Sunday, November 17, 2013

Back to the Future: The State of the Flames Goaltending

Many refer to Sean Monahan as the face of the Calgary Flames rebuild but perhaps the guy that really should adorn the cover is prospect Jon Gillies.

After all, in order to get back to being perennially playoff relevant -- what a rebuild blueprint is designed to do, the assembled pieces must include a reliable, steady go-to option in goal that can be counted on nightly to keep the Flames in the game. That includes stealing a point here and there and more importantly, not being a liability.

As the season winds on, it's looking more and more like the current lot assembled in Calgary are merely temporary fixes until a permanent solution comes along.
  • That long-term answer won't be Laurent Brossoit, he was just traded to Edmonton in exchange for Ladislav Smid
  • It won't be Olivier Roy, who the Flames got from the Oilers along with Smid. If he had that kind of upside, Edmonton wouldn't have parted with him. 
  • It could still be Joni Ortio, currently toiling at Abbotsford, but that's wait and see.
  • More so, it's looking like Jon Gillies, who we know is highly thought of within the Flames management team, is where Calgary's future hopes lie.
Saturday, Nov. 16, provided an interesting and revealing dichotomy of the current state of the Calgary Flames goaltending as an organization.

All Hail the College Kid

First, earlier Saturday evening, you had Gillies with yet another stellar game in net for the Providence College Friars. The Flames third round pick in 2012 made 23 saves in a 3-0 victory over Vermont. It gives the sophomore three shutouts this year and a school-record eight in less than a season and a half. 

It's conceivable that the only way uber talented Flames prospect Johnny Gaudreau from Boston College doesn't win the Hobey Baker Award this year for top U.S. college player is if Gillies wins it instead.

Through 10 games, Gillies is 8-1-1 with a microscopic 1.59 goals-against average and a scintillating .949 save percentage. Somehow the 19-year-old has found a way to make his freshman numbers, impressive in their own right -- 17-12-6 record, 2.08 GAA and .931 SV%, look merely ordinary.

After another sterling performance by Gillies, you can't blame Flames fans for wanting to close their eyes and dream of the 6-foot-5 American wearing the Flaming 'C'. Heck, maybe a bunch of them did as they laid down last night for a nap after shovelling the snow drifts off the driveway.

But while they drifted away to visions of Gillies leading the Flames back to respectability, they were jarred awake by the nightmare that is quickly becoming the state of Calgary's current goaltending.

Collective Failings at the NHL Level

It was understood coming into this season that among the Flames many holes in the line-up, goaltending was the biggest of the question marks.

Well, we're now 20 games into the season and that hasn't changed.
  • Joey MacDonald made seven starts and was disgracefully shipped away to the minors.
  • Karri Ramo has also made seven starts but other then being given the keys for opening night in Washington, has yet to convince Bob Hartley he's the guy. 
  • Reto Berra has made six starts, all of them in the last seven games. He started about as good as anyone could -- a stunning 42-save win in Chicago. But his play has been up and down since and he seems to be losing his grasp on the starter's job rather than securing it.
As much as the organization hoped one of them -- preferably one of the two European imports, would seize the reins of the No. 1 job, it hasn't happened yet with the first quarter of the season now in the books.

You get the feeling and this makes the most sense anyway as it allows further stocking of higher draft picks the next couple years, that Flames fans will have to patiently wait for Gillies as the team's best hope at being the Miikka Kiprusoff heir apparent.

To that point, I would expect Calgary to make a determined effort to sign Gillies this spring and pry him away from school. The sooner he turns pro and gets into the Flames system, where he can face a higher level of hockey and receive instruction from the likes of Calgary goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk and Abbotsford goalie coach Jordan Sigalet, the sooner he may be ready for the NHL.

Ugly Deja Vu

It was a mere 15 days ago at the Saddledome with the same 2-2 score, also in the third period, and in the very same corner of the rink, that a very similar play unfolded to David Perron's god-awful goal on Saturday night that proved to be the game-winner in Edmonton's 4-2 come-from-behind victory.

That night against Detroit, Tomas Tatar was the guy on the grassy knoll that harmlessly flung the puck towards the Calgary net and after changing directions slightly off the skate of Joakim Andersson, it fooled MacDonald and went in, giving the Red Wings the lead for good and sucking the life out of the home side.

Until that point, it seemed MacDonald could do no wrong in the eyes of Hartley. He was the favourite son, rarely blamed for anything, seemingly above impunity.

Things changed quickly after that. By the next morning, MacDonald was placed on waivers and by Sunday, Berra had arrived on the scene and stepping on a flight bound for Abbotsford was MacDonald. That was the last we saw of the veteran, who has been backing up Ortio in the AHL ever since.

Now, under eerily similar conditions last night, it's Hartley's latest favourite son -- the big Swiss netminder, who gives up a bad goal from the corner, over a foot below the goal line. After the game, Hartley described the goal in one word, "awful". And if you were in the rink, you could feel the deflating impact it had on the team.

There are 42 goalies with enough playing time to be eligible for the NHL's save percentage leaders. MacDonald ranks 39th, Ramo is 40th. Berra is one start shy of qualifying but if he did have enough minutes, he would be 41st, right behind Ramo.

In defence of all of them and especially Berra, the Flames are guilty of playing some pretty shoddy defence of late. This was especially the case in going winless this past home stand. Mark Giordano continues to be missed a ton.

In particular, there were some absolutely egregious mistakes, giveaways and blown coverages in the 7-3 loss to Dallas on Thursday that produced scoring chances that the best goaltenders in the league would not have stopped. Yet, there's no disguising what really are some pretty underwhelming and mediocre numbers thus far:
  • MacDonald - 3-3-1 record, 3.17 GAA, .885 SV%
  • Ramo - 2-4-1 record, 3.59 GAA, .882 SV%
  • Berra - 1-4-1 record, 3.65 GAA, .882 SV%

So, What do the Flames Do Now? 

Not much.

It's way too early to ship either of the new guys out to sea. Berra and Ramo have shown enough to suggest they are at least deserving of a longer trial and this is certainly the year for such experimenting. Given the extra leash Berra has had the last two weeks, it would make sense to extend the same courtesy to Ramo and give him the baton and see what he can do with a string of consecutive starts.

Adjusting (or re-adjusting in the case of Ramo) to the North American game -- the smaller rinks, the quicker/harder shots, the more densely populated slots, is not easy. We're not yet at the two-month mark so there is still very much the possibility either Ramo or Berra will find their groove and emerge as the defacto starter, making this discussion a moot point. However, it's safe to say fans are growing less confident with every mounting loss that either one is going to be the Flames goaltender of the future. Instead, they'd be satisfied if they're just adequate goalies of the present.

When the club is ready to try something new, behind door No. 4 is Ortio. He's been getting the bulk of the starts at Abbotsford and reportedly has been solid. He was impressive during Flames rookie camp and has already played with the men in the Finnish elite league. With the Heat, he's gone a perfect 7-0-0 with a 2.50 GAA and .920 SV%.

Meanwhile, as the two goalies described as the best goalies not playing in the NHL last year, show there was maybe a reason they weren't playing in the NHL, a former Flames goalie prospect is having himself an excellent season not playing in the NHL.

Leland Irving, the Flames first round draft pick in 2006, is currently getting his resume back together while playing for Jokerit in Finland and he's off to a fine start. Signed to a one-year contract, Irving has put together a 1.81 GAA and .928 save percentage for the club that will join the KHL next year.

Bottom Line

Don't let the 3-0-2 start fool you, this is a development year for the Flames, the first of a few years that will need to be looked at through that lens. That development includes the goalie position where on a night-by-night basis, it seems you won't know what you're going to get and that is something everyone is still getting used to.

Enjoy your retirement Miikka Kiprusoff, the stability you provided for all those years is certainly missed. Meanwhile, Jon Gillies, enjoy quiet college life while you can, the spotlight will be affixed on you very, very soon.

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