The Flames had a problem when the season started: they had with three goaltenders. After six games, Karri Ramo was waived, and that seemed to solve the problem – at least until four games later, when Jonas Hiller was hurt mid-game.
Now, the Flames have just two goalies: Ramo, and Joni Ortio. It’s at present unknown just how long this will be the case, as updates regarding Hiller’s timetable for recovery have been sparse. He’s still at least week or two away, and he’s now on the Flames’ injured reserve.
But when he recovers, the Flames will be back to square one: they’ll have three goalies again.
A lot can change in a few weeks
When Hiller was injured, Ramo had just been essentially exiled, the sacrificial lamb to the team’s extensive goaltending woes. Since returning, however, Ramo has worked his way back into good graces. He’s started the past four games, and earned a .900 save percentage along the way: not spectacular, but better than before. It doesn’t hurt that he’s won three of those four games, either, and his most recent efforts have been above .900.
In short, he’s started looking like an NHL goaltender again. This had not been the case when he was sent down.
Right now, it’s Ortio who still looks like the odd man out. He’s only had two starts through 15 games, and he’s given up 10 goals in them. The team, quite simply, doesn’t appear to have any interest in playing him, and it’s somewhat apparent as to why: he hasn’t performed particularly well.
Ortio and Ramo both had pretty bad games following Hiller’s injury – Ortio had a save percentage of .806, Ramo .826 – but Ramo had the slightly better game, and he also had the win (not that that’s necessarily in a goalie’s control). It’s been nothing but Ramo since then.
The Flames have back-to-back away games coming up, going from Tampa Bay to Washington, so it’s possible Ortio gets another start soon. Depending on how he and Ramo fare, it could be his chance; for the meantime, however, it seems to be Ramo’s net.
If that’s still the case when Hiller returns, then it becomes a contest between Hiller and Ortio. A contest between experience and potential, between trying to win now vs. hopefully winning in the future.
For a rebuilding team, it makes more sense to go with potential. But if, when Hiller returns to action, things are the same – Ramo is starting, and Ortio is the seldom-used backup – what good does it do to keep Ortio in the NHL? Prospects require development, not hoarding, and thus far, the Flames have been hoarding Ortio.
So if the situation is still the same, you probably send Ortio to Stockton.
But wait, someone will claim him off waivers
That’s always a possibility any time you waive a player. This isn’t a Paul Byron situation, however. Goalies are much different from skaters. You typically have just two on the roster, and that’s it.
If a team claims Ortio, it completely disrupts their goaltending situation, because a player claimed off of waivers has to stay in the NHL. Either that team ends up with a three goalie situation – unlikely, since there’s a reason it doesn’t usually happen – or they send one of their present goalies down. Remember, they do this in order to claim a 24-year-old with a .868 save percentage this season, and a .893 save percentage over his NHL career.
Let’s go through the 29 other teams in the NHL to determine if anyone has reasonable cause to do this. We’ll go in descending order of the overall standings, so as to quicker eliminate what one would presume to be the top teams, or the teams that are least likely to make a change.
- The Canadiens have an injured Carey Price, Mike Condon, and Dustin Tokarski. Price is Price, so no need to worry there; their backup, Condon, has a .940 save percentage through seven games, so there’s no point in replacing him; and Tokarski currently appears to be there just for insurance. No.
- The Stars are spending big bucks on a Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi tandem. They both have save percentages over .900. No.
- The Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta, who have save percentages of .945 and .976 respectively. No.
- The Blues have Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Allen is having an exceptional start to his season, and is only a year older than Ortio; Elliott appears to be faring less well, but he’s been reasonably reliable for the Blues over the past four seasons, including going to the All-Star game for them. It’s unlikely they ditch him just like that. No.
- The Capitals have starter Braden Holtby, and backup Philip Grubauer. Grubauer is about the same age as Ortio, and has a .900 save percentage over two games this season. They aren’t going to replace their prospect with someone else’s. No.
- The Wild are already full up with Devan Dubnyk, Niklas Backstrom, and Darcy Kuemper. They’ve already committed long-term to Dubnyk, and while this is the final year of Backstrom’s contract and he appears unlikely to continue, Kuemper is only 25, and has more NHL experience than Ortio (with better save percentages to boot). No.
- The Predators have Pekka Rinne, who isn’t going anywhere, and Carter Hutton, who is a 29-year-old backup with not-great numbers. If they wanted to replace Hutton, though, it’s far more likely they’d look internally. Marek Mazanec is a 24-year-old who has already played more NHL games than Ortio; Juuse Saros is a 20-year-old who is currently posting a .925 save percentage in his first AHL season. Why claim someone else’s goalie when you have potentially better already in-house? No.
- The Kings have Jonathan Quick starting for them until the end of time. They also have Jhonas Enroth who, as a backup thus far, has played two games and has a .984 save percentage to show for them. No.
- The Penguins have Marc-Andre Fleury, he of a .933 save percentage (and that’s after he laid an egg in Calgary), and Jeff Zatkoff, their backup who has already made 77 saves over two games and has a .951 save percentage to start the year. No.
- The Jets have Ondrej Pavelec (.918) and Michael Hutchinson (.927). No.
- The Devils committed to Cory Schneider, and have the 26-year-old Keith Kinkaid backing him up. Kinkaid has a .893 save percentage over three games to start the season, which isn’t great, but still better than what Ortio has shown to date. However, over 19 games last season, he posted a .915 save percentage in the NHL: higher than what Ortio has accomplished over more games. Do you give up on your own guy three games into the season for someone else a little younger, slightly less expensive, and without as good stats? No.
- The Senators have Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond signed for the next three seasons. There really isn’t much room for someone else, and they’re not going to demote one of those two guys for somebody unproven. No.
- The Blackhawks are committed to Corey Crawford. Scott Darling is their backup who, over four games this season, has just a .885 save percentage. There are two catches here, though. One, Darling already had more success with the Blackhawks last season than Ortio has throughout his career to date, including in the playoffs. And two: Darling is cheaper than Ortio, and the Hawks are a cap-strapped team. No.
- The Islanders are full up with starter Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss, and Jean-Francois Berube. The Islanders actually claimed Berube off waivers, so we know they’re a team that might do that; on the other hand, he’s only played the one game for them, and between Halak, Greiss, and Berube, Berube has the worst stats thus far: .882, compared to the other goalies’ .928 and .924. Ortio has had better AHL stats than Berube, though. Maybe, if only because they’ve shown a propensity to do this already, but between Halak and Greiss already they look set.
- The Canucks committed to Ryan Miller, and currently have Richard Bachman backing him up, while Jacob Markstrom is on an AHL conditioning stint. The Canucks already exposed Markstrom to waivers the season before, when he had an AHL save percentage .918 (Ortio, in his last AHL season, had .912), and he went unclaimed. Markstrom is expected to be recalled soon, however, so really, the Canucks would be choosing between Markstrom and Ortio. Maybe, but last season, Markstrom posted a .934 save percentage in the AHL, which is higher than anything Ortio’s ever done, so it seems doubtful.
- The Lightning have Ben Bishop, who took them to the Stanley Cup Final last season, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is three years younger than Ortio and has already put up far superior performances. No.
- The Bruins have Tuukka Rask pretty much forever. His backup is Jonas Gustavsson, who has a .912 save percentage over four games, better than Ortio. If they want to go younger, they already had that chance; Gustavsson won his job off of a PTO. With Jeremy Smith, Zane McIntyre, and Malcolm Subban, though, the Bruins are already kind of loaded with goalies. No.
- The Red Wings are committed to Jimmy Howard. They also have Petr Mrazek, a year Ortio’s junior, already in the NHL, and already putting up better performances (he has a .929 save percentage over eight games this season). No.
- The Sharks committed to Martin Jones, a year older than Ortio, this season; he has better stats than Ortio already. Alex Stalock hasn’t performed well to start this year though, and is two seasons removed from a .932 effort he hasn’t reached again. They also don’t have anybody particularly impressive, or young, for that matter, who may be able to make the leap any time soon. Maybe.
- The Coyotes were getting great goaltending with Mike Smith, who they’re committed to for a while yet, but he seems to have fallen back. However, their backup, Anders Lindback, is only 27, and is currently sitting at a .933 save percentage over four games. Is Ortio going to top that? No.
- The Panthers have Roberto Luongo forever thanks to the Canucks, and Al Montoya is a backup with a .922 save percentage thus far. No.
- The Flyers had Steve Mason turn in awesome performances over the past few seasons, so while this year isn’t quite up to those standards, they’re not going to turn on him just like that. And backup Michal Neuvirth, signed just this offseason, has a .945 save percentage over eight games. No.
- The Hurricanes are in the final year of Cam Ward’s contract, but they aren’t going to send a player owed a $6.8 million salary down to the AHL, certainly not if he’s still performing at an NHL level (even if it’s not a particularly great one). They also committed to Eddie Lack this offseason, and even if things aren’t going to plan so far, that’s a $2.75 million cap hit over next season and the one after they likely aren’t going to bury; certainly not for a player coming off of a .921 save percentage year. No.
- The Sabres already made it perfectly clear when Robin Lehner got hurt they weren’t in the market for a new goaltender. Chad Johnson hasn’t been fantastic, but over his first five NHL games, Linus Ullmark has a .918 save percentage. They’ll already have to pick between the two when Lehner comes back. Adding Ortio into the mix means both would ultimately have to go down – and you think they’re going to do that to a rookie like Ullmark who’s been performing so well? No.
- The Ducks have Anton Khudobin (.913) and Frederik Andersen (.935). They have John Gibson in the minors. No.
- The Oilers currently have Cam Talbot and Anders Nilsson. Nilsson is only a year older than Ortio, and has a .911 save percentage over five games. Even if they want to trade one of them in, they have Laurent Brossoit (remember him?) rocking the AHL with a .927 save percentage, and he’s two years younger than Ortio. No.
- The Avalanche committed to Semyon Varlamov. They also committed to Reto Berra for some reason, but he actually has a .943 save percentage over five games this season, so. And Calvin Pickard, a year younger than Ortio, has a .935 save percentage over nine games to start this AHL season, and showed promise in the NHL last year. No.
- The Maple Leafs have Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer, and lots of goalies in general. In light of Bernier’s injury, however, Antoine Bibeau (.908 in the AHL this season) is up with the Leafs, though he has yet to play an NHL game. Garret Sparks has a .932 save percentage in the AHL this year, though, so that complicates things; also, both are younger than Ortio. Maybe, but things are going to get much trickier when Bernier recovers, so it still seems unlikely.
- The Blue Jackets have Sergei Bobrovsky for quite some time, so even though this season really hasn’t gone his way thus far, well, they’re kinda stuck with him. Curtis McElhinney is their backup, though he has a .912 save percentage through five games this season, and has been generally decent since he came to Columbus. He’s 32 years old, though, which could pave the way for Ortio if the Jackets are concerned about rebuilding right now… Except they’ve got a 22-year-old Anton Forsberg in the AHL with a .910 save percentage, and a 21-year-old Joonas Korpisalo also in the AHL with a .942 save percentage, so they already have in-house prospects. Ortio could work as a stop gap with potential for them however, so maybe.
So maybe the Sharks and Jackets are the only really solid threats, and it’s firmly dependent on them willing to say goodbye to their backups of the past few seasons. Possible, but hardly a sure thing.
And remember, this is speculating that any of these teams want to replace their current goaltending situations with a newcomer to their organizations: a 24-year-old who regressed from his rookie AHL season and has yet to put together a stretch of truly great NHL goaltending. We’re not exactly talking about Carey Price becoming available for free on the market, this is a prospect with potential in a league full of teams who have their own prospects with potential.
All in all
As discussed way above, Ortio can change this outlook, provided he turns one quality start into several quality starts before Hiller returns. If he can’t, though, then he’s simply just sitting on the bench – and potentially the pressbox after – doing nothing. Not playing, not necessarily developing nor improving.
This is a sign that the Flames don’t seem to trust him to play in the NHL. And if he isn’t trusted in the NHL, what is he doing there?
In Ortio’s first AHL season, he had a .926 save percentage; in his second, he fell to .912. Playing in the AHL wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for him. It would probably help him in the long run. And there really aren’t many teams who are a threat to claim him off of waivers, if there are any at all.
If the Flames’ goaltending situation remains the same by the time Hiller comes off the injured reserve, then it simply makes the most sense to send Ortio down.