As the Calgary Flames head into their final two outings of the pre-season, both against the Winnipeg Jets, there’s still one big question hanging over the head of coach Bob Hartley: who gets the call between the pipes on opening night?
It’s not that the opening night starter determines once and for all who the Flames’ starting netminder is but it certainly would mean the scales have tipped in favor of one goaltender over the other. The obvious answer, of course, would be that 33-year-old Jonas Hiller, Calgary’s highest-paid puckstopper, is No. 1 on the depth chart. However, after a post-season that saw Hiller lose his starting gig to 29-year-old Karri Ramo, there remains a battle for the crease.
It was the post-season that really sparked the questions, too. After starting the first five games of the opening-round series against the Vancouver Canucks, Hiller was yanked in the series-deciding sixth game after surrendering two goals on three shots. Ramo stepped into goal, stopped 17 of 19 shots and the Flames roared back for a 7-4 victory. Hiller got back in goal to start the second-round against the Anaheim Ducks, his former team, but after allowing three goals on 14 shots, he was pulled and Ramo started the remaining four games of a five-game defeat at the hands of Anaheim.
The questions were almost resolved with Ramo set to become an unrestricted free agent, but he signed a one-year, $3.8-million deal to remain in Calgary. But the pre-season battle hasn’t yielded a runaway candidate in goal.
Making matters more difficult is that every time one goaltender seems to pull ahead of the other, the competition gets even closer. Take, for instance, Tuesday’s game between the Flames and Colorado Avalanche. After Hiller started the contest and stopped all 15 shots he faced, Ramo came into action and turned aside 14 pucks to split the shutout with his counterpart.
“That was kind of expected,” Hartley told Aaron Vickers following the Tuesday tilt. “We’ve said it from Day 1 at camp, we’re going to have a battle in net.”
And it really has been that close since camp opened. Hiller, who likely has the edge, has appeared in three games and skated 119 minutes. He has posted a goals-against average of 1.01 and has turned aside all but two of the 57 shots he has faced, good for a .965 save percentage. Ramo has played more minutes, 132, and surrendered more goals, 4, than Hiller, but Ramo has also seen more rubber: in three appearances, he has a .949 SP, stopping 74 of the 78 shots in the pre-season.
Expanding the scope of the two netminders, though, gives a much different picture of the goaltending competition. Since the 2013-14 season, which was Hiller’s last in Anaheim and Ramo’s first back in the NHL after four years in the KHL, Hiller has been the much better goaltender.
In more than 4,500 minutes at 5-on-5 since 2013-14, Hiller has posted a .925 SP, while Ramo, in nearly 3,150 minutes of work, has posted a .917 mark. Of the 33 goaltenders who have played at least 3,000 minutes at 5-on-5 since 2013, they rank 17th and 31st, respectively. But the importance of the Flames finding their true No. 1 is more important considering both Hiller and Ramo could be heading to free agency this summer.
There’s another option making things more difficult in Calgary, too: Joni Ortio. The 24-year-old netminder has spent the past two seasons in the AHL, posting a 49-26-0 record and .916 SP and has performed admirably in 90 minutes of pre-season work. In the two games he has appeared, Ortio has allowed only one goal on 48 shots and has a .979 SP. He posted a 35-save shutout against Colorado, too. No matter how well Ortio plays, however, he’s not going to push out Hiller or Ramo — at least, not yet.
However, Ortio’s play could make Hiller or Ramo expendable at the trade deadline, should one fall into a clear No. 2 role by that time. That’s not to mention the Flames also have 6-foot-5 NCAA standout Jon Gillies in the pipeline, who could challenge for a top job in the future.
Overall, Hiller is the safe bet. But should he slip, or Ramo make a strong case for the job, Ortio is a solid option as a backup netminder should the Flames decide to ship either Hiller or Ramo out before the post-season begins. Whatever does happen, though, it’s not a bad set of circumstances for the Flames. Better to have three competent netminders than none at all. And no matter who starts Game 1 for Calgary, there’s sure to be a battle for the top spot.