Brad Treliving entered the season with a pretty clear plan in goal. Brian Elliott as the starter, Chad Johnson was the battle tested backup and David Rittich on the farm to support top prospect Jon Gillies.
Unfortunately, reality hasn’t played along. Johnson has been the better of the two veterans in aggregate while Rittich has outplayed Gillies on the farm. To make things ever more complicated, Elliott has arguably been the better goalie recently, but he’s also older and therefore closer to his expiration date.
Elliott, Johnson and Rittich are all free agents next year. Who do you re-sign?
First of all, you might be wondering about the need to sign a puckstopper for the purposes of exposing someone in the expansion draft. The Flames have taken care of that by inking well-travelled AHL veteran Tom McCollum to a two-year contract. So that won’t be an issue.
The complicating factor here is both Elliott and Johnson will likely be looking for more of a commitment from whomever they sign with after this season. Both guys have endured careers marked by short contracts and hesitant commitments from their previous clubs.
For Johnson, it would be his first opportunity at 30 years old to be a inked as a legitimate starter in the NHL. He’s lived life as a perpetual backup thus far, so he’ll be eager to leverage his good showing from this season in negotiations with the Flames (or whoever else he talks to).
On the other hand, Brian Elliott put up elite numbers in the NHL for five seasons leading up to this one. A new father and a player desperate for his first long-term, starter-type contract, Elliott won’t be too interested in a deal that doesn’t give him some long-term stability.
Finally, Rittich is in the conversation because the Flames may need a backup next season (if they walk away from one of Johnson or Elliott) and he’s been the better of the two hopefuls in the AHL to date.
So what are the options? We’ll leave the minor league goalie out of the equation for now:
1.) Sign Elliott for 3+ years.
2.) Sign Johnson for 3+ years.
3.) Find a way to keep both Johnson and Elliott.
There are risks and challenges in all of these situations.
1.) If Elliott had arrived in Calgary and been as effective as he had been in St. Louis, option #1 is probably a no-brainer. Except that hasn’t happened. He’s putting up the worst results of his NHL career so far, casting serious doubt on whether he can be the club’s starter moving forward.
In addition, Elliott turns 32 this April. A three-year contract would take him into his “probable declining” years (assuming we haven’t reached those already).
2.) As for Johnson, he’s putting up some of the best results of his NHL career, but there’s always risk associated with “buying high” since guys tend to regress back to career norms eventually. He has also never played more than 45 games in an NHL season and therefore is something of an unknown commodity when it comes to being a regular starter in the NHL.
Johnson is also just a year younger than Elliott. So, like Elliott, a long-term commitment comes with the strong possibility that his performance will erode as the contract matures.
3.) From a Flames perspective, option three is probably the best, assuming they could get both guys on reasonable deals. As mentioned, however, neither guy is likely to be enamoured with a platoon situation or a contract that indicates he isn’t the team’s putative starter moving forward. Meaning, for this option to happen, Treliving likely has to overpay both guys.
So there are no easy answers.
The good news is, the need for this decision isn’t imminent, meaning Treliving and company have some time to gather more information and weigh their options. Remember guys like MA Fleury and Ben Bishop are likely to be available via trade before the expansion draft as well.
So what do you do Flames fans? Re-sign Johnson? Elliott? Both? Or do you play the trade market…