When the legendary Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013, the Calgary Flames faced the conundrum of where they would find their next “Kipper.” They looked at all options. They increased the scope of their overseas scouting, they made trades, and they dipped into the free-agent pool. And until now, it’s all been for naught. At no other point did Calgary feel like any netminder was worthy of a long-term contractual commitment.
Now, with Jacob Markstrom entering the fold out of free agency on a six-year deal at $6 million per, they believe they’ve found their No. 1 for the present and the future.
But how did the Flames only arrive at this point after seven years of struggling through the netminder wilderness? How is it possible that no one else in the long line of goalies they’ve had has worked out? It was beginning to tarnish the city’s reputation, consigning it to the dreaded fate of goaltender graveyard that has so haunted organizations like the Flyers (that is, until Carter Hart broke out for them this last season). Here’s a look back at some of the names to pass through Calgary since the departure of Kipper, and why they didn’t work out.
The Post-Kiprusoff Rebuild
No one expected 33-year-old career backup Joey MacDonald, who served as understudy during Kipper’s last year, to step in and become the goalie of the future for the Flames, even though he remained on the roster for another season. And with Leland Irving fizzling out in 2013, somewhat higher hopes for the 2013-14 season rested on Karri Ramo and Reto Berra.
Berra lost nearly twice as many games as he started that season (and was traded to Colorado later to recuperate a second-round pick), but Ramo posted a respectable save percentage and a winning record on a rebuilding team.
Despite reasons for optimism with Ramo, general manager Brad Treliving elected to bring in a veteran presence in Jonas Hiller through free agency for the following season. That move was rewarded when every goalie the Flames played during the 2014-15 season boasted a winning record and the team made the playoffs just two seasons into rebuilding, with Hiller holding the reins from the crease. Fans might remember that as the “comeback kids” season, when Calgary was able to come from behind and win late in games to a startling degree on the strength of young stars like Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.
The Flames beat the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, and even though they lost in brutal fashion to Anaheim in the second, it would be difficult to frame the season as anything but a success for a young team. Alas, lightning did not strike a second time the next season.
The 3-Goalie Problem
The 2015-16 season became infamous for the “three-headed-goalie.” When none of Hiller, Ramo, and up-and-comer Joni Ortio decisively cemented the starting role out of training camp, management decided to keep them all on the roster to start the regular season. Not only did this take up an additional roster spot that should have gone to another skater, it bred a septic goaltending situation that saw none of the team’s netminders thrive.
Not only did the Flames have a losing record that saw them miss the playoffs, but they practically ran each of their goalies out of town on a rail, especially the declining Hiller who ended the season with a dreadful .879 save percentage. Treliving tried a Hail Mary desperation move to see if he could stanch the bleeding by picking up aging vet Niklas Backstrom at the trade deadline, but at that point, he was no improvement over Hiller. None of the four goalies received offers from the Flames for the next season, and all of them ultimately signed in European leagues.
Return to the Playoffs
Following his previous season’s self-created goaltending debacle, Treliving went out and acquired a proven commodity. Traded to Calgary out of St. Louis, Brian Elliott’s solid numbers indicated a goalie who would thrive in the right situation, given enough minutes. Fans lauded the trade as a shrewd, intelligent move by the GM, a move where he’d gone out and found arguably the best goalie available in the league without having to pay a premium for a truly elite player. And for the most part, Elliott lived up to the billing. Like any other goalie, his season was filled with ups and downs, but he largely came as-advertised.
With Chad Johnson signed in the offseason to play backup, a solid (if unspectacular) goaltending tandem was created. And it brought Calgary back into the playoffs for 2016-17.
That’s where everything went wrong. Still a young team, and facing the battle-tested Anaheim Ducks, the Flames had a steep challenge ahead of them in the first round. And to their credit as a team, the Flames carried much of the play. Unfortunately, Elliott provided one of the most abysmal playoff goaltending performances in recent memory. It seemed that every time Calgary gained momentum, the Ducks would float or skim or slide or jam or sneak the puck through the netminder for a weak goal.
Anaheim swept the Flames 4-0, with Elliott playing more than three quarters of the minutes and allowing 12 goals against. Johnson, in comparison, played most of one game in relief of Elliott, and allowed a single goal against.
The dishonour of the playoffs still fresh, the Flames did not offer either goaltender a contract. Elliott’s most recent performance annihilated any goodwill earned for a solid season, one that likely should have seen him receive an offer. Instead, he signed a deal with Philadelphia in the offseason.
The Mike Smith Experiment
It’s always a risk when signing an older player. You never know when the inevitable decline will render them ineffective. But Treliving knew Mike Smith from his days in Phoenix and was willing to take a chance trading for him. With a reputation as a bit of a hothead and a wanderer, the risk was even more heightened. There weren’t a lot of other options out there, though, and none of the Flames’ goaltending prospects were quite ready to make the jump to being a full-time starter. David Rittich was up-and-coming, but not quite there.
As for Eddie Lack, who Treliving brought in to back up Smith… well, it’s a sad day when your goalie’s father is more famous in your city than your goalie is. Lack was demoted and later traded and young Rittich ultimately ended up becoming the backup, playing 21 games. Jon Gillies also played games in spot duty while Smith was injured. And while Rittich and Smith both posted marginal winning records, the Flames were sunk by Gillies and Lack’s efforts and their well below average win percentages. Calgary missed the playoffs again that season.
The next season, 2018-19, was different. Smith and Rittich split time in net, with Rittich eventually supplanting Smith for the starter role. This was always the plan; you don’t go out and get a 35-year-old workhorse goalie for many other reasons than mentoring and preparing the way for your younger netminders. But despite moments of brilliance, fatigue or plain inconsistency became Rittich’s demons. The Flames ran away with the Western Conference lead in the regular season, though Smith won the net back by the time playoffs started.
With a heroic effort against a Colorado Avalanche team that besieged and beat the Flames in the first round, Smith played well enough to parlay his performance into a new contract with the Oilers. The Flames elected to continue on with Rittich, who was now looking to come into his own.
Rittich and Talbot in 2019-2020
Another season, another backup in Cam Talbot, but Rittich still faced some of the same problems. Beginning the season with an All-Star caliber first half, Rittich’s performance followed the same trends as the previous season and his play began to dip. Again, consistency issues plagued him to the point where he had lost the net by the time playoffs rolled around (in an admittedly strange year where there was a large break between playoffs and the end of the pandemic-shortened regular season).
Talbot performed admirably in the playoffs versus Dallas outside a short stretch of eerily Elliott-esque goals against in quick succession in Game 6. As well as Talbot played, the Flames lost the series in six games, and Treliving opted to focus on other avenues to address the goaltender position rather than re-sign him. The 33-year-old signed with Minnesota this past offseason.
Flames Current Goalie Tandem Among the Best in the League
And that brings us to the present. Since Kiprusoff’s retirement, the Flames have seen a carousel of goalies struggling to mount a bucking net position acting like every day was the Stampede rodeo. Ramo and Rittich were the only ones to survive the curse for more than two seasons. Everyone else fell by the wayside. In fact, after Kipper in 2013, the Flames have had 13 different goalies play in games for them. Brad Thiessen was also on the roster for a stretch in 2014-15, though he never played.
But now, the revolving door of goaltenders is, hopefully, over. With the signing of Markstrom, the Flames are set in net. More than just a solid performer, as has been said of past experiments, Markstrom is downright excellent. Now, it would be foolish to count their chickens before they hatch, but there is a reason for all the hope.
The Flames targeted Markstrom in free agency because he fit their system to a T, because of his strong career numbers in Vancouver (.918 save percentage last season), and because he was the best goalie available on the market. Treliving was through playing games and taking gambles. He knew who he wanted and he made sure he got him. And with any luck, Markstrom will be the first goalie since Kiprusoff to take the Flames past the second round of the playoffs.
With Rittich still in the fold and with his ability to provide strong play for stretches, this Flames tandem is among the very best in the league. And they’re going to need it. The schedule for the 2020-21 season is compact compared to other seasons on account of concerns over COVID-19. This will result in a higher number of back-to-back games, cross-country travel followed by play in a shorter time span, and more fatigue and wear on the body. Now more than ever, two great goalies are necessary. And the Flames have just that in Rittich and Markstrom.
Matt Sabey is a fiction writer, husband, and father to a pair of small boys. Two of his greatest interests all through his life have been the craft of writing and the Calgary Flames. Having both of these passions converge into covering the Flames for THW is a dream come true.