If you tuned out of the Los Angeles Kings' thrashing of the Calgary Flames early, you didn't miss much. Well, except for this one particular tidbit: Jonas Hiller, he who has started 34 games this season - including all eight since the All-Star Break - has the flu.
Hiller having the flu in and of itself isn't shocking. A number of Flames skaters, including Jiri Hudler, Mikael Backlund, Brandon Bollig, Paul Byron, and Sean Monahan have all fallen ill at some point since resuming the regular season. Something is clearly making its way around the locker room.
What is shocking is that Hiller started the game. A sick goalie was entrusted with the reigns for the eighth time in a row. And while you can't blame the 5-3 loss all on him - his team mercilessly allowed him to face 40 shots, while providing little offensive support of their own - some of those goals, he should have had.
And he didn't, maybe because he had the flu.
... And started the game anyway.
Even though the Flames have a more-than-capable backup goaltender in Karri Ramo.
So what's up? Why didn't Hartley start his healthy goalie? Well, he has a bit of a history of giving him a hard time...
Karri Ramo returns to the NHL
The Flames entered the 2013-14 season without Miikka Kiprusoff. Instead, they had an awkward three-headed monster of sorts: Joey MacDonald, a veteran who had split time with Kipper the season before; Karri Ramo, freshly returned from his four-season stint in the KHL; and Reto Berra, coming to North America for the first time after a lifetime playing in his native Switzerland. Throughout the season, MacDonald started nine games, Ramo 37, and Berra 27 for the Flames.
Berra, new to North America, did not join the NHL until early November. That means it was MacDonald and Ramo handling all of October, during which both goalies played six games. MacDonald was then sent down to make way for Berra.
In November, Berra played 11 games. Ramo played four, one of which was the result of Berra being pulled late in the game. Berra dominated the month of November 2013 in ice time... but not in save percentage, as Ramo had the slight edge, .896% to Berra's .888%, albeit in substantially less game time. Still, it was odd how Berra was immediately given the starter's reigns when he came to Calgary, while Ramo was never afforded such an opportunity, especially in light of Berra's poor performance throughout the month.
It took time for things to regress, both statistically as both goalies began posting more acceptable save percentages, and for the starts to be evenly split. Both goalies played seven games in Decemeber, and then Ramo played 11 games in January while Berra played five.
Why did it take half a season for Ramo to earn consistent starts, as opposed to his counterpart, who was granted them immediately? Nobody was posting particularly great save percentages until December, yet Ramo was the only one who seemed to suffer for it.
Throughout the rest of the season, Ramo - when healthy - was the starter. Aside from Joni Ortio's brief call up, Ramo was the only one who looked to be NHL level. Berra played poorly, was traded, and a healthy Ramo had the majority of the starts, averaging a much-improved .919 save percentage compared to the .888% with which he started the season.
All this is to say: Ramo had to earn his starter's position with the Flames. Berra did not.
Enter Jonas Hiller, enter alternating starts
With Berra traded, MacDonald let go, and Ortio needing more time in the minors, the Flames needed to sign a goalie before the 2014-15 season got underway. It looked like Ramo would be the starter, but then the Flames threw him a curveball, signing longtime Anaheim Ducks starter Jonas Hiller.
For the first month of the season, the Flames didn't have a true starter. Hiller would play, then Ramo would go between the pipes. Hiller, then Ramo. Hiller, then Ramo. This pattern went on for 11 games, until the end of the month, when Hiller started his second game in a row.
Both goalies played well - Ramo had a .914% save percentage, while Hiller posted a .941% - but it was Hiller who had started to stand out, especially thanks to a 2-1 overtime win over the Chicago Blackhawks in which he stopped a ridiculous 49 of 50 shots. Throughout October, Hiller faced roughly 32 shots a game, while Ramo saw an average of 28. The Flames, for whatever reason, were giving up fewer shots against with Ramo in net.
Jonas Hiller's takeover
Hiller, however, being the first Flames goaltender to receive back-to-back starts, started to pull away. His streak extended to five starts in all before Ramo came back into the picture. The Finn, having not played in two weeks, let in four goals on 22 shots against the Florida Panthers before he was pulled. Hiller then started the next two games before Ramo played one, then Hiller another two, then they alternated the next two games after.
As November drew to a close, Ramo drew the San Jose Sharks on the second of a back-to-back. He shut them out. He got to take the next game, where he shut out the Arizona Coyotes. Ramo then played the next three games, only relinquishing the starter's role when he finally lost in what was to be the start of the eight-game losing streak.
The two goalies alternated starts as both kept losing, until Hiller received back-to-back starts against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks, probably in part due to that heroic game he had back in October. He lost both.
Ramo reclaimed the net for the Dec. 16 game against the New York Rangers. He let in four goals on 13 shots before he was pulled, and didn't start another game until Jan. 7, against the Detroit Red Wings. Hiller had seven consecutive starts between those two games, including a back-to-back with the second game on the road.
To recap where we are now: Hiller had the better numbers in October, so he started earning more starts. That's fair. Once taking over as starter in November, though, Hiller's numbers plummeted. His .941 save percentage from October became a .885, which is... well... abhorrent. Berra-level, even. Ramo, meanwhile, posted a .925 save percentage over the five games he played. As November drew to a close and Ramo started earning consecutive starts, he proved he was capable of posting impressive numbers, too.
Yet during the losing streak, Hiller was the only one granted back-to-back starts, even with both goalies posting poor numbers (although Ramo's were worse, the loss to the Buffalo Sabres - a team that does not generate many shots at all - doing him in). And after the losing streak, it took another loss to get Ramo, increasingly out of practice, back in net. That's when disaster struck him.
Karri Ramo's injury
Ramo was playing well against Detroit. He'd only given up one goal on 13 shots over 30 minutes. Then his defence gave up a breakaway to the Wings, and he decided to charge out of his net for the poke check. His head collided with Rafa Diaz's knee, and he ended up on injury reserve. Despite rejoining the Flames two weeks later, he has not started a game since.
The Flames have played nine games since Ramo has returned. Ortio, in the midst of his streak, started one, while Hiller has taken the other eight contests. Ramo has, however, relieved Hiller twice in dismally poor efforts by the rest of the team: a 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and last night's dreadful game against the Kings. Hiller posted sub-.900 save percentages in those games. He also had sub-.900 save percentages in two other games.
Basically: Hiller has started eight consecutive games. He has not managed a .900 save percentage in half of them. He has fluctuated between all-world and below league average over this streak, and then, when he came down with the flu... was granted another start. Over a goalie who was not only healthy, but had recently provided relief over nearly three quarters of a period, and had performed well in his most recent play.
There was no excuse to start a sick, fluctuating goalie in place of a healthy one. Or was the plan to just never start Ramo again?
Bob Hartley vs. Karri Ramo
There have been times when Hartley has been justified in not starting Ramo. Then, there are times that are head scratchers. Hiller starting with the flu is one of those times, but this has been going on for a while now.
To recap: when Ramo first came to the Flames, he had to earn the starter's role, and it took him half a season to do it. Berra, meanwhile, despite often having inferior numbers, had the starter's role simply handed to him. (This isn't the only instance in which Hartley has displayed this sort of favouritism: see Baertschi, Sven and Colborne, Joe, but that's a post for another day.)
The start to this season, however, was fair. The Flames, in signing Hiller, gave themselves a legitimate goaltending tandem, and they performed extremely well over October. Hiller performed better, though, and so he was granted the starter's reigns.
But when he began to falter, posting multiple sub-.900 games in a row, Ramo was offered little opportunity to relieve him. It took a shutout for Ramo to earn consecutive starts. Ramo has not played consecutive games since his winning streak came to an end.
When Hiller has multiple bad games in a row, he's allowed to start the next one. Ramo has not once been afforded that opportunity this season. Rather than using his backup goaltender to provide much-needed relief, Hartley has instead opted to essentially just ignore him.
Now, with Ramo an upcoming free agent, his status is more in question than ever. Do the Flames trade him? If they do and another team gives him consistent playing time, will he flourish? Could the possibility of Hiller getting burnt out - something we in Calgary, home of the "let's just play Kiprusoff 70+ games every season seven years in a row what could possibly go wrong" concept, are very familiar with - have been avoided?
Seriously: why did a goalie with the flu get the start?