It’s hard to say where the Calgary Flames would be right now with better goaltending, but one thing is for certain: this season has been an ugly one for Flames netminders.
Calgary has had troubles almost from the outset of the season. Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo duelled back and forth to begin the year with neither goaltender able to gain the confidence of the coaching staff, Ramo ended up in the AHL before an injury to Hiller resulted in Ramo heading back up and Joni Ortio, thought to be a solid backup option, stumbled and ended up in the AHL as well without a single team putting a waiver claim in on the young netminder. Statistically, too, things were not promising.
With 14 games remaining in the season, the Flames are a near lock to finish with the worst 5-on-5 save percentage of any team in the league. Currently, Calgary’s netminders have combined for a .913 SP at 5-on-5, which would be the worst team SP at five a side of any team in the league. And while it’s not as if the Flames have no company at the bottom — Carolina, Edmonton, Dallas and Montreal are all within .005 of Calgary — it’s clear that any playoff hope GM Brad Treliving had for his squad this season died between the pipes. He doesn’t want that to be the case again.
In speaking with the Calgary Sun’s Eric Francis, Treliving said that one of his top off-season priorities will be finding a netminder who can start the bulk of the Flames’ games next season. And there’s no doubt the hope is whoever Calgary brings in will be able to offer more than just one year of solid starting duty. "We will leave no stone unturned and see where we go,” Treliving told Francis. “It's obviously a critical position and we'll cast a wide net.”
The Flames have the room to do that, too, given that both Hiller and Ramo will be unrestricted free agents at season’s end, with Ortio potentially hitting the market as an RFA. All told, with Calgary’s trio of goaltenders coming off the books, the Flames will see $8.9 million in cap space open up in goal at season’s end. While Calgary likely doesn’t want to part ways with assets, there may be three veteran goaltenders who could be targets to come in and make an immediate impact for the Flames.
One option would be Jimmy Howard, 31, who has been relegated to backup duty in Detroit this season behind up-and-comer Petr Mrazek. The Flames need a goaltender who can help them during a transitional period until they know what they have in young netminder Jon Gillies, who looks to be the Flames’ future between the pipes, and Howard could be that guy. That said, he won’t be the standout option, especially with a $5.922 million cap hit.
Over the past three seasons, Howard is one of 35 goaltenders to have played at least 4,000 minutes at 5-on-5. His .924 SP over that span ranks 22nd among those 35 goaltenders, and while that’s not spectacular, it’s well ahead of the 27th ranked Hiller’s .921 mark and 33rd ranked Ramo’s .918 SP. Bringing in Howard would require him to waive a no-trade clause and likely wouldn’t even cost the Flames much given the Red Wings appear ready to move on from the netminder. Howard would be an improvement, though it’s worth wondering if better value couldn’t be found with someone like UFA-to-be James Reimer or Frederik Andersen, though prying the latter away would require the Ducks to trade the RFA within the division.
There’s also Ben Bishop, the Tampa Bay netminder who has been excellent for the Lightning over the past three seasons. His .929 SP at 5-on-5 ranks 10th among the 35 goaltenders to play at least 4,000 minutes, which would be a vast improvement over what the Flames have had over the past few years. The trouble in landing Bishop will be the price and Tampa Bay’s willingness to move on from the 29-year-old. He has one year remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $5.95 million, but it could be tough to keep him around should Steven Stamkos remain with the Lightning as a UFA.
Given the emergence of Andrei Vasilevskiy, it’s not beyond reason the Bolts could choose to move on from Bishop, and when it comes to costly acquisitions, Bishop’s value would far exceed Howard’s. There is one more option, though, that may be the most intriguing of all.
In St. Louis, 30-year-old Brian Elliott has served primarily as a backup to 25-year-old Jake Allen. And while Elliott has been there to take the reins when Allen has stumbled, it’s clear the future of the Blues goal belongs to the younger netminder. Changes are almost assuredly coming if St. Louis doesn’t make it deep in the post-season, and Elliott would be a great target if the Blues are willing to part ways with him.
Elliott’s cap hit of $2.5 million is nothing compared to that of Howard and Bishop, and over the past three seasons only five goaltenders who have played more than 4,000 5-on-5 minutes have posted a better SP than Elliott’s .931 mark in nearly 4,700 minutes of play. He has the experience as a starter, he’s shown he can handle an NHL workload and his numbers are promising. Plus, at 30, Elliott probably still has at least three to four seasons of good hockey remaining, he won’t break the bank and he would provide the Flames a transitional goaltender as Gillies gets seasoned in the AHL.
Regardless of who the Flames acquire to man the net, though, it’s clear they need an upgrade. As Francis points out, there are a number of options available to Calgary through free agency if they choose to go that route. Among the top unrestricted free agent options are Reimer, Al Montoya and Cam Ward, with several RFAs, including the aforementioned Andersen, Colorado’s Calvin Pickard and Winnipeg’s Michael Hutchinson, also potentially up for grabs.
Calgary didn’t want to take a step back this season, but their goaltending made that inevitable. If they make the right choice in the off-season, though, the Flames could be right back in position to fight for a post-season spot in 2016-17.
(All advanced stats via Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com)