With the long-awaited news of Mikael Backlund re-signing with the club coming earlier this week, the Flames' list of RFAs has dwindled down to one: goalie and former first round pick Leland Irving.
Irving was picked 26th overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, and made his first series of appearances as Miikka Kiprusoff's backup last year in Calgary. While the oldest of all the Flames' goalie prospects and the only one to have provided semi-regular relief for Kipper since Curtis McElhinney, Irving also finds himself immersed in an young, up-and-coming crop of goalie prospects that includes Joni Ortio, Karri Ramo (acquired in the Rene Bourque deal), Laurent Brossoit, and the newly drafted Jon Gillies. Henrik Karlsson also has one year left on his deal unless the Flames decide to move him.
So where does that leave Irving? Ortio was sent back to Finland on loan earlier this year and has signed with IFK Helsinki of the SM-Liiga for the upcoming season while 25-year-old Ramo has expressed interest in returning to North America after playing in the KHL for three seasons. Brossoit and Gillies are probably a long ways away from an NHL appearance, given what we know about the development path of most goalies, but stranger things have happened.
Others have said that this is the year Irving needs to prove himself at the NHL-level, but that will be difficult for him if Kiprusoff continues to play 70+ games per season and/or if Karlsson sticks around. If Irving signs a deal longer than one year, then that might help guarantee a spot for him the season after next (which is also when Kiprusoff's deal expires if he isn't moved before then), and the same could probably be said for Ramo. I suppose the question is if Irving is willing to stick around and wait another year or two for a real shot at being #1 or #1A, and if the Flames are willing to pay him more than league minimum to do so. Irving has certainly paid his dues in the six years since being drafted, but like others before him, the route to an NHL job with the Flames has not been easy or quick, even in what are likely the twilight years of Kiprusoff's career.
In Irving's little experience with the Flames, he faced an average of 34 shots per game and had a .912 SV%, and while it's difficult to accurately extrapolate what his performance would be like with a heavier workload (it might not be, but I just don't know how/am lazy), there were some games last season where he certainly kept his team in the game and gave them a chance to win that they probably didn't deserve. I tend to struggle when it comes to evaluating goalies, except Kipper (because I know he's the bees knees) and the elite 'tenders of the league, so I really don't know what to think about Irving (or any of the other goalie prospects in the system), and I know that opinions vary in other parts of the Flames' blogosphere as well. I mostly liked what I saw from him last season and I think he deserves a shot again this year--but like I said above, his situation won't really be any different this time around unless the Flames come to a decision about Karlsson, and especially not if Ramo, who may not want to toil in the AHL, hops across the pond.
One thing is certain--if Irving never manages to succeed above the AHL level or moves on to begin his career elsewhere, that will make yet another first round bust for the Flames from the Darryl Sutter era. The Jolly Rancher's drafting seems to be the gift that just keeps on giving for Flames fans!