1. What’s the plan?
Earlier this week there were three stories in a row here on Flames Nation, after Joni Ortio was put on waivers, entitled, “Stockton’s goalie situation is really unclear,” “Jonio Ortio clears waivers, likely to be assigned to Stockton Heat,” and finally, “What were the Flames thinking with three goalies?”
The latter of these was something fans should have been saying all year, because it was Calgary burning a roster spot on Ortio, who ended up getting into a whopping 140 minutes of action over four games, and being really bad (.868). There was no need for it, and it highlighted an area of organizational concern that’s been lingering for at least the last several years.
Since the departure of Miikka Kiprusoff — and good lord, that was already three years ago! — the Flames have used five goalies, and the most tenured is Karri Ramo. Jonas Hiller has been used more often, obviously, because of the last two seasons, and Ortio has been up and mostly down the entire time. Shout out, also, to Reto Berra and Joey MacDonald, from way back in the Bad Old Days.
And I think that’s telling. Perhaps the greatest goalie in franchise history retires, and sure you’re suddenly going to look around like, “Hmm, now what?” Even if he was a hundred years old and you for sure saw his retirement coming — some might have even welcomed it by the end — there’s likely to be some, shall we say, identity crisis.
But what’s happened here over the last three years is borderline inexcusable, because this has been some top-notch desert wandering from all three of the team’s recent regimes (Feaster, Burke, and now Treliving), and there’s no end in sight.
2. A history lesson
So after Kiprusoff retires, in comes Ramo. And for all the pronouncements early on and even now, that he’s Actually Good despite what the numbers in Tampa says, the 87 games of work in Calgary we’ve seen from him at this point indicate that he is in fact a little worse than the NHL average goalie, even leaving this season’s atrocious performance aside. Not sure why you keep bringing him back, but okay.
Maybe, maaaaybe, you say he’s a stop-gap until the organization can get something better put into place. After all, it’s not like the Flames were going to be actually competitive during the time he was being used, and if he costs you a few games here and there, then so be it. Whatever.
But then the team just brings in another short-term solution in Jonas Hiller, who’s also just about NHL average (but trending down the previous few years), and you start to wonder what the solution is both short- and long-term. Because now the Flames have two goalies under NHL contract, and we’ve been told for some time that Ortio is the goalie of the future despite some up-and-down work in the lower leagues.
Obviously the Hiller signing was something of an inexplicable “win now” move, because you don’t sign guys to make you better while you’re rebuilding. Or at least, you shouldn’t. And the Flames kinda-sorta did “win now” in that they made the playoffs last year as neither Hiller nor Ortio did anything but not-cost the team points. But if that works, then that works.
What it doesn’t do, though, is address the organization’s long-term needs. How long do you expect Hiller to be around after this year? Zero seasons? He might even get traded before this one’s over. As for Ramo, a 29-year-old with 135 games of .904 hockey at the NHL level in his career, that’s also not someone you look to keep around.
So the focus shifts to Ortio as one of the potential long-term solutions. The others are obviously Jon Gillies, currently expected to miss a boatload of time in his first pro season, and Mason McDonald. Out of curiosity I also checked Hockey’s Future to see what other goaltending prospects the team had that I may have been forgetting, and they have this guy listed as well. With all due respect to Nick Schneider, who was the ninth-ranked North American goalie in last year’s draft but went unpicked, he’s a sub-.900 goalie in the WHL and it’s pretty difficult to think he’s part of any long-term plans. And if he is, good lord.
4. Two guns?
So realistically, the future of this franchise’s crease rests with one of Ortio, McDonald, and Gillies.
And honestly at some point you wonder when Ortio is no longer a viable candidate for the job. The Flames just risked putting through waivers because of how poorly they handled things to start the season, and no one claimed him, presumably because he’s been awful. But it happens quite often that even young players who have some amount of shine on them but have played poorly are scooped up by teams looking to make a reclamation project work. You wonder, then, how much the rest of the league thinks of Ortio’s ceiling as a goalie. The waiver move was a necessity, but it also shows that Calgary wouldn’t have been too gutted to lose him.
I think we can therefore safely eliminate Ortio as part of the team’s longer-term plans. He might stick around the organization for another few years, but the odds of his being an NHL starter as more than a Ramo-esque stopgap are, at this point, slim.
Which leaves you Gillies and McDonald. The former has a resume at the NCAA level that speaks for itself. He was the elite of elite goalies all three years at Providence College (career .930 in a league where .920 is average), and that carried over to the AHL level as well, because he has a .920 save percentage in his first seven appearances. But he’s out long-term this season, and it’s not the first time he’s missed games due to injury. That’s an impediment to development, certainly, but it might also give you pause when it comes to his long-term viability.
There are plenty of ultra-talented players who just can’t stay healthy, and I’m not saying he’s one of them or that the Flames should give up on him ever contributing at the NHL level, but it’s just another area of concern for an organization already swimming in them.
Then there’s McDonald. Obviously at the major junior level, your performance is going to be heavily dependent upon the quality of the team in front of young, but McDonald was .906 last season and .893 this year in what is admittedly a high-scoring league. And he’s only 19. And he’s a second-round pick. There’s a lot to theoretically like here, but the numbers are a little worrisome when a guy picked that high is coming in well outside the top goalies in the Q. Everything you see about him — it’s not easy to watch QMJHL games in the US so I’m kinda just looking around at other people’s observations — indicate that he’s a solid enough goaltender at the major junior level, but how often do “solid” guys at that level become “reasonable long-term solutions” at the next?
Again, nothing to really freak out about, but it’s a worry.
5. Other options
Of course, if things really go sideways with any of these options, Treliving could also just go out and make a trade for someone, or sign a free agent goalie, if he really wants to prop things up. It’s not the safest plan to count on someone else helping you, and most actual good goalies aren’t going to just become available.
But you never know, I guess. And “You never know” seems to have been the organization’s philosophy as it relates to goaltending for a few years now anyway.