What a difference a few months make.
After starting off the season with a dreadful 3-8-1 record, 3.07 goals against, and .882 save percentage, Flames goaltender Brian Elliott was surpassed by backup Chad Johnson for the lion’s share of minutes in the Calgary crease.
Given that Elliott is in the last year of his contract, the idea of bringing the 31-year-old back for another season seemed unlikely.
But Elliott slowly began to rebuild his confidence just before the Christmas break.
Since a December 19 start against the Arizona Coyotes, the Newmarket, Ontario product has been one of the hottest goaltenders in the NHL, going 20-5-2, with a 2.07 GAA, and a .917 save percentage.
Etching his name into the Flames record books, Elliott tied all-time great Mike Vernon’s record of 11 consecutive wins with a shootout victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins last week.
Just as we all predicted would happen back in November, a team record-tying 11-game winning streak for Brian Elliott. #OfCourseHeWill
— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) March 20, 2017
With both Elliott and Johnson on expiring deals, the logical answer with Elliott’s run over the second half of the season would be to re-sign the vet and potentially let Johnson test free agency.
There is a wrinkle in that plan however, as the Flames would need to mortgage a small piece of their future to re-sign the reigning William Jennings Trophy winner.
Acquired in a trade with the St. Louis Blues at the 2016 NHL Draft, Calgary gave up their second round pick last year (Jordan Kyrou) and a conditional third round selection in 2018. The condition on that pick was that St. Louis would acquire the pick if Calgary elects to re-sign Elliott during the offseason.
This presents an interesting dilemma for the Flames as they’ll have to weigh whether another few years of Elliott between the pipes is worth giving up another draft pick.
Calgary has already lost this year’s second and third round picks in the Curtis Lazar and Michael Stone trades, and could also lose next year’s fifth rounder if Stone re-signs with the Flames before hitting free agency.
Some might see re-signing Elliott as mortgaging the future and mismanaging assets, but if the Flames want to establish themselves as a contender, this is something that will need to be done.
Not since Miikka Kiprusoff has Calgary had stable goaltending, with their crease resembling a circus carousel over the last four years.
Elliott’s goals against average currently sits at a 2.50 through 42 games, which is the highest of any of Calgary’s nine goaltenders since Kiprusoff’s retirement.
But with Elliott’s performance over the last few months, the Flames are now securely in a playoff position, have seen their defensive numbers improve, and has allowed players like TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton to take more risks offensively knowing that Elliott can bail them out from time to time.
A valid argument against the signing is that Elliott is mainly a stopgap until either Jon Gillies or Tyler Parsons is ready to take over, so why should the Flames dish out more money for a goalie who isn’t the longterm solution?
The key word in that argument is ‘stopgap,’ as in Calgary still needs someone to fill in that gap between Kiprusoff and potentially their next franchise goaltender.
Although he looks like the eventual solution, Gillies has been up and down throughout his first full season in the American Hockey League with a 14-14-1 record, 2.97 GAA, and .909 save percentage.
There is a chance he could join the Flames as a backup next season, but is at least two years away from becoming a starting goalie in the NHL.
As for Parsons, although he just signed his entry-level contract, he has yet to play a game of professional hockey and is probably three to four years away from seeing any regular season action with Calgary.
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) March 19, 2017
If the Flames were still bottom-feeders and out of the playoff picture, cutting ties with Elliott would make more sense.
However, Calgary finds themselves in a position to return to the post-season with a core of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett, Matthew Tkachuk, Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton.
Who’s to say that all of these players will still be with the team three or four years down the line?
Although the Flames are tight against the salary cap, Bennett and Tkachuk are still on their entry-level deals and allow the team the space to re-sign veteran talent such as Brian Elliott.
No team wants to see draft picks walk out the door, especially when they’ve had success with picks in recent years (see: Monahan, Brodie, Gaudreau).
But, the Flames and Blues agreed to this deal at the 2016 Draft, meaning Calgary is comfortable with the notion of potentially losing that third round selection in the hopes of securing some stability in the crease.
And if the team is confident in their ability to challenge for playoff berths over the next few years, re-signing Elliott in the off-season should be an easy decision for Flames brass.