What were the Flames thinking with three goalies?

Now that Joni Ortio is officially in Stockton, and Jonas Hiller activated, the three-goalie conundrum that has plagued the Flames since July 1 has finally been put to rest. The two veterans, Hiller and Karri Ramo, should split starts, while the prospect, Ortio, should get development time in the AHL.

The proper destination has been reached. The problem is the journey to get there was riddled with completely avoidable errors, and errors that very well may have contributed to one of the worst starts in franchise history.

Goaltending is a very mental position, and three goalies is an unusual situation. It’s no surprise things didn’t work out.

Explaining re-signing Ramo

Heading into free agency, the Flames had three goalies under contract: Hiller, Ortio, and Jon Gillies. Gillies, fresh out of college, was going to the AHL for his first professional season.

That left a clear situation for the Flames’ net. Hiller, the veteran of 378 NHL games, would be the starter; Ortio, with just 15 games, his understudy. 

But that setup left no margin for error. Despite starting 44 games for the Flames in 2014-15, more than any other goalie, Hiller seemed to have lost trust towards the end of the season. It was Ramo in net for the Flames’ series win over the Vancouver Canucks, and it was Ramo in net for the majority of the games the Flames played in the second round.

Hiller and Ramo, who brought the Flames league-average goaltending throughout the Flames’ miracle season, were a tandem that worked, and Ramo was the goalie in favour at the moment.

So Ramo was brought back into the fold. Why not, right? He gave the Flames an insurance policy they didn’t have without him. Otherwise, they’d be relying on a proven NHL starter, albeit one the coach didn’t seem to like too much at the moment, and a kid with no guarantee of becoming an NHLer.

Where it went wrong

Teams typically carry just two goalies. That’s all they need, after all: one guy in net, one guy backing him up. Goalie has a bad game? Other goalie can cover him. Two games in two days? Two goalies means nobody gets overworked over the fully 60-minute spreads. Two nets on the ice, two goalies to occupy them. No more, no less.

Three nets on the ice isn’t a thing. Three games in three days isn’t a thing. Three goalies in general isn’t a thing.

The Flames kept three goalies. Whether they actually had a plan for what to do with Hiller, Ramo, or Ortio is irrelevant, because whatever it may have been, it was never realized. Ramo was re-signed before anything was done with Hiller or Ortio, and then, over the course of an entire off-season, absolutely nothing was done with any of them.

But that was good, right? It meant competition in training camp: three goalies fighting for two spots. The Flames had depth at that position, and this proved it.

Except not really, as no goalie established himself. Hiller had a .965 save percentage over three pre-season games. Ortio, .946 over three. Ramo, .941 over four.

How do you differentiate between them? The Flames had no answer, so they decided to keep all three with them.

It didn’t work out. Those stellar pre-season save percentages plummeted to the worst in the NHL in the regular season, when hockey actually mattered. Hiller and Ramo alternated starts, but could only get one win over six games between them. They saw just two games with save percentages over .900: one, Hiller’s win; the other, a game Ramo had and lost with a terrible goal in the final 90 seconds.

Back-to-back starts weren’t a thing. No leash was afforded. You either won, or you didn’t get to play. And nobody was winning, the stupidest mistakes were involved in losses, and the Flames tumbled on down the standings.

And none for Joni Ortio, bye

All this time, the Flames were only playing two goalies. They had three goalies on the roster. They had three options to start. And all Ortio was allowed to do was practice and sit in the press box, every single game, without fail. He couldn’t even be dressed as a back up; he was left to sit and fester and it blew up spectacularly.

When Ortio finally got his first start of the year, he was on the second end of a back-to-back, facing a strong New York Islanders team. He kept his team in it, though. He was shelled with 14 shots over the first period and didn’t relent. He let in just one power play goal in the second period, leaving the Flames down by just one in a game they didn’t deserve to be in.

The wheels came off. He let in three more, and the Flames were shutout 4-0. There was nothing more Ortio could have possibly done to earn his team a win, but he was left unrewarded for his first start since the pre-season.

Then Hiller got hurt. Ortio filled in for him, and lost the first shootout of his career for a game in which he came in cold. Ramo was recalled from Stockton, having played just 20 minutes there since it was still Gillies’ net, and he needed the development time.

With Ramo recalled, it was between him and Ortio. Ortio got
the first start against a surging Montreal Canadiens squad, and surrendered
six; Ramo then got the start against a less-impressive Edmonton Oilers team, and
gave up four.

Ortio had a .806 save percentage. Ramo, .826. But Ramo also
had the win, and so, he went on to start 11 straight games, win or lose or bad
performance or back-to-backs be damned.

What were they thinking?

This entire debacle has been beyond embarrassing, and likely currently stands as the lowest point of Brad Treliving’s young general managing career. He brought in a third goalie without doing anything with the other two, and when he couldn’t decide between the three, simply kept them all.

Is it a coincidence that it was league-worst goaltending that sunk the Flames? It really might be. Goaltending may be incredibly mental, but these are still professionals; these are still guys who are better than most people in the world at stopping pucks. At the same time, though, the circumstances aligned perfectly. The Flames’ horrific start lined up with appalling goaltending, and their appalling goaltending came at a time they were carrying three on the roster.

And all of this was in fear of somebody claiming a goalie they weren’t even playing off of waivers.

The Flames had every chance in the world through the first
22 games of the season to play Ortio, and never did. Ramo had a bad game? Put in Hiller. Hiller had a bad game? Put in Ramo. Hiller gets hurt? Try out Ortio once, then put in Ramo, then play Ramo for 11 straight, then waive Ortio.

There was no plan, no structure. The Flames likely weren’t going to be a good team this season anyway, but their insane goaltending situation disrupted everything, and possibly damned them to a start worse than they were supposed to have. So maybe the question isn’t “what were they thinking” – maybe it’s simply “were they thinking?”

At least this is all behind us now, the solution to this unnecessary situation reached through convoluted means, long after the damage had been done. 

  • RexLibris

    I’ve seen this same paralysis take place with the Oilers in the past when they kept Khabibulin, Dubnyk and Deslauriers for fear of losing one of the latter two on waivers.

    We all more or less know how that turned out.

    A similar mistake was made by Tambellini when he kept Lander in the press box in his first NA season rather than send him to the AHL to play. It stunted his development and he has struggled to recover.

    This often seems to happen to new GMs who overvalue their own players to the extent they imagine those players would be an upgrade to other NHL teams when in truth, they simply don’t have the roster space or interest to bother.

    The goaltending looks now to be getting back on track, but we’ll see how much damage that first month has done to the team’s chances.

  • beloch

    Ramo’s season sv% is still below 90% and he’s delivered 5 quality starts in his last 10 games, which is below average. Several of the games that weren’t quality starts were real stinkers too. You can forgive a goalie who is below average in quality starts if he’s at least somewhat competitive most of the time, but Ramo hasn’t been. Hiller wasn’t exactly doing any better before he was injured.

    The goal-tending situation is emphatically not fixed yet, even if the magic number of 2 has been restored (I’m not convinced this is anything more than numerology). We can hope that Hiller returns to league-average form and delivers a badly needed string of quality starts for the Flames, but hope is all that is right now.

    I criticized MacTavish last season for not bringing in a new goalie to stop the horror show that was Scrivens and Fasth. I said refusing to do so was tantamount to deliberate tanking, and it was. McDavid would not be an Oiler today if MacTavish had brought in a competent starter. You can let players in other positions work through their struggles, but letting bad goalies play is one thing you simply cannot do in the NHL. The position is too critical. If you find yourself without a competent starter you need to find one fast, even if it’s expensive.

    Now the shoe is on Treliving’s foot. It’s a quarter way through the season and he has two goalies who have played like hot garbage so far. What must be done? Find a competent starter and pay the price. Ship one of Ramo or Hiller out. Maybe one of these guys will stop sucking sometime soon, but should Treliving bet the fate of an entirely salvageable season on it?

    To put it another way, good GM’s don’t do what MacTavish did last season.

    • Kevin R

      I don’t want to trash your post because I agree with lots of what you said. But I can’t agree to pay a huge price for a #1 goalie at this point of the season. You going to give up Monahan or Bennett or Brodie or Hamilton to get a big name #1. Don’t think you should & it still may be too late to salvage this season, especially with the rest of the team playing the way they are. Especially because our Norris contending Captain is really really struggling. The price for a starter will be way cheaper at the draft & during the summer. Crawford could be in play, Bishop or Howard may be in play. Hell, Talbot may be a UFA. We will have options in the off season. Now, I dont want to pay a huge price when we aren’t contenders at this point.

      Personally, with Ortio safely tucked away on the farm, I would have no issue seeing if BT could package Hiller, Granlund (or other good prospect) & maybe a mid round pick for Bernier while his value is dirt low right now. Maybe him & a reasonable deal on Talbot will give us decent options in net going into next year. Unfortunately, Gilles injury has slowed his development & we need to buy him a few years to ripen in the AHL. Hopefully we’ll see Macdonald in Stockton next year as well.

      • beloch

        I agree that it’s usually expensive to land a league-average or better goalie (although the goalie market occasionally favors buyers heavily). However, it’s comparatively easy to get a serviceable McBackup-type guy who can be depended on for 0.900 or maybe even 0.905 starts. The main requirement is that he doesn’t get blown out every other game. Being able to fall back on a guy like this would give the Flames some stability while they’re waiting for one of Ramo, Hiller, or Ortio to get their voodoo dolls in a row and their mojo flowing.

        If Treliving does nothing and Ramo and Hiller continue to struggle, the Flames are going to lose a lot of winnable games and Hiller/Ramo will probably just become more demoralized. Bringing in a McBackup lets you send Hiller or Ramo down to the Heat where he can (hopefully) gain some confidence and compete with Ortio.

        This, of course, depends on where Gillies is in terms of his recovery. If his return is imminent, you might not want two NHL goalies with the Heat.

        It’s possible Hiller or Ramo will suddenly decide they’re invincible and go on a tear, but Treliving should be working the phones to find the team their McBackup in case the struggle continues.

  • Skuehler

    Totally agree

    Someone was thinking that the best decisions are the ones you don’t make, or that time would sort it out. Too many variables and not enough decisiveness

  • Skuehler

    This article hit the nail on the head. Tre’s fubar lesson learned I hope.
    Must find a way to remove Hiller from this club, keep him as backup to Ramo until he’s gone. If only he would change his “style” to being on his feet more often he would be more mobile and less predictable.
    I was worried Ramo was picking up on Hillers bad habits for a while but seems to be standing an challenging more and is a lot stronger in net. I blame this falling down to their knees on Calgarys goal tending coach. Goalies that are 6’5″ and up use this method of being on there knees and can protect the top of the net, A 6’1″ or 6’2″ goal tenders are just too small. Hiller needs to stand up!
    Case in point Carey Price, Hendrick Lundquist, Jake Allen and Corey Crawford just to name a few goalies of smaller stature that are some of the best in the league. Just saying.

    • Derzie

      Are you not the guy that mentioned in a previous post that the Flames put both Stajan and Backlund on waivers?? Giving away assets is poor management…your fired!

  • T&A4Flames

    IMO, the whole issue started when Tre signed Hiller to only a 2 year contract. If he looked ahead he should have realized where Ramo and Ortio’s contract were/would be at. He should have thought Ortio may need at least 1 full year as back up to slowly take the net for himself. Then another year (at least until the deadline) to have Hiller signed as insurance. Then signing Ramo wouldn’t at all be necessary. Unless Ortio didn’t follow the program and needed more time, but then Tre would have had flexibility.

    The next mistake was not sending Ortio down 12 days prior to the start of the season when he wouldn’t need waivers to go. They could have given him a couple starts to get a read, then off to Stockton. Perhaps it would have shown something contrary to “earned never given” but we saw this with other players. Ortio would have been sent down with good showings in camp/pre-season and all feeling confident moving forward. Continue working a trade and when it happens, Ortio comes up.

    Mistake #3 was resigning Ramo, again to only a 1 year contract. Why not 2? Even if Ortio took the net this year, you still need a competent back up for him next year. Now with all 3 with expiring contracts, it is a mess. Again, if Gillies becomes above the norm then you have flexibility. It seems the succession plan was messed up with right from the start.

    • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

      Remember that Gillies came out a year early, which may or may not have been the plan when he signed Hiller for only the 2 years. That may be why they resigned Ramo.

      • DeadRedRedemption

        Am I the only one who thought the Flames resigned Ramo because Hiller confirmed he couldn’t handle the pressure of the playoffs last year in Anaheim?

      • T&A4Flames

        Yea I know. That only strengthens my point. You’d have to think Gillies would need at least 1 full year in Stockton, followed by a year in Stockton with call ups and then maybe year 3 he’s ready to become a back up. So if Hiller was signed for 3 years, that would’ve covered these first 2 years of Gillies going pro, IF, he didn’t play another year in college. Then you would have needed a 4th year potentially. And again, the issue could have been covered if Ramo signed 2 years this summer instead of 1. And put Ortio in Stockton prior to the seasons start.

  • MontanaMan

    Best line of the article: “Goaltending is a very mental position…” I’ve played on a lot of teams and dealt with a lot of “mental” goaltenders.

  • Howie Meeker

    Totally agreed, the last thing you want to do to any professional is start playing head games. The coach is trying to steer the boat but I think this year management started getting involved and “Poof”…there goes the “always earned never given” trademark that created the never quit culture from last year….clearly this season is a step backwards into the shadows.

  • Derzie

    Brad & Bob are to blame for our predicament. No callups, 3 goalies = no goalies, line juggling, starting Bollig-like players, favoring heart & soul over talent, waiving Byron, not adjusting the gameplan and being outcoached, stretch-pass city, not scratching/demoting guys when they play poorly, etc. Johnny, Frolik & Bennett, Brodie, Stajan, Jones & Backlund. You guys can continue to show the team the way.