Saturday, February 20, 2016

Goaltending Five-Year Plan - Part 1: Taking Stock of What They Have, What They Need

When the Flames lost Karri Ramo to a season-ending knee injury, many turned their focus to the immediate future and how the Flames would manage the rest of this season with a goaltending duo of Jonas Hiller and Joni Ortio.

However, with playoff hopes all but officially extinguished, the more compelling question is who will be in net for the Flames next season and beyond.

At the moment, Calgary has no goalies with NHL experience under contract for 2016-17. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Here in part 1 of a two-part look at what the future looks like in net for the Flames, I examine the goaltending prospects in the system today and project where (or if) they might slot into the organization's five-year plan.

In this look-ahead that extends through 2020-21, you’ll see several references to TBD. Among the spots still to be determined are both NHL jobs for next season. In part 2, I took a closer look at what’s out there and the various avenues GM Brad Treliving could go in filling those two spots.


What's in the Cupboard?

The Flames have five goaltending prospects that are either under contract or are restricted free agents at season's end so still under team control.

This does not include veterans Hiller or Ramo, who are both on expiring contracts and set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. That said, is Ramo a candidate to re-sign with the Flames in 2016-17, just like he did last summer? Maybe. I’ll get more into the likelihood of that in part 2.

For now, here are the five prospects in the system along with where (or if) I think they fit into the team's future plans.


1. Jon Gillies

Age - 22 (born January 22, 1994)
Drafted - 3rd round (75th) in 2012
Current Team - Stockton, in his first AHL season.

We'll start with Jon Gillies as he is viewed as the club's future No. 1. In my top 20 Flames prospect rankings published last month, I have Gillies as Calgary's top prospect.

The caveat is he is still a long way away. In a bad season for goaltenders in this organization, the first blow came in October when Gillies suffered a hip injury that would require season-ending surgery. His first pro season, after three years of playing NCAA at Providence College, lasted only seven games spread over four weeks.

There is no doubt that losing nearly a full season of development will push back Gillies' potential arrival date in the NHL. Even without the injury, he was likely going to need at least a couple seasons in the minors.


Typical Timeline: College to Pro

It’s been proven that NCAA goalies usually need plenty of time in the minors to work their way up to the NHL. Here's a look at former college goalies that have played in the NHL this season and how long each of them spent developing in the minors before reaching the big time. The list is sorted in order of fewest games spent in the minors.

Listed in parentheses is the round they were selected in the NHL draft, plus the number of years they spent in college.

Connor Hellebuyck (5th round, 2 years) - 1.5 seasons and 70gm in AHL
Jonathan Quick (3rd round, 2 years) - 1.5 seasons and 71 gm in ECHL/AHL
Andrew Hammond (FA, 4 years) - 1.5 seasons and 75 gm in AHL
Brian Elliott (9th round, 4 years) - 2 seasons and 82 gm in AHL
Mike Condon (FA, 4 years) - 2 seasons and 99 gm in ECHL/AHL
Ben Scrivens (FA, 4 years) - 2.5 seasons and 107 gm in ECHL/AHL
Cam Talbot (FA, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 118 gm in ECHL/AHL
Carter Hutton (FA, 4 years) - 3 seasons and 134 gm in ECHL/AHL
Cory Schneider (1st round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 136 gm in AHL
Keith Kinkaid (FA, 2 years) - 3.5 seasons and 143 gm in AHL
Alex Stalock (4th round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 145 gm in AHL
Scott Darling (6th round, 2 years) - 5.5 seasons and 158 gm in SPHL/ECHL/AHL
Ben Bishop (3rd round, 3 years) - 4 seasons and 165 gm in AHL
Chad Johnson (5th round, 4 years) - 4 seasons and 170 gm in AHL
Ryan Miller (5th round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 172 gm in AHL
Jimmy Howard (2nd round, 3 years) - 4 seasons and 186 gm in AHL
Al Montoya (1st round, 3 years) - 5.5 seasons and 199 gm in ECHL/AHL
Curtis McElhinney (6th round, 4 years) - 4.5 seasons* and 205 gm in AHL
Jeff Zatkoff (3rd round, 3 years) - 6 seasons* and 237 gm in ECHL/AHL

* In the minors currently so this number continues to increase.


Based on this, do not expect Gillies to be in the NHL in 2016-17. In fact, you're being recklessly optimistic if you are counting on him for 2017-18. Sure, he might be ready that quickly but looking at how long it took guys like Cory Schneider, Ben Bishop, Jimmy Howard and Ryan Miller to ascend to the NHL for good, it would be foolish to bank on him being ready that soon.

For the Flames organization, the smart planning would be to pencil in Gillies for 2018-19 at the earliest. Let him barge down the door and earn an NHL job sooner than that if he proves he's ready but don't just hand it to him.


2. Mason McDonald

Age - 19 (born April 23, 1996)
Drafted - 2nd round (34th) in 2014
Current Team - Charlottetown, his fourth QMJHL season.

Unfortunately, the Gillies injury will also end up impacting the development plan for Mason McDonald, who Calgary selected as the first goalie taken in the 2014 NHL Draft. In his fourth year of major junior, McDonald has been focused on turning pro this summer. Last July at Flames development camp, he talked about his timeline to turn pro.

It is a scenario that undoubtedly happens if Gillies doesn't get hurt. But now with Gillies timeline backed up by a year, Calgary is in the position of having two top goalie prospects developing in the minors at the exact same time. That's not the end of the world, but there are reasons why ideally, they would have preferred to stagger the two.

If McDonald turns pro this summer, I expect he heads to the ECHL next season to be the No. 1 goalie in Adirondack. That will give him plenty of work while also enabling Gillies to get a majority of the starts in Stockton.

In 2017-18, that was potentially the season Gillies originally might have been NHL-ready. Instead, now it's unlikely Gillies is ready until 2018-19. In this scenario, do you keep McDonald in the ECHL for a second season? It would be an unusual move for a top prospect, but it's either that or he goes to Stockton and their reduced Pacific Division schedule and splits starts with Gillies.

The alternate option is the club returns McDonald to junior next season for his overage year and have him turn pro in 2017-18 instead. That buys you some separation from Gillies and gets you into a scenario where it's likely just the one year in the ECHL and then he bumps up the next season to the AHL to take Gillies' vacated spot.


3. Joni Ortio

Age - 24 (born April 16, 1991)
Drafted - 6th round (171st) in 2009
Current Team - Calgary, his third pro season (20 NHL games, 104 AHL games, 4 ECHL games). Plus two seasons in Finland.

The season was not supposed to unfold like this for Joni Ortio.

Entering a season in which he was waiver-eligible and on a one-way NHL contract, this was going to be his year to build off his impressive run he had last season when he came up to replaced an injured Ramo in January, was promptly inserted into the Flames line-up with the team reeling and chalked up four road wins in a row. In those four games, he stopped 115 of 120 shots for a .958 save percentage before (like a dozen Calgary goalies before him) getting lit up by Anaheim in the Honda Center and getting pulled after four goals on 11 shots.

But instead of one of two goalies with the Flames this season, he ended up one of three as something surely went sideways on GM Brad Treliving in the summer that resulted in Ortio being joined by Hiller and Ramo. As a result, Ortio became the guy a distant third on the depth chart behind the two veterans.

After going nearly a month without playing and from what we understand, refusing to accept a conditioning assignment and go to Stockton for up to two weeks to get in some game action, he finally made a pair of starts (not consecutive) in late October only to look rusty and never get a chance to start again.



Bottom line is the Flames didn't play him when the games were important and now, with playoff hopes pretty much dashed and Hiller owning the worst save percentage in the NHL, they're still not playing him.

Add it all up and it's hard to imagine the Flames are all that interested to bring Ortio back. Similarly, it seems hard to imagine Ortio being overly keen to re-sign with Calgary either.


4. Kevin Poulin

Age - 25 (born April 12, 1990)
Drafted - 5th round (126th) in 2008
Current Team - Stockton, his sixth pro season (50 NHL games, 171 AHL games).

Kevin Poulin is with his third organization this season. He began the year with the New York Islanders, which is the team that originally drafted him. However with their goaltending set in the NHL with Thomas Greiss as the newly signed back-up to Jaroslav Halak, Poulin was placed on waivers in late September and was claimed by Tampa Bay. The Lightning were looking for short-term depth with an injury to Andrei Vasilevskiy.

However, Poulin was never needed and quickly became a spare part with Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate, who were already set at that position. After the severity of Gillies' injury became known, Treliving acquired Poulin on Nov. 12 in exchange for future considerations. Calgary's need was for someone to step in and shoulder the load in Stockton as they were in desperate need of help with Ortio still on the NHL roster at the time.

Then Poulin dislocated his kneecap and missed six weeks, during which time Ortio was waived by Calgary and returned to the AHL. When Poulin returned in early January, the two of them split starts for the Heat.

A popular misconception with Poulin is viewing him as a journeyman and a non-prospect compared to Ortio. That's not really true. Poulin is only one year older, he was drafted one round earlier and they're both in identical situations contract-wise as pending RFAs.

Poulin also has had more NHL experience having played 50 games with the Isles.

Realizing after Ramo's injury that the schedule set up nicely for coach Bob Hartley to ride Hiller for a long period, I can't help but wonder if factoring into the decision to promote Ortio was so Poulin could keep playing games in the AHL instead of being stuck on the bench as has been the case for Ortio.

For what it's worth, Poulin has put up considerably better numbers than Ortio in the AHL this season. Given how the two have been used and also how they've performed, it wouldn't surprise me if after this season, Poulin is re-signed and the team cuts the cord on Ortio.


5. Nick Schneider

Age - 18 (born July 21, 1997)
Drafted - Undrafted in 2015, signed as a free agent
Current Team - Medicine Hat, his third WHL season.

Nick Schneider was ranked by NHL Central Scouting as the No. 9 goaltender in North America for the 2015 NHL Draft. However, he was not one of the 23 goalies selected. Needing some additional goaltending depth for rookie camp, the Flames brought the native of Leduc in on a try-out.

Impressed by his performance in Penticton at the Young Stars Classic and in an exhibition game against the University of Calgary, plus with injury issues lingering with some of the other goalies, Schneider's try-out extended into Flames main camp and eventually led to him signing an NHL entry-level contract on Sept. 23.

Schneider, who essentially became a bonus draft pick, will return to junior next season and given Gillies and McDonald could both be in the minors for 2017-18, an overage season in the WHL the year after isn't something I'd rule out either.

From there, he'll turn pro and probably start off in the ECHL and spend a season or two there. Depending on injuries and other factors, he would be an AHL option also.

I don't expect Schneider to make the NHL but considering how hard it is to project goalies, you never know either. Anything can happen over the next several years, we'll just have to see how his stock rises or falls.


Projecting Out the Next Five Years

Now it's time to add some names to the whiteboard and see where we're at. Included is the player's age for that season.

As you can see, I've got Poulin re-signing with Calgary and Ortio exiting the organization after this year. While it's possible the opposite may occur, there's also a third option of a complete housecleaning with neither Ortio or Poulin re-signed. In that scenario, expect the Flames to sign a veteran minor leaguer, who has maybe had a couple cups of coffee in the NHL, to work with Gillies and be a more seasoned short-term fill-in should one of Calgary's goalies get injured.

2016-17

NHL - TBD 1, TBD 2
AHL - Gillies (22), Poulin (26)
ECHL - McDonald (20)

2017-18

NHL - TBD 1, TBD 2
AHL - Gillies (23)
ECHL - McDonald (21)

2018-19

NHL - TBD 1, Gillies (24)
AHL - McDonald (22)
ECHL - Schneider (21)

2019-20

NHL - Gillies (25), TBD
AHL - McDonald (23)
ECHL - Schneider (22)

2020-21

NHL - Gillies (26), McDonald (24)
AHL - Schneider (23)
ECHL - 2017 Draft Pick



Needs Assessment

As you can see, immediate help is needed and not necessarily short term either. To allow the organization to be patient with Gillies, not rush him and allow him to develop at his own pace, two goalies are needed for the next couple of seasons and ideally one of the them will be here for at least a third season as Gillies begins his transition to being the No. 1.

Of course, the big assumption we're making is that Gillies will pan out. When you go through the exercise of a five-year plan, you always assume top prospects like Gillies and McDonald will make the NHL but that is far from a certainty. If one or both fall off the radar, that will change everything.

Let's remember that in 36 seasons, the Flames have only drafted and developed three goaltenders that went on to be a regular in the Calgary line-up -- Mike Vernon, Trevor Kidd and Curtis McElhinney. And in the case of the latter, it was only for one season and it was spent as the understudy to Miikka Kiprusoff. Now with the Columbus Blue Jackets, McElhinney has never amounted to more than a back-up.

An additional wild card is there will continue to be new goalies entering the organization via the draft. However, I don't see drafting a goalie as an organizational priority at the moment. With McDonald drafted in 2014 and Schneider the equivalent of a 2015 draft pick, I suspect the Flames pass on drafting a goalie this year but then grab one again in 2017. That prospect would then turn pro and enter the current five-year plan by either 2019-20 or 2020-21.


Scouting the Options

For those looking for a list of candidates to potentially come to Calgary for the next few seasons, we'll get into that and do some speculating in part 2, which you can read here.

In that second piece, I also reviewed the various categories of goaltender the Flames might be looking for -- pending UFAs, veterans who have lost their jobs to young prospects, back-ups looking for an opportunity to be a starter and even minor leaguers looking to get a shot in the NHL.



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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