Few would have realistically expected the Calgary Flames, who bucked their underlying numbers to a post-season berth in 2014-15, to compete for a Stanley Cup this season. Another playoff appearance, though, wasn't entirely out of the question. However, through 26 games, the Flames are deeper in the race for the top selection than they are the hunt for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Flames GM Brad Treliving had quite a successful off-season, too, which makes the current state of his club more concerning. His signing of Michael Frolik brought the Flames a skillful two-way winger who would help drive puck possession, even if you could argue the $4.3 million annual salary might be a slight overpayment. And few could have seen the acquisition of young defenseman Dougie Hamilton coming. Treliving prying Hamilton out of Boston to help bolster the blueline in Calgary was one of the off-season’s most surprising and heralded moves.
And it’s not as if both big name off-season moves haven’t made an impact. They have. The Flames’ shot attempts for percentage through two months has improved more than four percent from last season’s 44.5 percent figure, which was third worst in the league in 2014-15. Those are positives. So, why are the Flames struggling so mightily? Well, it doesn’t help when the team can’t get a save.
Calgary currently sits dead last in the league with an abysmal .895 save percentage at even strength. If that were to continue for the full season, it would be the worst SP posted by a club since 2012-13, when the Flames, then backstopped by an aging Miikka Kiprusoff and Joey MacDonald, posted an ugly .893 mark during the lockout-shortened season. It’s not hard to come to the conclusion that this season’s goaltending tandem of Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller, with a few starts by Joni Ortio sprinkled in, has been anything but satisfactory.
This season, 33 netminders have played at least 550 minutes at 5-on-5. Ramo’s .907 SP at 5-on-5 ranks 31st, ahead of only the struggling Cam Talbot and Semyon Varlamov. It was evident from the early going that Ramo, who signed a one-year, $3.8-million deal in the off-season, was having a tough go in goal this season. And even though Ramo has turned in a few spectacular saves this season, his early season troubles were enough for the Flames to demote the 29-year-old to the AHL. The only reason he made his way back to the big club was thanks to an injury to Hiller.
And in an odd way, the injury to Hiller may have been a blessing in disguise because his play in goal has been even poorer than Ramo’s. Hiller, who has only played eight games, is one of 43 netminders to play 350 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, and his SP is an ugly .866, the worst of those goaltenders. Hiller’s mark is so bad, in fact, that no one is within .025 of him. The next-worst goaltender is Talbot, whose .891 mark looks sparkling in comparison to Hiller’s play.
Hiller, 33, is earning $4.5 million this season, but he, like Ramo, is heading for unrestricted free agency next season. With the way he has played thus far, it’s a near certainty the Flames won’t decide to re-sign the veteran netminder, but the same can be said for Ramo. That leaves Calgary with an interesting predicament.
In the looks Ortio got between the pipes for Calgary, he didn’t appear to be the goaltender of the future. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Like Ramo and Hiller, Ortio left much to be desired, posting .887 SP in his 5-on-5 work. When Hiller returned from injury, it was this time Ortio, not Ramo, who took the demotion and was sent to the AHL’s Stockton Heat.
It’s not as if the Flames have many bluechip prospects in goal, either. Behind Ortio, Calgary has the recently acquired Kevin Poulin, Mason McDonald and Nick Schneider. Poulin was brought in as a stopgap, and what kind of big-league ability McDonald and Schneider have is yet to be seen. That said, McDonald getting the call as one of two netminders for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship is a nice feather in his cap.
What really hurts the Flames this season, too, is the terrible injury to rookie netminder Jon Gillies. Gillies, 21, will miss the remainder of his rookie AHL season with a hip injury and, per the Flames, is set to miss between four-to-six months. The injury requires surgery and it’s been something that has nagged Gillies for the past two seasons, he told NHL.com’s Aaron Vickers. While it’s good that Gillies is taking the time to heal up, it may stall his progress and before being forced out with injury, he was progressing quite well.
In seven AHL starts, Gillies had a 2-3-1 record, 2.31 goals-against average and .920 SP. Beyond that, he had the exact type of frame one looks for in a modern-era NHL goaltender: he stands 6-foot-5 and weighs more than 200 pounds. He was a NCAA Frozen Four MVP one season ago and is a former NCAA Hockey East rookie of the year. Gillies has goaltender of the future written all over him, but the problem, still, is finding someone to take over next season.
In all likelihood, Hiller and Ramo are gone. Ortio, while still young, has to prove he can handle the workload and be an everyday NHLer, something he failed to do in limited starts so far this season. Gillies is just 21 and the Flames will give him time to refine his game in the AHL. And McDonald is a project and further away than Gillies.
There won’t be many options for the Flames in free agency next season, either. Of the big names available in next season’s free agent market, none are goaltenders and there aren’t any present-day starters looking for new deals in 2015-16. Two of those available, and maybe the best, would be Toronto’s James Reimer and Anaheim’s Anton Khudobin, and that’s if Reimer even hits the free agent market, an uncertainty considering how well he is playing.
No matter who the Flames run with next season, though, they need to find someone who can at least offer them steady if not spectacular goaltending. Because for as much as Calgary may have been set to regress this season, no one could have expected just how bad their goaltending would be and the extent to which it would make the Flames suffer. So if there’s not a goaltender capable of getting the job done within the organization, Treliving might have to pull off some more off-season magic and find one in the trade market. If he doesn’t, subpar goaltending appears as if it will haunt the Flames for the foreseeable future.