So much of the Calgary Flames’ short- and long-term plans depend upon the health and welfare of two goaltenders who’ve been hobbling around the Scotiabank Saddledome in recent days.
One is rookie Jon Gillies, their nominal goalie of the future, an NCAA champion with Providence College in 2015. Internally, the Flames believe Gillies can eventually evolve into their Cory Schneider, a high-end, homegrown goalie prospect they’re prepared to invest time and effort into developing.
The problem is, this has been mostly a lost season for Gillies, who required hip surgery early on and has been rehabilitating ever since. The hope is he recovers and gets into action for the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Stockton, Calif., before the end of the season so he can begin the journey up the organizational ladder.
The other one limping is Karri Ramo, the Flames’ nominal starter, who won the job a month into the season and at different times has provided the Flames with responsible goaltending this year. Ramo suffered a serious knee injury in a game against the San Jose Sharks last week that will keep him out of the lineup indefinitely.
So organizationally, the Flames need to figure out who will play goal for them until Gillies is ready for prime-time NHL duty, which could be two or more years away.
Jonas Hiller is clearly not the answer after two so-so outings as Ramo’s replacement. The jury is also out on Joni Ortio, who the Flames liked enough at the start of the season to keep on their NHL roster, fearing they might lose him on waivers if they sent him to the minor leagues. Eventually, they did send him down, no one claimed him, and Ortio’s season in Stockton hasn’t convinced anyone that he’ll be the next Georges Vézina. Or even the next Ben Bishop.
This season is lost anyway. The Flames are not saying so out loud, but the reality is a playoff spot has slipped out of their reach. Since Christmas, the Anaheim Ducks have made up 15 points on the Flames in the standings, and now lead them by 11 points. San Jose is 10 ahead of Calgary, and the teams holding the two wild card spots in the Western Conference are nine points out of reach.
Coach Bob Hartley made the point Tuesday: If the Flames play modestly well from here until the end of the season, the teams they’re pursuing are winning their share as well, so Calgary’s getting nowhere in terms of making up the gap.
Nothing short of the Ottawa Senators’ surge from a year ago will get the Flames in, and even if Ortio emerges as the second coming of the Hamburglar, that’s the longest of long shots.
Still, with 27 games to go, they may as well see what Ortio can do when given the chance to start a number of NHL games in succession. Otherwise, they’ll be left wondering and shopping the trade market to see if there’s another goalie prospect that shakes loose, like Robin Lehner, Martin Jones and Cam Talbot did last year.
Hartley is a former goalie himself, and so on Tuesday he issued a plea for leniency.
“Too many times … goaltending is a position that’s so easy to point fingers at, because you’re the last line of defence,” Hartley said. “Many times we’re going to forget about a giveaway or a missed assignment, and suddenly fingers are pointing at the blue paint. That’s not how we operate here. We count on Rams and Hills. Now Rams is injured and we have Orts here and those guys will get the job done for us.
“I’ve said it many times. We’re coaching human beings, we’re not coaching machines.”
The larger issue is that all three of their current roster goalies are little more than stop-gap solutions. The last time the Flames realistically developed a No. 1 goalie of their own was Mike Vernon, who was drafted in 1981.
There is no firm rule of thumb in the NHL that you have to develop from within. For all the Carey Prices, Braden Holtbys, Jonathan Quicks and Henrik Lundqvists who came through their teams’ pipelines, there are the Roberto Luongos and Sergei Bobrovskys who blossomed in their second NHL homes.
Developing a goalie who reaches his prime when the team is ready to challenge regularly for a playoff spot and beyond would be helpful for Calgary. But in the meantime, the last third of the season will give the Flames a chance to figure out who gets to be the interim guy to keep the seat warm for Gillies, the prospect they hope doesn’t miss.Report Typo/Error