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Friday, August 23, 2013

North America, Take One – Recounting Karri Ramo’s First Attempt at the NHL

Having spent the past four years in Russia, many forget that Calgary Flames goaltending prospect Karri Ramo has been in the NHL before.

Without much fanfare, Ramo’s adventurous initial stint in North America began in 2006 as a 20-year-old and over the duration of his three-year entry level contract, the Finn’s time on this side of the Atlantic included 18 trips back and forth between Tampa Bay and its American Hockey League affiliate – along with a fighting major, a couple game misconducts and a six-game suspension. He may hail from the same country as Miikka Kiprusoff, but if history is any indication, he apparently has a little more Ville Nieminen in him.

Looking Beyond the Numbers

Upon first glance at the mediocre numbers Ramo compiled during his three years, there’s really nothing that jumps out at you:
  • NHL:  48 games, 11-21-10 record, 0 shutouts, 3.35 GAA, .883 SV%
  • AHL:  77 games, 24-42-5 record, 1 shutout, 3.38 GAA, .886 SV%
However, I decided to scratch below the surface of those innocuous-looking stat lines and explore the story behind how those first three years unfolded and in particular, how he racked up 49 penalty minutes in his relatively short body of work.

Setting the Scene

Less than three weeks after defeating the Flames in seven games to win the Stanley Cup in 2004, Tampa Bay selected Ramo in the sixth round, 191st overall, at the NHL Entry Draft in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The NHL lock-out resulted in the cancellation of the 2004-05 season so when the Lightning finally took the ice as the defending champions in 2005-06, they ended up nearly missing the playoffs, finishing 8th in the East (43-33-6) with 92 points. After losing in five games in the opening round to top-seeded Ottawa, Lightning head coach John Tortorella expressed his unhappiness with the play of his club’s goaltending tandem of Sean Burke and John Grahame, who combined for a paltry 4.44 goals-against average (GAA) and .858 save percentage (SV%) in the series. It resulted in a series of goaltending-related moves by the organization that following summer:
  • May 31 - Ramo, who had been playing in Finland, signed a pro contract with the Lightning.
  • June 1 - Tampa Bay signed goaltender Johan Holmqvist, 28, who had played the previous two seasons in Sweden.
  • June 30 - Goaltender Marc Denis, 29, was acquired in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
  • July 1 - Grahame left the team as an unrestricted free agent, signing with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Meanwhile, still in the mix was Burke, who had one year remaining on his contract.

>> 2006-07 – Year One

With Denis and Holmqvist emerging as the new goaltending tandem in Tampa Bay, Burke and Ramo were both assigned to Springfield in the American Hockey League where they formed one of the more unusual goaltending duos. You will remember Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger as twins in that classic Ivan Reitman movie from 1988. Well, this combination was just as big of a contrast.

There was Ramo, a 20-year-old kid from Finland, playing in North America for the first time. Then there’s the other guy, grizzled veteran Burke, 39, who at the time had 797 NHL games and 318 NHL victories on his resume. 

In fact, Burke was drafted in 1985, over a year before Ramo was born. 

A Feisty First Weekend

After Burke drew the start in Springfield’s season-opener, it was Ramo’s turn in the Falcons second game on Friday, Oct. 13. Ramo’s North America debut didn’t go that well, getting lit up for six goals on 34 shots by Norfolk, who won the game 6-3. Two of the goals and 10 of the shots came off the stick of Dustin Byfuglien. The winning goaltender for the Chicago Blackhawks affiliate, with 26 stops, was Corey Crawford.

The next night, back in the same barn in Virginia, things got interesting. Burke got the start but didn’t make it through the first period, yanked after surrendering four goals in the opening 12 minutes. Things got out of control at 6:23 of the third period with Springfield down 7-1 when tough guy Mitch Fritz attacked Byfuglien. While this unfolded, Ramo shocked everyone in attendance by skating the length of the ice to drop the blocker and mitt with Norfolk goaltender Sebastien Caron. Was Ramo jumping to the defence of his teammate Fritz? It wouldn't seem that way considering Fritz received 27 minutes in penalties in the exchange while Byfuglien was not penalized at all. Instead, in his second pro game in North America, Ramo turned into one of the Hanson brothers and was tossed from the game and tagged with 19 penalty minutes in the process -- leaving the crease, instigator, fighting, and a misconduct.

Before long -- and because of his acrobatic goaltending ability and not because of his pugilistic talents, Ramo took the Springfield starting job away from Burke, who in January would be picked up by Los Angeles off waivers after a slew of injuries left the Kings in desperate need of an experienced NHL goaltender.

Ramo's NHL Debut

On Dec. 1, 2006, Tampa Bay Executive Vice President and General Manager Jay Feaster announced that Ramo has been recalled because the Lightning were travelling to Ottawa and Denis was not able to accompany the team on its one-game road trip to Canada because his working visa had still not been approved and there was a risk he wouldn’t be allowed back into the U.S.

Ramo’s NHL debut came that next night in Ottawa, entering the game after Holmqvist gave up three goals on 7 shots in the first 8:06. Ramo started off with saves against Chris Neil and Jason Spezza before a second shot by Spezza, a 15-foot snapper, beat him. Ramo played the rest of the game, stopping 16 of 18 shots, the other goal scored by Antoine Vermette. Final score was 5-2 for Ray Emery and the Senators. Ramo returned to the minors the next day.

Riding the AHL Roller Coaster

Back in Springfield, Ramo promptly lost his next four starts – getting pulled in the first two games, and posting a shoddy .851 SV% and 4.31 GAA over that span. 

Despite that rough patch, Ramo was named to the AHL Eastern Conference All-Star team and won the Best Goaltender Award at the AHL skills competition.
 
March went much better -- .922 SV% and 2.72 GAA in four games and that earned Ramo a recall on March 18, the night Washington had routed the Lightning 7-1 with Denis beaten three times on five shots.

With three healthy goalies now on the Lightning roster, Ramo dressed as the back-up on Mar. 22 and again on Mar. 24 when he replaced Denis 2:12 into the third period. In his second NHL appearance, once again in relief and once again versus the Senators, Ramo gave up 2 goals on 5 shots in the final 17:48 with ex-Flame Dean McAmmond and Dany Heatley beating him.

Despite Denis’ continued struggles, it still raised eyebrows when Tortorella declared Ramo as Holmqvist's back-up for the 2007 Eastern Conference quarter-final. Ramo did not see any action but was on the bench for all six games as Tampa Bay, the 7th seed, was eliminated 4-2 by the 2nd seeded New Jersey Devils.

>> 2007-08 – Year Two

Despite winning his one pre-season game, a 4-3 victory over Detroit, Ramo was again sent to the AHL and the Lightning’s new affiliate in Norfolk to start the season as Tampa Bay began with the same tandem as a year ago with Denis and Holmqvist.

In his first AHL game, Ramo suffered a high ankle sprain and missed nearly two months before returning to the line-up in December.

Meanwhile, his goaltending was again causing Tortella all sorts of grief. On Dec. 13, head coach Mike Keenan and the Calgary Flames strutted into Tampa Bay and scored four times on their first six shots against Holmqvist and went on to win 9-6. Jarome Iginla and Kristian Huselius had three goals each – all of Iginla’s goals coming in the third period, breaking a 5-5 tie.  Two notes from that game is it was one of only three career wins for Kiprusoff (3-15-2) when he gave up six or more goals. In a losing cause, current Flames defenceman Shane O’Brien had his only career three-assist game.

That game was the start of an ugly three-game losing skid, which saw Tampa Bay surrender 18 goals, dropping its team save percentage (.879) to dead last in the league. 

On Dec. 19, the Lightning placed Denis on waivers and recalled Ramo, who had just returned to action after missing 21 games with his sprained ankle. Ramo made his NHL starting debut against Toronto on Dec. 20 -- just over a year after his first NHL relief appearance.

(Note: After going unclaimed, Denis played the rest of the year in the minors, then had the remainder of his contract bought out by the Lightning. The one-time top prospect played just one more NHL period the rest of his career – a relief appearance for Montreal in January 2009.)

A Sizzling NHL Debut as a Starter

Matched up against the Maple Leafs – a third straight appearance against a team from Ontario, Ramo was outstanding stopping 31 of 32 shots as the Lightning beat Toronto 2-1. Only Matt Stajan scored.

Ramo started the next two games as well and despite taking the loss both nights, he had solid games stopping 33 of 35 shots against Carolina and 29 of 32 shots versus Washington.

Ramo remained with Tampa Bay the rest of the year, finishing 7-11-3 with a 3.03 GAA and .899 SV%. He did see his playing time decrease significantly when the Lightning traded Holmqvist to Dallas on Feb. 26 in a multi-player trade that saw the Lightning acquire goaltender Mike Smith.

The Lightning failed to make the playoffs.

>> 2008-09 – Year Three

It was a tumultuous off-season for the Lightning, who underwent an ownership change. The most controversial move was the trading away of star defenceman Dan Boyle to the San Jose Sharks.

Among the changes off the ice was Tortorella stepping down and being replaced by Barry Melrose. Feaster, with three years left on his contract, also resigned.

In goal, veteran Olaf Kolzig was signed as a free agent to back-up Smith.  The organization’s plan was to have Ramo, still only 22, spend the full season at Norfolk to work on his overall game.

Lightning Struck by Injuries

For the third season in a row, Ramo started the season in the minors but for the third season in a row, he finished the year with the NHL club. This time it was due to injuries to Kolzig and Smith.

Ramo’s first NHL appearance this year was in relief of Kolzig on Nov. 23 while Smith was temporarily on injured reserve.

On Dec. 17, Kolzig suffered what would turn out to be a career-ending injury when he tore a tendon in his bicep during practice. While shuttling up and down from the minors, Ramo made the occasional start while operating as Smith’s primary back up. 

In February, Smith ended up sidelined with a concussion that left Ramo as the primary starter for the final two months with emergency free agent signee Mike McKenna and young prospect Riku Helenius also seeing the occasional playing time.

Punching out in Style

As it turns out, Ramo’s time in the AHL would end much like it began -- in hot water.

In what would end up being his final start for Norfolk on Jan. 23 vs Lake Erie, Ramo was pulled for an extra attacker in the game’s final minute as the Admirals pressed for the tying goal in the 3-2 game. At the end of the game, a small brawl broke out on the ice with Steve Downie in the middle of it. Ramo, along with a Lake Erie player, both came off the bench to get involved in the melee and for that, they each received a six-game suspension. That would turn out to be Ramo’s last stand in the AHL.

On June 23, 2009, Ramo signed a contract with Avangard Omsk of the KHL, where he would remain before officially signing with the Flames on July 5, 2013.

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