It’s not exactly a secret that the Flames are in the hunt for a goaltender. And with the expansion draft coming up rather soon, the intensity of the hunt is starting to spike. Apparently the Flames are targeting Marc-Andre Fleury, or Mike Smith as another option; if insiders are to be believed, they’re going in the direction of an older veteran who is a proven starter.
The approach makes some sense. After all, after Miikka Kiprusoff, who was the last good starter the Flames had? It was Jonas Hiller – a then-32-year-old who appeared in 52 games for the Flames in the 2014-15 season, offering a .918 save percentage, above league average – who was one of the key factors in getting the Flames back into the playoffs. Combined with bizarrely accurate shooting, Hiller could be counted on most nights to give the Flames a chance to win.
The wheels fell off the next season, but what are the chances of another over-30 starting goalie whose team has shunned him falling off a cliff, right?
What’s the right play?
A veteran starting netminder whose team has reason to see him leave, whether it be due to the expansion draft, a rebuild, finding another goalie for themselves, expiring contract, or anything else? A veteran who has shown promise but has never been fully given the reins, as Calgary went in 2016-17? An older prospect stuck behind a starter with a big contract?
There’s been some movement in the goalie market since I last identified 19 possible options for the Flames. Scott Darling and Ben Bishop are off the table, but everyone else is still in play, including the aforementioned Fleury and Smith. And despite their being older, their ages don’t stand out too much: only six remaining candidates (Calvin Pickard, Antti Raanta, Philipp Grubauer, Joonas Korpisalo, Steve Mason, and Jonathan Bernier) are under 30. Drop that number down to five if Columbus is indeed determining a way to keep Korpisalo with them.
So the Flames do have options to target a younger goalie – but we don’t know if they’re willing to part with the assets one may cost, or if they want to go after someone younger to even begin with.
Stopgap or future?
Fleury’s contract, worth $5.75 million on average, is set to last another two seasons. He’ll be 34 by the time it expires. Smith’s clocks in at $5.67 million on average, also for two more seasons; he’ll be 37 when it expires. Does either goalie re-sign with the Flames? If not, then they’re a stopgap option that looks to take up a sizeable chunk of cap, barring getting Pittsburgh or Arizona to retain some salary.
How much is supposedly starting-level goaltending worth to you? Fleury has a career save percentage of .912, and he’s been a starter most of his career (of the 13 seasons he’s played in the NHL, seven have seen him play 60+ games, and only once has he hit a .920 save percentage, in 2014-15). Smith has a career save percentage of .913, and has not been a starter most of his career (of the 11 seasons he’s played, three have seen him play 60+ games, and only once did he exceed a .920 save percentage, in 2011-12).
For reference, Elliott’s career save percentage is .913, and he’s never had a 60+ game season.
Fleury and Smith don’t exactly boast impressive numbers, though, plus you have to hope they don’t randomly go swandiving like Hiller did. And is either really worth paying twice as much as Elliott, while potentially giving up more than a 2018 third round pick? Because if the answer is no, then what is the point of pursuing them, exactly?
The Flames have been jumping from stopgap to stopgap since Kiprusoff’s retirement. Hiller sure looked like a stopgap signing. There was hope for Karri Ramo, but not only was he not quite there yet, but his knee was randomly destroyed and now he’s out of the NHL. Reto Berra was an attempt. I think there was some hope for Joni Ortio, but then the Flames forgot to actually, like, play him. Elliott and Chad Johnson were more of the “we’ll see if this works out” kind of bet, but are looking awfully stopgap-ish after one year.
So – what’s the plan? Are they going to continue jumping from goalie to goalie until 19-year-old Tyler Parsons is good to go? Or is it time for a more concentrated effort?
Of the potential younger goalies available, only Bernier, Mason, and Pickard have anything resembling starters’ experience; the rest are all question marks (albeit younger question marks mostly with better numbers in mostly smaller sample sizes). They also may cost more, but it might be worth it to invest more in a Pickard than a Fleury; at the very least, if things go well, you’ll probably get more than two seasons out of him.
And really – some stability in net would be nice at some point. It’s not a guarantee with any of these options, but it’s not as though they’ve really tried with anyone else. Ramo was a goalie who put up good numbers in the KHL, but nowhere else. Ortio had one good season in North America. Here we’re talking about players who are starting to enclose on 100 NHL games (Grubauer has played the least, at 66) and putting up decent numbers. The Flames haven’t tried one of these “goalie of the future” options since, well, Kipper had 47 NHL games before he was traded. In 2003.
What about the Flames’ prospects?
There has been a lot of (much-deserved) angst about the Calgary Flames’ prospects not getting a fair shot at making the big league. Now, they have three guys – Jon Gillies, David Rittich, and Tyler Parsons – in the spotlight, with the hope that one of them will one day be the goalie of the future.
Hope. That’s all it is at this point. And anything can go wrong at any point that might completely derail them.
Look at Gillies’ college numbers. Hype for him built up over time, and rightfully so. He was even off to a great start in the AHL before he required hip surgery. Then, in his first full pro season, his numbers dipped. Rittich had better numbers through this past season – and he was undrafted and playing in the Czech league.
Maybe Gillies recovers! He’s only a year removed from surgery after all, and he’s still young yet. Then again, what if he doesn’t? What if Parsons’ junior numbers don’t translate to the pro ranks? What if any number of misfortunes fall on any of them, from falling into a mystery spot to getting into a bar fight over England’s greatest prime minister to refusing to get rid of those sideburns? It’s great to have hope for prospects, but aside from the most sure of sure bets, it’s still a crap shoot – and putting reliable starting goaltending on hold year after year because you’re hopeful a kid will one day pan out doesn’t seem like good strategy for a team fast entering “win now” territory.
What’s starting goaltending now worth? What’s stable goaltending worth? Those are the questions the Flames will have to answer, probably sooner rather than later.