Early Struggles Cloud Calgary’s Goaltending Future

The Calgary Flames entered this season with a unique problem. After making the playoffs on the backs of strong performances by veteran goalies Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller, and a crucial week of fill-in from young Finnish netminder Joni Ortio, the club brought all three into training camp with one-way contracts and the hope that two players would stand out and the odd-man-out could be traded for an asset.

In camp, all three played well enough to stay and so general manager Brad Treliving kept three netminders with the NHL club as they broke camp on October 7. The hope was that the weeks to follow would provide clarity. Unfortunately, the past several weeks of hockey have only confused things further for the Flames organization when it comes to their goaltending.

To begin the season, the Flames dressed only Ramo and Hiller, and rotated between the two veterans. Both struggled, with the Flames constantly giving up four or five goals per game. Finally, Karri Ramo was placed on waivers and sent to the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat. Finally, it appeared that the club was going to go forward with Hiller and Ortio – the goalie of the team’s short-term future. But Ortio struggled in his two starts and then Hiller was injured in a game against Ottawa, so Ramo was summoned from his AHL exile after playing a single period in the minors.

Since his return on October 29, Ramo has played in seven of eight games for the Flames and posted a 4-3-0 record with a .901 save percentage. The goalie that appeared to be the odd-man-out is suddenly their ace, while the future of both Hiller and Ortio beyond this season remains an open question.

The confusion in terms of Calgary’s netminding has extended to the farm, where Calgary’s new affiliate in Stockton has struggled to win games because of defensive miscues and goaltending issues at key times. The top netminder on the farm is former college standout Jon Gillies, recently graduated to the professional ranks after being named the most valuable player of last spring’s NCAA championship tournament. While Gillies had alternated between superb outings and iffy ones, he was definitely improving, and a recent lower-body injury suddenly threw the Baby Flames into some uncertainty of their own.

Beyond Gillies, the Heat have to-date tried out AHL back-up Kent Simpson and ECHL call-up Eric Hartzell, and recently acquired Kevin Poulin from the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in an attempt to provide some stability. Time will tell if Poulin can help buy the Heat some time before Gillies returns to the net.

The largest issue for the Flames this season has been goaltending stability, and the implications of these struggles may be felt in the near-future as well. Joni Ortio’s only 24 years old, and as a late-round pick of the Flames can be seen as a very low-cost, low-risk goaltending option to bridge the gap between Calgary’s expensive veteran goalies and their emerging young netminders. Of course, both Jon Gillies and 2014 pick Mason McDonald are thought to be at least two years away from seeing any NHL action, so the thought process was likely to transition from the Ramo/Hiller tandem towards a combination of one of them and Ortio as a bridge tandem for the next couple of seasons.

Now? Given Ortio’s struggles and the likelihood that the pending restricted free agent may soon be headed back to the AHL when Hiller is recovered from his injury, it’s questionable whether Ortio has a future with the Flames – or if he would even want to return to the organization past this season given how little he’s been used at the NHL level. This potentially throws their planned bridge into question, as the team likely has to (a) rush Gillies to the NHL as a means of managing the salary cap, (b) go out and get unfamiliar goaltenders to avoid leaning on Hiller and Ramo again, or (c) keep Hiller and Ramo at their inflated salary cap hits – likely around $8.5 million for next season. With Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau requiring new contracts, the club will likely try to explore every possible cap-friendly option, but considering how shoddy their goaltending is, every option available to them presently seems sub-optimal.

In many ways, Calgary’s change of fortunes in goal are emblematic of their entire season; what seemed like a team with a lot of momentum and hope on their side are currently plodding through a season of challenges and uncertainty. Within the context of the organization’s long-term rebuild, followers and fans of the Flames probably hope that the team can fix their goaltending without handcuffing themselves from being able to address other problem areas in their line-up. How Brad Treliving deals with this challenge will go a long way towards indicating how he’ll operate as a general manager in the NHL in the long run.