These are nervous times in Calgary. A few weeks ago, the Flames waived, then traded Henrik Karlsson, as Leland Irving out-battled him for the job to backup the incumbent Miikka Kiprusoff. This didn’t cause much of a ripple, as Kiprusoff tends to play 70+ games in a regular 82-game season; in a 48-game season, the Flames’ backup could conceivably start just 4-5 games.
Then Kiprusoff came down with an apparently minor knee injury, but one serious enough to keep him out of action for at least a couple games. And the Flames were left with one goaltender, when just one month ago they had three. The only other goaltenders in the organization were either in Junior (Brossoit), the NCAA (Gillies), Finland (Ortio), or Russia (Ramo). Heck, Brossoit and Gillies haven’t even signed entry-level deals yet and Ramo doesn’t have a contract with the Flames either.
What the Flames did have, however, was two of the best goaltenders in the AHL playing for their affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat. The solution for the Flames was easy: sign one of them to a two-way deal and have him back up Irving. It would be an unfamiliar situation for both of them, however, as they had both out-battled Irving in Abbotsford. That’s right, the Flames’ backup, and current starter while Kiprusoff is out, was the third-string goalie for the Heat.
That’s less than encouraging news for Flames’ fans. During the lockout, Irving played in just 6 games for the Heat, posting uninspiring numbers: a 3.72 GAA and .871 SV%. The other two goaltenders had the following stats as the Flames were making their decision: one had a 1.77 GAA with a .930 SV%. The other had a 1.69 GAA with a .940 SV%.
It’s pretty easy to see why they out-battled Irving in Abbotsford and, though their stats are close, it seems obvious who the Flames would choose to sign to a contract: the one with the better statistics. Things are never that simple, of course. The first player is Danny Taylor, who the Flames signed on Wednesday. The second is Barry Brust, who started for the Heat that night and gave up 6 goals in a 6-2 loss, bringing his statistics closer to Taylor’s with a 1.92 GAA and a .932 SV% for the season.
I’m particularly interested in this situation because I live in Abbotsford and have been to a lot of Heat games, particularly during the lockout. I got a chance to see both Taylor and Brust play in a number of games and they’re both very good goaltenders: they’re first and third in goals against average and second and fourth in save percentage. Their stellar play is the main reason the low-scoring Heat are at the top of the North Division.
They are, however, very different goaltenders when it comes to style. And it was that, not their respective statistics, that tilted the scales towards Taylor.
You see, Taylor plays a fairly standard style, challenging shooters and dropping to the butterfly to make saves. When you watch Taylor play, he inspires confidence: he’s generally in the right position to make saves, though he can be over-aggressive at times and has to scramble back.
Brust, on the other hand, is terrifying for hometown fans and, I have to imagine, his teammates. Thankfully, he’s also terrifying to the opposition. To call his style unorthodox doesn’t quite sum it up. I’ve seen him rush out and perform a diving pokecheck on a player carrying the puck on a 3-on-2. He never seems to make the same save twice, dropping to the butterfly at one moment, stacking the pads the next, and following it up with a stand-up style kick save.
Have you ever seen a goaltender pokecheck someone taking a penalty shot at the hashmarks? You’re about to:
Basically, the guy’s nuts. I love him, but he’s nuts. Here’s the thing: he also gets the job done. As weird as his style is, he’s among the league leaders in goals against average and save percentage for a reason. But since he doesn’t play a regular, boring, butterfly style, he may not get another NHL offer during his career unless a GM takes a chance on him. In many ways, he’s similar to Tim Thomas, who had a lot of things break his way in order for him to get a chance in Boston.
Brust may be left with just his ugly 11-game stint with the L.A. Kings, back in 2006-07 when they were terrible, as his lone NHL experience. And that would be a crying shame.
Jay Feaster, the Flames’ GM, said that both were considered for the job, initially playing it safe by saying, “We felt that Danny was the guy that was best suited for this role right now.”
When pressed for details, however, he illuminated what the deciding factor was: “What we talked about was just style of play. You know, as John Weisbrod and I talked last night after the game, he said this could have been a coin toss in many ways…The thing about Danny is it’s a more conservative ‘stop the puck’ [style]. Brusty’s game has a little bit more flair to it and there’s certainly a lot more drama at times with Brusty: he roams out of the net and he likes to play the puck and sometimes that gets him into a little bit of trouble.”
So the Flames made the safe decision and went with Taylor.
That isn’t to say it’s the wrong decision, really. Taylor has had a fantastic season in the AHL and has solidified himself as the Heat’s number one guy, starting more games than Brust, though that may again have something to do with their respective styles. It’s just that the decision to go with Taylor over Brust for reasons of “style” starts to sound a little too much like the scouts in Moneyball, insisting on their choices because a player looks good rather than is good.
Fortunately for the Flames, Taylor both looks good and is good.
Taylor’s style also seems to make him more consistent than Brust. Taylor hasn’t given up more than three goals all season, a pretty incredible run. Brust, on the other hand, is more prone to highs and lows: he gave up 6 goals Wednesday night, as I mentioned above, and has given up more than three goals two other times this season. Still not a lot, by any means. But Brust also has 4 shutouts to Taylor’s 2, including an AHL record shutout streak back in November.
It’s possible that the Flames feel more comfortable with consistency, particularly when Taylor may only get used for one game or less before Kiprusoff returns. When you’re only going to put in a goaltender for 60 minutes, you want someone consistent who will give you a safe, predictable 60 minutes, rather than someone who could post a shutout, completely implode, or anything in-between.
In fact, Irving should keep an eye over his shoulder. Taylor consistently proved he was a better goaltender in Abbotsford and won the number one job. If Kiprusoff is out for a decent length of time, he may do the same in Calgary. Then, when Kiprusoff returns, Irving may be the one sent back to Abbotsford to backup Brust.