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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The Brian Elliott dialectic: Cases for and against re-signing the Flames goalie

For the second straight summer, goaltending has dominated the Flames’ offseason plans.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Brian Elliott was supposed to take the wheel, Chad Johnson would occasionally help, and things would go smoothly.

It did not go smoothly. And here we are again, with no NHL goaltenders signed for next season, and no real desire to bring either of them back.

But isn’t that a hasty move? Should it really be decided this soon who the goalies of the future are? All things considered, Elliott was not that bad. The Flames rode him to the playoffs. Should they take another look before for real moving on?

For: Elliott’s playoff performance was not indicative of the goalie he usually is

Of course, the stakes are higher in the playoffs and failing to perform there is bad, but we should all take a step back. Yes, the final four games of the season absolutely sucked, and Elliott gave up some excruciatingly bad goals that added up to a Flames sweep. There’s no avoiding that truth.

But that is a four-game sample in a series where everything that could’ve possibly went wrong did. It’s very easy to get swept up in the emotions of such a tough series, but we should try and distance ourselves from the unfortunate results and see things more objectively.

Until this series, there was no way anyone was letting Elliott walk in the offseason. It was absolutely unthinkable to let the guy who led the team to the playoffs go to free agency. It’s a little bit of recency bias and a little bit of a bitter taste that is influencing these thoughts on Elliott. How would the sentiments change if the series went to six games? How would we feel if that goal had been ruled a high stick? I would think that the consensus around the Flames needing to overhaul their goaltending would be different.

When considering Elliott’s performance, you have to consider the whole body of work. And for his flaws, he still finished with a decent .910 SV% and a pretty good 5v5 SV% of .921. He was the key player for the 10-game win streak. Four bad games (really, two bad games, seeing as he was really good in Game One and pulled early in Game Four on a very fluky goal) should not decide his fate so easily.

Against: He was a spotty goaltender, regardless

If you dig a hole and then fill it up again, there isn’t a hole anymore but the net gain is still zero.

That’s the best way to describe Elliott’s season as a Flame. Sure, he is the reason the Flames made the playoffs, but he put the team in that situation to begin with. Elliott began the season 3-9-1, and he only posted a SV% over .900% five times during that stretch. Over the course of the season, he only finished .900 or better in 28 of his 49 appearances. That’s not good.

He was either on or he was off. Amazingly, in all but three games this season, his SV% was either over .920 or below .900. You either got a bonafide starter or replacement-level goaltending. It was only late in the season that people could actually trust Elliott with the net, and that eroded in four playoff games.

None of that is a vote of confidence for re-signing Elliott. You expect goalies to have bad games from time to time, but half of his games were below that .920 mark. He added to the team’s success but also hurt them at inopportune times. It’s hard to justify spending money on a 50/50 goaltender.

For: Elliott will be a lot cheaper then the other guys on the market

Ari wrote up a breakdown of the goaltenders who will feasibly be available this offseason and also accidentally pulled double duty and helped form a crucial point in this article. Thank you kindly, Ari.

Let’s look at group one, the trading group. Of those players, two are currently cheaper and better than Elliott, those two being Antti Raanta and Philipp Grubauer. They’re promising guys who will be exposed in the expansion draft, and the Rangers and Caps probably don’t want to lose them for free.

With two young, money-cheap, and valuable goalies, there’s going to be a bidding war for their services. The two teams know that they should probably accept the best offer they can get, but they also understand that they can get some great offers from some teams desperately in need of goaltending. That includes Calgary.

Now to group two, the UFA section. There are quite a few good options, but equally as many red flags. Peter Budaj has been surprising (I was shocked to learn he was still in the league), but is also old. Ryan Miller is also pretty old. Ben Bishop is going to be pricey for a goaltender who is mostly just a big name at this point.

The goalies that intrigue me from this group are Jonathan Bernier, Steve Mason, and Scott Darling. The first two have mostly been starters throughout their career, but have fallen out of favour. There will be questions, but they’ll come cheap. Darling has been Chicago’s backup forever, and will likely be the hottest ticket in town behind Bishop, although he also doesn’t have the starter experience.

So we’re more or less right back where we started. Getting a good, proven goalie isn’t cheap, either from a trade or UFA perspective. With Elliott’s not-so-great season, he’ll come back cheaper than he currently is and at a price that will be lower than what other goalies will fetch on the market.

Against: He still isn’t a starter and re-signing him still costs an asset

The one thing that the Flames hoped to get in Elliott was a starting goaltender. That did not happen.

Throughout his career, he’s been dogged by complaints that he is unproven as a starter. He’s always split time, no matter where he’s been. Elliott has always been reliable when his team has no other options, but has never been relied upon to be the #1 option. Perhaps it was poor performances, someone else playing out of their mind, or what have you. It’s just never happened.

And it didn’t happen in Calgary this year. That’s a problem because the Flames absolutely need a starter right now. They have a young core and they can’t keep throwing away positive steps because of bad goaltending. This year was supposed to Elliott’s “prove it” year and he did not prove it. Why should the Flames throw away another draft pick to sign someone who is still not a starter?

The next two goalies up are Jon Gillies and David Rittich, who have played a combined four periods of NHL hockey. If any of those guys will be up next year, they’re going to be the backup, which means the Flames need someone who can play at least 60 games.

You don’t get the feeling that that someone will be Elliott. He’s never gone past 55 games in a season (another season where he struggled heavily, albeit he was much younger), and it seems unwise to fork over an additional third round pick for a goalie who cannot convincingly hold that starter spot.

For: The Flames’ defensive mess contributed to Elliott’s struggles

Using 5v5, score, venue, and zone adjusted data from Corsica, here’s how the Flames’ defence performed according to the analytics:

Name CF% CFrel% SCF% SCFrel% XGF% XGFrel%
Dougie Hamilton 55.81% 7.13% 53.96% 8.13% 55.45% 9.26%
Mark Giordano 54.76% 5.70% 52.46% 5.98% 54.33% 7.62%
TJ Brodie 50.48% -0.89% 48.22% -0.55% 48.34% -1.57%
Dennis Wideman 49.58% -1.40% 47.21% -1.06% 46.95% -1.89%
Jyrki Jokipakka 44.79% -7.98% 39.53% -7.68% 41.47% -9.36%
Michael Stone 47.88% -6.88% 51.85% 0.68% 50.29% -2.83%
Deryk Engelland 47.92% -4.56% 44.37% -5.40% 44.99% -5.93%
Matt Bartkowski 48.07% -5.69% 41.63% -13.81% 43.96% -10.54%
Brett Kulak 50.02% 0.36% 51.50% 4.78% 49.99% 3.04%

That’s only three defencemen who are perfectly in the black (we’ll give Kulak the 0.01% on his XGF%), and one of them split time between the AHL and the NHL. That’s disgusting, and it makes Elliott dragging these sorry sacks to the playoffs that much more impressive.

Floob’s words ring true for the post-Kipper (and arguably, some time before then too) Flames. If your team has a problem giving up goals, and your team also has some of those names on their roster, then the problem isn’t 100% the goalies.

The goalie is the last line of defence. They should be able to cover for defensive lapses and bail out the team when necessary, but they shouldn’t be the defensive system itself. Goalies should stop pucks that heads towards the net, and that job is made substantially easier if the defense is able to prevent pucks heading towards the net in the first place.

Goalies are not stand-ins for quality defencemen and quality systems. You cannot simply slot in a goalie and watch the wins roll in. Although he’s not the GM, Brian Burke’s own team-building philosophy is to build “from the net out.” The Flames have a body in net. Now it’s time to look at the defence in front of him.

Against: Even if you fix that, does the risk disappear?

Here’s my dream plan to fix the defence:

  1. Sign Cody Franson to a high-value contract.
  2. Make a trade for Radko Gudas.
  3. Let Brett Kulak lay low, hope Vegas takes someone else, make him a full-time Flame.

Boom. You got yourself a defence.

But what if it all still goes to crap? What if you spend all this to improve the goaltending and the goaltending doesn’t improve?

A lot of the evidence provided points to Elliott being a risky option next year. Fixing the defence, while absolutely necessary for its own reasons, is not the same as fixing the goaltending. It can help, but it can’t fix it. A lot of Elliott’s struggles this year were clearly on him. Terrible defence played its part, but there is still a dip in performance that is no one’s fault but his.

Synthesis

The Flames have to fix their goaltending, but moving on from Elliott may not be as beneficial and obvious a choice as people think it is.

There’s a good case that Elliott will rebound from his bad season, but there’s equally a good case that he might still not be as good a goalie as what he was the year before.

The Flames need to think this through before making a decision. A lot of the bad will towards Elliott has been a result of an overall bad playoff experience. There’s a possibility that they throw away a perfectly fine goaltender because of that bad experience.

  • everton fc

    While not in the same league as Engelland, nor the same type of player when it comes to dropping the gloves, Gudas is an interesting suggestion. A right-handed shot. Physical (can you imagine he and Tkachuk on the ice, same shift?!) He’s been pretty durable… I assume the Flyers won’t protect him, and his cap hit’s “only” $3.35mill thru 2019-20, a deal that was pretty front-loaded. Basically replacing Engelland’s salary by adding Gudas.

    We could do far worse…

    As for Elliott – Darling and others could indeed replace him. It’s all about term and cap hit. I think Rittich will get a lot of minutes in camp. I think he may be the most “ready” we have. Gillies has not proven himself. Yet. Rittich was the better goalie – albeit w/less minutes. Any of a myriad group of goalies mentioned here, with Rittich, would suffice.

    Again… the idea of Gudas here… Interesting… I’d take him on my back-end over Franson.

  • buts

    Led them to the playoffs….what about chad Johnson? Do you not remember him in st lou? Elliott gave up poor/cheap goals, not on a regular basis but he has a penchant for that. St Louis let him go for a reason. The last 10 gms of the season there was a questionable goal given up every game. Too deep in the crease and poor tracking of the puck. The start of the year was similar to the end. Bottom line is you can’t trust him in big games, therefore you move on especially this year where theres a lot of #1 goalies available, some are pricey but they are available.

  • class1div1

    Well said….Those stat’s on Brodie look decent, yet I thought he had a down year and should have a much better one next year.Gio also had a horrible start.If Elliott is interested in a one year deal.he’s worth the gamble in my mind.

  • MontanaMan

    I personally liked the tandem of Elliott and Johnson to start the season and although neither had a great year, I’m still not against either of them returning. Elliott would return as the number one tender until displaced. Johnson is not a number one and never will be so he’d need to be content with returning as a backup. Johnson’s contention that he is ready to sign as a number one in the league is delusional – there isn’t a team that will sign him for that role. Elliott had some good stretches and looked like a number one at times, but the weak goals he let in throughout the playoffs are problematic. Yes, even the top goalies let in weak goals, but it can’t be regularly. The team loses confidence in the goaltender and in all cases, the performance of the team suffers. For me, I’d attempt to find a starter (Darling) at a decent price. I wouldn’t overpay for a Miller, Fleury vintage goaltender and if there was nothing better, I’d give Elliott another shot.

    • TrevorKidd37

      You obviously didn’t pay attention to the 1st and 2nd quarters of the season, the last 10 games, nor the playoffs! Name a starting goalie in this years playoffs that Elliott is better than!?

  • calgaryfan

    No to Elliott, Flames defence has issues but Elliott let in too many soft goals. His glove hand and rebound control are poor. Elliott is not consistent enough.

  • Greg

    You could analyze this till your blue in the face and still not have a clear answer. Predicting whether Elliot or Bishop or whomever will have the best season is a crapshoot. They are all reasonable choices though, so just make the one with the lowest cost. If Elliot can be had for significantly less than Bishop, go wth elliot. If it’s close, save the third rounder and sign Bishop. If Pittsburgh is willing to pay you to take MaF’s contract, do that. You could be wrong no matter what so just shop for the best price and decide based on that.

    • TrevorKidd37

      How can you compare Elliott to Bishop!? Ones a true number one goaltender, the other is not. One was a vezina finalist a year ago, the other has maybe been the first star of a handful of games. These guys are in complete different classes when it comes to goaltending

      • Eggs Bennett

        This year:
        Elliott: 2.54 / 0.910
        Bishop: 2.55 / 0.910

        Last 5 years:
        Elliott: 2.05 / .925
        Bishop: 2.28 / .921

        Career:
        Elliott: 2.42 / 0.913
        Bishop: 2.32 / 0.919

        Not so different after all… Elliott will come cheaper for sure. Flames need to evaluate that price and term difference vs. a 3rd round pick.

  • Flamethrower

    I feel we may be jumping to fast from the frying pan into the fire…Elliot like anyone can have stinker periods even the mighty Price in Montreal. Remember he moved to a new location, changes in the family with a new baby and a more than a questionable defense infront of him alot of the year.
    Elliot has been very good quality goalie for a few years and I for one see no reason to hit the panick button just yet. His low numbers may even work in our favor in term of dollars on contract and length. Sure would feel real stupid if he came back next season after being traded away and was stellar. Any trade or free agent being brought in may just cost this club a whole lot more. Better the guy you know than the one you don’t. The next 4 to 5 years could be his best.

  • Southboy

    Great article. I have been saying all year our defence has been hanging our goalies out to dry, and that has been happening for years. Giordano top defenseman, D hamilton great offense, but weak and bad defensively, and brodie is a good 3/4 dman, but not great as everyone assumes.

  • Parallex

    He’s not coming back… fair or unfair, deserved or not, they pulled him the last game he played after giving up 1 goal. You don’t do that to a guy you have visions of bringing back. He doesn’t have the coach’s confidence and without that the front office isn’t going to spend additional assets to keep him.

  • Fan the Flames

    If they can sign Elliott to a contract less than 4 yrs at a reasonable price I am not opposed. What I don’t want is a long term over priced Bishop eating up the cap . Calgary has a few good goaltenders in the cue and we need to have one of them step up next year and hopefully Parsons only a couple of years away . Elliott was streaky like many goaltenders but when he was playing well he carried the team into the playoffs .

  • RKD

    Elliott is a good guy, but i think he will want term and finish his career here. He will be 33 next April. What if his play starts to erode? He’s going to be a depreciating asset. I want the Flames to go after a Darling or a Raant, their time is now they’ve been groomed behind strong veteran winning goalies.

  • KenBone18

    We need someone like Carey Price. Someone that can shoulder the load and handle the pressure. We don’t need another 1B tandem just to watch our season sink.

    I’d call the Habs and offer Monahan plus our first for Price. They moved Subban last year for less – I think they’d move Price with that offer.

  • Chiz

    You won’t go deep in the playoffs without great goaltending. I think that MAF is showing that he can still get it done. The two years he has left would be time to let the prospects develop and take over for 2019 when the window will be wide open. Also, if you can move a bad contract (Brouwer, Bouma, Stajan) in the deal, that’s a huge plus.

  • Jay

    1. Make a deal with Vegas so they take Brouwer.
    2. Do not re-sign Elliott or Johnson. (Sign all other Flames UFAs)
    3. Sign Darling, Oshie, and Alzner.
    4. Let Kulak and Gillies (backup) become full-time NHLers next season.

  • Cheeky

    Lets do what some have suggested on here. Sign Bishop (6×6 as thats what he’ll be asking for) and resign everyone including Engellend (1.5×2 should get it done right?). Leave it status quo and watch what happens. Engellend and Bartowski will bring Bishop back to vezina quality and Lord Stanley right? Reality would be our D would ruin Bishop like those before and we will be on here in a year moaning about Bishop for another 5 yrs and why did BT sign Engellend. Our prospects would all line up to get to anywhere they might have a chance to be given an opportunity (including Gillies and Parsons) and we will be a fringe team unless we don’t do any of the above. Start with canning Jordan Siglet (goalie coach), institute a better defensive system with players that clear our net and not help screen, bring in a quality goalie with no more than 2 yr contract, give prospects an actual chance including back up and we hopefully won’t be having this conversation in a yr due to us still playing…

  • Fan the Flames

    Goaltending has evolved in recent years . If the NHL continues to downsize equipment then a goaltender will need to be more than just big they will need to be athletic . Elliott might fit our needs more than most of the free agent goaltenders .