What should the Flames do when Jonas Hiller returns?

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

Will they?

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.
Out of 29 teams, most of them are firm “no”s. There are maybe five teams to watch out for: the Islanders, who have already done the claim-a-goalie-off-of-waivers thing; the Canucks, whose entire goaltending situations have been a mess for years so quite frankly you can’t trust them, although it’s probably unlikely; the Sharks, who could very well be willing to throw loyalty out the window for a chance at a backup with greater potential; the Leafs, who already have a lot of bodies; and the Blue Jackets, who are in a similar position as the Sharks.

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.

  • Captain Ron

    In my world this decision is pretty simple. I waive one of the guys who are not considered a part of the teams future. Ramo or Hiller. Take your pick. If either get claimed then great it gives us some cash to spend if necessary.

    Your analysis is fairly complete and makes a strong case that Ortio probably does not get claimed. But even that small chance he does is probably too much for my comfort zone. The problem is that we really don’t know what we have yet in him as the sample size is too small yet. Let’s see what he can do behind a team that is playing well in their own zone and isn’t exposed to a barrage of 10 bell scoring chances every night. For an example look at what Talbot is going through in Oiler land behind that group of D when compared to the sound defensive structure he had in NY.

    Right now he is the number one goalie prospect in our system so before we expose him let us be sure of what we really have before taking that risk. If he proves to be a bust then he falls into the same category as Ramo and Hiller and so what if we lose him.

    • Ari Yanover

      That’s fair. Really, the only difference in our opinions is I’m more confident than you that he doesn’t get claimed. We’re on the same page otherwise.

      And if he is able to get a couple of quality starts in a row before Hiller comes back then I say don’t waive him. That’s when the risk becomes a little too great, because, well, that’s when he starts showing promise, and a team like the Leafs or Jackets probably gets really interested he’ll be worth their while.

      If that doesn’t happen though, well. Probably the only reason he wasn’t in the AHL to start the season was due to the fact he requires waivers now. That’s telling of where he is on both the depth chart and his development curve.

  • EhPierre

    The most recent version of Hiller was nothing short of bad. Ortio is not playing right now because a) Ramo has won 3/4, and b) his last start was a disaster (even though the team was too).

    If there is a slight chance that Ortio get claimed, I would have to say that the chance of Hiller getting claimed is zilch. Hiller could take the opportunity and actually improve his game in Stockton, as well as help the team win again. Gillies being out may be a good enough reason to do so.

    You have to think that Hiller’s reportedly being shopped puts him in the position to be waived. Ramo was signed for this reason, but was unable to grab the reins early. Hiller’s last starts make him look like the odd man out.

  • Captain Ron

    Like Ramo did, Ortio has to play an NHL game and win. But Bob Hartley doesn’t trust him based on game performance and I assume practice and his goalie coach comments. So Ortio only comes in to play if Ramo goes down in flames (pun) before Hiller comes back and Ortio goes into mop up or gets the next start. But that’s his only chance.
    Otherwise the only outcome is he is stapled to the bench and will be, till Hiller returns at which point, to quote Howie Meeker “Choo-choo Stockton”.

  • Ari Yanover

    Ari…excellent article. Further to our recent posts about this topic you have obviously done your home work that proves me wrong. I am still worried that the Leafs or Blue Jackets may claim Ortio especially with their focus on youth and specifically the Leafs desire to move one of their veteran goalies.

    Nice work!

    • Ari Yanover

      Thank you! And thanks for the talk yesterday, it inspired this post.

      I don’t think Hiller would get claimed off of waivers with his cap hit. I don’t see anybody claiming any goalies off of waivers, really, but Ortio is definitely the riskiest proposition.

    • SydScout

      Total respect to this post. And to the article. This is is exactly what I come here for – respectful, reasoned and knowledgable debate. Kudos, and thanks, to you both.

    • The Last Big Bear

      “Goalie Joni Ortio made 33 saves to earn his fourth straight win since he was recalled from Adirondack of the American Hockey League. Ortio, who is 4-0-0 with a 1.23 goals-against average and .958 save percentage, is making a case to stay with Calgary…”

      http://www.nhl.com/gamecenter/en/recap?id=2014020681

      I recall somebody (possibly a goalie coach in the Finnish national team system) two or three years ago saying that there were no superstar Finnish goalies in the pipeline, but Joni Ortio was the best bet.

      I’m not saying he *will* be above replacement level, but we do have evidence to suggest that it is very possible.

  • RealMcHockeyReturns

    Agree with most of the great analysis Ari but I think Capitals and Penguins are actually at least Maybes not Nos. Those teams do not not have (in my opinion) good solid secondary options behind Holtby and Fleury. I think the easiest option is send down Ramo if he has 2 bad games in a row or send down Hiller

  • The Last Big Bear

    Not sure how his stats this season can even be mentioned in a discussion. Two random games in front of a team that looked like it was imploding? Saying that Ortio hasn’t exactly been put in a position to succeed is the understatement of the year.

  • Ken V.

    Waive Hiller. Seems like we are doing much better since his departure. Reminds me of that losing skid we went on before Glencross finally got out of the room. We went on a bit of a streak after that if I’m not mistaken..

  • RKD

    To be fair to Ortio the whole team was playing so poorly in October that even if the goalie could stand on his head he still may not have gotten a win. I bet if Ortio had this team in front of him now it could be a different story. If Ramo is winning now keep him in.

  • Graham

    The Flames put themselves in this position when they resigned and simply over paid Ramo. Maybe Brad over estimated the potential trade market for goalies like Hiller or Ramo, or maybe their poor play / cap hit has destroyed their value. Ortio needs time and games to develop, and neither Ramo or Hiller look consistent enough to be anything more than over paid backups.

    I’m not sure that this team can be successful with its current goaltending. We have some potential in the system, but no one is ready (yet) for prime time.
    I think we need to risk sending Ortio down, trade/waive or give away either Ramo or Hiller (keeping the remaining one as backup) and find a stop gap vet #1 goalie for on a one or two year contract to buy us time to develop someone in the system.

    • Greg

      It has been a distraction, but I’d also argue they are lucky to have put themselves in this position. Had they not signed Ramo, if Hiller goes down they are forced to go with 2 rookies. I’m not even sure who #5 and #6 are in the depth chart right now, but they’d be 3 and 4 today if Ramo weren’t here. Actually I believe Gilles is hurt too so they’d be 2 & 3.

      Paid a steep price for that “luxury” but I still suspect it was part of the plan. Pay him over market value to convince him to come back to a messy crease, and deter other teams from claiming him if we need to stash him in the A.

      Seems to be a tactic of BT to leverage the team budget and spend cap space he won’t be using otherwise… Unfortunately he signed up for 1 too many years on Raymond and Engelland.