Leland Irving

Leland Irving

Irving inks new contract, sets sights on Flames backup job

As far as on-ice preparation goes, it's already been a productive summer for Leland Irving.

As far as on-ice preparation goes, it’s already been a productive summer for Leland Irving.

The erstwhile Abbotsford Heat goalie is spending the off-season in Vernon, and he’s found a rather impressive practice partner in the B.C. interior.

That would be Flames star Jarome Iginla, he of the 516 career NHL goals and two Olympic gold medals, who also happens to be summering in the area with his family.

“We kind of figured we’d skate together, and it’s been great,” Irving told The News via cellphone. “He’s one of the best, and a great guy to have on your team. It’s a lot of fun competing with him, and we test each other on the ice every time we’re out there.”

As far as the off-ice, business-side stuff, that took a little longer than usual to wrap up this summer. The Flames extended a qualifying offer to the restricted free agent in late June, which generally paves the way for an expedient return to the organization.

But a month went by with no deal, leading to speculation that Irving might head over to Europe if he couldn’t get a contract from the Flames that was to his liking. Irving had considered Europe last summer, after Calgary signed backup Henrik Karlsson to a two-year, one-way contract, seemingly blocking his path to NHL employment.

But on Friday, Irving put pen to paper on a new one-year, two-way contract which pays him $687,500 in the NHL and $207,500 in the AHL.

If he’s back in Abbotsford, he’s in line for a nice raise – last year’s contract paid him $150,000 at the AHL level. But the most important thing to him is, he feels the Flames are going to give him a legit chance to battle Karlsson for the Flames’ backup job in September.

“I was always coming back to Calgary,” he said. “It was just about getting the right deal done, and I think both sides are happy with the way things worked out.

“We went back and forth a little bit, and there were a lot of things to consider. But I’m extremely excited to have another chance to battle for a spot behind Kipper (Flames starter Miikka Kiprusoff).”

Irving, the Flames’ first-round pick in 2006, got his first taste of NHL hockey last season after Karlsson suffered a knee injury. His stats (1-3-3 record, 3.20 goals against average, .912 save percentage) may not have lit the world on fire, but neither did Karlsson’s (1-4-2, 3.17, .899). Irving served as the Flames’ de facto No. 2 keeper even after Karlsson returned to health, as he was recalled on several occasions to make spot starts in relief of Kiprusoff.

“Leland made some great strides last season in attempting to establish himself as being ready to carry the load as the back-up goaltender in Calgary,” Flames general manager Jay Feaster said in a press release. “At the same time, in order for us to have the success we want as a team, it will be necessary for our back-up goalie not merely to start 20-plus games but also to win more than half those starts.

“We are pleased to have Leland under contract for the upcoming season and look forward to what should be a hard-fought and spirited battle in training camp between Leland and Henrik Karlsson.”

Irving is eager to take on that challenge. In addition to his on-ice sessions with Iginla and other Vernon-area pros, he’s planning to work with goalie coaches Lyle Mast and Kim Dillabaugh in August as he ramps up for training camp.

“I’m extremely excited for the opportunity, and working hard to get in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” said Irving, who went 22-13-4-2 with a 2.67 goals against average and a .902 save percentage in Abbotsford last season. “All you can ask for is a chance, and I feel like I’m going to get that.”