Listening to general manager Brad Treliving speak during his Garbage Bag Day press conference, he said all the right things about his team’s goaltenders. The Calgary Flames would not be where they are if not for the combined performances of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. On the one hand, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs. On the other hand, they probably wouldn’t have been knocked out in four games, either.
The Jekyll and Hyde performances from the Flames’ two prominent netminders this season only serve to complicate and confound the single biggest offseason decision that Treliving has on his plate: Just what the heck is he going to do about goaltending? Given the importance of the position and the cap hit that a solution will eat up, figuring out goaltending has to be done before basically anything else can be done this summer.
Before we ponder what the Flames can do, it’s prudent to review the pieces they have to work with (and juggle) over the summer and into next season.
Signed for 2017-18
The Flames have four players with contracts that will be active in 2017-18, regardless of where the players play.
Tom McCollum (27 years old): An AHL veteran signed to satisfy expansion draft exposure requirements, McCollum is currently on loan to the Charlotte Checkers and is serving as their top goaltender due to some injuries in their system. He’s a good AHL goaltender and so it’s probable that the Flames could find a home for him.
Mason McDonald (21): Calgary’s second round selection in 2014, McDonald’s first pro season hasn’t been great. He’s struggled with injuries. He’s posted a decent record in the ECHL, albeit with a disappointing .897 save percentage, and got lit up in his one AHL game. When you’re an ECHL team’s second- or third-best goalie, you’re probably not destined for NHL greatness.
Tyler Parsons (20): Calgary’s second round selection in 2016, Parsons has been one of the best goaltenders in the OHL this season. He’s eligible to return to junior as an overager next season or go pro. If the idea is for him to play a ton, returning to the OHL may be a decent plan – he’s an excellent junior goalie and a team would move things around to find a spot for him. He’s good enough on his own to give a team a decent chance at a playoff spot. If the idea is to challenge him, he should be in the AHL.
Nick Schneider (19): Signed as a free agent out of training camp two years ago, Schneider had a good first half of his season and then fell off. He lost his starting job to Michael Bullion, left the team for several weeks due to an injury, then returned for the playoffs and didn’t see a single second of action. He’ll be an overager next season and unlike Parsons, his numbers probably aren’t good enough to warrant a team opening a spot for him.
Jon Gillies (23): Calgary’s third round selection in 2012. Despite missing some time with a hand injury this season (and due to a couple NHL call-ups), Gillies was leaned on a lot in Stockton this season and started most of the team’s big games when he was healthy. His numbers were good, but not great, so his prominence was likely a developmental tool. He was quite good in his NHL debut, but the Flames may not want to push him into full-time duty quite yet given he’s played only one full pro season.
David Rittich (24): A free agent signee from the Czech Republic, Rittich was recruited as a guy to push Gillies. It worked, but Rittich also out-shined his younger counterpart. Rittich was among the league leaders in most AHL goaltending categories and was low-key dominant at times. He looked good, but not great, in his single period of NHL action. Given his strong first North American season and his European pro experience, perhaps Rittich could be a decent fit in limited NHL duty next season.
Brian Elliott (32): A savvy veteran, Elliott was shaky early in the year and in the playoffs but very good otherwise. He’s a pretty good goaltender overall, but team management may not be crazy about a goaltender who has so many ups and downs in his game during the season.
Chad Johnson (30): Recruited to be a solid backup goaltender, Johnson was as advertised this season – and occasionally better. He was superb for an 8-10 week stretch between November and January where the team was finding its legs and Elliott was trying to find his stride. He probably can’t be a high-end starter, but he’s a very solid backup option.
Some scenarios and questions
There are all kinds of dominoes that need to fall, all across the organization, before anything else can happen.
Does Elliott come back? Probably not, given how things fell apart for him in April despite his reputation as a strong playoff goaltender.
If not Elliott, then who’s number one? There are a lot of interesting options if the Flames are looking for a clear-cut top guy. Names like Marc-Andre Fleury, Ben Bishop, Steve Mason and Jonathan Bernier could be available either as free agents or via trade, and any number of goalies could be dislodged by the Vegas expansion process.
What about the backup job? That all depends on two things: Do the Flames want Johnson back? Do they want to test out one of the AHL goaltenders as a backup instead? Columbus and Nashville both rotated a pair of young goalies to and from the AHL – serving as NHL backup or AHL starter all season – with Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg rotating in Columbus and Juuse Saros and Marek Mezanec doing so in Nashville. But both of those situations involved very established high-end NHL starters, which the Flames don’t really have right now.
What about Parsons and Schneider? Both junior goalies are able to play pro next year. Parsons has arguably the best junior and World Junior resume for any goaltender that’s come through the Flames system in years. He should probably be a pro next year. But the Flames already have four pro bodies to juggle (Gillies, Rittich, McDonald and McCollum). Given the logjam, it seems very unlikely that Schneider plays pro next year but his season was rough enough that it’s also somewhat unlikely that any junior team brings him on as an overage goaltender next season. So what do they do with him?
So far, the only clear answer we think we have is Elliott’s status. Almost everything else is contingent on other decisions that probably haven’t been made yet.