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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski / USA Today Sports

How should Calgary manage their minor league goalies?

The Calgary Flames will very likely have three promising minor league goaltenders fighting for ice time next season. With the recent re-signings of Jon Gillies and David Rittich, along with the likely scenario Tyler Parsons turns pro, the Flames may have to get creative to ensure everyone gets proper playing time. As I see it, Calgary has four options when it comes to managing these three goalies for next season.

We’re going to assume Parsons does indeed turn pro for 2017-18 for the sake of this article. At this point, there’s really nothing left for him to accomplish at the junior level after what he’s done the last 18 months. General manager Brad Treliving has admitted as such a few different times, so it’s a safe bet Parsons isn’t back in London next season.

We’re also not factoring 2014 second round pick Mason McDonald into the conversation, because he’s clearly behind all three of these guys on the depth chart. McDonald is likely looking at a second straight year in the ECHL after spending virtually all of last season there.

This conversation really does come down to Gillies, Rittich, and Parsons, so to frame things a little better, let’s compare what each goaltender did last season:

Rittich was the superior AHL goalie last year and turns 25 in August while Gillies turns 24 in January; the latter has slightly more American League experience knowing he got into seven games prior to injury in 2015-16. Of course, Parsons is the youngest and least tenured of the three: he doesn’t turn 20 until September and has no professional experience. That said, Parsons is the most highly touted of the three and is likely the highest rated by the organization. Let’s go through the four options Calgary has in managing these three next season.

All three in Stockton

This is not an ideal situation as we learned during Calgary’s 2015-16 season with Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, and Joni Ortio, and it’s something the team would like to avoid at the AHL level, if possible. Having three goalies makes it difficult for any one individual to get proper practice/playing time and makes it very hard for someone to get into a groove. Just as bad is if someone enters clear “number three” territory. From a strictly on-ice perspective, a three-goalie system very seldom seems to work.

Of course, it’s less prohibitive to roll with three goalies in the AHL as opposed to the NHL. Unlike its big brother, the American League does not have a roster limit, so keeping three goalies doesn’t rob the Heat of another player at a different position. When the Flames had Ortio, Ramo, and Hiller on the active roster in 2015-16, all three counted against the limit of 23 and meant the team lost a reserve skater as a result.

So, is it easier to carry three goalies in the AHL? Yes. Does that make it ideal? No.

Using the ECHL

There are differing opinions on how the ECHL, and in this case the Kansas City Mavericks (the team’s new affiliate), should be used when it comes to managing goaltenders. I’ve never been a big fan of putting promising prospects in the ECHL for a couple different reasons. First, there are fewer organizational eyeballs in the ECHL. Second, it’s a significant step down from the AHL, both on and off the ice.

To play devil’s advocate, though, it’s not like the ECHL is a horrible league. The level of hockey is still decent, but coaching staffs are smaller and there’s no question it lags behind the AHL. Furthermore, if one of Gillies, Rittich, or Parsons were to be placed in Kansas City, it’s not like the Flames would forget about them just because they’re in the ECHL. The fact is, however, fewer resources are placed into scouting and development as opposed to the American League.

If the organization were to go this route with one of their goalies, that player would most likely be splitting time with McDonald. While it’s less of a consideration, reducing McDonald’s minutes in his second pro season isn’t ideal, either. If the Flames are forced to put one of Parsons, Rittich, or Gillies in the ECHL, though, the knock-on effect for McDonald will be a necessary evil.

An AHL loan

Loaning one of the three goalies in question to another American League team is an option, too. As is turning into a theme, though, this isn’t a great road to go down in a perfect world. Once a player is loaned to another team, he falls under control of their coaching staff, and thus, their own agendas and marching orders. Calgary could still keep tabs on, and keep in touch with, their player, but anything pertaining to usage would be out of their control.

The Flames did this with Tom McCollum last season as he spent most of the 2016-17 campaign with the Charlotte Checkers. But unlike Rittich, Gillies, or Parsons, McCollum really wasn’t a prospect. Instead, he was signed so Calgary could meet expansion exposure requirements and was traded to Detroit about a week after the expansion draft was completed.

For me, an AHL loan and the ECHL are neck-and-neck when it comes to desirable options. Personally, I’d lean towards the former if the Flames were able to find a landing spot with a need in net. That way, Calgary could ensure whatever goalie they loan would at least get solid playing time, even if they lost a great deal of control.

A trade

The final option is the most intriguing one for me and I don’t believe it’s out of the question. Treliving has mentioned a desire to recoup some of the draft picks the team has given up in recent trades, and this is a possible way to make sure that happens. For the 2018 draft, the Flames don’t have a first round (Travis Hamonic trade), second round (Mike Smith trade), or fifth round (Michael Stone trade) pick. Dealing one of these three goalies, though, could potentially go towards fixing that issue.

Trading Parsons at this point seems crazy unless the return is going to be of the big time variety, while I’m not convinced a return on Rittich would be worth dealing him, due to his limited North American pedigree. That leaves Gillies, and I do think Calgary could get something decent back for him. Perhaps a first round pick is a little lofty, but I don’t think a second round pick is unreasonable knowing how highly rated Gillies was even a couple years ago.

A sensible trade for the Flames would have two benefits. First, they’d be able to help replenish the draft picks lost in recent months while also alleviating the goaltending crunch they’re likely going to find themselves in. Because they’re dealing from a relative position of strength, the prospect of a trade makes more sense now than it did even a year ago.

Conclusion

In trying to handicap what we might see next season, I honestly think all four of the options detailed here are equally likely. Because all signs point to Parsons turning pro, Calgary is going to have to manage the three goaltenders in some form or another. For me, a trade seems like the most promising route to head down, but only if what is recouped has any value. It’s not a bad spot to be in, though, as the Flames are still very much in need of their long -term number one goaltender.

  • L.Kolkind

    Is giving up one of our best goaltending prospects in well over a decade really worth a 2nd? I know Treliving likes spending 2nd’s on veteran goalies and then traded for Lack which put us into this mess. Trading Gilles would be a horrible way to fix this problem.

    Parsons is still at least 2-3 years away and he hasn’t had the hip surgery Gilles had. If Parsons also needs that surgery he would be in about the same situation as Gilles afterwards. Which means that the potential 2nd we could get back we would be hoping to be able to draft Gilles, but younger. Gilles had one kinda off season, he is still an amazing prospect who was the best goalie in the NCAA for a couple seasons. Giving up on him now would be insane and sure to backfire.

  • freethe flames

    Smith/Lack start in the NHL; Gillies/Rittich battle for the AHL; Parsons starts in the ECHL(KC) and MacDonald gets loaned out to the ECHL. Prior to the trade deadline one of Rittich/Gilles will likely be traded(maybe even Lack) and Parsons will come up to Stockton and play.

  • piscera.infada

    I don’t think Lack is guaranteed anything throughout the season. If management doesn’t see anything close to a rebound to 2014/15 form, and one of Rittich, Gillies, or (even) Parsons show better, there is no reason that the Flames don’t replace Lack with one of them. This also goes for camp. I think the general idea from Treliving’s stand-point in acquiring Lack was simply so he wasn’t forced into needing one of those aforementioned three to be ready. If one of them is though, it doesn’t hurt all that much to bury Lack’s $1.375 million to ride the pine in the minors–especially considering the price was the difference between a 6th and 7th round pick and Keegan Kanzig.

    Honestly, I’m not sure how the Lack acquisition hurts anything long-term. If he rebounds, you have a full range of possibilities from trading him, to trading a prospect, to having him play as a 1b, to having him be your starter should Smith falter. Again, if the goalie situation (as in both Lack and Smith) completely blows up, it still doesn’t hurt that Flames’ goaltending prospects (Rittich, Gillies, or Parsons) because Lack can still be sent buried in the AHL.