Last season was the first campaign in a decade where the Calgary Flames had uncertainty in goal. After the retirement of local legend Miikka Kiprusoff over the off-season, the Flames had four potential contenders for the job as the team’s next great netminder and rotated through all of them throughout the 2013-14 season.
Joey MacDonald proved to be an AHLer. 21-year-old Finnish rookie Joni Ortio showed promised but still needed some seasoning. But the season-long battle was between KHL star Karri Ramo – acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in the 2012 Mike Cammalleri trade – and Swiss League import Reto Berra – who came over in the Jay Bouwmeester trade in 2013. The two netminders combined for 64 starts for the Flames in 2013-14, along with the vast majority of the club’s wins. By the trade deadline, the Flames had seemingly settled on the steady Ramo as their number-one and were able to garner a second round draft pick (used to take Hunter Smith) for the streaky Berra.
Instead of just handing the 2014-15 starting job to Ramo – who still had only played 40 NHL games in the previous five years – the club seemed intent on replicating the competitive environment that pushed Ramo to improve his positioning and consistency during the 2013-14 season. So once again, the club brought in a Swiss netminder. Instead of the unproven Berra, Ramo’s new net-mate was Jonas Hiller – a two-time Olympian who played 257 games since Ramo left for the KHL following the 2008-09 season.
Based upon the early returns, Brad Treliving’s decision to bring in Hiller has played early dividends, as through the first five games of the season the two goaltenders have easily been among Calgary’s most consistently good players. On a team that will struggle to score goals – and has struggled at times through the early parts of the season – having consistent goaltending is a huge boon. The Flames skaters obviously already have great confidence in their goalies, something indicated by the tendency of their defensemen – particularly T.J. Brodie and Kris Russell – to join the rush. When you know your goalie will always make the first save, you don’t hesitate to try to spot him a lead if you can by jumping into the fray offensively.
Flames head coach Bob Hartley has alternated starts between his two goaltenders – an approach that makes sense with two sets of back-to-back games and a six-game road trip peppered throughout the first chunk of the season. Just like last season, Hartley’s declined to refer to either one of the two as the team’s number-one – he maintained the club had two strong goalies until Berra was traded last season, and had high praise for Ortio as well.
Thus far, the performances of each netminder have been a “can you top that?”contest between two driven professionals: Hiller is trying to re-establish himself as a top-tier NHL starter after losing his gig in Anaheim, while Ramo is in the final year of his contract and needs a strong season to earn an NHL job – whether it’s in Calgary or elsewhere.
- Hiller started against Vancouver in the Flames’ home-opener. The team lost 4-2 but Hiller made 29 saves and allowed only a pair of goals at even-strength.
- Ramo played the next night against Edmonton. The Flames were out-shot and out-chanced, but Ramo kept them in the game and a third-period push earned them a 5-2 win. Ramo made 38 saves and didn’t allow any goals at even-strength.
- Against St. Louis, Hiller was deluged with shots from a superior Blues team. The Flames lost 4-1, but Hiller made 35 saves and allowed just a pair of goals at even-strength.
- Against Nashville, Ramo back-stopped arguably the Flames’ most complete game to date, and the team won 3-2 in a shootout. Ramo made 19 saves along several good stops in the shootout and he allowed only a pair at even-strength.
- Against Chicago, Hiller answered back with perhaps the best goaltending performance the team had seen since Reto Berra’s NHL debut at the United Center nearly a year ago – a 49-save masterpiece that saw the Flames win 2-1 in overtime. Hiller allowed zero even-strength goals.
It’s early – really early – in the season, but for a rebuilding team desperately hoping to progress their rebuild in the right way, particularly given the struggles seen north of them in Edmonton, the early returns in goal will probably allow the coaching staff to direct their attention to other areas that warrant their attention. If the goalie rotation scheme was meant as a response to the team’s crazy schedule to kick off the year, the coaching staff would be well-advised to extend it for the foreseeable future – it’s inspiring some excellent performances from both men thus far.