Saturday night I was with a friend at his first ever National Hockey League game, between Vancouver and Calgary. Going in we sort of knew it was going to be a rout for the Canucks. It’s not that Vancouver is that good, but it’s that Calgary is that bad. First out Jarome Iginla, then Jay Bouwmeester. Even Blake Comeau was a piece the Flames sold at the deadline and they wound up with the sort of skeleton roster that ends up with not every player on the roster being listed on the game program.
There was a high-profile name that the Flames didn’t sell. If you’re going to tank, tank all the way. Invent a roster that includes Lee Stempniak on the first line with Dennis Wideman playing 27 minutes. It’s incredible what Jay Feaster has done in a few short years. Not only has he managed to completely eradicate the Flames roster of big-name talent, but he’s been able to do it without bringing in a single noteworthy NHL body under the age of 23.
It’s remarkable, really. For Jarome Iginla, Feaster got a couple of college seniors. For Bouwmeester, he got an undrafted third-year pro with seven goals in 56 games and a 26-year old Swiss goaltender. Interestingly, while the Flames hurled toward the natural conclusion of this roster that anybody could see, Feaster still went and signed multi-year deals to Curtis Glencross, Alex Tanguay, Jiri Hudler and the aforementioned Dennis Wideman.
Which brings us to the name that the Flames didn’t trade away. Again, this is me and a friend who has never been to an NHL game, and we’re sitting along the Flames goal-line. Midway through the first period he remarked “goalies don’t look as good in person.”
“Nah, man, that’s just Miikka Kiprusoff.”
Kiprusoff looked awful Saturday night, but to be in complete fairness, he played both legs of a back-to-back. He fumbled three rebounds in plain sight of us in the first period alone. He let in a goal in the second period against Alex Burrows by failing to cover a puck, and let in a slow point shot from Alex Edler through the five-hole. Age has not been Kiprusoff’s friend, but then again, what’s he declining from?
Kiprusoff had a great peak. Between 2004 and 2007, there was probably no better goaltender on the planet. But those were his 27-, 29- and 30-year-old seasons. Before being traded to Calgary and jumping on as the starter for that 2004 playoff run, Kiprusoff was a third string goaltender in San Jose behind Evgeny Nabokov and Vesa Toskala. Since then, he’s fluctuated between good and bad seasons, not quite good enough (even with a .928 even strength save percentage) to drag the Flames to the playoffs last year, but not quite bad enough (.907 EV SV%) to keep them out in 2009.
Still, he’s a goalie whose record stands in stark contrast to his reputation. The word “experience” is by law required to be used in the same sentence as Kiprusoff’s name upon first reference. Even Dave Nonis was drinking the kool-aid last week:
“The benefit of bringing Miikka Kiprusoff in would have been that we weren’t moving either one of our goalies out,” Nonis said. “We’ve always said that if we could get a veteran presence to help these guys along and give them some experience and some tips, that it would have been an ideal situation.”
Nonis added that he discussed that scenario with Kiprusoff directly.
“I think part of him was very excited with that and part of his apprehension was not having his heart in it 100 per cent and coming here and letting us down,” he said. “That was the direction we wanted to head.
Let’s clear something up about Kiprusoff. He’s not Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek. He’s not even in the same class as Jean-Sebastien Giguere when it comes to the post-season. Kiprusoff was a key cog for the Flames in 2004, but since then, the Flames have yet to pass the first round.
Not to say that Kiprusoff is what’s holding them back, but there seems to be some mis-understanding over what a star, veteran goaltender can provide. Nonis seems to think that “some experience and some tips” is worth the slightly-south-of-$6-million contract for another season.
No goaltender who backed up Kiprusoff was able to benefit from the “experience and tips” Kiprusoff provided in order to become a fully-fledged starting goalie in the NHL. Active goalies under Kiprusoff’s tutelage are: Curtis McElhinney, Henrik Karlsson, Joey MacDonald, Leland Irving, Brian Boucher and Daniel Taylor. Out there exists the misconception that you can stick a young player around an experienced veteran and BAM! insta-clutch. It fits with my belief that you can’t “add” an intangible to a team, since an intangible is something that can’t be counted. At best, you can hope for a group to develop chemistry and trust organically by placing very talented hockey players with each other for a very long time.
This season indicates that Kiprusoff’s mind just really isn’t into it, or he’s just another data point in my theory that as a goaltender ages, his performance becomes more unpredictable.
In 20 starts this year, Kiprusoff has recorded a “quality start”—a game of a save percentage of .917 or higher, or a save percentage of .885 and higher while allowing 2 or fewer goals—just 8 times. Typically goaltenders will earn quality starts from 50-55% of their starts while stars are up in the 65% range. When Kiprusoff has lost, he’s lost bad. In fact, he has six starts on the season where he’s stopped fewer than 80% of the shots he’s faced. Even against Vancouver, probably the worst I’ve ever seen him play live, he at least managed a .810… his seventh worst outing on the season.
If it’s a sign of the team, well, he’s fourth on the Flames in save percentage at even strength. In fact without Kipper, who’s 6-12-2 on the year, the Flames are a somewhat reasonably 7-8-2. Not the stuff dreams are made of, obviously, but it’s not like Bob Hartley was working with a pathetically-decrepit group on the bench. Leland Irving, Danny Taylor and Joey MacDonald have combined for an EV SV% of .894, amazingly 15 points higher than Kiprusoff’s, and an overall SV% of .888, which is also 15 points higher than Kipper’s .873. Those three haven’t been stringing together quality starts or putting in memorable backup performances in relief of an old, injured, former star, but they haven’t been liabilities compared to Kiprusoff in his absence and they’re playing without a degree of pedigree.
You hate to see what this season has done to Kiprusoff, and hopefully he’ll get another year to bounce-back. As Iginla leaves, Kiprusoff is now the lone player holdover from that 2004 roster, and becomes synonymous with the Flames quest to tank and get Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin in June.
Maybe there is a bounce-back, but at a hefty salary cap hit, it’s a risky gamble for any team to take on when there are better bets to be made for cheaper league-wide.
Although come to think of it, here I am generating a narrative off a small sample size of 20 games…