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With trio of solid goaltenders, Flames facing tough questions in net

Having a strong preseason in the Flames crease, rookie Joni Ortio is the team’s youngest goalie by far and at $600,000 a season, he is also the cheapest by a long shot.

Bruce Fedyck/USA Today Sports

It was the first day of training camp and the question put to coach Bob Hartley fixed on the Calgary Flames' complex three-way goaltending battle.

"I'm a coach, not a banker," Hartley answered. "I'll make the best possible decision for the organization."

And that, right there, really summed up a discussion that will not be resolved until the conclusion of Saturday's final exhibition game against the Winnipeg Jets.

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Of the three candidates to play goal for Calgary this season, one – rookie Joni Ortio – is in a far different place, career-wise, than the other two. At 24, he is the youngest by far and at $600,000 a season, he is also the cheapest by far.

If the goal in Calgary is to continue developing this still wet-behind-the-ears team until it is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, then keeping Ortio ahead either the 33-year-old Jonas Hiller or the 29 year-old Karri Ramo makes sense.

Complicating matters is that banking question Hartley raised. All three goaltending candidates are on one-way contracts and all three require waivers to get assigned to the minors.

The entire rationale behind signing Ramo to a one-year contract this past summer was to provide depth and flexibility at the position. A year ago, because of injuries to Ramo and Ortio, the Flames were one additional bad break away from turning to a career minor-leaguer, Brad Thiessen, in the midst of a playoff race.

Usually, teams will spin some rhetoric about the players deciding these things through their training camp performances and lots of times, that happens. Someone will demonstrate by their play they are clearly not ready for the pressure, the pace, or the hundred-mile-an-hour slap shots – all the things that separate the NHL game from the levels below.

But that hasn't happened in Calgary, where all three have been rock solid. Ortio had a .967 save percentage after two appearances and his play Thursday night, behind a makeshift defence, in the next-to-last game against the Jets demonstrated a readiness to move up to the next level.

In their previous outing, Hiller and Ramo split a shutout over the Colorado Avalanche. Like Ortio, their preseason numbers – pro-rated over the course of an 82-game regular season – would have them in Vézina Trophy contention.

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Of course, there is a big difference between playing well against marginal semi-unmotivated lineups and real NHL competition, so all these games can do is provide a guideline for the organization, and not a true reading on what a player can do once they start to play for real.

The chances of Ortio clearing waivers if he gets sent down are 50-50 at best, if only because he would be a cheap insurance policy for teams such as the Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning or the New York Islanders that may be scouring the waiver wire for help at the backup position.

If Hiller ($4.5-million) or Ramo ($3.8-million) are waived, just because of the hefty dollars on their contracts, their path to the minors – or perhaps to an assignment to a team in Europe or Russia – would be less bumpy. If the decision were made to jettison one of them, in all probability, it would likely happen in a trade, with Calgary assuming a portion of the salary.

Hartley is like every NHL coach every year; he wants to win – the next game and the game after, and make the playoffs and then make a run. But the mandate when he took the job was also clear: Organizationally, the Flames have to endure some growing pains as their prospects adjust to NHL life.

There will be reprieves up front and on defence, because both Joe Colborne (broken thumb) and T.J. Brodie (broken wrist) were injured in exhibition play, but since the Flames do not want to carry an extra goaltender, there is a hard decision on the horizon in goal.

"We have three goalies on one-way contracts and two kids who will push in the short future," Hartley assessed. "It's a good problem. Tough decisions are a good problem to have. Three years ago, we saw some promising kids – and those kids have turned into great players for us.

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"It isn't going to be easy. I enjoy the first day more than the last three days of camp. It's going to be hell."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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