Friday, June 24, 2016

Goaltending Revitalization: Flames Anxious to Address the Team's Most Pressing Need

It's been nearly 34 months since the Flames No. 34 retired and for the most part, it's been an agonizing stretch for both the team and its fanbase.

Combined save percentage for Calgary goalies since Sept. 9, 2013, when Miikka Kiprusoff officially hung up his blocker, has been several shades of mediocre:
  • Karri Ramo, 106 starts, 49-42-8, .911
  • Jonas Hiller, 67 starts, 35-30-5, .905
  • Joni Ortio, 34 starts, 15-15-5, .901
  • Reto Berra, 27 starts, 9-17-2, .897
  • Joey MacDonald, 9 starts, 5-4-1, .890
  • Niklas Backstrom, 3 starts, 2-2-0, .881

Compare the whole lot to the remainder of the league over that three-year period and they all rank in the bottom third. Captured in full grisly details here, this past season was especially awful.

On top of that, you can add in Kiprusoff's less than scintillating farewell tour in which he turned in an uncharacteristic .882 save percentage in 24 starts during his lockout-shortened final season.

You need to go back to 2011-12 for a reminder of the fine calibre of goaltending the Flames once received and the type of goaltending Brad Treliving has arrived in Buffalo so desperate to find.

Rewinding Four Years

Jogging your memory on how 2011-12 unfolded, Kiprusoff was the club's workhorse making 68 starts. The other 14 were split in half -- seven to Henrik Karlsson, seven to Leland Irving. The wins were split even less equitably -- Kiprusoff had 35 of the team's 37 victories, Karlsson and Irving had just one each.

Kiprusoff's .921 save percentage that year ranked him ninth in the league. Ninth was also where Calgary placed in the Western Conference playoff race, finishing five points back of eighth place Los Angeles.

While that team four years ago squandered a stellar performance in net from the flexible Finn, that team was also much different from the current team.

The team's top scorers in 2011-12 were Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, aged 34, 33, and 32 respectively. All of them on the back nine, the careers for all three have been on the decline since.

Comparably, leading the Flames in scoring last season were Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Aged 22 and 21 respectively, both of them are young stars on the rise.

Looking back on Kiprusoff's tenure in Calgary -- other than 2003-04, of course -- and seeing all those great seasons wasted by the sub-par team in front of him, the last thing Treliving wants to do is repeat history and see the great years for Gaudreau and Monahan wasted by sub-par goaltending behind them.

Who Are They Looking At?

In one word -- everyone. Seems the Flames general manager has arrived in Buffalo with his eyes wide open.

By "number of markets", what is Treliving saying? I would suggest it means he has sketched out a number of different scenarios of how he can improve the position and it runs the gamut from an 80/20 split to a 50/50 time-share.

1. Pick One: Bring in a No. 1 Starter

You sense a desire to get back to the Kiprusoff days and leave behind the win-and-stay-in rotation (that was more often a lose-and-come-out rotation) that we've witnessed the last few years. In such a scenario, the keys are handed over to the undisputed starter for 60-plus games and he lets the coach know when he needs a rest.

Best Options: Ben Bishop, Marc-Andre Fleury, Brian Elliott
Other Options: Mike Smith, Jimmy Howard

2. Pick Two: Go With a 1a/1b Approach

If the asking price is too high for one of those big three, an alternate approach is to bring in two guys from the next tier down and have them slug it out for the No. 1 job. Ideally, one of them emerges as next year's Martin Jones. That said, the risk in bringing in two goalies in this tier is they both play mediocre, which is a scenario Calgary is all too familiar with from the past few years.

The other aspect of this approach is you can only protect one of them in the expansion draft a year from now. If the price to acquire is modest, that's not necessarily a big concern, although it's still a consideration. Also, as I've noted before, the upside of exposing a decent goalie next June is it could dissuade Las Vegas from plucking Jyrki Jokipakka, a blueliner with top four-potential that otherwise is the player most likely to be lost in the expansion draft.

Best Options: Darcy Kuemper, Calvin Pickard, Scott Darling, James Reimer*
Other Options: Michal Neuvirth, Steve Mason, Phillip Grubauer, Mike Condon

* Pending UFA

3. Pick One More: Bring in a New Back-up

If they do secure one of the big fish to carry the load, that's the scenario in which I can see Joni Ortio being brought back to be the back-up. However, there is still no assurance of that. If there is a desire to completely refresh the position, there are other names that could also be of interest.

Best Options: J-F Berube, Chad Johnson, Carter Hutton
Other Options: Jonathan Bernier, Al Montoya*, Joni Ortio, Karri Ramo

* Pending UFA

What was made pretty clear by Assistant Manager Craig Conroy on Thursday is trade is the team's preferred route to go versus free agency where you never know what the price could end up being, especially if you end up painted into a corner with limited options.

Final Word

In 35 seasons in Calgary, over one-third of Flames games have been started by one of two guys -- Kiprusoff or Mike Vernon. At 576 and 526 career games respectively, the only other goalie in team history to start more than 200 games was Reggie Lemelin (303).

It's against that backdrop that you really get an appreciation of the magnitude of what could happen this weekend. If Treliving can return home from the draft with a legitimate No. 1 goalie in tow, it will be a huge deal and potentially a franchise-defining one.

Sure the coach hiring was a big deal a week ago but coaches come and go, goaltender is the position that can make or break a team.

With the big three on defence locked in for the next several years, with the budding superstars up front getting better as every year passes, the Flames are in a situation where strengthening the crease could instantly turn this club into a playoff contender next season and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender not long after that.

So while the hype around the Flames goalie search may seem off the charts at this point, it's warranted. Yes, it is that important of a decision. Man, this is going to be an interesting 24 hours.

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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