The Flames’ goaltending issues were at their pinnacle in 2015-16 with the four-man rotation of Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio and Niklas Backstrom leaving much to be desired, and that not one of the foursome has a job in the NHL this season is indicative of how poor they performed. It was a no-brainer for the Flames to chase a goaltender this past off-season.
The prevailing notion was Calgary would chase one of Ben Bishop, the 30-year-old Lightning starter who was nearing free agency, or Marc-Andre Fleury, the 32-year-old career Penguin who had lost his starting job to Matt Murray en route to the Stanley Cup. It was rumored the asking price was too high for the Flames’ liking. And as for Bishop, he was actually close to landing in Calgary. He told the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith that he and the Flames were negotiating a new contract, but it was then that the Flames pivoted and decided Brian Elliott would be the answer to their goaltending woes.
The deal made sense for the Flames. Elliott, 31, was coming off of one of the best seasons of his career and at 5-on-5 there were few goaltenders as dominant as he was with the St. Louis Blues. He had posted a .930 save percentage at all strengths — the best mark in the league — and his 2.07 goals-against average was the best mark Elliott had produced in a 40-plus game season in his career.
It’s nearing on impossible to recall that was the case, however, with Elliott looking pedestrian in Calgary through 23 games this season. His .891 save percentage is a mark you’d expect from a backup, his goals-against average has ballooned to 2.92 and after earning a few votes for the Vezina Trophy in 2015-16, he has a better shot at competing for the Masterton Trophy in 2017-18 than he does landing any recognition for his play in goal this campaign.
Now Calgary is more than halfway through their season asking themselves the same questions they were last April. And were it not for Chad Johnson, 30, signed to backup Elliott, the Flames could be in a much worse position than boasting a one-point edge on the final wild-card spot. Even with Johnson’s play being somewhat of a season-saver, though, Flames GM Brad Treliving won’t have much of a choice but to go back and look at his options in goal this off-season.
Looking inside the organization, consideration has to be given to Jon Gillies. The 6-foot-6 netminder has had a tough go in AHL Stockton this season after injuries sidelined him for much of 2015-16, but he’s the de facto goaltender of the future and arguably the top prospect the Flames have whose not yet in the NHL. The 23-year-old was a stud in the NCAA, backstopping Providence to a title in 2014-15. Gillies has the size and talent to be a difference-maker down the line, but Treliving would be remiss to think Gillies can solve the Flames’ current problems in goal.
Really, the only way to really fix what’s broken in Calgary right now is for Treliving to focus on the two goaltenders he passed over for Elliott this past summer. And while it’s an issue that could use addressing now, it’s unlikely Treliving could swing a deal to land Bishop or Fleury before the trade deadline.
All three teams — the Flames, Lightning and Penguins — are right up against the cap, dipping into long-term injured reserve in order to have any breathing room at all. Almost any deal made would have to be dollar-in, dollar-out. That complicates matters, which is to say the Flames might only have a prayer of fixing the situation in goal by the time March rolls around.
Things will get interesting in the off-season, however. Come July 1, the Flames are going to have six restricted free agents in need of deals, but more than $22 million in cap space and close to $17 million coming off the books as veterans hit the open market. Among the expiring contracts are Dennis Wideman’s $5.25-million deal, Deryk Engelland’s $2.917-million contract and the $4.2 million the Flames have locked up in Elliott and Johnson.
The upcoming expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights doesn’t make it a lock that Bishop hits the open market, and it doesn’t ensure Fleury will be on the trade block as a Penguin come July 1. That said, there is a way for Treliving to use the expansion draft in his favor, using it to approach Lightning GM Steve Yzerman or Penguins GM Jim Rutherford with a deal.
The benefit for the Flames is clear. Trading for Bishop or Fleury lands Calgary another shot at a starting goaltender, this time with Stanley Cup final experience. But there’s a positive for Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, too. Instead of losing a bonafide starting netminder for nothing, Calgary’s trade partner can recoup an asset. Even a draft pick for either Bishop or Fleury would be more than Yzerman or Rutherford could possibly hope for if Vegas plucks away either netminder.
The time is right for Treliving to do what he struggled to pull off last off-season, and that’s bring either Bishop or Fleury to Calgary. Goaltending has been an issue for two seasons straight, but both the money and assets will be there for the Flames to fix it this off-season.
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