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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Right Here, Right Now: It Was the Right Time To Shuffle Berra and MacDonald

For most Calgary Flames fans, it was a move that was long overdue. For the organization, it was a move that probably came sooner than they ideally would have hoped.

Either way, Calgary did the inevitable Saturday morning by waving good-bye to a 30-something and hello to a 20-something by placing veteran Joey MacDonald on waivers and recalling Reto Berra from the American Hockey League's Abbotsford Heat.

The move comes the morning after MacDonald's disappointing 18-save performance in a discouraging 4-3 setback to Detroit at the Scotiabank Saddledome. It was a game in which Calgary fell behind 2-0 early despite holding a 12-5 edge in shots after the first period, then resiliently rolled up its sleeves and scored twice in the second to get back on level terms with the veteran-laden Red Wings, only to see the guests retake the lead for good on a weak goal early in the third.

The go-ahead goal at 1:25 came on a harmless-looking shot... or more so a centring pass from deep in the corner by Joakim Andersson. Despite being released from well below the goal line, the puck somehow found its way off and through MacDonald and into the net, absolutely silencing the sell-out crowd of 19,289 and sucking the life right out of the home side.

"They got a lucky one there at the start and that kind of changed the momentum in the game for a little bit. We had it going pretty good there in the second," said Matt Stajan.

Coach Bob Hartley, after the game, admitted it was a a tough blow.

"Obviously, it's like you take a good punch on the nose, but, at the same time, you have to regroup. In a game, anything can happen and you have to be ready for it.”

As difficult as the goal was to concede, MacDonald's remarks afterwards were perhaps even tougher for the team to swallow.

"Guys make lots of mistakes on the ice but once we make one, everybody knows," said MacDonald, who seemed more determined to deflect the blame rather than accept it. "I didn't think we had much in the third. I know they got that lucky one but we've got to turn it around and get some chances. I thought in the third, we just kind of stepped back, we played the majority of our time in our end and you can't do that."

While the tie-breaking goal was the primary talking point, the fourth Detroit goal making it 4-2 with less than four minutes remaining, was also a shot that needs to be stopped at the NHL level. While this one was at least above the goal line, the wrister from Justin Abdelkader was still from a sharp angle and a long ways out. MacDonald dropped to his knees early and got beat over his shoulder.

Why The Time Was Right For This Move

As I see it, there are three reasons that President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke and General Manager Jay Feaster were left with no recourse other than to pull the trigger on this move right now. 

1. Free Joni Ortio and Laurent Brossoit

While the Flames are hopeful Karri Ramo, or Berra, or a combination of the two will give Calgary a chance to contend in the here and now, the reality of the situation in the ultra-competitive Western Conference is that this hockey club, as adorable and charming as it is, is still a couple years and a few pieces away from being a legitimate playoff contender.

When that time does arrive, it's very likely that the Flames starting goaltender will be neither Ramo or Berra but instead be one of the Flames three younger prospects in the system. 
  • It could be Jon Gillies, considered by many as the organization's top goaltending prospect. The 19-year-old is currently in his second year at Providence College and is off to a superb start as he looks to build on a sensational freshman campaign in which he chalked up a 2.08 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. He's a candidate to leave school, sign with the Flames and turn pro next summer.
  • It could be one of the other younger goaltending prospects already playing pro this year. Joni Ortio has already played in the Finnish Elite League and is just 22 years old. He made a strong impression during Flames development camp as well as the rookie tournament in Penticton. With Berra in the NHL, Ortio will now be handed the reins in Abbotsford and as the starter for the Heat, will get the playing time he needs to continue his development.
  • Laurent Brossoit, 20, is a guy not to forget about as he is also a highly thought-of prospect for the future. But, with less pro experience than Ortio, having him as the No. 1 starter with the Flames ECHL affiliate in Alaska gives him also a chance to play every game and hone his craft. The ECHL is not quite the AHL, but is a nice step-up from the WHL where Brossoit last played.
Depending on what happens with MacDonald and if he ends up unclaimed and getting on a flight to Abbotsford, expect the Flames to look into signing another goaltender simply to be the back-up to Ortio. Make no mistake, the best thing for the Flames is for both Ortio and Brossoit to not be splitting time but rather starting virtually every game as No. 1 goaltenders in the AHL and ECHL respectively.

2. It's Time to Find Out 'What is Reto Berra?'

Let's not forget that Berra is on a one-year deal. He's still a restricted free agent at the expiration of this contract but this is obviously a pivotal year for the Flames to find out exactly what they have right now, but maybe more importantly, what they may have in the future with Berra so they can make the right decision contract-wise when negotiating with him next summer.

Who knows, maybe they conclude Berra will never be an NHL netminder and don't resign him -- although I doubt that's how it unfolds (From the archives, 12 Things I Like About Reto Berra). However, giving him a long audition is certainly prudent as there are a lot of hockey people that feel he has the tools to be very good, which is why he was a key part of the package the Flames received when Calgary traded Jay Bouwmeester to the St. Louis Blues last year.

Despite everyone's inclination to put Ramo ahead of Berra on the organization's depth chart coming into the 2013-14 season, Feaster never said that was the pecking order. The variance in salary between Ramo ($2.75M) and Berra ($850K) was not a reflection of a '1a' and '1b' but more a by-product of their two different situations. Ramo has already had his NHL entry-level contract and also, needed to be lured away from the KHL. Berra did not have the same leverage and is just now on his ELC as he plays his first year in North America.

At the end of September with only a limited amount of playing time in the short pre-season to evaluate them, starting Berra in the AHL was the easy choice so he could continue to get acclimatized to the 200 x 185 rink, something he's had very little experience with compared to Ramo, who had been in North America from 2006 to 2009 as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization.

One thing for certain, you can't accuse the Flames of babying Berra. This upcoming Flames four-game road trip is not going to be any easier than the last road trip. Their opponents are all off to good starts and have a intimidating 20-4-5 record on home ice. So, it's right into the bonfire for Berra, regardless of whether he gets the start Sunday in Chicago, or Tuesday in Minnesota, or Thursday in St. Louis.

Although, of all the possibilities, if Berra does end up making his NHL debut at the United Center against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, the Flames may hear from the United Nations as isn't that type of inhumane act covered off in the Geneva Conventions?

3. MacDonald's Purpose Had Run It's Course

I always viewed MacDonald's role on this team and the impetus for controversially re-signing him in the summer to a one-year deal, as not unlike that of Derek Smith, Tim Jackman and even Chris Butler, to name just a few. They are veteran NHL players on expiring contracts that are place holders only -- like seat fillers at the Academy Awards so the rows are all filled when the broadcast goes to a commercial. There are a lot of players on this club's roster that are here primarily to allow Calgary the luxury of not unnecessarily rushing the development of its top prospects and keep these keys to the future slotted correctly and playing and learning at the appropriate level -- i.e. the AHL, NCAA, or junior.

For example, the club is very high on Tyler Wotherspoon and Patrick Sieloff but as excited as they are about the future they'll have in the NHL and as ready as these two appear to be on the surface to the excitable, salivating fan in Flames nation, playing them in the NHL this year makes no sense and could hinder rather than help their development. The best next step for these two junior hockey graduates was the AHL and a half-year, full year, or maybe even a year-and-a-half or two years of playing against that level of competition where mistakes aren't as critical and the spotlight isn't as intense.  

It was the same situation with MacDonald. Calgary signed him to a contract for $925,000 which let's be honest, is not a big money deal for a NHL goaltender. The Flames did not offer him that size of contract nor did MacDonald accept it had their been an expectation from either side that he was going to be the Flames No. 1 goaltender this season.

What having MacDonald around this year -- at least to start -- allowed the Flames to do was have Berra go down to the AHL and get his skates wet with the North American game gradually and in a less pressure-filled situation against teams like Lake Erie, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee.

Everyone knows how hot the spotlight is on the goal crease in Calgary so why rush anyone if you don't have to. In fact, I'd suggest in a perfect world, MacDonald is having a year more like he had last season, the Flames win last night's game 3-2, and this move didn't happen today and Berra spends another month or two in the AHL. Or, Calgary eventually flip-flops Ramo and Berra and keeps MacDonald around as the capable NHL back-up.

But, that's not how it shook down. Last night's third period mistakes by MacDonald and the noticeable drain it had on the psyche of this hockey club mentally, was evidently the tipping point in this decision happening right now.

Final Thoughts

Calgary has a good thing going right now. The identity this hockey club has forged with its lunch bucket work ethic has been entertaining to watch and the excitement level around the Flames this year has been the highest its been in a long time. But, in order for that style of play to be sustained, the 18 skaters in uniform every night need to believe that the guy in pads behind them is going to come up with some clutch saves in key situations so they can get rewarded for their tireless efforts.

There will be games when Berra's performance will be disappointing, you can count on that. It is the nature of the position. However, he's at a different stage in his career compared to MacDonald and the expectations should be different both from the fans, as well as the five guys on the ice in front of him. More than anything, as long as when he makes a mistake, he owns up to it and points the finger at himself rather than the other direction, then even the mistakes will be tolerated because with this team, where it's at, mistakes are going to happen, it's just a matter of learning from it and continuing to get better and doing so together as a team.

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