How the Calgary Flames can solve their goaltending woes

Brad Richardson scored twice after Antoine Vermette put Arizona ahead early in the third period and the Coyotes beat the Calgary Flames 4-1 Friday night to snap a 10-game road winless streak.

The Calgary Flames have the worst save percentage in the NHL this season.

In all situations, Southern Alberta’s hockey team carries an ugly .899 save percentage. Rewind 20 seasons to 1994-95 and that number would have represented a disadvantage in a league where the average save percentage was .901. In the modern NHL, where the average number is .915, a sub-.900 save percentage is fatal to any team’s playoff hopes.

Fortunately for the Flames, they are under no obligation to their current crop of goaltenders. Incumbents Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller will both be unrestricted free agents on July 1, while prospect Joni Ortio is bound for restricted free agency.

Of the incumbents, Ramo would seem to stand the best chance of returning. Hiller has performed disastrously all season in the majors and Ortio was poor even at the minor-league level, but Ramo has rebounded after a tough start. His first five games went very badly, but since then he has managed a .916 save percentage for the Flames.

However, it’s probably best not to overrate Ramo. If we compare his performance over three seasons in Calgary to the average starter and backup league-wide over the same span, he doesn’t appear to be anything special:

save percentage1234

Hiller looks okay here, but he’s also 34 and coming off a wretched season so caution is most certainly warranted. Ramo meanwhile comes in just a touch shy of the average backup in terms of performance, and given that he turns 30 on July 1 it seems unlikely that he’ll improve much in the future.

There are some options in free agency. If we confine ourselves to goalies with a relatively long track record (at least 1,500 minutes at evens over the last three seasons), and further restrict our list to players who are at least equal to our median backup’s .919 even-strength save percentage we end up with five players of possible interest.

ufa options

James Reimer is clearly the best option available in free agency. Not only are his three-year numbers good, but he’ll also be just 28 years old on July 1 and after playing in Toronto for so many years the pressure of playing in a hockey-mad city like Calgary isn’t likely to faze him at all.

He isn’t a perfect fit, of course. His save percentage comes in just below our median starter over the last three seasons, so it’s not like he’s a world-beater. Also, as the top goalie in free agency he’s likely to have options and command a reasonably sizable contract.

Jhonas Enroth has been excellent with the Kings this year, but L.A. backups haven’t always thrived in other cities and Enroth himself has generally seen his save percentage fall when his number of starts increases. Given his modest 5-foot-10 stature, it seems possible that he’s exposed when he plays too much.

Chad Johnson has a starter’s size at 6-foot-3, but has been erratic over the last few seasons. Even at the AHL level his save percentage has fluctuated wildly from year-to-year, and in the majors he’s alternated exceptional and exceptionally awful seasons. He’s probably a better bet than Ramo in a 1B-type role, but it would be a gutsy move to entrust him with a starter’s job.

Jonas Gustavsson has likely prolonged his NHL career with a strong run as the backup in Boston, while Anton Khudobin is another undersized goalie who, like Johnson, has an erratic track record in the majors. Neither would seem a good bet for anything more than backup duty.

Fortunately for the Flames, there is another option: Trade. Looking around the league, there are a number of clubs with multiple good goalies, and the possibility exists that Calgary would be able to trade its way to a competent goalie duo.

trade options

At the bottom of the list are a couple of potential bargains. Jimmy Howard has three seasons left at a hefty cap hit and has been supplanted in Detroit by Petr Mrazek, but his recent struggles still have him in starter range and he’s been much better in the not-too-distant past. Jonathan Bernier collapsed this year but is still young and only has one year left on his contract and might be worth looking at as a reclamation project.

At the top of the list are three goalies with some red flags. Thomas Griess has almost always had good numbers, but hasn’t been a starter prior to this year. Michal Neuvirth’s numbers aren’t as impressive, and like Greiss he lacks a history of being a No. 1. Brian Elliott, meanwhile, plays for an extremely defensive St. Louis team and his numbers may be inflated as a result of that.

Sergei Bobrovsky is expensive and has had injury troubles, but he’s been very good when he plays; if cash-strapped Columbus is sold on Joonas Korpisalo he might plausibly be available. Semyon Varlamov’s name appeared in trade rumours earlier this year as Colorado has several possibilities in net, though he’s been brilliant lately. He’d be a good fit for Calgary if the Avs aren’t committed to him.

Frederik Andersen might be the best bet of all. He’s big, young, good and a restricted free agent, but with John Gibson pushing for more time in Anaheim, the Ducks may not be interested in giving Andersen the raise he has earned.

For an active general manager, there are options out there. There’s nothing special about Calgary’s incumbents, who could all be neatly replaced in free agency. The real prize, though, may be via trade; if the Flames want to lock down the position long term there are several intriguing possibilities.