As the Flames embark on a five-game road trip, Joey MacDonald will start his fifth consecutive game between the pipes. This road trip will likely teach us a lot more about the true nature of this club after an absolutely stunning 3-0-2 start through their first five games.
Without a doubt, these next few games will be extremely tough for the Flames including matchups at the dreaded Honda Center (Where the flames haven’t won since January 19, 2004) and the Shark Tank where they will face a Sharks team that is, well, rolling through teams at the moment. Four of these games will also account for the first nine games of Sean Monahan’s career, forcing the Flames to make a decision about his future either with the big club or back with the Ottawa 67’s.
Monahan’s future aside, one of the most interesting storylines of this road trip will be the Flames goaltending. Karri Ramo was named the starter for the opening game against the Capitals and managed a .933 ES/SV% in that game and by all accounts was reasonably solid against an extremely dangerous Washington squad. Since then, Joey MacDonald has started every game and, to his credit, has won three times out of four.
However, despite the fact that Joey Mac has not been glaringly awful, Kent Wilson has pointed out that the Flames are largely winning in spite of MacDonald rather than because of him. Also, Ramo’s contract would state that the Flames believe him to be a starting goalie and this season he has hardly received that chance at all.
Many have expressed concern about Ramo’s confidence during his time on the bench but trying to predict or quantify goaltending confidence is a tricky endeavour to say the least. Intriguingly, Darren Haynes has suggested that the Flames may demote Ramo to Abbotsford in order to get him some playing time while promoting Reto Berra. Giving Haynes’ theory credence, the Flames recently pulled the exact same maneuver with Joni Ortio in Abbotsford and Laurent Brossoit in Alaska in the ECHL.
This strategy would confirm what the Flames were saying in training camp, that the starting job was an open question and had three potential suitors rather than the conventional opinion that the starting job was Ramo’s from day one.
Bob Hartley keeps insisting that the goaltending is a game-to-game type of decision and that he has not made his mind up about a starter and many point to the team’s buzzword surrounding all positions, meritocracy, as the rationale for the team repeatedly choosing MacDonald; if the team is winning, why make any changes? However, this line of thinking is antithetical to the Flames roster decisions this season.
From a talent evaluation perspective, Joey MacDonald is a known quantity for the Flames. Everyone knows what to expect and what his limitations are. Karri Ramo, upon his return from the KHL, is a mystery, simply potential at this point. The Flames are opting for the dependably mediocre MacDonald rather than risk that Ramo struggles with readjusting to the North American game. If the Flames continue to get sub .900 goaltending, it will certainly start to be reflected in the win-loss column and MacDonald has proved, not just this season but throughout his career, that he is not capable of consistently providing NHL-starter stats. To be fair, at this point in his career, neither has Ramo. The difference is that we can judge MacDonald’s abilities far more accurately with a far larger sample size.
Curiously, at the outset of the season, Jay Feaster mentioned that they did not want to place MacDonald on waivers because they were concerned that he would be claimed by another club. I find that very difficult to accept as I can’t imagine which club would have claimed MacDonald at the beginning of the season, especially with other veteran goaltenders being placed on waivers on September 14th for instance.
Feaster’s comments don’t make sense to me and has led me to the question: Is it possible that the Flames still intend to assign MacDonald to Abbotsford at some point and are either showcasing him for a trade or to pique the interest of a team when he is placed on waivers? At this point, this is pure speculation but it would help explain the willingness to start MacDonald so many games in a row this early in the season. If this were to be a primary, or even a secondary, goal of the Flames’ goaltending strategy it would still justify the decision to pay Ramo the money that they signed him to this offseason.
It is still exceptionally early on this season and it is still entirely possible that the Flames will not be able to compensate for MacDonald’s lacklustre numbers and Ramo will take the starting reins once again. There is the danger that the Flames are damaging Ramo’s confidence long-term if he continues to be sat or, worse yet, not given a realistic chance to succeed (i.e starting his first game in almost a month on the road in San Jose). Hopefully for Flames fans, Ramo has the confidence and ability to thrive when he is given the chance and the Flames can continue this wholly unexpected start to 2013-14.