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Flames back to square one in goal after disappointing finish to season

The Flames went out and landed Brian Elliott to turn things around in goal, but after he was pulled in Game 4, it seems as though Calgary is set to go back to the drawing board in goal.

The Anaheim Ducks extinguished the Sea of Red Wednesday night, completing the series sweep of the Calgary Flames and becoming the first team to advance to the second round of the post-season. And while for some the result was to be expected, it’s the way in which the Flames exited the first round that’s going to bring with it some questions.

No one, aside from a contingent of Flames’ hopefuls, really expected Calgary to go deep in the post-season. The Flames did a lot of good this season. New coach Glen Gulutzan turned Calgary into a team that actually wasn’t all that bad in terms of possession, overall the Flames increased their point total by 17, and when the season was coming to a close, Calgary found itself pushing for a divisional playoff spot, but ultimately came up short and landed in the top wild-card spot. Still, it was the franchise’s second post-season berth in the past eight seasons.

Roster-wise the team even had its successes. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan led the offense, Matthew Tkachuk had an excellent rookie campaign and Mikael Backlund showed signs of becoming an impact two-way center, which is something Calgary could desperately use. On the back end, a strong defense was built around Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton, the latter turning in the best offensive campaign of his career and fitting nicely into the Flames’ top three.

Yet the disappointment of a four-game exit from the post-season stings and has brought the Flames back to the drawing board with the same goal as the off-season prior: find someone, anyone, who can make a difference in goal.

It was roughly 10 months ago that the Flames pulled the trigger on a deal that would seemingly right the team’s goaltending woes in acquiring Brian Elliott. There was reason to be hopeful about the acquisition. Elliott had been a stellar goaltender during his time in St. Louis and with the Blues looking to go with Jake Allen as their starter, Elliott was expendable. Thus, he was moved to the Flames for a 2016 second-round pick and a conditional third-rounder that would go the Blues’ way if Calgary inked Elliott to keep him around beyond the 2016-17 campaign.

Well, it might be safe to say that St. Louis is going to have to be happy with just the second-round selection.

Elliott had an uncharacteristically tough season given how he had performed across his past three campaigns. From 2013-14 to 2015-16, Elliott played in 199 games, won 67, posted 13 shutouts and had a solid .923 save percentage. This year? Elliott won 26 games, which isn’t half bad, but his save percentage dipped to .910 after a .930 campaign the year prior and it took Elliott much longer than anyone expected to actually find his game in Calgary. It wasn’t until Feb. 28 that Elliott had a .900-plus SP.

In the post-season, Elliott was fine — not great, not outright terrible — in the four-game sweep. Some will point fingers his way, but the goals that sunk the Flames in Games 2 and 3 were awful bounces against a goaltender who seemingly couldn’t catch a break all year. In Game 2, a puck careened in off the skate of Lance Bouma, while Game 3’s overtime winner was a magic puck that Elliott stopped only to watch it ricochet off the backside of a defender and in. But regardless of how he was beaten, it was clear Wednesday night Gulutzan’s confidence in Elliott was gone. After one goal on three shots, he was given the hook and Chad Johnson skated out in his place.

So, yeah, it’s hard to count on Elliott returning, which means the Flames are, as far as goaltending is concerned, back to square one. 

While both Elliott and Johnson are free to walk, it would make sense for Calgary to hold on to the latter. Johnson was good, even great, for brief stretches of the season as a backup. Beyond Johnson, however, the Flames will need to find more help. As much has been said about the potential of John Gillies, and he was the 49th ranked prospect in Future Watch 2017, he’s not projected to be set for his full-time NHL debut for at least another season or two. That means Calgary will have to look elsewhere for a No. 1. Luckily, they won’t be without options.

It’s been talked about ad nauseum, but Ben Bishop seems to be a near perfect fit. First, he’s going to command quite the salary, and the Flames are set to enter the off-season with $21.8 million. That’s a sizeable chunk of change. Second, he’s been a Vezina Trophy calibre starter elsewhere, despite the fact he slowed this past season. Beyond that, outside of money, Bishop isn’t going to cost the Flames anything. To acquire him, no assets will need to change hands barring a deal with the Los Angeles Kings for Bishop’s rights. Even then, it would only cost a low-level pick which could very well be conditional on Bishop signing.

Landing Marc-Andre Fleury, another top candidate to change homes this off-season, is going to be a bit more pricey. The good news for the Flames if they see Fleury as their next No. 1 might be that acquiring him could come a touch cheaper with the Penguins’ possible need to sort out their goaltending situation before the expansion draft. The only question then is if Fleury, who holds a no-trade clause, would be willing to go Calgary.

Jaroslav Halak could be a dark horse trade option, as well. Demoted to the AHL earlier in the campaign, Halak came back to the NHL around the end of March and played quite well, posting six wins, one shutout and a .949 SP. His $4.5 million is pretty hefty, but if he can post league average numbers, that could be good enough for him to be starter-quality for the Flames. Bishop and Fleury will almost assuredly be the two big targets, however, with both boasting starting and playoff experience. 

There are other possibilities, of course. Other free agents will include Scott Darling, Mike Condon and Jonathan Bernier. It’s worth questioning whether any would provide an upgrade over the current tandem of Elliott and Johnson, though. One interesting free agent is Steve Mason, though it’s hard to see him leaving Philadelphia and he may only remain unsigned so as to ward off his selection by the Vegas Golden Knights. That could open the door for Michael Neuvirth to be acquired via trade.

But no matter who is chosen, chased and acquired as the next Flames netminder, it’s clear once again that Calgary has to be in the market for someone who can steal them a game. Let the search begin.

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