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Monday, June 15, 2015

Future Gazing: In-Depth Review of the Flames Goaltending Situation Reveals a Need

It could happen in 15 days or it may take 15 months, but yes, indeed, expect the Calgary Flames to bring in a goaltender.

Not a young kid that's unproven either, nor an old man past his prime. I'm talking about an established, bona fide NHL puck-stopper.

Creating a stir around Flames Nation the last few days was speculation from Sportsnet hockey analyst Elliott Friedman that in addition to unrestricted free agent Karri Ramo finding a new area code to play in next season, there's a possibility Jonas Hiller may not be back with Calgary either, despite the 33-year-old having one year at $4.5 million left on his two-year deal.

However, if you step back and project-out how the depth chart at that position stacks up in the years to come, it's true that they will eventually need to bring in a proven goaltender, it's just a matter of when general manager Brad Treliving finds the right fit.


In Focus: The 2016-17 Season

The impetus for looking for a goaltender right now is the reality they will need one for the season after next and quite possibly the year after.

If you look beyond the upcoming season, the organization has just one goalie under contract for 2016-17 and that's 2012 third round draft pick Jon Gillies. While there is genuine excitement about his potential, history suggests the chances are very slim he will be ready for the NHL that quickly.

Gillies, 21, left Providence College in April -- one year early -- to sign an entry-level contract with the Flames. If Gillies was to reach the NHL by the start of his second pro season, he will have made that difficult jump faster than any goalie in the league today including the Kings Jonathan Quick.

Quick turned pro in 2007 after two years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His first season was mostly split between the ECHL and AHL. Quick began year two in the AHL before getting called up by the Kings for good in mid-December. Of more than 20 former NCAA goalies to play in the NHL this season, Quick got there the fastest. The far more common scenario is for college goalies to spend three seasons in the minors. In fact, of all the goalies that left school early, Quick is the only one that got to the NHL in less than three years.

Here's a look at a dozen of the more prolific names and how long they spent developing in the minors before reaching the NHL. They're ranked in order of fewest combined ECHL/AHL games:

(Also listed is the round they were selected in the NHL Draft, and years they spent in college)
  1. Jonathan Quick (3rd round, 2 years) - 1.5 seasons and 71 gm in ECHL/AHL
  2. Brian Elliott (9th round, 4 years) - 2 seasons and 82 gm in AHL
  3. Ben Scrivens (FA, 4 years) - 2.5 seasons and 107 gm in ECHL/AHL
  4. Cam Talbot (FA, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 118 gm in ECHL/AHL
  5. Carter Hutton (FA, 4 years) - 3 seasons and 134 gm in ECHL/AHL
  6. Cory Schneider (1st round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 136 gm in AHL
  7. Alex Stalock (4th round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 145 gm in AHL
  8. Ben Bishop (3rd round, 3 years) - 4 seasons and 165 gm in AHL
  9. Chad Johnson (5th round, 4 years) - 4 seasons and 170 gm in AHL
  10. Ryan Miller (5th round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 172 gm in AHL
  11. Jimmy Howard (2nd round, 3 years) - 4 seasons and 186 gm in AHL
  12. Al Montoya (1st round, 3 years) - 5.5 seasons and 199 gm in ECHL/AHL

With it highly doubtful the Flames will rush Gillies and keeping in mind there are no assurances he will even reach the NHL, who will be in the crease for Calgary a year from now?

Presumably one of them will be Joni Ortio, 24. Drafted in the sixth round in 2009, Ortio's current deal expires at the end of this season. He will become a restricted free agent. He has done plenty to impress so far though so one would expect Calgary to re-sign the Finn, who grew up in the same town as Miikka Kiprusoff.

The question is will Ortio be the de facto starter, part of a 1a/1b split, or the back-up? We'll have to wait and see although expectations should be modest. Sure, he had a fabulous run last year when he reeled off four straight road victories in January but getting hot for a week is one thing, being able to sustain a high level of play for six months is another matter.

As for Hiller, it seems doubtful he would be re-signed next summer at age 34.

The Flames do have one other goalie in the organization -- highly-touted Mason McDonald, 19, the Flames second round pick and first goalie taken in the 2014 NHL Draft, but he's still a long way from being NHL-ready. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to guess that McDonald goes back to junior for his overage year and doesn't turn pro until 2017-18. In such a scenario, it's very possible he goes to the ECHL until playing time becomes available in Stockton.


Always Earned, Never Given... and Rarely Rushed

When you're building a hockey team, you have to be realistic about how long young players will need to develop into full-time NHLers. Banking on guys reaching the NHL too quickly is how teams get in trouble. It can result in gaps at key positions and can also cater to a temptation to rush a player, which can have a negative long-term effect.

From what we've seen and heard so far from GM Brad Treliving, his modus operandi is to be patient with how quickly prospects will ascend to the NHL. As the mantra goes, no roster spots in Calgary will be given, they'll have to be earned. If a player comes in and forces their way onto the roster sooner than anticipated, then that's one of those 'good problems' that GMs love to have.

On that note, if you take a cautious approach with Gilles, one should not expect his arrival in the NHL before 2018-19. That gives him three seasons in the minors, which has pretty much been the norm for goalies out of college.

That means not only does Calgary need a goalie to pair up with Ortio in 2016-17, but also for 2017-18. I wouldn't be looking for a straight back-up either. You have to count on him being the starter and leave it up to Ortio to wrestle away the No. 1 job from him.

Put this altogether and here is how the Flames goalie situation could unfold over the next four seasons:

2015-16
  • NHL: Hiller, Ortio
  • AHL: Gillies
2016-17
  • NHL: TBD, Ortio
  • AHL: Gillies

2017-18
  • NHL: TBD, Ortio
  • AHL: Gillies
  • ECHL: McDonald

2018-19
  • NHL: Ortio, Gillies
  • AHL: McDonald

Early Bird Shopping

We all have that one friend -- typically female, who has their Christmas shopping completed by July. While these people may be annoying to the rest of us Christmas Eve mall foragers, you can't deny the advantages to this pro-active approach. By starting their shopping early, they typically get what they want and at a good price. By comparison, wait until the last minute and either what you want is sold-out or you have to pay more.

This is essentially where Treliving finds himself right now. Doing his Christmas shopping in June.

We've established Calgary will need a goalie for at least two seasons beginning next year. There's no harm in starting to browse around and see what's out there right now and if he comes across a great deal that he can't pass up, go ahead and get it. Bringing in someone next season for two years or this season for three years, it ultimately makes no difference.

What having Hiller under contract for 2015-16 does is put Treliving in the luxurious position of having time on his side. He's not in a position of desperation where he needs to find a goalie this summer, so he does not have to succumb to paying a seller's price.


Stores to Choose From

Over the next calendar year will be a series of opportunities for Treliving to get his shopping done.

1. June 2015: NHL Draft - There will be plenty of names bandied about, leading up to and during the NHL Draft weekend in Florida, as teams look to add additional picks in a very deep draft. And with six picks in the first three rounds, Treliving has a wallet full of "currency". Leveraging a pick or two and/or an existing player(s) in a deal for a goalie is definitely a possibility.

Some names to ponder:
  • Jonathan Bernier, 26 - Could the restricted free agent be lured out of Toronto. At what price? 
  • Cam Talbot, 27 - Played well this season but is trapped behind Henrik Lundqvist, who is signed long term. Perhaps he's available given he's a year away from being a UFA.
  • Martin Jones, 25 - Quick is the guy in Los Angeles so if you like Jones, an RFA, perhaps he can be had. 
  • Brian Elliott, 30 - The way he's been used (or not used) in key games suggests he's fallen out of favour in St. Louis. Has two years left on his current deal.
  • Craig Anderson, 34 - Originally a Calgary draft pick in 1999 (but never signed, went back in the draft and was picked by Chicago in 2001), he is a perfect fit contractually given he has three years left on his deal at $4.2 million AAV. Ottawa will likely be moving a goalie. (Alternately, if the Sens keep Anderson, 23-year-old Robin Lehner, a second round pick in 2009, is another acquisition possibility.)

2. July 2015: Free Agency - This is like shopping at Ralph Lauren in that everything is way more expensive than it should be. Or, at least that's usually the case. There are exceptions but the general rule is it's very difficult to get good value when signing unrestricted free agents. Nonetheless, take a look around.

Some names to ponder:
  • Jhonas Enroth, 27 - A second round pick by Buffalo in 2006, he was the caddy to Ryan Miller for a long time and when Enroth became the starter, it was behind a bad Sabres team so it's hard to gauge his upside. But at 5-foot-10, he's quick and agile.
  • Karri Ramo, 29 -  While more inconsistent than Hiller, when he was good, he could be really good -- see the Anaheim series. There's more upside with Ramo than Hiller given he's over four years younger.
  • Antti Niemi, 31 - The veteran has been solid over the years and would give the Flames an all-Finnish combo for the next few seasons.

3. Sept 2015: Training Camp - During training camp, team needs can change from the summer. Maybe a goalie prospect has stepped up, making a veteran expendable. Or maybe a team tight to the salary cap has to fill a hole at a different position and may consider parting with a veteran goalie to do so.

4. March 2016: Trade Deadline - Depending on how the season goes, different players can become available that weren't earlier and that could include a veteran goaltender that no longer fits with a team that has maybe decided to go in a new direction.

5. Summer 2016:  Draft/Free Agency - This time next summer, different players could be available and there will also be a new class of unrestricted free agents. However, unlike the previous summer, now you're on the clock as you definitely need a goalie with Hiller's contract over. You've essentially taken a taxi to a car dealership and the salesman knows you need to leave there with a car. So at this point, prepare to pay more.

Some names to ponder (potential UFAs and their age as of July 1, 2016):
  • Cam Ward, 32
  • Ben Scrivens, 29
  • James Reimer, 28
  • Antti Raanta, 27
  • Eddie Lack, 28
  • Cam Talbot, 28
  • Alex Stalock, 28

So, What About Jonas?

The ideal sequence for Treliving is secure a new goalie, then -- if that happens this summer, worry about what to do with Hiller. Of those two tasks, the far more important priority is finding the right guy to bring in than worrying about getting maximum return on the player going out.

After all, what is Hiller's maximum value anyway?

Things to consider:
  • He's lost his starting job in each of the last two post-seasons. He had a good series against Vancouver before getting pulled minutes into the most important game of the season -- game 6. He was then pulled again in game one against the Ducks and never played again. Last year with Anaheim, he was passed over in favour of rookie John Gibson.
  • He's got one year left at a $4.5 million. No one is going to cough up a big asset for a 33-year-old average goalie with a big price tag.
  • While his save percentage was not bad (and was higher than Ramo), his propensity to give up a bad goal early in a game was a real issue for the Flames, who too often found themselves behind early in games.

If you look at what goaltenders have fetched in terms of draft picks in recent trade deadline deals (where values can peak), a third round pick sounds about right. It's hard to imagine Hiller commanding much more given his playoff baggage.

Yes, Calgary somehow unloaded 27-year-old Reto Berra for a 2nd round pick in 2014. However, that bizarre deal should hardly be used for comparison purposes. Here are some other recent goalie swaps that paint a more realistic picture of what Hiller's value might be:
  • 2015 - Dallas gets Jhonas Enroth, 26, for a 3rd rd pick (and Anders Lindback)
  • 2015 - Minnesota gets Devan Dubnyk, 28, for a 3rd rd pick 
  • 2014 - Minnesota gets Ilya Bryzgalov, 33, for a 4th rd pick
  • 2013 - Tampa Bay gets Ben Bishop, 26, for a 4th rd pick (and Cory Conacher)
  • 2013 - Philadelphia gets Steve Mason, 24, for a 3rd rd pick (and Michael Leighton)
  • 2012 - Ottawa gets Ben Bishop, 25, for a 2nd rd pick

There are a couple other things to consider if Calgary ends up with three goalies temporarily. First, it is not like the Flames are near the salary cap and must unload Hiller urgently. They can afford to wait teams out. Secondly, while coach Bob Hartley has said he does not like having three goalies around, doing it short term would be fine. If needed, Treliving could wait until September/October and see if teams' needs change after training camp due to injuries, etc.

Another way for Treliving to sweeten the pot is by offering to retain up to half of Hiller's salary. Hiller at $2.25-million would be a lot more viable to cap-crunched teams. Offering to retain money could also help sweeten the pot in terms of the return Calgary could get.


Final Thoughts

In 35 years, the Flames have drafted and developed only three goalies, who have gone on to play at least one full season in Calgary -- Curtis McElhinney, Trevor Kidd and Mike Vernon.

It's possible that list is about to expand with Ortio, Gillies and McDonald in the pipeline and fans certainly have their fingers crossed. However, history would suggest it would be foolish for Flames management to bank on all three making it. In fact, they should be delighted if one of them has a long and distinguished career.

The Flames track record with goalies further supports the approach of having a good look around the league right now and trying to identify an established goalie in the right age range that can come in for two or three seasons as suggested.

You never know, if Ortio doesn't work out, or Gillies doesn't, that 2-3 years could turn into 5-6 years and given the direction the team is headed and with the age of the club's young core players like Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett and TJ Brodie, those could be pretty successful years.

If you're a goalie, Calgary is not a bad situation to be coming into.


By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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