Showing faith in Henrik Karlsson

Let’s just state the obvious – the Calgary Flames are having a bad season.

With the team struggling, the once loved Darryl Sutter shipped back to work on the family farm, and many cornerstone players of the organization being mentioned in trade talk, there has been little reason to celebrate.

The refreshingly candid Jay Feaster is hesitant to say a rebuild is in order, but whatever he, the ownership and management wants to call it, the Flames are in for changes.

That being said, many die hard Flames fans have prematurely labeled the entire roster as disposable. The focus has been solely on underachievers and immovable contracts (of which there are many). The bright spots on the roster have been lumped in with all the doom and gloom. In fact, future Flames captain Mark Giordano has probably been the lone roster player to escape the rebuke of a fan base looking for scapegoats.

Lost in the negative outlook is rookie Henrik Karlsson. The lofty Swede, known to many local fans as ‘The Calgary Tower,’ could have easily fallen victim to the Miikka Kiprusoff curse. The Flames have cycled through backup goaltenders at a dizzying pace because of Kiprusoff’s workhorse approach. Karlsson may be the goalie to break the trend.

Since allowing six goals in his second career NHL start in October, Karlsson has allowed more than two goals on only one occasion. Granted, he’s only seen a total of eight NHL starts, but that makes his improvement all the more promising.

Listed at 6’5 and 215 pounds, Karlsson can cover a lot of the net. His stance sets him surprisingly low in the net and ensures that most ice level shots will be stopped. He moves quickly from side-to-side and can easily cover the full width of the net. To date, his weakness appears to be the upper part of the net. He can drop into his butterfly a bit early, which opens the upper portion of the net. This habit, and other rookie issues, is something he’ll soon address after more experience and/or with goalie coach Jamie McLennan.

Obtained from the San Jose Sharks for a sixth round pick in 2010, Karlsson’s acquisition is coincidentally similar to Kiprusoff, who Sutter also acquired from San Jose for a draft pick. The chances of Karlsson developing into an elite level goalie, such as Kiprusoff did, is unlikely. However, Karlsson may be an excellent example of what the Flames will need in the new NHL.

As salary cap issues continue to plague the Flames, a serviceable goalie who can steal the occasional game might be in the cards. The improved play and promising development of Leland Irving down in Abbotsford could finally provide Calgary with a new model for between the pipes.

While many goalies have shown promise early in NHL careers only to make mediocrity their norm, Karlsson appears to be different. Karlsson comes out of a strong and storied Farjestads program in Sweeden, which most recently produced Toronto’s Jonas Gustavsson. Karlsson is also part of the emerging trend of large Sweedish goalies breaking into the NHL – see Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback in Nashville.

The Flames need to take some risks in order to refresh and recharge their roster. One of those risks should be providing more starts to Karlsson leading up to the February 28 trade deadline in order to get a better picture of his skill set and development potential. His confidence and determination are evident, but whether he can truly deliver results remains to be seen.

If Karlsson has what it takes, which I feel he does, the Flames need to seriously consider their goaltending options. Kiprusoff is still a strong trade asset, but with each year his age will lower the value. I don’t feel that Kiprusoff would veto a trade and the return of picks and/or prospects would be a large step forward in reshaping the team.

Kiprusoff’s $5.8 million cap hit through 2013-14 could be the largest problem. Few teams could take on that salary without sending salary back. That is, unless one of the cap rich but finance limited teams is willing to absorb it – here’s looking at you New York Islanders, Colorado and Florida.

Karlsson’s $500,000 contract, which runs out at the end of the season, would be a significant drop in cap hit, even if he were to get a raise upon resigning. Considering a goalie like Jonathan Quick makes less than $2 million, Karlsson wouldn’t be expect to draw a large increase in pay even as a starter.

With veterans like Jose Theodore, Johan Hedberg and Dwayne Roloson all potentially headed for UFA in the summer, Calgary could bring in a dependable and cheap goalie to help Karlsson in his development. This could be a much safer option than a rookie tandem of Karlsson-Irving. A Theodore-Karlsson, Hedberg-Karlsson, or any other veteran-Karlsson combination could leave Calgary with less than $4 million committed to goaltending.

No one could deny the risks associated with going this route. The risks are probably what have kept most people from even mentioning this option. However, the realities of Calgary’s situation will eventually force management to take high risk chances.

Antti Niemi and the Chicago Blackhawks showed that championships can be won when big money is spent on skaters rather than goalies. It’s time for the Calgary Flames to prove that the model truly works.

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