His successful and headline-grabbing recent stint in Calgary might have
taken some people by surprise, but a couple of the first Flames coaches
to work directly with Joni Ortio could see signs of this as a possible
outcome years ago.
Jamie McLennan was director of goaltender development for the Flames in
2008 when he first crossed paths with a young and talented Finnish
netminder during a trip overseas to work with Miikka Kiprusoff in the
offseason. On the ice with legendary goalie coach Uri Ylonen, Kiprusoff,
Saku and Mikko Koivu and some other NHLers was a 17-year-old Ortio.
So impressed with the raw skills he witnessed, McLennan made sure the
Flames knew about the kid who idolized their superstar starter and got
Ortio on the team’s radar.
“I think Joni at the time was like 17 years old and he was practicing
with all the NHLers — and hanging in there,” recalls McLennan. “Joni was
good. He’s got a ton of skill.”
Ortio impressed the Flames scouting staff enough over the next year for
them to scoop him up in the sixth round of the 2009 draft, after which
head coach Brent Sutter called McLennan to let him know they got his
It’s taken a long time for Flames fans to see the same promise McLennan witnessed almost seven years ago.
His first foray into North America in 2011 wasn’t what anyone would call
attention grabbing. At least not for the right reasons. Ortio got a
harsh welcome to this side of the Atlantic after signing an amateur
tryout contract with the Abbotsford Heat at the end of the 2010-11
season. He was lit up in his only game — giving up six goals on 30
shots. Still, the team inked him to an entry-level NHL deal and he took
part in the summer development camp before heading to Penticton for the
Young Stars tournament with the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks,
Edmonton Oilers and Flames prospects facing off in the (pre) pre-season
His first game there was equally disappointing on the scoreboard.
Another six goals against in his first game against the Sharks. The
potential wasn’t shining through. At least not to those looking at the
result rather than the individual.
New goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk entered a post-game meeting with
Flames staff and walked into a mess of frantic questions at the time.
“Everybody was up in arms that this kid can’t play. ‘Oh my God, what the
hell did we do?’” Malarchuk laughs. “I kind of walked into the meeting
after the game and they were like, ‘What’s up with this guy?’ “
Malarchuk put the brakes on.
“He’s going to be fine,” he told them. “I saw a lot that I really liked in him. They were looking at me like I had three heads.”
His theory was that Ortio just needed to play a little more out of his net on the North American ice.
“I liked his quickness, I liked his movement, I liked everything about him,” Malarchuk says.
With a backlog of backstops in Abbotsford that year when Danny Taylor
emerged as a guy pushing former first-round pick Leland Irving for the
starting job, Ortio was the odd man out. He was shipped back to Finland
with the hope he could develop with more playing time back home. In his
nine appearances for the Heat, he posted an .890 save percentage and
2.94 goals-against average, winning just one game.
“He was immature,” says McLennan, not referencing Ortio’s personality,
but his game. “He needed some experience. I think we brought him over at
20 and it didn’t work out a ton. I’m still a firm believer in
goaltenders don’t get good until they’re 23, 24. And they don’t hit
their stride until they’re 25, 26. Joni’s really following that path.”
The Flames didn’t know for sure if that path would ultimately lead to the NHL at the time.
“It was a bit of a gamble but we were pretty sure he’d get more ice time
over there,” says Malarchuk, who got to work with Ortio again when he
returned to the Flames last season after the team — maybe surprisingly —
chose to re-sign their prospect after his entry-level deal ended.
That move looks shrewd now. Ortio took over the top spot in Abbotsford
and finished second behind Jake Allen with a .926 save percentage,
winning 27 of his 37 games.
He won four games in the NHL as a call-up, too, and although his
individual numbers were not great, his mental game impressed Malarchuk.
“He’s so calm. He’s able to stay in that focused zone,” he says. “When
he got called up, he wasn’t a nervous guy at all. He’s very confident.
He’s not overwhelmed by the NHL. His demeanor is great for a goalie.”
It reminds some of Kiprusoff. McLennan is among them. But he’s felt that way for a while.
“I think he emulates Miikka, and he looks a lot like him — the way he
carries himself; the way he tries to catch pucks,” McLennan says.
Most importantly, he thinks like his hero.
“His demeanor, he’s built like all the other Finnish goaltenders. Their
lateral movement is excellent, their demeanor is just unflappable. It
just rolls off of them. He handles the puck well. All the details of his
game are really strong. A lot of young goaltenders come up from junior
or come over from Europe and they have the skillset, but they don’t play
the same way every night. We watched Miikka for many years — he played
the same way every night. That consistency in your game comes with
physical and mental maturity. You can’t rush that.
“Joni’s finding that. It’s through development. It probably hasn’t been the perfect path, but how he’s playing now … “
A four-game winning streak was finally derailed on Thursday
in Anaheim, a hostile place for any Flames goalie. A mercy pulling at
the pond is nothing new for a Flames team that simply doesn’t win
against the Ducks there.
And that blemish on Ortio’s stunning stat line is just another bump on what looks like the road to a bright NHL future.