If there’s one position the Calgary Flames aren’t concerned about heading into next year- and there may just be the one, outside of “face-of-the-franchise right wing“- it’s in net. Ever since his acquisition from the San Jose Sharks in the ’03-’04 season, the Flames have been able to depend on Miikka Kiprusoff for 70 games of near-elite level play, save for a hiccup under Mike Keenan’s reign. His 6 year, $35 million contract extension a few years ago was probably reasonably priced, and one of the deals that ex-GM (and current Los Angeles Kings coach) Darryl Sutter can count as a feather in his cap should he decide to ply his trade… uh… trading again. But a goalie who plays 70 games at that level is a luxury that most franchises can’t count on- and one the Flames may not be able to count on for much longer.
Kiprusoff is 35, and that is an age where NHL players tend to be in decline. Though there have been goalies in the past who have been able to be successful well into their careers (one can look at New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur as a current example), it’s been a constant refrain throughout the Kiprusoff years that the Flames haven’t developed a good backup, or an eventual successor to Kipper.
There are several ways to look at this. Kiprusoff is established, and seems to enjoy the heavy workload. That makes Calgary a less appealing destination for veterans looking to earn their way back into a starting role, or even just play semi-regularly. Also, it’s hard for young goalies to develop when they’re only playing a few games a year. Why would the team call up a hot prospect, only to have him high fiving Kipper on the way to the locker room? Additionally, the Flames have often gone cheap in filling the backup goalie role (with the same, reasonable justification as before), which didn’t tend to leave them with good options.
When the “scrap heap” sorts failed, the Flames often got a veteran backup at the trade deadline. But veterans who had success elsewhere (Brian Boucher, Vesa Toskala) weren’t typically very good as Miikka’s caddy in Calgary. Part of that is a result of the few games they played- a greater sample size would likely have provided results closer to the career numbers of those players. But, again, Kiprusoff played a lot- and deserved to, given his numbers.
The Flames’ drafting history for goalies has been bad as well. Looking back through the aughts, the board is littered with failed prospects and journeymen. Brent Krahn. Levente Szuper. Andrei Medvedev. Curtis McElhinney. James Spratt. Kevin Lalande. Matt Keetley. Recognize many of those names? Outside of the well-travelled McElhinney, I’d wager you don’t. Discount him, and that group has played a grand total of TWO games in the NHL. Even in the scattershot NHL draft, that qualifies as a disaster. Especially for a team like the Flames, who needed a (if we’re being honest) lucky trade with San Jose to find their franchise netminder.
Goalies are historically very hard to draft and develop for any team. They often develop slowly, and later than you’d expect. Ponder Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen- the #2 overall pick of the then Atlanta Thrashers back in 2002, who was expected to be the goalie that would punch their first ticket to the playoffs. Atlanta was patient with him, sticking with him for four full seasons as the #1 goalie before sending him to Dallas. He always had the raw ability, but never seemed to put it completely together (behind a struggling Atlanta team, it should be noted) and it was only this year that he showed signs of being the kind of goalie Atlanta expected him to be. Heck, even Kiprusoff fits in the “who knows?” line of thinking- he played well at times for San Jose, but found himself third on the depth chart in that organization behind Evgeni Nabakov and the previously-mentioned Toskala. And later on, Toskala comes to the Flames to back him up! Crazy thing, this goaltending.
I would say that the Flames have some hope in net, and it’s not current backup Henrik Karlsson. Prospect Leland Irving was deployed sparingly during the season, playing on Friday games in Calgary before being sent back down to Abbotsford for his regular playing time, but showed a solid .912 save percentage in his time with the big club. I’d say there’s a good chance they try for a similar rotation this year, so Irving continues to stay sharp and play regularly. It’s one of the hidden benefits of having Abbotsford so close.
It’s a tricky position the Flames find themselves in: while they certainly need to have an eye to the future, they don’t want to jeopardize their current success (or alienate their #1 goaltender) by sitting Kiprusoff more than necessary. Part of the reason it’s hard to develop young goaltenders is this conundrum: they need to play regularly, but not many teams have the patience to let a young goaltender take their lumps at the NHL level. The Thrashers actually DID with Lehtonen, but got frustrated enough with injuries and results that they finally traded him, and now the organization will watch him have success in Dallas, and throw up their hands. What did they do wrong? It’s hard to know. Maybe Lehtonen regresses next year, and the then-Thrashers are proven right. As mentioned previously (and as the Flames’ draft record shows), goaltenders are a very fickle sort, and each one is different in how they’ll develop, or where and when they will have success.
In an uncertain offseason for the C of red, it’s nice to know that the Flames are well set in goal. Though no one can be entirely sure how much tread Miikka Kiprusoff has left on his tires, we can- finally- see a possible successor in Leland Irving. Hopefully we’ll continue to see positive signs for the Flames’ goaltending next year, and whether or not Irving is up to the task.