I would love to be back here. It’s a great city, they’re great fans, and it’s a great organization. We’ll have talks and I definitely hope to be back here. - Joni Ortio
CALGARY, AB -- Joni Ortio wants the net.
The 24-year-old Finnish puck-stopper believes he performed well enough this season to warrant that.
“I think I at least earned the right to be considered an option going forward,” said Ortio, who becomes a restricted free agent this summer. “Everything is open with the goaltending situation. It will be interesting to see what happens. Whatever happens, I hope in September I’m one of the two guys.”
With the Flames surrendering a league-high 260 goals against, however, it may not be that clear-cut.
“Goaltending is obviously a priority for us. It is an area we need to solidify,” stated Flames general manager Brad Treliving during his post-season address on Monday. “The next step is to have some internal meetings. We’ll get our pro scouting staff in here and start to dissect our team.”
What is likely is the departure of unrestricted free agent netminders Jonas Hiller and Niklas Backstrom. Hiller and the Flames acknowledged they would be parting ways this summer which Backstrom, at age 38, is realistic about his chances of signing an NHL deal in the off-season.
“The NHL is probably a stretch for me but I still feel I want to play and still feel I’ve got the hunger to do the work on the ice and off the ice,” Backstrom said earlier this week. “Those are probably the answers I was looking for here in the past couple of weeks. It was always easy to say that you want to play but it takes a lot more than that. It’s not just to show up and play at the rink, you have to work hard and prepare. I still feel that I still want to do that and I am ready to do that.”
Karri Ramo, meanwhile, is coming off ACL surgery and will also be an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
That places Ortio, who had a grand total of 15 NHL games spread over two seasons under his belt prior to this year, as the in-house frontrunner.
Calgary’s sixth-round (171st overall) selection in 2009 hopes this is the big break that he’s been patiently waiting for.
“Give me a chance to grab the spot,” Ortio said. “If I’m not up to the task, then that’s on me. All I’m looking for is that opportunity and then trying to make the most of it.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound native of Turku – the same hometown as Flames legend Mikka Kiprusoff – finished the busiest NHL campaign of his career with a pedestrian 7-9-5-1 record, a 2.76 GAA and .902 save percentage with one shutout.
“I definitely can’t be happy with how it started, but I was going in the right direction, I was improving all year,” said Ortio, who received a pair of starting nods at the beginning of the season before an 11-week demotion to the Flames’ American Hockey League affiliate in Stockton.
He says he returned a more mature and complete goaltender in mid-February, when he seized the reins for 17 starts down the final stretch.
Fellow backstop and countrymen, Backstrom, fully endorses the up-and-comer’s game.
“He has really impressed me,” said Backstrom, a veteran of 10 NHL seasons. “He played at a really good level every night. It wasn’t up and down. Every time he went out there you knew exactly what you were going to get. He was going to be solid and make the saves that he had to make.”
As one-third of the Flames’ well-documented and ostracized three-headed goalie monster, though, Ortio admitted it was an awkward and, at the best of times, a difficult situation to deal with.
“It’s just the uncertainty,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t have the clear number one goalie. There is a lot of hassle around it.”
In hindsight, Flames head coach Bob Hartley admits he would not have implemented the unorthodox system.
“It didn’t work,” Hartley said. “As an organization, and as a coach, I thought we would reinvent the art of goaltending and we would create a challenge. We all understand why we did it, but it just didn’t work.”
But to lay blame for a lost season solely on Calgary’s masked men would be unfair, added the Flames bench boss.
“Whenever you finish 30th in goals against in the NHL, there are going to be all kind of questions regarding goaltending,” Hartley said. “Yes, goaltending could have been better. But after 82 games, and sitting in our position, it’s fair to say everyone has to be better.”
Ortio agrees with that assessment.
“When you look at goaltending, it’s easy to blame if you’re not winning,” he said. “I think there is some truth to it, but we’re all in this together. I’m sure there’s blame on the goalies, but I’m sure there’s blame somewhere else, too. It’s not that black and white. We all need to be better.”
Contract talks have yet to heat up between No. 37 and the Flames, but that hasn’t discouraged the netminder before departing for home.
“I would love to be back here,” Ortio said. “It’s a great city, they’re great fans, and it’s a great organization. We’ll have talks and I definitely hope to be back here.”