Flames Face Looming Decisions In Net

In hockey, teams often live and die by their goaltending. Good goaltending can cover up for a lot of a team’s shortcomings, but very few things can cover up for bad goaltending. Because of the challenges in projecting young goaltenders to higher levels, quite often clubs accumulate a lot of netminders and then hope one or two turn out. For the Calgary Flames, the good news is that their accumulation of goalies has left them with a few nice options. The bad news is that some tough decisions are looming on the horizon as the number of goaltenders will soon eclipse the number of available nets.

Tyler Parsons, OHL, London Knights
Tyler Parsons (Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

A Crowded Flames Crease

Five goaltending prospects opened main camp with the Flames, all aged 20 or older. All five came from a different amateur background, with three of them being recent Flames draft choices.

  • David Rittich, 25, an undrafted Czech Republic product signed by the Flames as a free agent in 2016.
  • Jon Gillies, 23, a 2012 third round selection by the Flames. He played in the NCAA with Providence College.
  • Mason McDonald, 21, a 2014 second round selection by the Flames. He played in the QMJHL primarily with the Charlottetown Islanders.
  • Tyler Parsons, 20, a 2016 second round selection by the Flames. He played in the OHL with the London Knights.
  • Nick Schneider, 20, a free agent signing of the Flames during 2015 training camp. He’s a Western Hockey League product, currently with the Calgary Hitmen.

The Flames had Rittich, Gillies and McDonald in their minor league system last year, with Rittich and Gillies working in tandem to get the Stockton Heat into the playoffs while McDonald battled for ice-time with the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder. With all five players eligible to play pro hockey in 2017-18, the Flames faced an immediate balancing act to allow them to maximize the development of all their netminders.

Progression (Or Lack Thereof)

The two oldest prospects in the system are arguably the two that have shown the most short-term progression. Rittich came in as a relatively unknown goalie from the Czech leagues, but he ended up pushing Gillies for ice time and at times even took over the net in Stockton. He played a single period in the NHL in relief and only allowed one goal – and it was a deflection off a defenseman during a penalty kill. Gillies also had a good season, bouncing back from missing the majority of 2016-17 due to a recurring hip injury that required surgery. He won his first NHL appearance late in the regular season against Los Angeles, beginning to show the prowess that won an NCAA championship in 2015.

McDonald has had a few ups and downs since being drafted. He posted a pair of decent but unspectacular seasons in junior, failing to show a ton of progression. He was part of a Team Canada tandem at the 2016 World Juniors that failed to medal, and his first pro season in 2016-17 saw him spend the majority of time in the ECHL. Schneider hasn’t really progressed since the Flames signed him, posting solid numbers in the WHL but failing to dominate – to the point where Medicine Hat traded him and went with a different over-age goaltender (Michael Bullion) for the coming season. The time on Schneider’s NHL contract will begin to tick this season and his deal counts as one of the Flames’ 50, despite him spending his year in the WHL.

Arguably the shiniest prospect in the entire Flames crop, goaltending or otherwise, is Parsons. His draft year included an OHL crown and a Memorial Cup title, and he posted strong numbers the following season and led the United States to a gold medal at the World Juniors. He’s turning pro, in part because he’s 20 and the clock on his pro contract will begin to run but also because the Flames want to make sure he’s challenged so his development keeps progressing.

The Balancing Act

This season, the probable plan sees the Flames placing Gillies and Rittich with the Stockton of the AHL and Parsons and McDonald with the ECHL’s Kansas City Mavericks – most likely Parsons plays the majority of the Mavericks’ games with McDonald taking the scraps.

However, both Gillies and Rittich are waiver-eligible beginning in 2018-19 and both will be restricted free agents following this season. The Flames will probably need to pick one to take over for Eddie Lack as Mike Smith’s backup in the NHL. Why would they need to pick one? Because if Parsons performs well in the ECHL as a starter, it would be illogical to use the team’s “goaltender of the future” as a backup in the AHL; the progression is probably something along the lines of starting in the ECHL, starting in the AHL, and then pushing for NHL time when Smith’s contract is up.

The plan for Parsons seems straightforward. But what do the Flames do with McDonald and Schneider, who will both be pros? And can the Flames manage to turn Gillies or Rittich, whichever they decide to part ways with, into an asset? The hope is the future becomes clearer over the next several months as the regular season kicks into gear.