These past few weeks have been pretty fun as a Flames fan. The team has inexplicably kept themselves right in the midst of the playoff race, and control their own fate. To do so, they’ve been able to happily bounce back and forth between a pair of quality goalies. Jonas Hiller played seven games throughout March, while Karri Ramo took 10 as he briefly took back the starter’s role.
Hiller was given the game against the Blues in the third of a three-game starting stretch, while Ramo was allowed to get back into it against the Oilers.
At least, that was the plan, had Ramo not injured himself within the first minute. And whether he’s fine or not, there’s a pretty decent chance that’s the last we’ve seen of Ramo as a Calgary Flame.
A game of contracts
When Miikka Kiprusoff retired, the Flames didn’t have a long-term succession plan in place. A short-term one, sure; Joey MacDonald was still around, and Karri Ramo and Reto Berra were replacement possibilities while a couple of goaltending prospects, headlined by Joni Ortio and Jon Gillies, continued to play in their respective development leagues.
Ramo’s the only one who has survived the transition, but he’s a free agent after this season. And sure, the Flames could totally re-sign him. The thing is, do they have room?
Hiller has one year left on his deal. So does Ortio.
Here’s the big kicker, though: starting next season, Ortio’s contract not only shifts from a two-way to a one-way (he’ll get paid an NHL salary no matter what), but he’ll require waivers to get sent down.
Sure, there’s always a chance Ortio clears. But Gillies is the only other prospect the Flames have who is even close to ready, and he’s never played professionally. Ortio, meanwhile, has led both Abbotsford and then Adirondack (and it’s no coincidence Adirondack has been struggling to make the playoffs since his injury) whilst being an all-rookie team and then all-star goalie.
There’s also the matter of that little five game stretch he had in the NHL this season in which he not only looked more than capable, but helped keep the Flames in a playoff push, all the while earning every single start he got. Small sample size, to be sure, but…
Do you really want to play chicken with the rest of the league on that?
Hiller takes the edge
Of course, the Flames could always re-sign Ramo and trade Hiller over the off-season. No matter what, Ortio’s looking kinda prime to be the backup next year, so that would give the Flames another option for their starter.
Only Ramo doesn’t really have any seasons proven as starter, while Hiller can point to most of his career. And it’s not just longevity on the Swiss netminder’s side; it’s basic numbers, too.
We can give Ramo the benefit of the doubt and take out his poor numbers from his years with Tampa Bay where he clearly wasn’t ready. That’s a career save percentage of .911, or .918 at even strength, and that’s only off of two seasons.
Hiller, meanwhile, over eight years of work, has a career save percentage of .916, and .929 at even strength. He’s been in the league longer and he’s just been plain better. Throw that in with the fact that he’s already signed for another year, not to mention his full-fledged starter’s veteran status could be of great benefit to someone like Ortio, and, well.
If you want to win, then over the long-term (not career-long term, but like, over the course of a season), you go with Hiller. And the Flames want to win. If there’s one thing that proved that, it was signing Hiller in the first place. Nobody could have predicted Calgary would have scored so much, but bringing in Hiller over Berra was a clear cry for help from the goaltending end of things, and one that was sure to net the Flames a couple of extra wins, increased shooting percentage or not. (Remember that Chicago game from back in October? Exactly like that.)
The rest of the season
There are three games the rest of this season. The Flames control their own playoff fate.
October aside, when the Flames went back and forth between Hiller and Ramo starts until Hiller finally started to pull away, Hartley has a tendency to get fixated on a single goalie and ride him until he sees fit. That’s been Hiller most of the season, but the recent attention to Ramo has given pause.
Now, even if Ramo isn’t badly hurt, Hiller’s just put up a shutout after winning two of his previous three starts. And there aren’t many games left.
It’s entirely possible the Flames simply ride Hiller out the rest of the year, regardless of Ramo’s status. And if they make the playoffs, well, Hiller’s been the team’s number one most of the season. You go with your number one until you have reason not to. And while both goalies have pushed each other all season long, Ramo hasn’t really given any compelling reason as to why he should start any post-season games over Hiller.
Thank you, Karri
If this does end up being the end, then: thanks, Ramo.
He was the best and significantly least-frustrating starter of the 2013-14 season, and he was an excellent 1b goalie this season. His improvement in his return to the NHL was awesome to watch, and his helping keep Hiller on his toes no doubt benefited the Flames this year.
He gave us some fun shutout rides, and some old tastes of Kipper:
Letting him simply walk wouldn’t be so bad. The Flames acquired him essentially for a second, and that second turned into Zach Fuacle, and, uh, Mason McDonald has been the better goalie this year while playing more games and on a worse team throughout the duration of the QMJHL playoff push, so… I think we can live with that trade.
He was brought back from Russia after he finished honouring his contract with Omsk, and proved to certainly be NHL capable.
So even if we don’t see him in front of a Flames net again, decked out in one of his awesome Edgar Allan Poe or Tim Burton-inspired masks – and it’s entirely likely we don’t – he had a pretty good run in Calgary. As far as stopgap options go, you can do significantly worse.
Ramo was a key part in getting this rebuilding team up into the playoff bubble. Hopefully Ortio can continue that next season if that’s how things shake out, but in the meantime: thanks, Karri.