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
I'm just saying, maybe if historically good goalies keep having career lows on your team, maybe it's not the goalies who are the problem
— Rad Freeliving (@bookofloob) November 6, 2016
Using 5v5, score, venue, and zone adjusted data from Corsica, here’s how the Flames’ defence performed according to the analytics:
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:
- Sign Cody Franson to a high-value contract.
- Make a trade for Radko Gudas.
- 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.
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.