Miikka Kiprusoff's NHL career began in the San Jose Sharks organization – and it may well have ended there, in non-descript fashion, but for the events of Grey Cup Sunday in 2003.
The Calgary Flames were casting about for goaltending help – again – and kicked the tires on a number of possibilities. But Darryl Sutter did what NHL general managers so often do and went for the familiar, a guy buried in his previous organization's depth chart.
The Sharks made Kiprusoff the odd man out, instead keeping Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, and in return received a second-round draft choice in 2005 that was used on Marc-Édouard Vlasic, a serviceable NHL defenceman.
But Kiprusoff went on to become a star, and the Sharks ultimately rued the day they traded him to a rival, as it was Kiprusoff who backstopped the Flames to an upset victory over San Jose in the 2004 Western Conference final. The Sharks have not come closer to winning the Stanley Cup. For that matter, Calgary hasn't gone any deeper in the playoffs since that memorable run, but it's not because of Kiprusoff, who relentlessly, year after year, props up an average team.
Now, some 8 1/2 years later, Kiprusoff returns to San Jose on Wednesday, seeking to become just the 27th goaltender in NHL history to record 300 wins.
Kiprusoff, 35, is quiet, almost painfully shy, so getting anything beyond the rudimentary observations out of him is difficult. But such a milestone clearly doesn't mean as much as career victory No. 277, which came in the opening week of the season against the Montreal Canadiens. It pushed Kiprusoff past Mike Vernon to become the Flames' all-time wins leader, now 285 and counting. (He had previously recorded 14 victories with the Sharks.)
That night, Kiprusoff talked about his gratitude towards the Flames for rescuing him from the goalie glut in San Jose that had him thinking about returning to Finland. Calgary turned out to be the perfect fit, a chance to be the defined starter, but he made the most of his opportunity, too.
Kiprusoff, according to winger Alex Tanguay, "gives you a chance to win on a nightly basis. This is my fourth season with the Flames and I don't think I've seen him play better. He's been outstanding all year. He's kept us in games. He's made the big save and he's made the timely save. He's been fun to watch and, hopefully, he keeps it going."
Kiprusoff rarely gives up a bad goal and has an unflappable presence. Post-to-post, there are few who move quicker or anticipate better. In terms of flexibility, Kiprusoff is right there with Gumby.
Whenever the Flames go on the road in February, star winger Jarome Iginla is generally the focal point, always obliged to address questions about his future in Calgary. But Kiprusoff poses an interesting case, too, given his age and the six-year, $35-million (U.S.) contract he signed after the 2007-08 season. It was one of the first of the heavily back-loaded, postlockout contracts designed to circumvent the NHL salary cap – and it may also be the first one that comes home to roost.
This is Year 4 in the deal; and Kiprusoff earns $6-million. Next year, his salary drops to $5-million and the final year is a bargain-basement $1.5-million.
When he signed, it was assumed Kiprusoff, who'll turn 37 at the start of that 2013-14 season, would walk away from the final year and quietly retire. Now? Maybe not.
In the meantime, GM Jay Feaster quietly put a succession plan in place – just in case.
Last month, the Flames acquired a possible heir apparent, 25-year-old Karri Ramo, from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Ramo is signed to play in Russia through the end of next year – perfect timing for the Flames. They can park him in an excellent development environment, with zero development costs, and Ramo becomes available just as Kiprusoff's future hits a critical point.
The challenge therefore is not to waste another fabulous, under-the-radar season from Kiprusoff, whose play has once again kept the Flames on the edge of the playoff race.