This has been one of the more interesting years for Flames goaltending in recent history. Of course, that’s a pretty easy feat to accomplish when most of said recent history was watching Miikka Kiprusoff suit up for at least 70 games a season, but still: it’s been interesting.
Ryan recently wrote on Bob Hartley’s tendency to spot the goalie with the hot hand and ride him endlessly. Right now, that goalie is Karri Ramo. But with Jonas Hiller having started 39 games this season to Ramo’s 29 – not to mention the fact that Ramo has been pulled for Hiller’s relief way more often than vice versa – Hiller has been an absolutely crucial part of the team’s goaltending this season. Hell, he’s been an absolutely crucial part of the team overall. Jonas Hiller was the best thing the Flames did on July 1, 2014.
So, what if they hadn’t gotten him?
Hiller’s time with the Anaheim Ducks was clearly coming to an end, and when the Los Angeles Kings eliminated them in the second round of the playoffs – a series in which John Gibson effectively took over – that was it. He was still NHL quality, so he wasn’t going to be leaving the league, but he was going to be wearing another team’s jersey for the first time in seven years. We just didn’t know which one.
The Flames, meanwhile, were the fourth worst team in the league, so they weren’t even thinking playoffs. A major part of their being the fourth worst team in the league was their third worst-league goaltending, manned by a disastrous group of Ramo, Reto Berra, and Joey MacDonald, with a special guest appearance by Joni Ortio.
Berra was bad and somehow traded for a second rounder, while MacDonald was both old and bad and thus not retained. Ortio was deemed too adorable and/or inexperienced for regular NHL action (probably more the latter than the former), which left just Ramo, with one year remaining on his contract.
The thing with Ramo was that while his return to the NHL was filled with sub-.900 save percentages, he got better. His career save percentage was not to be trusted: after spending four years improving in the KHL, he had grown from when Tampa Bay had, honestly, probably rushed him into the league. And since the Olympics, he had a .913 save percentage. Nothing earth shattering, but he was looking pretty good, and primed to be the Flames’ starter for year two of the rebuild.
And then: Hiller. Two-year deal. Ortio. Requiring waivers after the upcoming season. Ramo? A place this season. After? Who knows.
Some other goalie
Well, if the Flames hadn’t gotten Hiller, they were still going to be getting some other goalie. With Ortio needing to be a starter, Jon Gillies still in school, and Mason McDonald having just been drafted, there was nobody. And with Ramo looking ready to be the starter, it probably would have been a backup signed.
Who was available on the market on July 1, 2014? Ryan Miller got scooped up by the Vancouver Canucks pretty quick, after they somehow managed to trade two starting goalies for magic beans, and also Bo Horvat. After him there was a handful of familiar names:
- Ilya Bryzgalov (still somewhere out there…)
- Chad Johnson (later purposefully acquired by the very heavily tanking Buffalo Sabres)
- Al Montoya (dude’s been extremely up and down in his career as a backup. He is currently down)
- Justin Peters (one time my friend and I were trying to name all the league’s backup goalies from memory and he was the only one we couldn’t figure out)
- Evgeni Nabokov (oooooold)
- Thomas Greiss (some decent numbers, but dude’s barely ever played)
- Anders Lindback (later purposefully acquired by the very heavily tanking Buffalo Sabres)
- Devan Dubnyk (in hindsight it would have been hilarious if the Flames had picked him up and then he’d gone on to do for them what he’s done for Minnesota. What a missed opportunity)
- Jason LaBarbera (you may remember him as “career backup”)
- Martin Brodeur (OOOOOOLD)
- Joey MacD– okay we’re done here
Outside of Hiller and Miller, “some other goalie” available on the market only really left you with a choice between some not-great guys, backups, really old dudes, and also Devan Dubnyk. So had Hiller not become a Flame, probably one of two things would have happened with the Flames’ goaltending this season:
- Ramo would have clearly become the starter, continuing to show improvement with age and new experience.
- Ramo would not have clearly become the starter, and the Flames would have entered the season with essentially two backup goalies duking it out, probably resulting in excellent performances on some occasions, and horrific ones on others.
Oh, and the Flames probably wouldn’t be in a playoff position.
Never bad enough for McDavid, not good enough to get by without some decent SV%s
The Flames currently have a team save percentage of .910. It’s about the middle of the league. Hiller’s .914 in over half of their games played is a pretty big part of that. It’s also better than all of the goalies mentioned above, Dubnyk aside, because magical things happen once you leave Edmonton.
Ramo’s got that same .914, but in fewer games played. Greiss has a .912, so he’s not too far behind, but that’s also with significantly fewer games played. (Although: Greiss plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who only give up about 0.3 more shots per game than the Flames do, so it’s entirely possible he’d have similar numbers in Calgary. Factor in the 45 games to his 18, though, and maybe… not.)
Keep Greiss at .912 over 18 games. Give Ramo the remaining games, so he has 55 games. Ramo goes through periods of highs and lows, and with more minutes played, I might expect a few more lows than highs, so maybe drop him to .912, too. That results in an additional five goals against the Flames, and that’s in pretty much ideal non-Hiller circumstances. You’d have to be hoping for the very best, and even then, you’d be getting inferior results.
Had the Flames chosen to place all their trust in Ramo and acquire a backup on the market, they wouldn’t have been tanking, but they wouldn’t be third in their division and desperately trying to stave off the Los Angeles Kings, either. What with their improved shooting percentage resulting in increased offence, they’d probably still be winning more than last season. They wouldn’t be bad enough for a high pick, though, and with Ramo probably getting worn out, they wouldn’t be on the playoff bubble. They’d be in the worst case situation, stranded in no man’s land.
While Hiller and Ramo aren’t exactly lighting the league on fire, there’s another benefit to the veteran’s presence: he’s a veteran. He started over 300 games for the Ducks. He knows what he’s doing. He can play with and extend the highs. He’s mature enough to handle the lows. And with Hiller and Ramo both pretty much playing to one another’s level, it’s more healthy competition and less hierarchy.
For a rebuilding team filled with children and prospects, a steady veteran like Hiller has additional value beyond his consistent save percentages.
Also, he’s pretty much the best dressed and coolest goalie out there, so life without Hiller would suck.
Alternatively: Musings on the alternate universe in which the Flames sign Devan Dubnyk
(I’ll be honest with you guys, half the reason this whole thing got written is because I love this stupid title format, and I’ll probably be making it a semi-regular thing because of that. As long as I’ve got ideas for it, it’ll be around.)
Anyway: would Dubnyk have ended up turning into what he currently is had he ended up three hours south? Well, Minnesota’s a better defensive team than Calgary, so he may not have reached his .937 save percentage here. He did, however, manage a .916 save percentage in Arizona, and they are, like, really, really, really bad, so… he probably would have ended up pretty decent here at the absolute least.
And if the Wild don’t acquire Dubnyk, they maybe don’t turn their season around. Since the West is pretty much five teams fighting for four spots now – the Wild and Flames being two of them – Minnesota maybe doesn’t climb back into the playoff race. Maybe it’s four teams for four spots, and the Flames are comfortably in. And probably at peak schadenfreude.
That could have been an incredible world. The one we’re in has turned out pretty okay, though.