The curious case of the Jonas Hiller-Karri Ramo tandem

It wasn’t that long ago that the Flames’ goaltending was so simple. Just put Miikka in net, let him do his thing, and rinse and repeat for 70+ games every year.

So things were understandably different when he retired, and the Flames began the search for their new starter. The 2013-14 season was a terrible one, spread across four goaltenders: Joni Ortio with nine games; Joey MacDonald, 11; Reto Berra, 29; and Karri Ramo – who ended up being the last man standing – 40.

It looked like Ramo was to be the Flames’ starter for at least the next few years. But then the Flames went and signed Jonas Hiller, and it’s been a tandem ever since.

Looking back on last season

201415flamesgoalies

The 2014-15 season started with both Hiller and Ramo alternating starts for a solid month. The first 10 games saw equal time for both goalies. They also saw Hiller begin to pull away, and as the end of October neared, he won the starter’s job. Hiller played the next eight games in a row, including a game where Ramo ended up pulled after surrendering four goals on 22 shots.

The entire point of having a backup is to give your starter a break, though, so after his disastrous start that Hiller ended up taking over anyway, Ramo finally drew in for a game on Nov. 15 (his last complete game before that date was Oct. 25). He posted a .920 SV%. 

Hiller was back in net after that with a couple of sub-.900 SV% efforts, which eventually resulted in Ramo getting games again: including posting back-to-back shutouts in late November. Ramo won the starter’s role back for the next five games, only to be derailed by the nine-game losing streak.

Ramo had the first start of the losing streak, and was out-duelled by Antti Niemi. He only got in another two starts throughout the spiral downwards: a loss to the Buffalo Sabres in which he posted just a .789 SV%, and a brutal four-goals-on-13-shots effort against the New York Rangers on Dec. 16 that saw him pulled. 

Hiller rode out the rest of the streak, and played all of the Flames’ final games of 2014 as well, including back-to-back .963 SV% games. Ramo didn’t start another game until Jan. 7: a game in which he was playing really well, right up until he took a Raphael Diaz knee to the head.

(This is where that giant green Ortio spike comes in: recalled in light of Ramo’s injury, and not taken out because he was doing too good of a job. Conveniently, Ortio’s run didn’t end until the day after Ramo was activated from injured reserve, in which Hiller had to come to the young goalie’s rescue.)

Even with Ramo recovered, though, he didn’t get any game time in again until Feb. 6, when he came in for the final minutes of a 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He again had to come in for Hiller on Feb. 12, when Hiller was hung out to dry after surrendering five goals on 40 shots – all the while rumoured to have the flu.

The next start was Ramo’s, a .933 SV% effort. He got his second start in a row two days later, and only to get pulled after allowing three goals on 11 shots.

Hiller had the next two starts, but after posting two sub-.900 SV% efforts, that was kind of it. After playing in 41 of the first 59 games of the season, the tide seemed to be starting to turn.

The shift

Over the first 59 games of the season, Ramo had appeared in just 20 games. Sure, this was partly inhibited by Ramo’s bad case of knee-to-the-head, but even around that time, it was clear: Hiller was the goalie more likely to get you a win, and so, Hiller was the usual starter.

On Feb. 24, Ramo got his next start – and started the next five games in a row. On the fifth game, he allowed four goals on 35 shots, and Hiller was brought in to finish out the rest of the loss.

In response, Hiller had the next three starts, consistently staying above .900. Ramo started the next game – four games after his last start – and injured himself in the first minute, making Hiller the starter for the rest of the season, in which he played rather well.

Ramo was healthy again in time for the playoffs, but it was Hiller’s net once again.

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At least until he had a poor Game 2 against the Canucks, allowing three goals on 29 shots, including two early in the first period. He rebounded for Games 3, 4, and 5 – not to mention the stellar Game 1 performance he had – until Game 6, when Hiller surrendered two goals on three shots, all in the first seven and a half minutes.

Ramo came in for relief, and was scored on two minutes later. Still, he managed to hold the fort well enough while his team battled back, overtook, and finally, vanquished the Canucks.

But it was Hiller who had gotten them that far, so it was Hiller to get the first start of the second round.

The first game of the second round was bad. It was really, really bad. The entire team had an abhorrent game. Hiller gave up three goals on 14 shots; Ramo, three on 21, and neither goalie got an ounce of help from their skaters.

And yet, for some reason, that was the last game Hiller started. Ramo took the remainder of the playoff series. He had two sub-.900 SV% games (including the one win in Game 3), and finished off his season with a valiant effort against what was, frankly, a vastly superior team. Hiller may have done better, he may not have. What we do know, though, is that after almost an entire season of being called upon, he wasn’t given another chance.

So… who’s the starter?

Throw in the fact that Ortio is now a part of all of this, and it’s increasingly unclear. Ramo had the first start of the 2015-16 season, and while he didn’t exactly get a lot of help from his teammates, he didn’t perform particularly well himself, either. Hiller is slated to start the second game of the season, and we’ll see how he does.

This is what I don’t get, though. Between Ramo starting to take over around the end of February 2015, the rumours of Hiller being on the trade block, and Ramo’s re-signing just before free agency, things have made less and less sense. Hiller was turned to again and again and again throughout the first half and then some of the season. Sure, Ramo had his stretches of excellent starts, but the Flames always ended up going back to Hiller.

And then… they just stopped. Hiller had a couple of bad games, and it was as if the torch was passed, even though earlier in the season it was always returned to him. He had the better performances throughout the entire season – a .918 SV% compared to Ramo’s .912% – and yet, when the Flames were facing their toughest games, it was Ramo they turned to, and Hiller they were rumoured to try to be trading.

Even though Hiller had the better track record: both in his career, and over just very recent history.

This isn’t to say Ramo should never play. He’s capable of pulling out some incredible games; he’s also capable of pulling out some terrible ones. The same goes for Hiller. The same goes for literally every goalie to ever play the game.

But Hiller has the better track record, period. If the Flames still want to trade him, it should only be because he would, in theory, net the best return; not because he’s the least ideal goalie to have. Until Ramo very, very, very clearly establishes himself as the vastly superior goalie – and he hasn’t – Hiller should be the starter, simple as that: just as he was for almost all of 2014-15.

  • Wish it was this cut & dried. Either Ramo or Hiller are UFA’s, so I don’t know whether Hiller would net that much more over Ramo in a return on a trade. I would suspect Hiller is putting in his time & has no long term intention of resigning in Calgary. Ramo did, despite the gong show scenario of 3 goalies. Me thinks BT had to throw him a couple extra mill in order for him to sign on a 1 year term. I don’t see either Ramo or Hiller as the franchise goalie going forward. If you were Buffalo, who do you take, Ramo or Hiller, the price is about the same, so is the term, so is the $$$.

    I do think Ortio should be the backup & needs to get in about 20 games or more if he plays good. Ironically, Ortio may be the last Goalie standing come June next year.

    • #97TRAIN

      I don’t think that Ortio will be the last goalie there at the end of the year. One of Hillier or Ramo are going to sign before the trade deadline.
      Calgary would be foolish to risk losing them to free agency at the end of the year.
      One of them will still be here. One will get traded and one will re-sign. I put my money on Ramo.

  • #97TRAIN

    Ortio is a bit of an unknown at this point. Not much of an NHL sample size. Carrying 3 goalies is obviously not ideal. I don’t think you will get much in return for Hillier or Ramo as teams know you have to dump one guy. Hillier has a 4.5 ml contract which a lot of teams don’t want . You may see a third rounder come back and Calgary would probably have to eat some salary as well.
    If Ramo does well I think you’ll see him resign and Ortio will be his backup next year.
    I don’t think Calgary wants to hand over the #1 starting job to Ortio based on a few games.