Way, way back when the Calgary Flames signed free agent Tom McCollum to a contract, we remarked that the organization had a glut of goaltenders in their pipeline. The thought was, at the time, that the season would make things a lot clearer.
In Calgary, presumably one of Brian Elliott or Chad Johnson would distinguish themselves. The same goes for Stockton’s tandem of Jon Gillies and David Rittich. Unfortunately, it’s two weeks until the trade deadline and with a lot of other decisions contingent on figuring out who’s going to be in net for them next season, nothing is any clearer for the Flames.
Through the first 57 games of the season, two things have become clear: Johnson is as good as everybody hoped he would be, while Elliott has some holes in his game. Brought in to be a really good backup, Johnson has started slightly more games than Elliott (32 for Johnson, 25 for Elliott) and put up consistently stronger numbers. Johnson’s .921 even strength save percentage puts him 22nd among the 46 goaltenders who have played 20 games or more, while Elliott’s .906 places him 42nd.
If nothing else, Johnson’s done enough to earn another deal here. But his solid-if-unspectacular style hasn’t done much to help him shed his “really good backup” reputation. If you keep him, you probably need to bring in a goaltender who’s at the same level to work in a tandem since he still hasn’t shown he’s an upper-echelon goalie or a bonafide top guy. He’s really good at his role, mind you, but there’s probably some hesitancy to just hand him the keys to the kingdom.
Elliott and Johnson are both pending unrestricted free agents. One of them will need to be signed and protected before the expansion draft. If Johnson is retained, I’m thinking Elliott goes to market. That said, I don’t think it’s a certainty that Johnson is re-signed if there’s a better fit in the trade or free agent market.
Throughout the summer and fall, my feeling was that the Flames were going to keep one of Elliott or Johnson to be their 2017-18 starter and then promote either Gillies or Rittich to be the backup in Calgary. I’m a lot less sure that’s the plan.
Gillies has been decent for the Heat, though his save percentage has wilted a bit and currently sits at a fairly unimpressive .909. Rittich was brought in to push Gillies and aid in his development, and you can argue that he’s out-shined his teammate during the season. He has a really solid .923 save percentage, but he’s played fewer games as the Heat keep going back to Gillies in an effort to get him going with more reps.
Beyond those two it thins out quickly. McCollum has played all of four games this season – one in Stockton, three in Adirondack – and dresses as Stockton’s backup infrequently. He’s only here for expansion draft purposes. Mason McDonald has a drab .896 save percentage in Adirondack, which not only places him outside of that league’s top 20, it places him eighth out of the nine rookie goalies who play regularly in that league.
Aside from maybe Rittich, nobody at the minor pro level has performed well to the degree that they should graduate to a higher level – and with Rittich there are the obvious “has he played enough to know what he is?” questions.
The Flames have two prospects that could be playing pro next season or be headed back to junior as overagers. There’s good news and bad news regarding those two netminders.
In the OHL, Tyler Parsons is a legit elite goaltender. His .926 save percentage is tops among all regularly-playing Ontario goaltenders. Between his performance in last year’s playoffs, Memorial Cup and this year’s World Juniors, there are few doubts about his abilities. He’s played well enough to merit promotion to the next level, though there are some minor qualms to take into consideration.
First, he doesn’t have a contract yet. Second, he’s had a few lingering injuries this season and in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs the Knights have been carrying three goalies and occasionally don’t even dress Parsons as backup. His durability might be something to think about going forward.
In the WHL, Nick Schneider has won many games for the Medicine Hat Tigers. But his save percentage has cratered quite a bit, dropping to a drab .890 – 29th in the WHL among regularly-playing goaltenders. The Tigers also brought in another goalie at the trade deadline, adding Michael Bullion from Portland. Bullion is the same age and about as good as Schneider, and the Tigers have basically operated in a tandem system since he was acquired.
If the Flames were hoping Schneider would grab hold of the net in Medicine Hat this season and make a case for a pro gig next season, the past few months have to be seen as a bit of a disappointment. Schneider has a contract for next season and due to his age when it was signed, it runs next season whether he’s playing pro or junior hockey.
Too Many Goalies
The “best” allocation of the goalies for next season, using the goalies the Flames currently have, doesn’t look amazing:
- Chad Johnson and David Rittich in Calgary
- Jon Gillies and Tyler Parsons in Stockton
- Mason McDonald in Adirondack
- Nick Schneider in Medicine Hat
- Tom McCollum hanging out somewhere
Johnson is a relatively untested starter for a team that’s hoping to take another step forward. Rittich is an untested goalie at the NHL level. They probably want both Gillies and Parsons to play a ton next season, too, but putting McDonald at the AHL level (even as a backup) probably won’t work either.
The clarity the Flames likely hoped to find this season hasn’t emerged. If anything, the situation between the pipes at all levels of their organization is even murkier than it was when training camp ended.