Before we get into the Draft stuff (the Flames actually have a first round pick this year--yay!), I think now would be a good time to begin looking at some players already in the Flames' system, particularly some of the rookies that saw their first full-time AHL action this past season. Today, however, we'll start with the goaltenders--in particular, the seemingly anointed goalie of the future in Leland Irving, who appears to have taken over the role of starter for the Heat.
By the numbers, Irving, a first round pick of the Flames in 2006, had what was by far his best season in the American Hockey League; in 61 games, the third year pro had 30 wins and eight shutouts with an overall SV% of .913, beating out Matt Keetley and Jean-Philippe Lamoureux for the starting job as the Heat missed out on a post-season berth in their second season. As an RFA this summer, Irving's play this past season has likely made the decision between himself and ECHL-fodder Keetley (UFA) an easy one for Flames brass, especially with Joni Ortio coming over from Europe and signing an entry-level contract.
In the context of the entire league, Irving's numbers aren't all that impressive. His save percentage puts him 18th amongst goalies who played 1560 minutes or more and he ranks tenth in terms of GAA, although he did lead the league in shutouts. Just how terrible this year's Abbotsford team was is reflected by the fact that Irving ranked sixth amongst AHL goaltenders in terms of saves made, stopping 1386 pucks, allowing an average of 2.30 goals per game while playing the most minutes of any AHL goalie (3437).
In a recent interview, Irving stated that his goal for next season was to "get stronger and faster" and come into Flames training camp lean but with "a little more body fat" to avoid injuries. While Irving remained fairly healthy and certainly took a step forward this year, he's not exactly dominating the AHL--although it would be interesting to see what he could do with a capable team in front of him, as Abbotsford was far from that this past season for a multitude of reasons, chiefly a negative goal differential and a lack of offence that saw them finish dead last in the league in goals with 186--130 of which came at even strength.
With Henrik Karlsson potentially hitting the UFA market on July 1, we briefly discussed Irving's chances at the backup role on this week's podcast, and the general consensus seems to be that another year as a starter in the AHL would benefit his development more than would sitting on the bench and making an occasional appearance in relief of Miikka Kiprusoff in Calgary next season. What say you?