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.