The key right now is to play some games. You’re not going to get any better sitting on the bench. I’ll do that and see where it takes me. - Joni Ortio
GLENDALE, AZ -- When goaltender Joni Ortio got word that he was being assigned to the Stockton Heat of the AHL on Thursday morning, there was some disappointment.
No one wants to go from the NHL to the AHL, that much is obvious. Players dream of being in the NHL and once you've gotten even the slightest taste of it, going back down to the minors is a blow.
But after that initial wave of discouragement, Ortio welcomed the idea of heading to Stockton to help out a group that has been besieged with goaltender injuries.
"I’m excited, actually, to play some games," the 24-year-old explained. "That’s what I need right now. I’ll get a chance to do that down there.
"The key right now is to play some games. You’re not going to get any better sitting on the bench. I’ll do that and see where it takes me."
On a one-way deal in the final year of his contract, Ortio had to clear waivers to be sent to Stockton. It was a new experience for the youngster, who wasn't sure if he was going to clear or be picked up by another NHL club.
"I didn’t really worry about it that much," Ortio said. "I knew at 10:00 this morning, I was going to know where I’m headed. Maybe not a normal day, but nothing too different.
"I didn’t really know what to think. Maybe earlier on in the year, someone might have picked me up but … teams are in such different positions and situations. I didn’t really know what to think about it."
A large part of his inability to get ice time was due to Calgary having three goalies on their roster for much of the season. Battling against veterans Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo left Ortio on the side to start the year and then, when Hiller was out with a lower body malady, he backed up a revitalized Ramo.
Twenty-two games into the Flames' 2015-16 schedule, Ortio had appeared in a mere four and posted a 0-2-1 record with a 4.26 GAA and a .868 save percentage.
Not exactly the ideal scenario for a young, developing netminder.
"He needs to play. That’s the bottom line," Flames general manager Brad Treliving said. "He’ll go down, he’ll get back in a rhythm playing some games. Sometimes these things get overthought about, about, ‘Oh, what does the future hold?’ This is a young player that just needs to play. That was always the thought process here. It’s worked out that he hasn’t played a lot games to this point so we’ll get him back up and playing. He’s much still a part of this organization."
The Flames goaltending situation has been analyzed thoroughly throughout the course of the year, and while it was an unorthodox set-up, Ortio has no hard feelings about how it played out.
"It’s not ideal," he summarized. "We’ve been going through that all year. Obviously with Jonas getting hurt for a bit, it was normal for some time. But I don’t think we can go behind that three-goalie situation every time. Yeah, obviously it’s different, but it’s no excuse. It’s not making our lives any harder. It’s just a little bit different. You’ve just got to adapt and deal with it."
Now, the focus turns to the AHL and getting back into a rhythm with the Heat. With Jon Gillies (lower body) and Kevin Poulin (lower body) out with injuries, Ortio will be counted on to stabilize the net in Stockton.
With 84 AHL regular season games under his belt, Ortio knows what the expect at that level and the Flames organization has plenty of faith in him.
"I talked to him again this morning and said, ‘Nothing has changed in our mind. ‘ He hasn’t fallen out of favour," Treliving said. "If you go back and really analyze, study young goaltenders that come up through the ranks, there’s usually a pretty large set of games – for most guys – played at the American League level. He’s shown that he’s a good goaltender at that level. In my mind, he’ll continue to be a good goaltender. This will get him some games, and up and going, and we’ll go from there."