ABBOTSFORD, BC -- Year in and year out, the Heat have been blessed with superb goaltending. This season is no different.
Since Reto Berra's departure from Abbotsford, Joni Ortio has taken the reins in the blue paint and has emerged as one of the top rookie goaltenders in the American league. The Finnish netminder's counterpart, veteran Joey MacDonald, has provided the Heat with an experienced element to balance Ortio's youthful enthusiasm.
Perhaps the foremost reason for Ortio's first year success has been the company he keeps around the rink. With Heat goalie coach Jordan Sigalet and a compleat NHL veteran to goose-step to, the Turku, Finland native has the foundation he needs to advance and develop his game.
Of course, hailing from a country informally dubbed the 'Goalie Factory' doesn't help curb expectations of the 22-year-old, but Ortio has shown he can play in arguably the second best league in the world.
After a rough pro debut two seasons ago, Ortio went back home in search of advancing his all-around game. Mission accomplished. Last season he played 54 games on an average HIFK Helsinki team of the SM-liiga posting a 2.42 GAA and a .917 save percentage. But that season Ortio gained the most important thing of all that can't be tracked on paper: confidence and consistency.
"I'm just an overall better goalie," he said confidently. "That last year helped me a lot. I played 70-plus games back home, so that really teaches you something. You can't do all that extra stuff because you'll get worn out. My game's much calmer right now. This time around I knew what to expect."
Heat goalie coach Jordan Sigalet has noticed a vast difference in his young backstop as well who runs through daily video sessions with his goalies and is continually teaching them techniques throughout practices.
"Joni's first year, obviously, he didn't play much," Sigalet explained. "If Joni was playing every game that year I think we would've seen a different goalie. Going back to Finland and getting all those minutes, it gave him a lot of confidence, helped him work on his game.
"The best way for a goalie to develop is to play games and that's what he got to do over there. So he came back over here pretty confident and obviously showed he was ready at training camp in Calgary and it's carried over. His big thing has been consistency all year, so hopefully he keeps that going."
Ortio's consistency has earned him the honour of being the backbone of one of the winningest teams in the league. It's a consistency that's found him atop the goaltending leader boards where he sits third in AHL wins, eleventh in goals against average (third amongst rookies) and twelfth in save percentage (third amongst rookies).
"The biggest thing I've been impressed with has obviously been his consistency and his calmness in the net," said Sigalet.
"It kind of reminds you a little of Danny Taylor with how calm he is in there. The biggest things we've been trying to work on has been his rebound control. Just getting better with his stick and not relying on his pads as much. You know, when he gets in trouble, he's kicking pucks back out to the middle. But he's a pleasure to work with. So is Joey. I've been spoiled here for three years having good guys and good goalies to work with, which makes my job a lot easier."
Also making Sigalet's job easier is Joey MacDonald who is like a second goalie coach to Ortio. While their relationship may be a new one, MacDonald has nothing but praise and high hopes for the youngster.
"He's a great guy," said the Nova Scotia native. "I've only been here for a month and a half, but we've been getting along great. He works hard and I see a big upside to him. I think the way things are going, he'll be up shortly.
"An older guy who's been around like myself, I'm sure there's always a few things that he looks at me for. Since training camp, I've thought he's a good goalie. Just the way he plays. He makes things a lot simpler, which is big."
"He's an unbelievable guy," Ortio said, returning the compliment. "He's a regular NHLer and he's a great goalie. Obviously I can learn and I have learned things from him just watching him day-in and day-out putting in that work. So that's been helping me a lot too."
MacDonald's presence on the team has gone beyond just influencing Ortio. According to Sigalet, he's been great with all his teammates.
"Joey's been great with all the guys, not just with our goalies. On the road, we'll usually room the goalies together, but with the situation of Granlund and Ortio, the two FinNs, we've been putting them together to just help Markus adjust. So they're not rooming on the road but they're pretty tight. They support each other one hundred percent. They always want the best out of each other, which is good. That's going to make them excel.
"I'm sure MacDonald doesn't want to be in the AHL, but he's come down with a great attitude. I think that's great for Joni to see and build off that. They just push each other. It doesn't matter if they're playing or they're on the bench. They're good character guys, good team guys and I think that's why Joey's been in the game so long and has been such a great backup in the NHL. He's not playing every game down here, but it doesn't phase him. He's always pushing Joni and when he gets in he's been great for us."
Great indeed. Off the ice, he's a mentor and a leader to his young teammates. On the ice, he continues to put up the best numbers of his AHL career.
"[My season] is going good. It feels good. It's tough when things work out the way they do and I end up playing down here after being in the NHL for so long, but you've got to take a positive out of it, work hard and try and work your way back."
Great goaltending is the pillar of good teams and the Heat are reaping the rewards of having just that. In the meantime, Flames management and fans alike will continue to observe Ortio's development to see if yet another Finnish backstop will don the Flaming 'C'. The foundation has certainly been set.
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