West Coast Bias: Emerging stars feeding Flames

The Calgary Flames' unexpected success has been fuelled by the contributions of relative unknowns like goalie Joni Ortio. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Everything Brad Treliving has touched since he took over the Calgary Flames has turned to gold. The latest example? Joni Ortio, a kid who came over from Finland, went back, and now in the NHL has stopped 63 of 64 shots faced for the Flames.

What did Treliving know about Ortio when he took over as Calgary’s GM this season?

“I knew he was from Finland,” said Treliving, only half-joking. “I knew he was a young guy who had some struggles, and went back home. Then, I thought he had established himself as a really good American League goaltender last year. Internally, everyone here really liked him.

“We wanted him playing a lot of hockey, and the last two and half months he’s been as good as anyone in that league. He’s deserving now.”

Ortio is only 23 and comes from the same hometown—Turku—as Miikka Kiprusoff. They are both listed at an identical six-foot-one, 185 pounds, but Treliving doesn’t see many more similarities.

“They’ve got the same passport,” he said, allowing that their size is the same. “If you’re not six-three it seems like you’re a small goalie.

“Joni is really driven,” he said. “Confident, not cocky. He gives you the feeling that he’s going to stop the puck. I like his DNA, and I like his battle level in practice. He battles ’til the end the drill and he’s pissed off if you get one by him. He’s got a confident way about him.”

More confident, perhaps, than the GM himself was when I asked him back in September what he had in the Flames system heading into his first camp.

“I’m going to find that out,” he said then. “I would say there are more pieces here than I originally thought. To what degree, or how high they’ll play? I’ll start learning that in camp.”

Since then, Johnny Gaudreau has put up 33 points in 43 games as a rookie and TJ Brodie has emerged as a Top 3 defenceman. Sean Monahan hasn’t only avoided a sophomore slump, he’s playing even better than he was last year. And players like Lance Bouma, Kris Russell, Josh Jooris and now Ortio have given Calgary much more than expected.

It’s funny how things work. Calgary drafted goalies Brent Krahn at No. 9 overall in 2000, and Leland Irving at No. 26 in ’06, and struck out on both of those first-rounders. But so far Ortio (No. 171 overall in ’09) looks mighty good, and even Laurent Broissoit (164th in ’11, traded to Edmonton), is having a very good rookie season in the AHL.

“You need to check that box,” Treliving said of the goaltending position. “You need goaltending to win, obviously, but the bigger issue is, without it you don’t get a true read of your team. When everything ends up in the back of the net, all of the sudden you don’t like your defencemen, you don’t like your centres…

“You can play the exact same way in two games, but if you don’t get the saves you don’t like your team.”

Ortio, who shut out Vancouver in his first start and won 4-1 in Phoenix Thursday, will only stay in Calgary as long as head coach Bob Hartley wants him to play. Karri Ramo is ready to return from injury soon, so chances are, Ortio will go back to Adirondack.

Wherever he is, “He’s got to be playing,” Treliving said.

Canada’s best team right now is the Winnipeg Jets, who appear destined to make the playoffs in their fourth season in Manitoba, which would break a seven-year playoff drought for the franchise. Funny, as soon backup Mike Hutchinson emerges to challenge for the No 1 job, Ondrej Pavelec amps it up, stopping 45 of 46 shots in Dallas Thursday night. The Jets are 13-5-5 on the road this year, the true sign of a strong team.

Since head coach Paul Maurice arrived just over a year ago, the Jets have turned as corner. “In the block of time, we’ve been pretty darned consistent,” he said. “But … you’ve got to do it long term. You’ve got to do it in the playoffs.”

We’ll thank Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch for doing this math, on how more points are staying in the East in inter-conference games this season than last. Last season, the West was 246-150-52 vs. East, keeping 544 of 896 points (60.7%). This season the East is still losing to the West, but it’s not as lopsided. West is 119-90-24, keeping 262 of 466 points (56.2%).

The life of a hockey coach: “My daughter (Sydney), this was her third high school. I’m not winning any Father of the Year awards,” said Maurice.

His three kids (Sydney, Jake and Luke) are now in high school in Winnipeg, where Sydney is playing hockey at an all girls school. It was a move Maurice thought long and hard about, but all’s well that ends well.

“It’s been a great move for our family. Our lives are way better than they were a year ago (when he was on his own in Winnipeg).”

How about Devan Dubnyk, who posted a shutout in his first game in Minnesota’s nets on Thursday night?

In the past calendar year he has gone from Edmonton, to Nashville, to Hamilton, to Montreal, to Arizona, to Minnesota. His worst season was last year when the Oilers gave him the ball and he dropped it, but it’s nice to see a bounce back from one of hockey’s real good guys. Minny might be done — they’re eight points back of eighth — but they’ll ride Dubnyk hard from here on in, we predict. Head coach Mike Yeo has lost faith in Darcy Kuemper.

You can expect to see a fire sale in Arizona heading into the March 2 trade deadline. By recycling Dubnyk into a third round pick, that’s a sure sign the Coyotes are cashing in on this season. His departure leaves the team firmly in Mike Smith’s hands, and he has had a brutal season, with a saves percentage of .885. The worrisome element for Arizona is this: Smith has three years remaining with an AAV of $5.7 million. What if he doesn’t return to No. 1 form?

Noticed on Thursday night that Jarome Iginla tied Mike Bossy for 20th place on the all-time goals list, at 573. Iginla is a walk-in Hall of Famer, but it won’t be for his choices since he left Calgary back in 2013. Remember he chose the Penguins instead of Boston, which went to the Cup Final that season. Then he went to Boston, which flamed out in Round 2 last season, and this year he jumped to Colorado, a team that’s six points back of eighth spot in the West.

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