Lessons From the Kipper Injury


Since getting into hockey analysis, I have found the issue of goaltending to be one of the most fascinating and most contentious. Advanced stats have made some headway in teasing apart the signal from the noise when it comes to evaluating skaters, but for puck stoppers we’re still mostly just groping around in the dark. 

Mostly we’ve discovered what NOT to do – generally, it’s a bad idea to pick goalies in the first round of the draft. Wins and GAA can be worse than useless for evaluating talent. Don’t expect unusually good or bad numbers on special teams (particularly the PK) to be sustained over time. Etc.

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Mostly the biggest revelations for me in this area is realizing just how little we actually understand (and can accurately predict) goaltender performance. And by "we", I don’t just mean the egghead stat community – NHL decision makers consistently struggle to make good decisions when it comes to their netminders. This is one of the primary reasons I advocate not picking goalies in the first round of the draft – not because an elite goalie isn’t useful or high impact (quite the opposite), just that they are much more difficult to both groom and predict than skaters.

The uniqueness of the position in the sport, its relative depth of importance combined with our general impotence at evaluating performance (outside of extreme outliers at either end, of course) makes the goalie a challenging paradox for GM’s: the guy on the team who can have the single most influence over its goal differential – and therefore success – is the hardest to effectively evaluate. In addition, there is a large middle class of goaltending talent in the league and the supply can often outstrip demand. So even though goaltending is an essential role that can either float or sink an entire club, it usually isn’t optimal to select a puck stopper in the first round or invest too much of your cap budget in net. 

Probably the only team ahead of the curve on this issue has been Detroit. It’s not that the Red Wings developed any new insights for evaluating goalies, only that they understood predicting them is hard and that the supply/demand curve in the NHL means you can usually buy league average netminding on the cheap. For a long time Detroit has built its team by assuming average-ish netminding and then either procuring or purchasing the best skaters they could. This is largely the way I’d approach team building in the modern NHL as well.

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The other thing I’d do is try to ensure as much redundancy in the crease as possible. That would limit the club’s exposure to risk should the incumbent go cold or get injured. Betting on the above-average performance of a single player in a position that is tough to predict in order to be competitive is a bad gamble. This, of course, is easier to do when you don’t invest a huge chunk in the de facto starter and therefore don’t formulate your potential success on that one player being exceptional.

Which brings us to the Flames current predicament…

Calgary entered the year with an expensive, 36-year old starter, assuming he’d have to maintain a high level of play for the team to compete for a playoff spot. What’s more, they did this with next to no redundancy behind him and no clear contingency plan should things go off the rails.

For an organization with apparent post-season aspirations, this is a series of rather egregious oversights. Not only is Kipper entering the twilight of his career but the chances of the unflappable Fin repeating his performance from last year were poor even if we assume no age-related slippage. In addition, thanks to a total dearth of worthwhile backup options in the organization, a Kipper injurty all but guaranteed the club wouldn’t even receive league average netminding should he go down for any length of time.

And so the club has rolled snake eyes through the early going. Kipper was below average for his first seven games and his subsequent malady ensured Calgary’s puck stopping wouldn’t meaningfully improve, at least not in the near-term. The Flames have received the second worst goaltending in the entire league at even strength to open the season which has significantly undermined what has actually been a pretty strong start by many other measures*. As a result, Calgary is 14th and has the second worst goal differential in the Wetsern Conference through a quarter of this lock-out truncated season. They will have to dig themselves out of an ever-growing hole to realistically compete for a playoff spot…and their goaltending duo for at least another week is Danny Taylor and Joey MacDonald.

* in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Calgary’s opening 10 games turns out to be their best 10-game segment in terms of outshooting this season

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No one needed a crystal ball or the benefit of hindsight to foresee these risks. The organization hasn’t appropriately evaluated or managed its goaltending position for years (persistently defaulting to "Kipper can do it.") and the chickens have come home to roost.

At some point Kiprusoff will return and he will no doubt stabilize things between the pipes. The lesson that the decision-makers need to take from this episode shouldn’t be "this team needs Kipper", however – rather that the franchise needs to completely re-evaluate how it approaches its goaltending as it moves forward.

  • Subversive

    * in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Calgary’s opening 10 games turns out to be their best 10-game segment in terms of outshooting this season

    Me neither, and this fact depresses me. I think I’m starting to get on the ‘tank this season’ bandwagon…. I don’t think I can handle another 10th place finish.

  • RexLibris

    I struggle to think of another time when I was more in agreement with anything you have ever written.

    The overestimation of the importance of “outstanding” goaltending and the unforgiveable blindspot that the Flames appear to have when it comes to depth at their two franchise positions (net and right-wing).

    I am almost incredulous at the extent of mismanagement that has been allowed within this franchise.

    The real test of intellectual honesty that was their mantra will be whether management looks past what is arguably a better collection of skaters on the current roster than in past years, to determine the true weakness of the team and take appropriate, long-term, action.

    I won’t hold my breath.

  • Derzie

    Agree that goaltending should not be a first round pick, and I think that the team should be looking at drafting a goalie in the 5-7 round range every year. That said, if you do stumble upon an elite goaltender I think that you have to keep him, and pay him what the market dictates. An elite goaltender can cover a lot of mistakes, and make average teams contenders for a short time period.

    I understand the desire to use the Red Wings as an example for average goaltending, but I would hasten to add that their average goaltending has had Lidstrom playing 25-35 minutes a night in front of it. I agree if we can have one of the top five defenseman (maybe even top three) in the entire leagues history playing half the game for two decades in front of average goaltending then I would take that option instead of having an elite goaltender and average defensemen. Have to say that finding the elite goaltender has the better odds than coming accross the next Lidstrom.

    The Flames erroneous philosophy for goaltending is not just in drafting, developing, and managing of its goaltending. Its also in its deployment of said goaltending. This organization for the last four or five years should have stuck to a rotation where Kiprsuoff plays 3-4 games and then the backup comes in and plays one game. Then they would have been forced to come up with a backup solution, instead the solution was to play Kiprusoff for 70+ games and gloss over the fact that the organization is inept at everything else to do with the position.

    I would argue that even how they dealt with Irving was wrong. When you are dealing with average goaltenders they need to play no more than two games in a row and then take a break to evaluate their game and to reexamine their performance. Along with getting a mental break. If they had rotated Irving with MacDonald after Irvings second game then I would bet dollars to doughnuts that Irving would have come back his next game sharper and not giving up 2 goals in four shots. Average goaltending tandems work best when there is a consistent rotation so that each player gets mental rest and knows that they are going to be back in the net and given confidence.

    Best thing for Calgary to do when Kiprusoff gets back is to play him a lot in the first couple of weeks of March to get him in game shape and to let other teams see he has recovered. Then they need to trade him. A team like Toronto that feels that they have two potentially great young goaltenders does not want to have a big lengthy contract like Luongo’s hanging around, but they are going to need some veteran presence in the net and would give up some assets for Kiprusoff if it meant getting into the playoffs, and potential getting on a roll once there.

    • That said, if you do stumble upon an elite goaltender I think that you have to keep him, and pay him what the market dictates. An elite goaltender can cover a lot of mistakes, and make average teams contenders for a short time period.

      Oh I agree. If you can get and keep high level netminding, you should.

      That said, you just have to be sure you actually have elite goaltending and, you know, not MA Fleury or Steve Mason.

      • Or back up a brinks truck for a small sample size

        Cough *roman turek* Cough

        fwiw I get that same vibe from Corey Schnieder. If the hawks go shelf last night instead of crest, that game was a blowout, by my eye.

        • Yup.

          I actually began this post with the intention of talking about how the anxieties of finding a goalie (that is, a goalie that won’t sink your roster) causes GM’s to make sub-optimal decisions on ‘tenders all the time. That’s a good example.

      • Greg

        Which is really tough to do. Outside of Broduer, how many goalies actually stayed in the “elite” category for 5 straight years or more? Lundqvist and ??? Ward? Price? The list of guys who appeared elite and then dropped into albatross-contract status is definitely a lot longer.

        If I were a GM, I’d happily pay market-value, and above market performance bonuses, if I stumbled on elite goal-tending, but I’d be terrified to sign anything longer than 3 years no matter how good the goalie was. If an apparently “elite” goalie wasn’t ok with that, I’d rather trade him for what I can and take my chances on cheaper, average goaltending.

        Which I guess is just restating the entire point of your article lol. Good read!

  • T&A4Flames

    It seems like LA is having issues in goal as well as other teams. I wonder what they might give up (if anything) for a little security in net?

    Kipper for Bernier, Forbort/Toffoli and a 1st?


    Kipper for Muzzin/Voynov and a 1st.

    They would have Kipper for a couple seasons (contract anyway) for a couple of more cracks at the cup. Who knows if Quick will ever fully recover from his back surgery.

    I know a lot of people aren’t high on Bernier but he is better than what we currently have. He may also feel more excitement with a real shot at #1. He should at least push Ramo for that spot.

  • RKD

    The biggest issue they need to reevaluate is the backup goaltender position. They need a guy who can go in and win a game, how many times have we seen this organization throw a kid to the wolves on a back to back situation just to “evaluate him.”

  • gotommygo

    Seems to me that Feaster is heading in the right direction though. In his 2 year tenure he’s already picked up 3 goalies: Ramo, Broissant, and Gillies. Predicting goaltender performance may be a crapshoot, but all three are excelling in their respective leagues, so that’s got to mean something. Unfortunately the latter two are at least a couple of years away from making any sort of impact on the organization.

  • I think the Flames felt they had a winner in Irving, but thanks to the ever growing reliance in Kipper, they never really gave Irv enough of a test drive to see if they should give him the keys.

    It’s not that they weren’t planning for a future where they wouldn’t need Kipper. They’ve always brought in an abundance of goalies. Everyone seemed kinda high on Matt Keetley for a while too, if you’ll remember (though I doubt anyone ever seriously considered him an NHL goalkeeper). The plans have always been there. They just never gave themselves an opportunity to see if these plans would work.

  • Murray

    I agree that Irving was handled wrong. He was 2-2-1 & did not deserve to be shipped down. He deserved to take a break & watch Taylor play & sort some of his mental mistakes out. This organization treats its young goalies like a bachelor would if they suddenly were responsible for a young baby. Kipper let this team get away with this for a long time. I think that is why I was so upset to bring in Joey Mac. Just another bandaid approach to get back to the status quo. Just like Iggy, I’m hearing the whole plan for Kipper is to retire at the end of this season. Would be nice to get value but if Flames are without these 2 players next year, this team could finally start to operate the way it should be & move on from an era.

    • RedMan

      I too thought that to send him down and bring in another seemed a bit drastic… or knee jerk.

      It seems to me to indicate a real insecurity in the management team… signing Taylor and taking McDonald off of waivers all in one breath. maybe a “we HAVE to win 5 of these 8 games” panic that lead to decisions that will probably be viewed (historically) as poor.

  • The Last Big Bear

    Instead of expounding upon the perplexity of goaltending in hockey, you could have just done a photo montage of Marc-Andre Fluery. At the draft, at the press conference announcing his ridiculous contract, on the Olympic team, maybe interspersed with some of his terrible stats, and some pictures of him being outplayed by his backup.

  • beloch

    Ah yes… The elephant in the room: Why is Calgary a rookie goalie graveyard?


    Or, more precisely, the fact that the Flames start Kiprusoff far more than is healthy for developing any sort of reasonable depth in net. Most years Kipper seems to be up to the challenge, and in a good year that wins the team games. However, all that Flames backup goalies can ever look forward to are back-to-back sloppy seconds that are virtually a lost cause and the prospects of an injury to Kipper leading to intense pressure on them for an extended period of time. It’s famine or epic bulimic binge.

    As we’ve seen with Irving’s struggles, a surprisingly big part of playing at the NHL level is mental. Just believing yourself to be capable and deserving of being played is *huge*. That’s a hard conceit to have when you get one game in a blue moon, and more often than not they’re not the winnable sort! Players in every other position are eased into the game on a sheltered line. Why do the Flames insist on throwing their rookie goalies into the hardest possible games instead of giving them an easier start? Heck, why not give them a period to play when the team is up by a few goals? Obviously, this risks losing the team points if Kipper is playing at an elite level, but they still do this even when he clearly *isn’t* playing well! The end result is a bit of a catch-22. The Flames have no respectable backups, so Kipper gets a lot of play, but the Flames are having extreme difficulty developing backups because Kipper gets so much play.

    Irving should not have been the backup this year. Mentally, he was clearly not in a condition to play in the NHL. His third-string status in Abbotsford was ample evidence of that. He should have been given time to pull out of his funk and been considered for a call-up one he started playing well for the Heat, but now the damage is done and he’s probably washed up. Taylor or Brust also would have been good call-ups in the case of an injury. However, the team should have replaced Karlsson with a capable backup and given him some soft starts to keep him progressing, or at least sharp. They didn’t do that and now they’re paying the price.

    What have the Flames learned? Probably not much, but we can only hope that, at the very least, they won’t try to use a third-string AHL goalie as a backup again. They hopefully now realize that you need to be able to *play* your backup with a reasonable chance of winning! You can’t keep throwing rookies down the double-black runs and act surprised when they fall head-first off a cliff!

  • RedMan

    Flames treatment of Irving and also the strange thing with Jones – there’s things at play here we know naught of, as per the coaches comments that there are things that can and things that can’t be talked of.

  • RedMan

    What scares me most about the Flames is that we have two goalies in the minors(Gilles in NCAA and Brossoit in the WHL) who could very well turn into starter qualtiy goaltending. However with the way the Flames have traditionaly handled that position I have little hope that any skill or talent those two have will be translated to the NHL.

    Quite frankly it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Flames play the trade game for the next couple seasons once Kipper is gone, they will try and sign a veteran to take the reins or go with Ramo and every couple of months trade for someone and hope they strike lightning like Kipper. And if they do, the trend will continue, we’ll have backup who isn’t going to get any starts while the starter gets driven into the ground.

    • beloch

      That’s pretty close to worst-case, but I definitely share your fears. Personally, I think it’s reasonable to hope that, if Kipper continues to be mediocre, the team will start spreading the starts around a little more, if only in hopes that a bit of rest is all he needs to become the Kipper of yore. This should go double for next season when Ramo arrives and the team has a clearly capable back-up.

      Brossoit and Gilles do have their work cut out for them though. The next obvious step for both of them is the AHL, but I can’t help but wonder if seasoning goalies in Europe (the KHL especially) might not be a bad way to go. Perhaps encouraging top goalie prospects to sign for a year in the KHL would be smart, provided you have some assurance of being able to get them back to see if they’re ready for NHL duty. The KHL is, of course, going to want to hang onto good goalies.

  • BobB

    Excellent article.

    Now I just wish other people would stop putting so much hope into Ramo. He could be a star, but he could be another middling backup.

    Star goalies don’t come along often, and sustain it… just look at the performance dropoff between Kipper and whoever else played over 8 years. Ramo could be another Kipper (whatever you think of Miikka) but I wouldn’t bet on it. Ramo is in his prime and Miikka certainly not, but beyond that… I guess we’ll see.

    We need somebody back there, anybody. Miikka better “come back” in more than just the obvious way or we’re dead. But maybe that’s good in the long term.

  • BobB

    Since the Flames have been living on nostalgia for the last several years, I wonder if they try to re-sign him to big money for 2 more years after next season?

    Enough money in each of the following years to convince him to play for only 1.5 next season.

    A mistake if they do, but with the way Calgary thinks, you bring back Kipper, Ramo is your back-up or they become a 1A/1B tandem and off you go.

    • RexLibris

      Certainly not outside the realm of possibility. In fact, it sounds entirely plausible, given past history.

      Maybe they then invite Kiprusoff to become their goaltending coach and Iginla the team’s motivational speaker, once they both retire?

  • RexLibris

    I apologize in advance for this comparison, but I think it deserves mention given the topic at hand.

    The best thing that happened to the Oilers back in 2009-2010 were the injuries. Horcoff, Hemsky, Souray, Khabibulin, the supposed lynchpins of the team that were going to make the whole thing go, all went down to injury. This tore back the curtain to reveal what was a shoddily-run, dirt-poor-depth-wise, franchise that was winning more than it deserved and deluding fans with the promise of “if everything breaks right, we might just have a chance”.

    The Flames, and Calgary, haven’t had that moment, up until now. The appropriate response is staring management in the face. Now, we wait.

  • Murray

    Toe the goaltending going forward is simple. If you can’t get value in a trade he is backup 1b next year. 1.5 for a good backup is good value. See what Ramo is

  • Nieuwy25

    I hate the “my brother’s, uncle’s, gardener’s, babysitter, who know Kipper says this” thing…
    but I’ve also heard the rumor’s that Kipper has no intention of playing next year for $1.5. To take it one step further, rumours were he was pissed when the lockout was settled.

    While I do think the best case scenerio would be Kipper and Ramo splitting the duties next year as close to 50/50 as you could get, the Flames may not even have that option.

    Maybe it’s time to see what the asking price for Jonas Hiller might be. Not that we have many assets to give up.