Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Swap Meet: Will Flames Leverage a Potential Goalie of the Future to get a Goalie for Today

So far this off-season, all eyes across Flames nation have been affixed on the entrance.

For two months, nervous anticipation has been building as fans anxiously await the identity of the two goalies that are going to walk through that door and form Calgary's goalie tandem for 2017-18.

With last year's duo of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson both pending unrestricted free agents, whether one, both or neither are back is anyone's guess.

But what about the exit?

Might a goaltender be leaving the organization at the same time?

With 19-year-old hotshot prospect Tyler Parsons expected to turn pro this fall, there are not enough nets for the Flames stable of goaltending prospects that are not yet NHL-ready and need a place to play in the minors.

Naturally, that makes one wonder if there isn't a goalie-for-goalie exchange that might unfold that will remedy both of these situations.

If that's the case, the one guy you wonder about is Jon Gillies.

Falling on the Depth Chart

Expecting to get the lion's share of the starting assignments in the American Hockey League last season, that's not really how it panned out for Gillies and from what I've heard, that was much to his disappointment.

David Rittich
At 38 regular season starts, Gillies still got the most taps on the shoulder, but Czech free agent signing David Rittich made 29 starts for Stockton and as the season wore on, he was very much the 1b to Gillies' 1a.

In fact, the workload was almost 50/50 from Christmas Day on with Gillies making 22 starts compared to 21 for Rittich.

In his first year in North America, Rittich also put up the better numbers over the course of the regular season:
  • David Rittich: 15-11-4, 5 shutouts, 2.27 GAA, .924 SV%
  • Jon Gillies: 18-14-4, 1 shutout, 2.93 GAA, .910 SV%

Usage in the playoffs was a similar story.

Gillies started the first two games as Stockton returned home from San Jose with a 1-1 split in the best-of-five series. But he was pulled by coach Ryan Huska halfway through game 2 and it was Rittich's crease the rest of the way, up until he was forced to exit game 5 after one period due to illness. Playing with the flu, he still stopped all 15 shots he faced.

Gillies came on in relief and despite stopping 37 of 39 shots over the final two-plus periods, the Heat lost 2-1 in overtime and were eliminated.

Choosing Rittich over Gillies in games 3, 4 and 5 -- the club's three most important games of the season -- speaks volumes about how much Rittich's stock has risen. At the same time, it's hard not to view that as an indicator that Gillies is losing his grip on the label of next-in-line.

Gillies Still Has Cachet

While the undrafted Rittich, 24, may have got those key starts at the end of the season, it's still going to be Gillies, 23, who has the better brand recognition on the market. For a long time, Gillies has been viewed as one of the organization's top prospects.

While he had tumbled to No. 6 in my last Top 20 Flames prospect rankings unveiled last February, he was No. 2 (behind Matthew Tkachuk) a year ago and the time before that in the biannual rankings, Gillies was No. 1.

Jon Gillies
The Flames third round pick from 2012 also has the notoriety of having won a national championship with Providence College in 2015. Additionally, twice he represented the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championships.

With Parsons, a second round pick in 2016, ready to graduate to a higher level of competition after three stirling seasons with London (OHL), Calgary needs to create a spot for him and trading away a goaltender would accomplish that.

Might Gillies turn out to be a solid NHL goalie? Absolutely it could happen and it's that you-never-know allure, combined with his pedigree, that elevates his trade value.

However, for an organization that has drafted and developed only two starting NHL goalies since 1980 and none in the last 25 years -- Mike Vernon (1981, 3rd round) and Trevor Kidd (1990, 1st round) make up the entire list -- it would be foolish and irresponsible to operate under the assumption that Gillies will eventually ascend to being Calgary's starter.

Now would the Flames much rather move Mason McDonald instead? Presumably. But remember the adage that you have to give up something to get something. McDonald, who has seen his stock fall since being a second round pick in 2014, is simply not fetching you the same return as Gillies.

If general manager Brad Treliving has an opportunity to use Gillies as a trade chip to bring in a goaltender with an NHL resume and a bright future, it has to be considered.

Dealing From Depth

Despite the carousel of goalies that have been tried at the NHL level since Miikka Kiprusoff retired and the rocky last four years it's been between the pipes, one could argue that relatively speaking in regards to quantity/quality of prospects, goaltending is the position of greatest depth for the organization.

With the likes of Rasmus Andersson, Brandon Hickey, Oliver Kylington and Adam Fox all in the pipeline, defence is also in the conversation but proportionally as you play six defencemen every night but only one goalie, I'd give the edge to the goalies. With Parsons, Gillies and Rittich in particular, Treliving has done a nice job building up a stable of prospects.

Parsons has done nothing been impress since he was selected as the second goaltender off the board last June. Having already supplanted Gillies in the eyes of many as Calgary's goaltender of the future, he is coming off another terrific season in major junior in which he led the OHL with a .925 save percentage and also backstopped Team U.S.A. to a gold medal at the WJC.

Tyler Parsons
Then there's Gillies, who is entering his third pro season, although his first year came to an abrupt end just one month into it when he had season-ending hip surgery.

Arriving on the scene last year after being signed out of the Czech league as a free agent. Rittich was advertised when he came over as very raw but with great potential and we've seen plenty of that upside. The next step for him is more playing time to build on his rookie season.

Meanwhile, there's also McDonald, who spent last year in the ECHL, AHL veteran Tom McCollum, who was signed mostly to meet expansion draft exposure requirements but is someone who still has another year remaining on his deal, and Nick Schneider, who was recently traded from the Medicine Hat Tigers to the Calgary Hitmen.

While Schneider will play another season in the WHL, where will the playing time come from for the other five? Calgary only has two minor league affiliates -- Stockton in the AHL and its new ECHL team is the Kansas City Mavericks. Five goalies for four nets doesn't work.

One solution would be to loan McCollum to another organization like they did near the end of this season. However, that still leaves too many guys that should be getting No. 1 minutes to expedite their development. You sense that something bigger needs to happen.

Using Gillies to Fetch What?

With the news earlier this week that Marc-Andre Fleury has waived his no-movement clause in order to be exposed in the expansion draft and be eligible to be selected by Vegas, it's looking more and more like Fleury can be removed from the list of potential Flames goaltending candidates.

A deal could still happen, via Vegas, but you get the sense that to the relief of some fans and the chagrin of others, Fleury will be the new smiling face of the Golden Knights franchise. So let's move on from him.

Among the other names that have been floating around this off-season has been Antti Raanta.

In a story that appeared in the New York Post last weekend, Rangers beat writer and longtime John Tortorella adversary, Larry Brooks, speculated that the Flames were one of the teams that have inquired about Raanta, who has backed up Henrik Lundqvist the last two seasons.

Now this isn't exactly earth-shattering news. When you are in need of two goalies like the Flames, you're going to be looking into all possible options so the 28-year-old Raanta is certainly a guy that Treliving is going to inquire about.

As Lundqvist's caddy, Raanta has posted solid numbers in The Big Apple. In 55 games (of which 44 were starts), the Finn went 27-14-4 with a 2.25 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.

Among the 52 goalies with at least 40 starts over that period, that ranks him 7th in GAA and 9th in SV%. Those are very respectable numbers, especially considering he's on a very economical contract. Raanta has one year remaining on a 2-year/$2-million deal.

Why Raanta Might be Available

There's two scenarios in which the Flames could acquire Raanta:

1. From the NY Rangers

Why a pre-expansion draft trade works for Calgary is they are in the very rare situation of having a vacant slot on their protected list at goaltender. If you look across the league, finding an open protection spot at any position is like finding an available camping spot in the Kananaskis on a summer long weekend.

All of the Flames aforementioned young goaltenders are exempt from being taken. Meanwhile, last year's duo of Elliott and Johnson are pending UFAs so there's no need to protect them.

If the Rangers are OK with then losing somebody else off their roster in the expansion draft, GM Jeff Gorton could deal Raanta to the Flames beforehand and that way, could get a return for him -- potentially Gillies.

With four years remaining on his deal, Lundqvist isn't going anywhere anytime soon, but they will need a successor eventually and Gillies, who grew up a six-hour drive away in South Portland, Maine, would give them a future option.

2. From Vegas

Last week I wrote about how Vegas, needing to build out their farm system, will likely be a clearing house for bringing in NHL-ready players that are then sent back out again in exchange for younger prospects.

Depending on the asking price by New York, Calgary might be better served to wait and make an arrangement with Vegas in which the Golden Knights select Raanta and then flip him to the Flames.

The Golden Knights have the ability to put together a pretty good goaltending tandem for their first NHL season. While Raanta would be a nice option, it looks like they've already settled on Fleury to be their No. 1 and there are many other solid back-up options to pair with him like Washington's Philipp Grubauer and Colorado's Calvin Pickard. Also, Vegas GM George McPhee may well have already agreed to a side deal to take on either Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi from Dallas, who now boast Ben Bishop as their starter.

So Raanta, despite his upside, could easily be excess goods if Vegas selects him as the best player (or trade chip) available from New York.

With an opportunity to bring in a younger player and potential goalie of the future for when Fleury's deal is over after the 2018-19 season, one can envision a trade scenario in which Vegas moves Raanta to Calgary in exchange for Gillies, who becomes a goaltender the Golden Knights can stash in the minors and keep developing for a year or two down the road.

What You're Getting with Raanta

In his four seasons in the NHL -- Raanta also backed up Corey Crawford for two seasons in Chicago -- he's started 22, 12, 18 and 26 games. That's not the workload of a No. 1. He has also never started a playoff game.

That's not to say he can't start 50-plus games next year. Consider the evolution of Cam Talbot, his predecessor in that Ranger back-up role. Talbot started 53 games over his two seasons as the understudy to Lundqvist. Then he was traded to Edmonton where he ramped up to 53 starts in 2015-16 alone. Last year, giving the Oilers the type of stability in net that you know Treliving would love to bring in, Talbot made an NHL-high 73 starts.

Antti Raanta
The issue with Raanta is because he has never been leaned on as the No. 1 before, you're left wondering if he is capable of putting up similar numbers if he ends up playing 2-3 times as much hockey as he has in the past.

It also raises the question of if Raanta, then with who?

Is there enough confidence that Raanta could sharply increase his workload without issue that Calgary could bring back Johnson as the back-up?

While that scenario would give the team a very economical pairing in net, there is definitely some rolling of the dice with that approach and I'm not sure Treliving would be comfortable going that route. Signing two career back-up goalies to address the most important position on the team -- one that was exposed in the playoffs last season -- might be a move that carries too much risk.

As I noted here a few weeks ago in looking at potential pairings, Elliott would be the more logical goalie partner with Raanta. While Elliott hasn't proven to be No. 1 goalie capable of starting 50-plus games, I slot him ahead of Johnson as somebody certainly capable of playing 40-plus if that's how the playing time ends up being divided.

Re-signing Elliott would cost them a third round pick in next year's draft (a condition that was part of the trade when he was acquired from St. Louis) so that's a consideration, although a small price to pay to have the stability that Elliott provides. While last year's playoff bellyflop was a lasting impression for many, this is also a veteran who won 11 straight games at one point.

Final Word

There are many other goalies that presumably are available. Mike Smith in Arizona is another. Potentially Petr Mrazek in Detroit depending on which way the Red Wings go. They also have Jimmy Howard, who outplayed Mrazek last year but is older. One wonders if the rebuilding Devils would move Cory Schneider if the right deal came along. There are many other names also.

Making a deal involving Gillies will certainly leave many fans nervous and experiencing traumatic flashbacks to Jean-Sebastien Giguere. While not a Flames draft pick, Calgary got the 1995 first rounder from Hartford when he was 20 years old. Traded to Anaheim three years later after winning just seven games with Calgary and spending most of his time with Saint John (AHL), he is a prime example of the goalie that got away. When Giguere retired at age 37, he had 262 NHL wins and a Stanley Cup ring.

But that's not a reason to not make a deal because for every Giguere, there are several guys like Leland Irving, Jason Muzzatti, Brent Krahn, Evan Lindsay and Andrei Medvedev -- all of them high draft picks who never panned out.

If in exchange for Gillies, you can bring back an equally good asset in the form of a goaltender with NHL experience, who could be in Calgary for at least the next few seasons, it's an opportunity you have to jump at. Meanwhile, you hope Parsons and Rittich continue their upwards trajectory in the minors.

Otherwise, heading out that exit instead will be the Flames playoff hopes.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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      1. With all the focus on Raanta, cant help but think Grubauer could be a better choice being younger and having better stats overall. He is an RFA, but wouldnt be due for much of a raise. 66 games,.923, 2.25 GAA. Also looked like a world beater versus Canada in the World Hockey Championships.

        1. Younger but not by a lot. Raanta just turned 28 and Grubauer will be 26 in November. While Raanta has been on a good team so you have that element of doubt around how much did the team in front of him help him, that's an even a bigger question mark with Grubauer being on the President's Trophy-winning Capitals.

          With Grubauer, you also have even less experience. In his three NHL seasons, he has yet to start 20 games. Nineteen last year was the most -- just 16 in 2015-16 and 14 in 2013-14. How much and how quickly could you realistically ramp-up his workload.

          I'm not going to tell you with certainty that Grubauer won't end up being a better goalie than Raanta but I think you're taking a bigger leap of faith with the German.

          As for the World Championships, I'm going to temper any learnings from that event. Heck, Reto Berra looked amazing at the WC a few years back!

          Thanks for the note though, one does sense that Grubauer is a guy that sooner than later will get his opportunity. It's just a matter of who gives him that chance.

        2. What are your thoughts on Condon and Pickard as alternatives to Raanta? Also what do you think will happen to Budaj; he has to be a candidate to be a back up to one of the teams that loses a back up to LV.

        3. Pickard is another guy that I'm curious about. Not sure I trust him as the No. 1 -- adding him would be more hoping he can be a No. 1 then expecting it, so I'd pair him with another equal in a 50/50 arrangement.

          As for Condon, three organizations in two seasons? I guess it's good to be wanted but those kinds of transient types always worry me. I get he had a nice run while Anderson was out but again, like Pickard, I don't get the same sense that he is a No. 1 in waiting.

          On the Budaj front, he had a nice run with LA before it came to a rough end. Spent most of the last few years in the minors. He's 34. Maybe he catches on as a back-up goalie in a 31-team league now, there are two extra spots now, after all, but strikes more as a No. 3 guy. An AHLer that you can bring up if one of your two goalies get hurt.

      2. what about Saros in Nashville?

        1. Saros is exempt from the expansion draft so Nashville does not need to fear losing him. Further, with Pekka Rinne 34 years old and two years away from free agency, Saros is very likely his successor.

          I see no reason why Nashville would want to willingly trade Saros, given he's also a very nice guy to have in a back-up role until the starter's job opens up.

      3. we can say "what if Gillies doesn't pan out in the NHL?" so trade him while he has some value as an up and coming star. So you trade Gilles and you put your effort into Parsons....what if he doesn't pan out? Sounds like a revolving door of top goalie draft picks...

        1. But the key aspect you did not touch on is you're trading Gillies for a guy that may turn into a solution for three, four, five years. Meanwhile, yes, you're putting effort into grooming Parsons and if he doesn't pan out, then the next guy. It's why you add typically add a new goalie via trade/free agency every season. It's no different with position players. Baertschi, Lazar, first round pick that three years later had a value of a second round pick. Eventually they have no value. It's like playing the stock market with prospects.

      4. Everyone seems convinced Parsons has surpassed all other goalie prospects. He played great in the OHL this year, but junior is a big step below the AHL. Gilles dominated in NCAA which is also a better league, so I'm not convinced as yet that Gilles' time is past. Let's see how Parsons adjusts to pro.

        1. Totally agree! plus Gilly didn’t really get a rookie season with the injury, and last year you would think he might still be recovering. Trading him seems like a huge mistake. If one of either Rittich, or Gillies can come out of camp with a job, great! if not maybe its time to look; I don’t buy the tier fire attitude though. I'm sure BT has a plan, and its media, and fans panicking for no reason. Fleury may be a slight improvement over Elliot, and maybe not, considering injuries and last years play during the season. I don’t trust any body that is playing for a contract, and the writing was on the wall for Fleury. If you can pick him up for two years for a second next year, all well and good, if not passsss!!!. Any price higher is to much to pay.

        2. There is no way Calgary will wait until September and see if Gillies or Rittich wins a job in camp. The pre-season is too short and against too many sub-par line-ups for those guys to make such an impression. I would wager a large amount of money that Calgary will have two 'proven' goalies in place before training camp begins. Heck, probably within the next 2-3 weeks.

          Treliving has talked since the last couple weeks about this, doesn't feel the kids are ready yet. How are you going to get a goalie that is ready? Either settle for the scraps that are free agents or you're going to need to give up somebody (if not Gillies, maybe Kylington) to bring in a bonafide NHL-ready goalie. Last year, I'd never propose moving Gillies because the team was thin at that position, but now they've got some depth and Gillies is the guy that gets you the best return.

          Now maybe they can use a 2018 draft pick or combination of such to bring in the goalie help they need, but the lack of draft picks this year is another factor in why it might be a prospect that needs to head out as the purchase price.

        3. Agreed Darren BT is not the kind of guy that is going to show up with a wing, and a prayer, to start training camp. Nor do I think he is the sort to continue down a road of futility. We have been here too often asking the same question and I am sure he isn’t happy trading assets year in and year out for guys that don’t pan out. So what guys available seemed most attractive? Flurry, Raanta, and Bishop. No question the Flames were there for conversations about all three. Now it would seem if they were interested in parting with top prospects, Ben would be showing off His new red Jersey by now, and I am equally sure the price for Flurry would be as high. That leaves Calgary dealing with our old friend, and I don’t think he like the Flames any better than we like him. Not going to happen, unless it can happen through Vegas, and again I don’t see the Flames willing to pay the cost.

          I think it far more likely that we see Elliott or Johnson, than Rannta or Flurry, and at that point why not Elliot, yes he *&%^&% the bed out of the gate and again when it really mattered, but the team was a bit lost to start the year. A lot of key changes, distractions over contracts and so on. Maybe those nerves or doubts resurfaced come the first round. Either way they have to get off this marry go round.
          I for one would rather see Elliot get another chance than through good assets out the door on maybes.
          True the third rounder hurts more now after the year he had, but better that then rolling the dice again.
          Most of all these guys are people with feelings, and lives beyond the rink. Even though they are pros that should have learned to turn that stuff off, I think, if you come in with grand expectations you are setting the table for nothing, but disaster, and if you’re a young goalie who has just been through surgery that might take a while to get out of your head.

          Stay the coarse and don’t panic.

      5. Sorry for being anonymous, I just don't feel like signing up for yet another service.
        Now that NYR are shopping Derek Stepan, maybe there's a way to get both Derek and Antti into Flames uniforms. If LVGN do agree to act as middle-man for Antti to be picked and then flipped for Jon (and a pick?) then maybe NYR and Flames are free to trade Micheal and Freddie for Derek. Not sure NYR gets enough out of it but maybe yet another pick would do it.

        1. Ferland and Freddie Hamilton for Stepan? Can't see the NYR going for that. Plus, I'm not sure I understand why Calgary would be interested in bringing in another centre for big money. Have Monahan and Backlund already, Backlund needs to be re-upped at the end of the season, then there's Sam Bennett of course. I just don't see the fit.

        2. Play him on the wing or move Sam to the wing. What would it take do you think to get Stepan from NYR?

      6. Sign Steve Mason to a 2 year deal. Sign Johnson as the back up. Mason is more proven than Raanta or Grubrauer and will not cost a draft pick (Elliot) or draft picks/prospects like some of the other goalies mentioned in the article. Preserve assets and develop what we have. Another good year out of Gillies or Rittlich and they would be ready to challenge for the backup position.

        1. Mason is a wild card in all this, for sure. Coming off a so-so year but did finish strong and his numbers prior last season have been just fine.

          Claimed to have been misused and wanted a more defined role (as the No. 1) and that's a label he would carry in Calgary if, like you said, it's Johnson he's paired with.

          More proven than Raanta? I'd agree. I'd argue Raanta has more upside but factoring in the cost of acquisition, perhaps that's the clincher. Should come affordable too given the lack of teams chasing a No. 1 goalie. Good thoughts and it's certainly an alternate path for Flames management to consider.

      7. Agree with "Unknown"...stop peddling away quality assets (2nd round picks) for perceived goaltending solutions (i.e. Elliott) that have a high percentage to not pan out. Factor in that we have a number of good young goaltending prospects developing, it should further drive the discussion towards finding a 1-3 year stop gap that is not cost prohibitive (i.e. Mason) while allowing our assets to develop. Raanta and these other perceived solutions offer minor (if any) upside over someone like Mason, yet the cost to acquire will not be insignificant.

        Mr. Treliving, our window to win is not in 2017, with that in mind do not give up those valuable assets (i.e. draft picks) for another potential failed experiment in goal, instead, as all prudent GM's have been shown to do, continue to stay the course and build through the draft!

        1. If your view of Raanta that he has a risk with minimal upside is shared by the decision-makers then they will not go after him. I do not believe that is the case. In asking around, there seems to be more apprehension around Mason, which is why you haven't heard much about him. His body of work last year was miserable for a long time before he finished strong. He is viewed by some as a 'project'. Never a flattering description.

          If you look at what a mid-second round pick is valued at, 60% chance it doesn't turn into a NHL regular, I think you might be overvaluing that pick. If you can get an asset in return that is already an NHLer. The move with Elliott, for example, I'd made over and over.

          You're preaching patience but this team just saw Nashville, who finished behind them in the standings last season, come within two wins of capturing the Stanley Cup. If your people think Raanta (or insert name here) could be a goalie that you can ride for many years to come, it's worth pursuing rather than settling for the leftover scraps, or waiting for your goaltenders in the minors to be ready. The latter is a game this organization has tried before and without much success.

      8. Thanks again for the great article Darren. Wish MS and EF put as much thought into their articles on this Vegas Draft as you do. Its like comparing raw sewage to a good Ruth Chris Steak.

        Oh to be a fly on Brads wall listening to his wheeling and dealings. That would be a hell of a time.

        I like the idea of getting a short term number 1 goalie be it Raanta or Mason.Lets keep Johnson and bring up Gillies and Rittich up for 10 games to see what they can do this year.

        UNLESS the coaches see another Ramo or Ortio situation brewing with one of our young prospects then by all means move them for what they can.

        All in all this will be the most exciting 3 weeks up to free agency in many a year.

        PS. EDMONTON COILERS SUCK. Long live the Battle of Alberta

        1. Yeah I always thought Francis was bad but after reading Spector's article saying Brouwer protected before Ferland because Brouwer's feelings might get hurt well he totally has lost all credibility and should stick to covering Edmonton. Spector is brutal.

        2. A reality show that followed NHL GMs around these days, eavesdropped on their calls, that would certainly be insightful, fantastic and probably shocking! Maybe some day... c'mon NetFlix, make a pitch! Thanks for the comment.

      9. Spector is a typical Coiler through and through...inbred and delusional.

        Francis is almost as useless down here...

        If Brouwer's feelings become more relevant to the Flames brass than retaining top young talent still under team control (RFA - Ferland) I'll move to that cess pool up north known as Coilerville!

        1. Playing fourth line, bumped from the power play for a while (although for not long enough to satisfy fans), there has been plenty of opportunity for Brouwer to have his feelings hurt already. This is a business, he took advantage of it on July 1 last year, he will also under the flipside that the team has to make smart business decisions and exposing him to keep a Lazar is the obvious smart play. Plus, he's likely not getting picked anyway so that makes it an even more obvious way to approach it if you're the Flames, even if you do hope to retain him and I wouldn't doubt they're of that mindset. Assuming he's back with Calgary next year, he'll have a better season, I'd almost guarantee it.