To many, goaltending is a bit of a mystery. The development of young goaltenders into fully-fledged National Hockey League goaltenders is a bumpy road fraught with hazards and opportunities for things to go sideways.
Since Miikka Kiprusoff arrived in Calgary back in 2003, the Flames have drafted eight goaltenders. They have combined for 67 NHL games, with Joni Ortio and Laurent Brossoit accounting for the majority of them. With the team’s net currently being tended by 35-year-old Mike Smith and the team having gone to market in each of the past two summers for their tandems, it would behoove the Flames to develop a netminder from within.
The team’s current development strategy? Young goaltenders need to play, and ideally they need to face a ton of shots in order to become whatever they’re going to become.
A look at how the Flames have utilized the goaltenders in their organization this season, at least up to the holiday schedule break, provides a bit of a glimpse into the overall strategy. The strategy seems to be aimed at a single primary purpose: figuring out what goaltenders are at a specific level and then, if that’s been figured out, challenging them at a higher level.
The Flames signed Schneider following training camp in 2015, when he stepped in during a spat of injuries and the scouts and coaching staff fell in love with him. He was solid in 2015-16 with Medicine Hat and white-hot in 2016-17 before he struggled with illness and injuries and his numbers fell apart in the second half. What was Schneider over his previous two years (and 97 games) as a WHL starter? It’s hard to say, other than inconsistent.
Facing a 20-year-old season where he could have ended up as an ECHL backup… somewhere, the Flames instead opted to send Schneider back to be an overager in the WHL, where he had been traded from Medicine Hat to the Calgary Hitmen in the interim. Heading into Christmas, only five goalies in the entire WHL had faced more shots than Schneider. Given how all over the place his previous season was, and the lack of good options for getting a lot of playing time and establishing himself as a pro this season, the decision to put Schneider back in junior to build his confidence and give him a chance to play made a lot of sense. (For what it’s worth, he’s probably been the Hitmen’s best player this season, aside from perhaps Vladislav Yeryomenko.)
Parsons, the Flames’ second round selection in the 2016 NHL Draft, came to the organization with a bit more fanfare than Schneider did. Like Schneider, Parsons was headed into his 20-year-old season in 2017-18 and had the option of going pro or back to junior as an overager. Unlike Schneider, Parsons had a very consistent and decorated stint in major junior hockey. While Schneider needed to re-establish himself, Parsons needed to be challenged after two stellar years in the OHL (plus a Memorial Cup and World Junior championship).
So Parsons went pro and has been the top goaltender for a very raw Kansas City Mavericks team. Heading into Christmas, only one goaltender in the entire ECHL had faced more shots than Parsons – and that goalie, Greenville’s Brandon Halverson, had played two more games. What was Parsons in the OHL? A really good goaltender. What has been been in the ECHL so far? At first, somebody figuring out the differences between the OHL and ECHL, and more recently he’s been one of the reasons the Mavericks have won games. He’s not quite established as a pro yet, but he’s definitely on the road to establishing himself.
Gillies was the Flames’ third round selection in the 2012 NHL Draft. He went pro in 2015-16 following three seasons of college and had his rookie season in the AHL cut short by a recurring hip injury – he only played seven games. He ended up splitting the Stockton net in 2016-17 with David Rittich, a veteran of the Czech pro league. Both goalies played well and both received brief one-game auditions at the NHL level.
When Eddie Lack disappointed as Smith’s backup this season and the decision was made to send him to Stockton and promote an AHL goaltender, Rittich got the gig. Granted, Rittich had better numbers than Gillies but another factor that likely weighed in was professional experience. Between his experience in the Czech Republic and the AHL, Rittich had played 212 regular season or playoff games as a pro – Gillies had just 59. Rittich is much closer to being what he’s going to be as a pro goaltender, and you can argue he might already be at his developmental ceiling, while Gillies is arguably still establishing himself as a strong AHL goaltender. Rittich has already faced his deluge of shots, while Gillies is in the midst of his.
Sum it up
Based on the trading of Lack, it appears that the plan is for Rittich to spend the remainder of this season in the NHL and to give Gillies the lion’s share of the starts in Stockton, giving Parsons a taste of hockey at that level to see if he’s ready for full-time AHL duty in the near future. Smith has a year left on his deal and will return as the Flames’ starter in 2018-19, but it’s unclear whether Rittich will definitely be his backup or if the development of Gillies or Parsons will necessitate some changes.
If Rittich does get the backup job full-time in 2018-19, that would theoretically buy the development team a year to decide if Gillies or Parsons is ready for a try at the NHL level. 2018-19 is also the final year of McDonald’s entry-level contract and will be the second of Schneider’s, which will inevitably lead to more ECHL shuffling in an effort to evaluate and develop the team’s minor league depth netminders.
The hope, obviously, is that one of the internal options is ready to take a stab at being an NHL starter when Smith’s contract expires in the summer of 2019, as otherwise the Flames will have to go to the free agent or trade markets again and likely overpay for a starting goaltender.