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Steinberg's Slant: Get Your Back-Up

by Pat Steinberg / Calgary Flames

Whoever the Flames choose to be Miikka Kiprusoff’s backup this season will have quite the task on their hands. Over a compacted 48-game season, the question is simple: can either Henrik Karlsson or Leland Irving inspire enough confidence in Bob Hartley and his coaching staff to make life a little easier on Kiprusoff?

If the answer to that question is no, it’ll be business as usual for the most part. Despite admitted efforts to decrease Kiprusoff’s workload over the past few years, he’s played 70 or more games since the last lockout. If the answer is yes, than perhaps we’ll see a theory put to the test.

I’ve believed for a number of years that easing up on Kiprusoff’s workload gives Calgary the opportunity to get the very best from their number one. What’s better? Kipper at, say, 90% of his effectiveness for 70+ games or him at 100% for 60-65? If the theory is true, then I’d take the latter every time. The problem is, no backup goalie in recent memory has really given us a chance to watch the theory at work over a full season.

Karlsson’s start on Oct. 28, 2010 was a rough one as he allowed six goals to the Colorado Avalanche at the Saddledome. Karlsson’s improvement was fairly noticeable following that rather harsh welcome to the league. He put some decent starts together and started to win some games and earn points in a few more, giving us a couple memorable celebratory poses along the way.

Karlsson did enough in his first season in North America to warrant a two year contract from the Flames, and he was the guy backing up Kiprusoff to start last season. The results, however, were less than stellar to begin with. Despite a sparkling performance in a losing effort to Buffalo, Karlsson went winless prior to suffering a serious knee injury in Vancouver.

With their backup out for the foreseeable future, Calgary turned to 2006 first-round pick Irving in December of 2011 and saw him earn points in his first three starts. That included a memorable performance just before Christmas in Vancouver en route to his first and only NHL win. Irving finished his first NHL campaign with a 1-3-3 record but did give Flames fans hope heading into this season, a season that unfortunately did not start on time.

So, while it was Karlsson battling through frustration in the latter stages of last season, it’s been Irving coming to grips with some of his own for much of this campaign. Assigned to Abbotsford early on during the lockout to get some playing and practice time, Irving has been outplayed by both Danny Taylor and Barry Brust. Calgary makes no bones about how central a theme merit is, and as such, there hasn’t been a ton of playing time for Irving; he’s appeared in just five games.

Now, with a shortened training camp upon us, the position of backup goalie may very well be the most hotly contested spot up for grabs.

My gut says Karlsson will win the job. But that’s just my gut. He’s been practicing daily with NHL players and a good chunk of Flames teammates. Snipers like Mike Cammalleri and Jarome Iginla can lend some pretty good practice even when games aren’t being played. Yes, Irving has seen actual game action during this work stoppage, but he’s not playing because he’s been outdueled at the AHL level. No knock on some of the prospects Irving has been working with in Abby, but practicing with NHL players is always going to put you at a higher level.

On top of that, things might work better logistically for Karlsson. He’s on a one way contract as opposed to Irving’s two way. From a strictly financial standpoint, it’s easier to place Irving in the AHL knowing his compensation changes from league to league. Karlsson will get paid the same salary in either league. That said, I honestly don’t believe that will be a consideration for the Flames, as they’ve made it clear things like that don’t matter in a situation like this.

“I know what I can do and I know I’m a good goalie,” Karlsson said on Wednesday afternoon at WinSport where he’s been practicing daily during the lockout. A confident Calgary Tower might be exactly what the team needs, especially knowing how frustrating things have been over the last 13 months or so for him.

“I’m just going to be confident and play my game, and we’ll see what happens…I’m going to make sure that I do whatever I can and to push for starts.”

On the other hand, all reports have been positive in terms of the attitude and approach of Irving in Abbotsford, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances for him. Despite not playing as much as he’s accustomed in a crucial season in his career, Irving has approached things as well as you could hope.

“I’ve been really impressed with his attitude,” Heat goalie coach Jordan Sigalet told Sportsnet 960 last month. “You didn’t know how he was going to take it, but he’s been working hard, he’s always one of the first guys out on the ice and one of the last guys off now.

It’s definitely a totally different situation for him because he’s used to playing every game night in and night out."

The best part about this discussion is that we finally get to see it play out on the ice. It’s the very best way to decide something as hotly contested as this, and it falls right in line with the merit system Calgary is so big on continuing. Karlsson and Irving will have somewhere around five days on the ice to win an NHL job. Their performance is huge for the exploits of the Flames, and will make a huge impact on the utilization of Kiprusoff. However, this shortened camp will likely play a big part in determining the future of both goalies within the organization.

Irving and Karlsson are each on expiring contracts, and it’s becoming more and more clear that Karri Ramo is very much part of the future in Calgary. Acquired from Montreal along with Mike Cammalleri just over a year ago, Ramo is also on an expiring contract in Russia and has publicly been called “number two on the depth chart” by GM Jay Feaster as recently as this summer.

Calgary’s goaltending situation is a good one to have, because they have options. Joni Ortio is putting up nice numbers in Finland; Laurent Brossoit of the Edmonton Oil Kings was one of the final cuts from Team Canada at the World Juniors; and Jon Gillies continues to put up solid numbers at Providence College to go along with his American World Junior gold medal.

The goalie pipeline looks promising for the Flames, and now it’s on Karlsson and Irving to prove they belong right in the mix, if not at the head of the pack. For a Calgary team basing everything on meritocracy, I would imagine they wouldn’t want it any other way.

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