There have been multiple pieces penned by the hockey blogosphere this season and prior to it proclaiming the decline of Flames goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, most with the same message--Kiprusoff is no longer amongst the NHL's elite class of netminders, he hasn't been for quite some time, and he should be moved before his value depreciates entirely--and frankly, it's beginning to get on my nerves a little bit.
Since Darryl Sutter acquired then third-stringer Kiprusoff for a third-round pick back in 2003, he has progressed from little-known commodity to Vezina winner and from 'hero' to 'goat' and back again within a season, a playoff series, or even a single game. After setting a modern-day goals against record in 2003-04 with a 1.69 GAA and back-stopping his team to a division title in his Vezina winning season (during which he battled a hip injury), there's no question that Kiprusoff has experienced a decline, as illustrated by the fall in his ES SV% in each of the three seasons following his outrageously high .941 in 2005-06 (.932, .919, and .907 respectively).
At times, he has been almost entirely to blame for the team's struggles--to the degree that the demise of the 2008-09 Flames largely fell on his shoulders.
Understandably, there was concern expressed for the future of the Flames' aging #1 'tender following the Flames' disposal at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks; the netminder was turning 33-years old and still had four more years at $5,833,333 per season left on his contact, complete with an NMC. He was no longer providing value for his contract and that was quickly becoming apparent to other teams.
As the majority of NHL teams moved away from awarding expensive contracts to experienced puck stoppers in favour of spending more on the players in front of them that work to both limit goals against and simultaneously out-score the opposition, many argued that Kiprusoff's low-value deal had become a boon for the club, preventing them from acquiring the top-six talent needed to improve their standing in the West.
Goaltending is a funny business, and one in which so many factors outside of the individual's control can alter the results of any given game.
Unanticipated by many, Kiprusoff had his best season since the one following his Venzina win at the age of 33, leading his bunch of hard-luck, low-shooting, low-scoring Flames to within six points of a playoff spot, missing out on the post-season for the first time since 2002-03.
Most Flames followers once again believed it would be impossible for Kiprusoff, now 34, to replicate his efforts, and some advocated a move while his value was at the highest it had been in years.
Miikka has not been without his low-points this season, including a stretch of poor play earlier this year that saw the Flames struggle to establish themselves amongst their Western Conference foes after beginning the slow climb from the basement, but he has been marvelous since mid-January despite the fact that the team in front of him has been shaky at times, only twice allowing more than three goals in regulation. His ES SV% is pushing .920 and he ranks in the top ten in most major statistical categories for goaltenders. His six shutouts is his highest total since he had seven in 2006-07 and he could be on pace to tie that number this season. He's on pace for a slight decline in overall SV% this season, but for a 34-year old playing 70+ games yet again this season, .909 is not terrible.
With the way this team is structured, they need a guy like Kiprusoff in net to make those big stops. Since 2008-09, they haven't been the best possession squad, and examples of games where they have been overrun in their own end for long stretches at a time only to have their 'tender save their bacon are numerous. In fact, that very sequence played itself out before our eyes in last night's contest.
Maybe I'm a goaltender apologist or just a Kiprusoff apologist, but if the Flames want to rid themselves of his cap hit for the next three seasons and replace him with someone that comes at less of a cost, I don't think the team can expect to win many games the way it is set up right now and for the immediate future. Cheap goaltenders are for talented teams, and the Flames, despite their recent successes, are not amongst that upper echelon that can afford to skimp on a puck stopper.
Kiprusoff's athleticism, endurance, and focus have been virtually unparalleled over the course of his time in Calgary. Since becoming the Flames' starter, he has played the lion's share of games on some weak teams without a "reliable" back-up goaltender, whatever that means these days. He's not amongst the NHL's top goaltenders anymore--he's still 21st in the league in goals against average and 30th in save percentage-- that's a fact, but does that really matter? With all the fuss about teams not needing an elite goaltender, you'd think it wouldn't. Undoubtably on the back-end of his career, he continues to be a difference maker for this club, and this season, that difference could be the Flames making the playoffs versus them being on the outside looking in for the second consecutive season.