For a second straight offseason, the biggest story surrounding the Calgary Flames is what they’re going to do between the pipes. One summer ago, the Flames acquired Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues hoping he would be the answer to their number one gap in net. Now a pending unrestricted free agent, and after an inconsistent season, the team seems ready to move away from Elliott. But how many of the potential options out there are truly better?
Of course, there’s no guarantee the Flames won’t bring Elliott back, but there’s no question the team is exploring other options for next season. With the team’s goaltending decision likely coming to a head soon, I thought I’d take a critical look at bringing Elliott back on another contract.
Unfortunately for Elliott, our most recent looks at him haven’t been impressive. Let’s face it, Elliott was a major letdown in Calgary’s four playoff games against Anaheim and was a big reason why the team was swept out of round one. In four playoff starts, Elliott allowed 12 goals on 100 shots for an 0.880 save percentage and seemingly got worse as the postseason went along.
Calgary’s first two losses at the Honda Center were frustrating and tough to swallow, but couldn’t be pinned solely on Elliott; he had a 0.914 save percentage heading back to the Saddledome. However, Elliott’s performance in the team’s game three collapse on home ice was hard to watch, as was the only goal he allowed in game four. Plain and simple, the Flames needed more from Elliott in the playoffs.
Elliott also got off to a horrid start, as his regular season can really be split into two different parts. Remember, it was Chad Johnson, not Elliott, who resurrected the season from the ashes with his play from mid-November into the middle parts of December. Had Elliott given the Flames even average NHL goaltending in the first few months, the team could have been in a much better spot heading into 2017.
In taking all of this into account, I do wonder if there would be the proper amount of trust in Elliott among teammates to bring him back. Elliott had some really nice moments in year one with the Flames, but didn’t perform when things mattered the most. I don’t know the answer to my query, but it’s absolutely a valid one to put on the table.
On the bright side, Elliott turned things around dramatically. As I said, his 2016-17 needs to be split into two halves. We’ve already looked at his struggles from October through mid-February, but from Feb. 15 on, the guy was dynamite. In fact, Elliott was the catalyst for Calgary’s torrid pace down the stretch, including their 10-game win streak.
So here’s where things get really interesting. I’m like most who watched Calgary last season, in that I’d be slightly apprehensive bringing Elliott back, specifically knowing what happened in the playoffs. But, with guys like Ben Bishop and Scott Darling off the market, I’m not sure the other options are significant upgrades.
Let’s start with the tenured goalies we’ve heard connected to the Flames. Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury and Arizona’s Mike Smith are both long-time starters in this league and present interesting options. Both players have two years remaining on their current contracts and could buy the team time to get Jon Gillies, Tyler Parsons, or someone else ready for primetime. However, all three of Elliott, Fleury, and Smith are coming off fairly similar seasons.
It’s not like Smith or Fleury had stunning results last season. Smith, who’s the oldest of the bunch at 35, posted decent numbers on a bad team, so it’s fair to say he performed the best. Fleury, on the other hand, redeemed his rather average regular season with a nice postseason where he went 9-6 with a 0.924 save percentage before being replaced by Matt Murray. Based on last year, you could make arguments that either one is an upgrade on Elliott, but they wouldn’t be rock solid ones.
Digging a little deeper, though, these three guys look even more alike when expanding the body of work. I tracked back the last five years to see how the numbers stacked up. Elliott’s are the best of the bunch since 2012-13, albeit with a smaller workload.
Evaluating this is all in the eye of the beholder. Whether you think Fleury’s 2017 postseason, and overall playoff experience, makes him an upgrade on Elliott, or if you think Smith’s most recent work qualifies him as the same, that’s just fine. But by looking at last season, and the last five years, I don’t think it’s cut and dried that either Smith or Fleury are significant improvements.
But that’s just taking a look at a couple of the possible goaltending solutions for the Flames. There are a number of other options available, albeit with less cache and tenure than either of the prior two examples. Antti Raanta, Philipp Grubauer, Petr Mrazek, and even pending UFA Steve Mason have all been speculated upon as possible options for Calgary.
Once again, running the numbers for sake of comparison was interesting; in this case, I used the last two seasons as a sample size. Raanta and Grubauer have both posted nice numbers, but have done so with a limited workload. On the other hand, Mrazek and Mason have played comparable games to Elliott but have posted inferior totals.
Again, it’s tough to say unequivocally any of the above are true elevations on Elliott. Raanta and Grubauer have had some really promising seasons as backups, but neither have started more than 26 games in a single season. Mrazek and Mason, on the other hand, have seen far more action but with far less impressive results.
Writing this article has been a difficult exercise, because I’m biased by Elliott’s poor performance in the playoffs. If it were me making the choice, my initial reaction would be in line with the majority: move on from Elliott. However, taking a critical and (attempted) unbiased look at it, the conversation becomes a whole lot muddier.
Could any one of the goaltending options mentioned above be upgrades on Elliott? Absolutely they could, but there’s a big difference between could and would. Smith and Fleury were in the same wheelhouse as Elliott last year, and the same is true over the last five years, too. And because Elliott’s price tag is likely going to be lower than either one of those guys, things even out a little bit more.
Similarly, I think Raanta and Grubauer are intriguing options to look at, but neither has come close to proving they can handle a number one workload while still posting solid numbers. Finally, Mrazek and Mason have plenty of game action in recent memory, but their results have been average at best.
To summarize my rambling, I don’t think bringing Elliott back for another year or two is as taboo as some make it out to be. If acquiring any one of the names above proves to be too pricey, a short term deal for Elliott isn’t the end of the world, because none of the obvious options are bona fide upgrades on him.
Personally, I’m not expecting Elliott be back next year, mainly because everything points to the team’s desire to explore other options. I have no problem with that, and I understand it, knowing how Elliott’s season came to an end; Calgary would also lose a third round pick next year if Elliott were to re-up. But, to expect drastically different and/or better results from one of the replacements mentioned here is likely going to lead to disappointment.