Did the Flames make their best goaltending bet?

So the Flames’ goaltending has not been totally ideal this season. It currently sits at a .900 save percentage, tied for 24th in the NHL. (Not last!)

It wasn’t ideal last season, either, and that was with a completely different cast. Then, however, it was .892, very much the worst in the league – and the only team below .900.

When’s the last time the Flames had what could be considered ideal goaltending? Uh… 2014-15, probably, when every percentage went the Flames’ way, and their .911 collective save percentage was tied for 15th in the league.

Except in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the Flames had the same goalies for the most part, give or take a stray Joni Ortio. Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo held down the fort one year – not masterfully, but well enough to give the rest of their team a chance night in and night out – and then had the fort cave in the very next season.

But both their contracts were up, and with a new cast, it should have been saved. And for some reason, it hasn’t been.

Elliott and Johnson are still the ideal tandem

Hiller and Ramo are both out of the NHL now. Fine, whatever. The Flames needed a clean slate anyway, and they got it in Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson.

And really, as bad as things have looked as of late, this was still the best option for the Flames. It took a high second round pick to get Elliott, and Johnson was a free agent pickup. They’re both a bit older, in their 30s now, but they cost a combined $3.2 million: cheaper than either goalie the season before.

And I want to stress this: they didn’t cost a lot to get.

Who would you have rather the Flames picked up? Ben Bishop, sporting a .904 save percentage this season? Imagine taking him on, giving him a big money deal – because that would have happened – and not having Matthew Tkachuk at all, because sixth overall was the asking price.

Marc-Andre Fleury? He’s going to cost Dougie Hamilton money for the next two seasons, he has a .904 save percentage this season, and acquiring him probably would have cost more than the 35th overall pick.

Another free agent? Out of everyone we targeted as a free agent possibility – and there weren’t too many of those available – James Reimer has the best save percentage, at .916. Johnson is second at .913. Reimer makes double what Johnson does and is signed until 2021 for what would be pretty much the same performance.

As much as the goaltending has been a problem this season, this is probably as good as we were going to get. The Flames didn’t give up anything major to get their pieces. They aren’t stuck with them long-term. And every single other feasible option would have provided results just as mediocre, regardless.

Elliott and Johnson may not be working out perfectly, but they were still far and away the best options for this team: both back when they were first acquired, and still today.

So what’s to be done?

Elliott’s results have been much more surprising than Johnson’s.

Prior to his 2015-16 with the Buffalo Sabres, Johnson was generally just a really good backup goalie. Then Robin Lehner got injured, and he proved to be the best option Buffalo had to the tune of playing 45 games – an NHL career high by 18 games for him.

Just over halfway through this season, he’s played 30 for the Flames. If that pace were to keep up, he’d hit 46 this season. It’s not unprecedented for him now, but going back through his career, the last time Johnson approached 90 games in back-to-back seasons was from 2011-13 – a span during which he played all of four NHL games. The rest were in the AHL.

Johnson gave an all-world performance earlier in the season, which was very appreciated; it’s entirely possible fatigue has just gotten to him at this point.

Which is why it’s even more important for Elliott to be better, starting now. This is not the .925 goalie the St. Louis Blues enjoyed for five seasons. (And before anyone goes “but the Blues are obviously better!” let’s not discount that with roughly the same cast of defenceman as last season they have the worst goaltending in the NHL this season, and they’re one of the teams the Flames are battling against for a wild card spot right now.)

I’ve got a theory, though.

Via Corsica, Elliott’s 25-game rolling save percentage average from last season into this season really doesn’t look so hot:

brian elliott rolling avg

But extend it back further, and… oh.

brian elliott rolling avg

In 2015-16, Elliott’s big uptick in save percentage started at about the end of January. If anything, though, this looks like he’s due for an upswing (and we’re kinda starting to see that in current play). The further you go back through his career, the more oscillating it does, although the lows have been much more extreme this season.

Now, there’s nothing that actually guarantees he’s due for good games. He’s on a new team with a suspect bottom half of the defence. He appeared to have, one way or another, lost the confidence of his coach (although hopefully this whole “win and you’re in” thing is a step towards changing that). And then there’s the fun adage that goalies are, simply, voodoo.

But considering the state of available goaltenders both in the offseason and probably for the rest of this season, Elliott was probably the Flames’ best bet – and he still is. 

I think that all there’s really left to do in the meantime is hope he actually is due. If he rebounds and consistently puts together good games, then the Flames might just be fine in net after all. If he doesn’t… well, then it was a good thing the Flames sought out two cheap goalies who aren’t committed beyond this season, isn’t it?

  • cjc

    If Elliot and Johnson tandem can post close to league average from here on out, I’m cool with that. The biggest challenge is getting the bottom half of the D to stop bleeding chances. As much as people think scoring is the issue, A fourth D who can run with Brodie (or promoting Kulak to the second pair) could do wonders for this team.

    • Cfan in Vic

      I loved the pads too, but just imagine how easy it would be to target the white holes amidst all the solid red. White pads vs. white mesh just makes sense.

      • Cfan in Vic

        I thought there was a recent article stating that the current changes are regarding the size of the pants, and that both Chad and Brian are unaffected…

        I’m not sure when the pad size change is in play, but I didn’t think that was coming this year. Upper body equipment and pad size is coming at some point though.

  • deantheraven

    I really hope that one of Rittich or Gillies (or both) play lights out for the rest of the AHL season and beyond so that management has to make a move. Better to make a deal for any of ’em. Otherwise do you let one of Elliott or Johnson walk as a UFA? Maybe one, just not both. Not yet.
    So, one of the current Flames Duo goes at the TDL, or one of the Farm hands goes in a package for something we need in the off season. If we stand pat and resign the two here now it causes a logjam at the minor levels. Somebody will be moved. Hopefully for something.

  • SamIAm

    Starting now I feel like its Elliot’s net to lose. Johnson has come back to earth and settled in as a very solid backup, which is what we signed him to be. If Elliot can go on a bit of a run here we can get closer to locking up a playoff spot.

  • Eggs Bennett

    The answer to the title of this post is …yes. More specifically, this is the best tandem that BT could have possibly have done. We have an all-world GM. This was true at the end of summer, it was true in January, and it will remain true going forward.

  • Just.Visiting

    I’m OK with swapping one into the trading deadline if value coming in return (vs doing a deal to do a deal) and going with one of the Stockton players for the rest of the year to understand how close they might be.

  • Stu Cazz

    Elliott’s horrible season can be quickly forgotten by providing superb consistent goaltending during the next 30 games and leading the Flames into the post season…..Johnson is performing exactly as advertised..a very capable back up goalie that will get you wins but remember he does not have the capability of a 1A NHL goalie….