It wasn’t all that long ago the Calgary Flames boasted some of the most impressive goaltending prospects in the game.
Just a handful of years back, their third-round pick, Jon Gillies, had used his 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame to backstop the Providence Friars to the 2015 national championship at which he was named MVP.
One year later the Flames grabbed Tyler Parsons in the second round after he paced the London Knights to the 2016 Memorial Cup crown and was named the tourney’s top netminder.
That Christmas Parsons was instrumental in helping the U.S. win gold at the world juniors.
With resumes like that in the fold, few would have predicted the man who’d emerge from the group as the Flames top netminder was David Rittich, a free agent signed out of the Czech Extraliga in 2016 who couldn’t speak English.
All these years later, Rittich is the only goalie the Flames have under contract for next season.
While Rittich and Cam Talbot combined to be one of the biggest strengths of the Flames this season, the depth charts have changed radically.
Gillies, who would have been the only real option for the Flames had the big boys succumbed to injury, is about to walk into unrestricted free agency after yet another uninspiring season with the AHL’s Stockton Heat.
There will be no attempt to re-sign him.
For the third year as a pro, Parsons battled injury all season, playing just 25 games with Kansas City in the East Coast League.
Not exactly the trajectory he or the organization had in mind after his stellar junior run.
“He’s got all the ability in the world, but obviously his health has been an issue,” said Flames goalie coach, Jordan Sigalet.
“It’s been a while since he’s put together a full, healthy season, and once he does that I think he’ll have a shot.”
One of the theories on why Parsons is oft-injured revolves around his athletic style, which involves forever contorting his body through a series of stretches, splits and lunges to make saves. On a weak team in Kansas, he was under siege quite often, leading to an 11-9-2 record that included a .911 save percentage and 3.03 GAA.
Because he had only played 22 games the previous season, he was the odd man out this year, stuck in Kansas while Gillies and Artyom Zagidulin split time in Stockton.
Parsons is just 22, and will undoubtedly re-sign with the Flames as a restricted free agent.
There is still plenty of potential and runway there.
With Gillies gone, you can bet Parsons will start the year in the AHL alongside the man they call Zags.
“His numbers were not incredible but he’s a winner – they love him down there,” said Sigalet of the 24-year-old Zagidulin, who the Flames signed as a free agent out of Russia last summer.
“First year over here and not speaking the language, he’s going to have his ups and downs. But he just found a way to win.”
After a blazing start that had many in the organization worried it was too good to be true, Zagidulin experienced plenty of character-building turbulence en route to a 16-7-4 record. He did so despite an .898 save percentage and 3.07 GAA.
The 24-year-old restricted free agent (with arbitration rights) should easily be able to come to terms with the Flames on a contract next season, with an eye on following the trail blazed by Rittich before him.
The only other goalie the Flames had under contract this year was Nick Schneider, a 22-year-old restricted free agent whose role, if kept, would be to return to Kansas City where he struggled this year. That said, in 12 games of call-up duty in the AHL over the previous two seasons his play was exemplary.
The new shining star amongst Flames goalie prospects is 18-year-old Dustin Wolf, who was the fourth-last pick of the 2019 Draft.
All he did that year was lead the Western Hockey League with a .936 save percentage in his first year as a starter with the Everett Silvertips, where he went 41-15-4 with a 1.69 GAA.
Yet, the hockey world continues to watch the six-foot, 165-pound Californian with awe, as he followed it up this season with another stellar showing.
“Exciting, but a few years away,” Sigalet said of Wolf, who went 34-10-2 this year with a 1.88 GAA and .935 save percentage.
“He’s stealing games for them on his own. He’s impressive, smart and just wants to be better. He has to go back for one more year, which is too bad. I’d like to see him in Stockton.”
So much of how and where the Flames goalie prospects will slot next year will depend on whether the Flames re-sign Talbot.
Alongside Rittich, the 32-year-old netminder got his career and mojo back in order, perhaps opening doors for him to explore options as an unrestricted free agent.
Otherwise, few debate he’d be a perfect fit to return to the Flames where he was trending to be the team’s playoff starter, thanks to his surge in play and Rittich’s third annual second-half struggles.
“I think those two worked together pretty well,” said Sigalet.
“Obviously Ritter’s play fell off a bit down the stretch, but I don’t think that’s totally on him. I know people are hard on him, but we played more of a run and gun, loose game in front of him at times and that affected his numbers. He’s still learning and young in the league, and we talk about controlling his emotions and dealing with the highs and lows. Watching Cam be so even-keeled was good for him – he was such a pro all year.
“Cam started playing more and more, and getting better and better, and the confidence he lost in Edmonton and Philadelphia he started getting back.”
Will it be status quo, or will the Flames use some of their cap space to chase a significant free agent like Robin Lehner or Jacob Markstrom?
That’s a column for another day.