Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Since Kiprusoff retired, Flames have been stuck in goalie no man’s land

On April 23, 2013, Miikka Kiprusoff played his final NHL game. Since then, the Flames haven’t seemed to be able to figure out what to do in net.

This is a look back on how the Flames, presumably knowing Kiprusoff would not be able to play forever, did not adequately prepare for his departure – kind of similar to how once Jarome Iginla left they suddenly had no right wingers, but taking even longer to find a meaningful fix over the years. There was an initial attempt, and once those first avenues failed, nothing – perhaps, until now.

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AK 1: 2013-14

In the year AK (After Kipper) 1, the Flames turned to four goalies: Karri Ramo, Reto Berra, Joey MacDonald, and Joni Ortio. Ramo re-entered the NHL for the first time since the 2008-09 season, Berra and Ortio made their NHL debuts, and MacDonald was a carryover from the previous year.

All stats are at 5v5 and from Corsica.

Goalie Games played SV% ldSV% mdSV% hdSV%
Ramo 40 91.71 98.00 91.39 77.25
Berra 31 90.46 96.36 89.57 79.14
MacDonald 11 89.91 99.04 91.18 67.39
Ortio 9 88.05 97.06 88.89 70.27

Kiprusoff got hurt during his final NHL season, and it was the first time since the Flames got him back in 2003-04 that he failed to reach the 70-game plateau, limited to just 24 appearances. In his absence, MacDonald had gotten most of the starts. And though Ramo started the first game of the 2013-14 season, MacDonald ended up starting the next five, before Ramo finally got the net back. The two traded starts after that, until Berra made his NHL debut in the 14th game of the season.

It was a rebuilding year, so poor performances abounded, and the goalies were no exception. However, as the season went on they started finding their footing more often than not, eventually putting up respectable numbers overall. Both Ramo and Berra were 27, so maybe a relatively seamless transition in net was in the cards.

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But you sell in a rebuilding year, and Berra had a suitor: one willing to give up a second round pick to the Flames. This allowed the then-22-year-old Ortio to make his NHL debut, and there was potential to his game. A near-seamless transition, from one Finn to the next couple of them.

AK 2: 2014-15

In AK 2, the Flames brought in Jonas Hiller as a free agent, while keeping the services of Ramo and Ortio. MacDonald wasn’t re-signed, and his days in the NHL were over.

Goalie Games played SV% ldSV% mdSV% hdSV%
Hiller 52 92.66 97.09 92.48 82.57
Ramo 34 91.74 98.06 92.18 76.81
Ortio 6 89.76 92.59 89.58 84.00

Ortio was still just acclimating to the North American professional game and needed more time, so the Flames were in need of another NHL goaltender. Enter Hiller, one of Brad Treliving’s first free agent signings as a general manager. Hiller was entering his 32-year-old season, a proven starter coming off of a .911 save percentage.

And it worked out great. The Flames, still rebuilding, had problems in terms of roster construction; however, they got pretty decent goaltending that, combined with a slew of third period comebacks, vaulted them to a second round playoff appearance. Except en route to beating the Canucks in the first round, Hiller’s performance that had been so steady throughout the season suddenly cratered, while Ramo (understandably) couldn’t pull off a miracle against the far superior Ducks.

But it had been a pretty good goaltending season, and even Ortio had some great performances (including a shutout) playing in January due to injury. Kiprusoff was gone, but the net was doing well in his absence.

AK 3: 2015-16

In AK 3, the Flames stuck with all three of Ramo, Hiller, and Ortio, while also picking up Niklas Backstrom for a spell that eventually allowed them to draft Matthew Phillips.

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Goalie Games played SV% ldSV% mdSV% hdSV%
Ramo 37 91.63 98.35 91.30 74.53
Hiller 26 89.49 96.36 89.51 76.11
Ortio 22 91.96 98.15 90.91 78.89
Backstrom 4 86.96 92.86 86.36 78.95

Ortio became waiver-eligible, and suddenly, the Flames were terrified of losing any of their goaltenders, so they stuck with three on the roster for far too long. Ramo’s deal had been up, setting the Flames up for a Hiller-Ortio tandem, but a decision to re-sign Ramo to a one-year deal while retaining both other netminders complicated things.

Then Hiller, entering his 33-year-old season, fell off a cliff; despite being pretty good for the majority of his games the preceding year, there was no recovery for him after getting the hook in the playoffs. For someone initially tabbed to be the Flames’ goalie of the future, Ramo, 29, had yet to properly take the starter’s role, and a late-season injury marked the last time he would suit up in the NHL. And Ortio, 24, couldn’t consistently find his NHL footing. Combined with a lacklustre AHL performance, Ortio’s time in North America came to an end.

Over the course of three seasons, any initial promise that had been on display following Kiprusoff’s retirement had effectively run out, and the Flames had to go back to square one in net.

AK 4: 2016-17

In AK 4, the Flames had to start from a clean slate. They traded for Brian Elliott, signed Chad Johnson in free agency, and prospects Jon Gillies (drafted in 2012) and David Rittich (signed as an undrafted free agent) made their NHL debuts.

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Goalie Games played SV% ldSV% mdSV% hdSV%
Elliott 49 92.17 97.86 92.84 78.26
Johnson 36 91.57 98.46 91.19 78.26
Gillies 1 96.00 100.00 90.91 100.00
Rittich 1 100.00 100.00 100.00 n/a

Elliott, 31 years old when the Flames acquired him, seemed to be the desired replacement. However, it took him quite some time to find his footing, and so, the Flames ended up having to turn to the 30-year-old Johnson. It kind of ended up working out, though – when Johnson faltered as the season went on, Elliott took back over, and his much-improved numbers towards the end of the year ended up playing a major role in the Flames’ return to the playoffs.

That all crumbled, however, when Elliott’s performance was a big part of the Flames being swept by the Ducks in the first round. They probably weren’t going to win anyway, but the sweep was undeserved – but for the goaltending.

A problem with the Elliott-Johnson tandem was that, while both had posted good numbers in the past – Elliott in particular – neither had ever really been counted on to be a starter. Neither was able to handle it over the course of the entire season.

AK 5: 2017-18

In AK 5, the Flames once again cleaned house, to an extent: the prospects stayed and got additional NHL games in. However, with the Flames needing a goalie who had been a proven starter – that is to say, neither Elliott nor Johnson – the Flames picked up Mike Smith and Eddie Lack.

Goalie Games played SV% ldSV% mdSV% hdSV%
Smith 55 92.37 96.74 94.13 78.92
Rittich 20 91.28 97.03 90.98 74.24
Gillies 11 89.10 95.83 87.32 77.27
Lack* 8 90.40 94.74 91.30 77.27

*Stats from four games played for the Devils included.

Smith had handled 50- and 60-game seasons in the past; and Lack had previously shown promise, and perhaps a new team (and new coach) would change his bad fortunes. And initially, it seemed like a perfect fit: Smith, though 35, had a wonderful start to the year, including actually shutting out the Ducks in Anaheim. He had his bad games, but so does everyone; at other times, he would be the main reason the Flames won at all.

Lack, meanwhile, couldn’t find the net with Smith playing the way he was. When he did start, he played poorly. And so the Flames chose to bring up Rittich in his stead, and he shone pretty much instantly. Finally, everything had come together: an experienced starter was playing well, and a hidden gem was unexpectedly finding his NHL game under him.

And then, everything crumbled in on itself. Smith got injured. Rittich couldn’t handle playing in the starter’s role, and Gillies had problems as well. When Smith came back, his play was poor, and the games became meaningless as the Flames quickly plummeted out of the playoff race.

With Smith under contract for another season and no real options on the market, the Flames were stuck with this status quo heading into the next season.

AK 6: 2018-19

In AK 6, the Flames retained Smith’s services, and chose Rittich (who required waivers to be sent down) over Gillies (waiver-exempt) to play as the backup – completely out of moves or assets that would allow them to shake things up in net.

Goalie Games played SV% ldSV% mdSV% hdSV%
Smith 14 89.47 96.38 86.96 79.73
Rittich 12 95.12 96.49 96.34 90.00

The hope was that, after an offseason of rest and rehab, Smith would return to pre-injury form. He did not. Aside from the occasional game, his performances have been mostly poor, occasionally near-singlehandedly costing the team wins. And, already 36, there’s question as to whether or not his playing career is just about over.

Enter: Rittich. Though the Flames wanted to get Smith going, they also were conscious about not overworking him, and making sure Rittich got the net at least semi-frequently (i.e. they didn’t want to make the same mistakes they had with Lack the year before). Except while Smith kept playing poorly, Rittich kept having almost nothing but good games. That’s seen a recent forcing of the hand, wherein Rittich may or may not be the Flames’ de facto starter now – two months into the season that remains to be seen, but starting the presumed backup four games in a row probably wasn’t what anybody was expecting, either.

Smith is still capable of putting up good games – that is to say, maybe all hope isn’t lost after all – but he’s also older and has a history of injuries; the Flames can’t rely on him to be their starter anymore. Their fortunes with Rittich have completely turned from the end of the previous season, but to think him the team’s future long-term starter may be premature.

The Flames, now in their sixth season since Kiprusoff retired, still don’t have an actual plan in net. Jay Feaster initially had one way back when we knew Kiprusoff’s retirement was coming up; it’s just that neither European option (Ramo, Berra) nor prospect (Ortio) panned out.

When Brad Treliving came aboard, he didn’t seem to have much of a plan, either: instead of looking at European goalies he chased free agents already in their 30s, swapping them out for a new one when it turned out the previous one’s best days were already behind him. (A series of half-measures, if you will.)

In all fairness, goaltending is a difficult position to figure things out at. It’s isolated and there are only so many goalies one can keep on the roster in order to figure out who’s going to give the team the best chance to win. The really good ones, or the younger ones with potential, are going to cost more in a trade, and if you spend assets elsewhere – cap on skaters in their 30s, first round picks on defencemen – then you won’t be able to spend them on goalies.

A lot of goalies have moved around the league since Kiprusoff retired. In addition to the ones the Flames ended up chasing, there’s also been: Frederik Andersen, Jonathan Bernier, Ben Bishop, Scott Darling, Devan Dubnyk, Marc-Andre Fleury, Philipp Grubauer, Jaroslav Halak, Martin Jones, Roberto Luongo, Antti Raanta, Cory Schneider, and Cam Talbot. Some we know the Flames were after (such as Andersen and Bishop), and several went for high picks (Raanta, Schneider, Jones). Some were available for perfectly affordable costs (Dubnyk, Darling, Grubauer). But this list is something of an enigma: some of these goalies have been fantastic, some have been disasters, and some have even been both from one year to the next. It’s difficult to project just how a goalie will work out; Kipper had his poor seasons, too, sandwiched right in between .920 years.

The Flames’ method of chasing older goalies kept their spending down, but, particularly under Treliving’s regime, has only set them up to eventually be let down each year, rolling the dice on yet another goalie whose best days are likely already behind him, coming up snake eyes, and doing the exact same thing on the next try.

It’s maybe ironic, then, that Feaster’s initial strategy – maybe this guy in his mid-20s playing in Europe will be the solution – is the Flames’ current best hope. Acquiring Rittich wasn’t likely done by design to be the Flames’ long-term solution in net since their only other one in recent memory decided to hang them up. Rittich came to the Flames’ system three full seasons after Kiprusoff retired (and the first time the Flames had to start completely from scratch). He was completely unheralded. And, at least now, he’s the best of six year’s worth of lot, with the brightest future.

Maybe it all just comes down to random luck – but, even if it works out in this case, we’d all be wise to remember for the future that it’s not the best succession plan. It’s taken six seasons to come up with another goalie with long-term starting potential – and that’s a rather long journey for such a crucial spot.

  • Joeyhere

    So to sum it all up:
    Flames pin all hopes on one over the hill starter and an untried rookie cross their fingers then “ watch it all come crumbling down”
    Repeat …. times five

  • jupiter

    A more interesting angle on Goalie success would be a study on human reflex and what;s involved to keep it athletic.Goalie’s are all one pulled groin or twisted knee away from disaster. Projecting who will succeed seems hopeless.I’ll go with the random luck side.

  • KeepitReal

    K. Good recap Ari. That was a trip down memory lane. All bad memories, very bad.

    Diesel Dave’s performance has been a breath of fresh air to say the least. If he stumbles and falls, we are essentially back to square one. But I have faith in the kid for some strange reason.

    • Alberta Ice

      Well stated KeepitReal. Heard the other day Rittich had a better win percentage than Kipper at his start. I am so hoping a young goalie comes from our stable to solve this historical dilemma and am hoping Rittich might just be the guy. So far, so good.

  • deantheraven

    I can assure you that nobody predicted that Kipper would become an All Star or even a Vezina Winner. In fact, what we see now as a Steal of a Deal was considered a Hockey Trade at the time. Kipper, like Rittich, was 3rd string in SJ. The only difference between them (so far) is that Kipper was a little more ready to take the reigns than Dave was. Now Rittich is ready.
    All of this rhetoric stands as historical data when you consider potential outcomes of the current tandem. yes, Rittich stumbled last season, perhaps under the pressure of being ‘The Guy’, but this season all indicators are pointing in the right direction to assume a successful transition to the Big Save Dave Era.

  • Pete80

    We need to figure out why we’re so bad at developing goalies. The Flames are struggling but things seem to be looking even worse at the AHL level with what were high level prospects.

  • buts

    Goaltending has never been a problem for teams like the ducks, lightning and a few others but development and the realization in the organization of that positions importance is paramount. The flames didn’t seem to care and it’s shown. Unless the fluke out a Kipper it’s been misses. And if Rittich turns into a solid #1 it will be because of a fluke again.

  • KeepitReal

    BTW – what path did Diesel take to the Flames dressing room? He was undrafted with no North American pedigree or experience. I guess I’m asking who was the Flames employee who saw this kid on the radar and then reeled him in??

  • The Beej

    This happens to teams sometimes. Seems easy to be able to acquire average goaltending for a finite period. But to find that consistent starter seems more difficult. Phoenix didnt let go of Smith until he was 35.

    Look at Philly. They have been in goalie no mans land since…. uh… anyway if it was easy to get a consistant starter that provides avg+ goaltending year in year out then everyone would have one.

  • The Beej

    In saying that its got be a priority and they have made it a priority. From Elliott with trading the 2nd rounder now to Smith with that trade. But again it only really provides avg goaltending for a finite period.

    Its a band aid.

    So I totally get when you look at the assets already spent and the end result; why we didnt make a move this year and elected to see what we have from the prospects and BSD.

    Rittich is one of a few bright spots. A revelation we may not have had if we traded more picks for the potential of avg goaltending.

  • Rockmorton65

    Isn’t it ironic that for years all the Flames had was the best RW & Goalie in the game and now the last two pieces they need are a goaltender and a power forward RW?

    • Jourflamesfan

      Even though we had that top RW and incredible goalie in Kipper the flames still were not very successful in the playoffs.
      The organization seems to always lack the pieces and the timing of all parts coming together to have any sustained success in the playoffs.
      I thought things were finally changing after that 2015 run but then they hired GG. ?
      Here’s hoping for more 2015 flames with BP under helm.

  • Greg

    Does any team have a plan when it comes to goaltending? What’s montreal’s Plan with Price these days? Nashville? Rinne’s had vexing caliber seasons and “run him out of town” seasons. Was acquiring Dubnyk really a plan for Minnesota or just dumb luck? Ditto for kipper…

    There’s only a couple teams (see TBL) that seem to have it figured out, but even there, it’s a sample size problem. 3 good goalies in a row could just as easily be randomness and it could be a pattern.

    I think every team has the same basic plan: acquire some goaltenders with some hope of being good and see what happens. Even when you’ve got a seemingly really good one, you just hope this isn’t the season they go mysteriously in the crapper. And if they do, you hope that was a one off and they bounce back next season. And sometimes they do (see Rinne) and sometimes they don’t (see price).

    Maybe Tampa or Anaheim have figured it out, but to me it all seems like everyone is trying to read tea leaves still. Whoever cracks the goalie code will be king.

  • herringchoker

    Seems to me that the problem with Flames management and the fans on this site…..We all want the name…….Something proven. We won’t know what Dave is until the end of this season when we can look back and reflect. We need something to reflect on and that’s games. I think we have something in Dave. I like his game…..I like his compete……I like his team play and his excitement. We need him to take the #1 role so were not spending assets in the off season trying to find another Mike Smith. Play him tonight against Dallas. Show him we believe in him. Give Smith the easier games until he shows a regained consistancy.

  • Heeeeere’s Johnny

    A quote from The Athletic this morning about Flames drafting that illustrates how badly they draft goalies … for decades. This is about the 1990 draft…

    The Flames traded up with New Jersey from #20 to #11 to get Trevor Kidd, only to see the Devils use that #20 pick on the draft’s second highest-rated goaltender … Martin Brodeur. Whoops.