Photo Credit: Perry Nelson / USA TODAY Sports

Facing lots of pucks is key for young Flames goalies

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.

Nick Schneider

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.)

Tyler Parsons

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.

Jon Gillies

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.

  • moodyblue2

    Other teams have been very successful with there young goalies when they throw them in! Not sure I would want to be drafted by the Flames whatever the position.

  • everton fc

    Rittich could be the starter here, when Smith moves on. Or, if Smith can go another year or two, as is, for less coin… Smith/Rittich 1/1a may be our future until one of Gillies/Parsons proves they can maintain consistency and stop rebounds, all whilst staying healthy.

  • Flint

    The key for young Flames goalies is to stop a lot of pucks, not to face a lot of pucks. Facing a lot of pucks generally means you’re either a bad team or an inconsistent team, neither of those are good for goalie development. Lots of pucks usually correlates with lots of time spent in the defensive zone… that means low corsi… that means bad shot differential, bad goal differential, lots of losses. Goalies with lots of losses don’t usually go places cause they aren’t given a long leash. Case in point: 2 games started Eddie Lack.

    Goalies need to be assessed on pucks stopped. Volume of stops. and not just quickly looking at sv%, it’s volume of stops. In games. In practice. In their sleep. It’s not a mystery, it’s simple. The best goalie is the one who has stopped, who is currently stopping, and who will stop, the most pucks shot at their net.

  • Purple Hazze

    The problem with goalies is the rhetoric that they have to “prove themselves” with no set standard or bar for what this proof has to be, and even if you do “prove” yourself that doesn’t even get you an NHL job. I would argue that very few goalies in the league have become starters by proving it at another level, but instead have become starters because of injury or the team lacked any other option. Coaches and teams are far too risk averse to hand a goalie the reins who’s “proven” it elsewhere but not at the NHL.

    It’s like the frustrating circle for that new grad who can’t get a job because they need experience first, but nobody will give them that experience. This is also why we had the whole Lack debacle this year, by all means the backup job was already cemented by Gillies/Rittich, but we went and traded for Lack because he had one stat those two didn’t: Games Played. Management didn’t care that the rest of Lack’s stats were garbage, they just couldn’t fathom giving a job to one of their own, both of who had at least earned the backup with their performances in the AHL last year. We’re continuing to see this refusal of trust in how we’re utilizing Rittich, by all means he’s proven a capable backup, but yet Gully has only trusted him to play back-to-backs when the focus needs to be getting Smith as much rest as possible. I really hope they start to play him more.

    I’ll also add that success at the AHL level doesn’t automatically translate into success at the NHL level, here’s some examples:
    -Rask 102 GP, averaging .911
    -Duknyk 95 GP, averaging .909
    -Talbot 115 GP, averaging .914
    -Rinne 145 GP, averaging .909
    -Luongo 29 GP, averaging .909
    -Allen, 172 GP, averaging .917
    -Crawford, 255 GP, averaging .908
    -Holtby, 132 GP, averaging .917
    -C. Anderson, 146 GP, averaging .913
    I just listed 30% of the starters in the league who never “proved” themselves in the AHL yet found success in the NHL. Gillies has btw so far has posted a .913 over 65 games played in the AHL, along with NCAA championship, World Jr Gold, NCAA MVP, and averaged .930 in 3 season of college, but hey, go prove yourself buddy.

    • HOCKEY83

      Rittich is the man behind Smith right now if that goes bad then maybe the bring Gillies up but in the end Parsons is the future so who cares what happens to those 2. They’ll probably sign Smith for 1 extra year and go between rittich gillies and parsons but I think one of Rittich or Gillies will either be traded for a late round pick or just let go by next season. It happens.

    • supra steve

      The goalies you listed were the “starters” on their AHL teams, no? Gillies couldn’t wrestle the starter title away from Rittich, who outperformed him in the A and has surpassed him in the Flames depth chart. None of that means that Gillies is no longer a strong prospect, but he is no longer the shiny “goalie of the future” that he was for years with the organisation. Wouldn’t be surprised to see him moved to another club if/when Parsons is able to show what he can do at the AHL level.

  • The GREAT WW

    So that’s what GG’s system is about; goalie development.
    Give up lots of shots and high risk scoring chances to develop our goalies; I knew there was a method behind his madness….!!!


  • SeanCharles

    I know goaltending is a crapshoot but I don’t see much in the way of NHL hopes for Schneider or McDonald.

    I do like the other 3 young guys we got and have high hopes at least one of them can become a good starter.

    • supra steve

      I hear you, I agree with you, I am starting to think Gillies may belong in that same group with Schneider and MacDonald…and then I remember the times that the Flames gave up on Dwayne Roloson, and J S Giguere. Then I’m frightened at the thought of cutting any of them loose. I guess that more recently they have given up on Ortio and Brossoit and appear to have been correct, so lets hope they are better at evaluating future potential than they were back in the Roloson/Giguere days.