– pic via resolute, wikimedia commons
For the first time in a decade, the Flames are entering the off-season without really knowing who their starter will be in October. Miikka Kiprusoff hasn’t officially retired yet, but even if the 37 year old puckstopper decides he wants to play out the final season of his deal it would make sense for the club to use their compliance buy-out this summer to make his onerous $5.83M cap hit disappear.
Even if Kipper somehow sticks around, the Flames should be looking for its next starter this coming season – Calgary’s mission is primarily exploratory next season, so it wouldn’t benefit the org to stick to the tried and true even if it is an option.
So if not Kipper, then who? Here’s how Calgary’s crease depth chart looks heading into the draft and free agency:
1.) Karri Ramo
The former Lightning draft pick can’t be signed by the Flames until July 5th, but is a good bet to be inked by Feaster and company as soon as possible. Ramo will be 27 on July 1 and is coming off his 4th straight season as a starter in the KHL for Avangard Omsk. Ramo struggled to find his footing in the NHL as a youngster, but has emerged as a legitimate tender across the pond in his mid-20s. His SV% has been north of .920 in each of his last three seasons, culminating in a career best .929 save in 44 games this year. That was the 8th best SV% in the league this season, or 5th best if you narrow the field to goalies who played more than 20 games.
Ramo’s save rate over his last three seasons (or 3,423 shots) works out to .926, which is a healthy number in the second best league in the world. Unfortunately we don’t have enough information to decipher a good KHL-NHL translation factor for goalies, so it’s anyone’s guess if Ramo will be able to maintain those sort of rates in North America. That said, Ray Emery and Sergei Bobrovsky are two recent examples of guys who played well in Russia (.926 and .932 in a limited sample) and then went on to post similar save stats in the NHL afterwards.
Ramo is the favorite right now to be the Flames starter next year. There’s little doubt he’ll get a long look, whatever else happens.
2.) Joey MacDonald
A career back-up who has bounced around various teams and the AHL over the course of his career, MacDonald gamely held the fort for the Flames down the stretch in Calgary, causing the team to re-up him for one more year. MacDonald is a veteran and…that’s really all you can say about him. His career SV% in the NHL is .903. His save percentage for the Flames this season was .902. These are replacement level rates at best.
There’s no reason to think he’ll improve on that all of sudden or grab the reigns as the club’s putative starter. MacDonald is established enough that he won’t cause mass panic on the ice or in the front office should the starter go down to injury, but he’s also not the guy who will provide real redundancy in the depth chart if a guy like Ramo proves to be inadequate.
It’s a 50/50 bet whether MacDonald ends up as the Flames back-up or in the AHL next season. His one year deal is below the new CBA cut-off for retained cap dollars, meaning if he goes down to the farm his dollars won’t count towards the Flames cap number. He will likely be considered the favorite as option B unless another guy can outplay him and take the job.
3.) Reto Berra
The biggest wildcard is the 26-year old out of Switzerland. Berra is coming off a very big world championships, managing a .967 SV% in four games. His save rate in thw Swiss elite league for Biel was less impressive at .906, but it’s hard to know how that relates to the NHL.
Berra has spent his entire career across the pond, so is a totally untested commodity at this level. Sometimes those goalies turn out to be buried treasures who can immediately step in and make a difference (see: Jonas Hiller). And sometimes they fizzle out completely (see: Jonas Gustavsson).
As such, Berra could end up anywhere between battling for the starters role with Ramo to fighting for playing time in the AHL. We won’t really know what he’s made of until we see him.
4.) Joni Ortio
Although it seems like he has been around forever, Joni Ortio is just 22-years old and last year was the first time in his career he was a starter for a professional club. Ortio played 54 games for HIFK Helsinki in the SM-Liiga and managed to stop 91.7% of the pucks he saw. By many accounts, Ortio was only reason the team won the game on many nights, which established him as a legitimate goalie in Finland.
His first attempt at the AHL level in 2011-12 didn’t go well, with being lit up in 9 appearances. That said, any goalie can look bad over that small a sample, especially a 21 year old getting his feet wet in a new country and league. Ortio is the youngest of the Flames established, pro goalies this season, but also the most untested. There’s a good chance the team will give him a shot to win the AHL starters role to see if he can continue to develop.
4.) Laurent Brossoit
After three rather successful campaigns in the WHL, former 6th round pick Laurent Brossoit is poised to turn pro with the Flames this coming year. The Surrey BC native turned 20 in March and having spent the last two years as a top-10 puckstopper for the Edmonton Oil Kings, doesn’t really have any reason to linger in junior.
Like many junior players, Brossoit has a nice resume heading into pro but the real test will be how he fares against grown men. Like most skaters, this is the step that many ‘tenders fail to take (see: Matt Keetley, Leland Irving, etc.) so it’s an open question whether Brossoit will continue to impress or struggle to take the next step.
5.) Jon Gillies
After winning a goal medal at the World Junior championships as USA’s back-up, Gillies was named the national rookie of the year for collegiate hockey and second team all-star. Gillies surpassed all reasonable expectations for a freshman goalie, quickly becoming Provdience’s starter at the onset of the season and then going on to post an incredible .931 SV% in 35 games. The Friar’s back-up, Russ Stein, only played four games and managed an .879 SV% in contrast.
Gillies is only 19 years old and still has a lot of proving to do before he can be considered an option at the pro level. That said, he’s off to a tremendous start.
Leland Irving, Barry Brust, Danny Taylor
The organization’s trio of AHL goaltenders this season probably won’t be returning thanks to the influx of other options (Ortio, Berra, Brossoit). All three guys are pending free agents and old enough to not be terribly interested in battling it out with other guys who might be considered more worthwhile organizational assets in the eyes on management.
Leland Irving is the best bet to be let go outright. The Flames re-inked him to a one-year "prove yourself" deal last summer. Unfortunately, the former first rounder took a big step backwards by first losing out to Taylor and Brust in the AHL and then getting beat up in the NHL when Kiprusoff went down with injury. By acquiring MacDonald and signing Taylor to an NHL contract, the team made it very clear they have no real confidence in Irving and so will likely be walking away from him this year.
It’s possible this summer that a number of decently skilled puckstoppers find themselves without homes in the NHL. Ilya Bryzgalov and Roberto Louongo could find themselves at the other end of a compliance buy-out, while a team like the Anaheim Ducks may consider trading Jonas Hiller with the Victor Fasth enjoyed in his rookie season.
MA Fleury could also find himself rich but unemployed after his second straight playoff implosion, although he’s so mediocre I’d counsel the Flames to give him a wide berth. The aging but still functional Nik Backstrom might make it to free agency as well. He could be a good stop gap for the Flames, especially if it doesn’t look like Ramo will be able to be a true "1A" option. I wouldn’t be surprised is Jaro Halak is shopped around by the Blues as well.
Nothing is overly certain about the Flames moving forward, least of all the goaltending. The organization isn’t totally without options, clearly, but there’s also no clear guy any NHL GM would feel comfortable betting money on. If a legitimate NHLer becomes available via either free agency or buy-out, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the team investigate that option, at least so they can a get a body who will be able to platoon with Ramo at best or take over if NHL hockey proves to be over his head again.
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