way contract. This option would be far more unappealing if the pair were not providing the best puck stopping in the league for the Abbotsford Heat. Brust has a .940 SV% in 18 starts while Danny Taylor boasts a .930 SV% in 26 games – good for 2nd and 4th overall in the AHL respectively. The two goalies dueling with Brust and Taylor at the top of the ranks are NHL noteworthy guys Robin Lehner and Braden Holtby.
These results aren’t outrageous abberations for either guy. When we discussed Leland Irving’s performance and talent level in November, I noted both Brust and Taylor had better overall career save rates than the Flames former first rounder, with each goalie hovering around .920 in the AHL (while Irving is about .909).
Taylor is the most obvious choice. At 26 years old he’s closer to his prime and with three consecutive noteworthy seasons (.919, .927 and .930) looks like one of those rare guys who has figured things out in his mid-’20s. Taylor has served as the Heat’s putative starter for the last two seasons and could ably fill that role again next year if the Flames sign him to a two-way deal extending beyond this year.
Barry Brust is older at 29 and is also bigger than Taylor and somewhat unorthodox in net. He played 11 games for the Kings in 2006-07, although he was lit up in that brief span (.878 SV%). Brust would be an interesting story, but despite his slightly superior save rate he’s a longer shot to be signed at his age and given his somewhat odd playing style.
As mentioned, Ben Bishop and Jonathan Bernier may be be available on the trade market. Bishop is currently with the Ottawa Senators and seems to be between a rock and a hard place with Craig Anderson as the club’s obvious starter and Robin Lehner the next guy in line. Bishop is a towering 6’7" 26-year old who like Taylor has put together three consecutive seasons worth of good results in the AHL.
Jonathan Bernier is the Kings former 11th overall pick in 2006. He managed a better than .930 SV% career in the AHL and was goalie of the year in 2009-10 for the Manchester Monarchs. He has been LA’s back-up since 2010, but hasn’t been able to really establish himself as a starter thanks to Jon Quick’s emergence as a high-end puck stopper.
Neither guy is established at the NHL level, but both boast fairly good resumes at other levels. Of course, it would entirely depend on what each guy’s organization is asking in return for each of them – anything above a nominal draft pick or prospect and I doubt Feaster bites.
Because of his past accomplishments and enduring durability, the Flames have long labored under the idea that the club simply can’t survive without Kiprusoff. Certainly Vezina caliber netminders are invaluable to any club’s bottom line, but the truth is Kipper hasn’t been at that level since about 2007-08. Average NHL goaltending is also better than suffering with, say, Steve Mason or Vesa Toskala, but is much more readily replaceable and not nearly as indispensable as elite puck-stopping.
One long-term positive which may come from a Kiprusoff injury is the team may learn they can survive in the affable Fin’s absence and need not fear the rapidly approaching "post-Kipper" era. If Irving or Taylor or whoever (or some combination) can hold the fort with at least average goaltending while Kiprusoff is down, perhaps the organization can quell the perpetual anxiety which has surrounded the position since Kipper started playing 70+ games per season. As I’ve argued before, middling NHL netmiding is probably one of the most fungible commodities in the league and what drives NHL GM’s to consistently overpay or over-evaluate the abilities of "their guy" is that visceral fear of a bad save rate sinking the ship (rather than a rational evaluation of a goalie’s true abilities and market value vs other options).
Alternatively, if Irving and backup completely fall on their face with Kipper in the infirmary it will only serve to reinforce the organization’s anxieties, no doubt doubling up on the perception that "as Kipper goes, so goes the Calgary Flames." Also, poor netminding would lno doubt cripple the team’s aspirations for a playoff berth this season, leading to a 4th straight year outside of the post-season and more questions about the club’s future.
All of this may be moot if Miikka is only hurt for a game or two. Longer than that and things get much more interesting, however.