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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.