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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

How much of an upgrade could Mike Smith be?

When the Calgary Flames acquired Mike Smith from the Arizona Coyotes in June, it was heralded by some as a significant upgrade on what the team deployed between the pipes last season. While I don’t mind the acquisition and understand the rationale behind it, I’m also not expecting Smith to be a night and day upgrade on the tandem of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. However, I do think there are a few more subtle ways having Smith in the fold could help the Flames take a step forward in net.

Last month, I made the case keeping Elliott wasn’t a crazy idea based on the available options. Smith was one of those available options and I still think he and Elliott are comparable goaltenders. However, if Smith can tick three key boxes this season, he definitely has the chance to be a slight step up from what we saw during the 2016-17 season.

Consistency

Perhaps the most frustrating of Calgary’s goaltending struggles last season was the wild swings in form we saw. Elliott was scorching in the second half of the season but dreadful in his first few months with the Flames. Similarly, Johnson put together an elite run of hockey in November and December but was generally average the rest of the way. For Elliott, his season is easy to split into two halves, one good and one bad.

In that same vein, Johnson helped salvage the season with an incredible run starting with a win in Minnesota on Nov. 15 and carrying over into the middle stages of December. What followed from Johnson, though, made it hard for Calgary to justify giving him the type of money he got from Buffalo in free agency.

This is where Smith might be able to make some inroads. On a bad Arizona team, Smith’s splits were pretty steady over the course of the season and certainly didn’t have the wild swings like what we saw from Elliott and Johnson.

In the table above, I omitted October and April because Smith only played in four games combined those months. Regardless, you can see that of the three goalies in question, Smith was much more steady and consistent. The Flames ranked 21st last season with a 0.907 team save percentage, while Smith finished the year at 0.914. If he can stay steady and in around that number over the course of the coming year, it should improve Calgary’s fortunes slightly.

Workload

If Smith can pair the consistency discussed above while also taking the bulk of the starts this season, things will look even better for the Flames. One thing Elliott and Johnson haven’t been able to do over the course of their careers, last season included, is tackle the workload of a true number one. Smith, on the other hand, has proven he can do that, and at a high level.

Upon arriving in Arizona for the 2011-12 season, Smith has averaged 56 starts per season (prorating the shortened 2012-13 season to 58 starts). Compared to Elliott’s average of 44 over eight seasons (prorating 2012-13 to 34) and Johnson’s average of 29 over the last four years, Smith’s track record is clearly superior in this regard.

If Smith can make 55-60 starts this season and keep his save percentage in the range it was last year, all of a sudden this looks like a much more positive acquisition. Obviously there are no guarantees, but Smith’s ability in recent years to handle a number one workload is somewhat encouraging.

Carryover

Finally, Smith is going to have to carry his relative success from last season to his new team. On a very bad Coyotes team, Smith was one of the few bright spots and routinely kept games closer than they probably should have been. One piece of logic would suggest he stands to have at least the same amount of success playing behind a much better team. Of course, goaltending is finicky and that is only one school of thought, so by no means is that iron clad science.

On the encouraging side, though, was how well Smith performed with a heavy, heavy shot load. Arizona averaged 34.1 shots against per game last season, the second highest total in the league. Smith himself saw 33.1 shots against per night and many of those were of the 10-bell variety. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the Coyotes allowed 844 high danger scoring chances last season, by far the most in the league. So not only was Smith’s nightly workload high, he was also facing extremely difficult shots on a regular basis.Β At 0.837, Smith’s high danger save percentage was among the league’s best, too.

Conclusion

While Smith had a fairly positive 2016-17 season in Arizona, he also missed time with injury for a second straight year. As such, he’s only started 87 games over the last two years, which calls into question slightly his ability to shoulder a big workload at this stage of his career. Now 35 years old, Smith is adamant any injury concerns are behind him, but it’s certainly something that lingers in the back of my mind heading into the season.

In saying that, though, Smith has the potential to give the Flames an upgrade between the pipes if a few of the boxes above are checked successfully. It’s a crapshoot to forecast if that’s going to happen with a new team, but it does allow for some optimism entering Smith’s first season in Calgary.

  • JMK

    Will the lower volume of shots affect his game? Last year Calgary were 8th best with 28.7 SA/GP where Ari were 29th with 34.1 SA/GP. Hopefully it doesn’t matter as much for an experienced goaltender, but this was recently used in the case of why Mason McDonald didn’t have a great year in ECHL.

  • Lucky 13

    I like the odds with Smith. He’s a veteran who knows how to look after himself. One thing we lacked with our goalie tandem last year was fire and passion.
    Smith embodies both of those and I really like his ability to handle the puck. Dump – ins are not going to be easy for the opposition as Smith will be more than willing to intercept and play the puck. The only thing is to have great communication between him and the D.

    Nothing under .911 save percentage and we are golden.
    I believe Smith still has a few good years left in him. I hope Lack gains some confidence as his backup.

    Looking forward to watching a puck handling goalie this season! Go Smith and Lack

  • BurningSensation

    The one item not listed is that Smith is a much superior puck handler to what we’ve been used to. Everything from breakouts, to handling dump-ins should be simpler with Smith.

    I’m still not a ‘fan’ of the trade (another pick out the door), but his skillset, if not age, are good fits with the team as constructed.

    • Cfan in Van

      Yes, that’s one change that I’m very interested in, how it meshes with the team’s breakout game. We all know there are certain downsides to aggressively playing the puck on the regular, but if it fits with the transition game they play, it could be a serious advantage too.

      I wasn’t a “fan” of the trade either, but there are definitely some of his attributes I’m looking forward to checking out.

  • kipper2004

    As much as i didnt care to watch Flames vs Coyotes games the past few years due to the Yotes style and lack if talent, most nights i came away noticing Smith make some very big saves to keep his team in the game, along with his confidence and obvious strong athletic movements in the crease as a big goalie, i didnt see that with Elliot. Johnson was more consistent because he played a simpler style than Elliot who was more reactive and high strung in the crease, which leads to inconsistent play if your defence isnt there to bail you out if the goalie is over reacting or out of position. Smitty should add a new level of confidence and leadership that has been missing since Kipper, who will never be replaced obviously.

  • RKD

    I’m not sure what to expect from Smith he is more athletic than Elliot but he’s also pretty tall like Johnson and has quick reflexes. With a d-core like ours hopefully he won’t have to be diving everywhere to make a save. He’s also 12-1-1 against the Oilers maybe that’s a big reason Tre got him. He’s in the head of Edmonton. Just needs to stay healthy.

  • L.Kolkind

    So in the past two seasons, we gave up two 2nd round draft picks, Hickey, and Johnson and the best we can hope for is average goaltending from a 35-year-old. If he gets injured at all in the next 2 years that trade is going to look really bad especially with Lack(-ing talent) as the backup.

    Brian Elliot has a better chance to rebound and outplay Smith than Smith has to make this trade worth it. I’m hoping for the best and that is getting rid of Lack somehow and have Rittich/Gilles backup Smith for this season. Next offseason get rid of Smith somehow and have Rittich and Gilles as our NHL goalies while Parsons tears up the AHL.

    That’s the other problem with Smith is his contract is too long. We don’t need a stopgap goalie for 2 years. We only needed a stopgap goalie for this upcoming season.

    If we win the cup with Smith I’ll eat my words anything short this of that this trade sold the future for nothing. Smith wasn’t the worst option available, but he sure wasn’t the best. Youth wins cups, as every winner of the Stanley Cup in the last 8 years has proven. We traded for the exact opposite of youth, with a year too long on his contract. He might provide a slight upgrade in talent for this upcoming season over Johnson with Gilles/Rittich as the backup, but is it worth the 2nd and Hickey and blocking the development of Gilles and Rittich?

    Treliving might know forwards and defence, but his handling of goalies has been downright horrible. this is the 4th veteran goalie in 3 seasons, while we did get two of them from free-agency this is not a good pattern. He ruined Ortio, Ramo, Hiller, Elliott and is now blocking the goaltending prospect Jon Gilles we’ve waited years for from graduating to the NHL for Eddie Lack and Mike Smith? Neither of those names strikes any fear into the opponents. Smith is coming into town knowing that Calgary is a place horrible to goalies, like Philadelphia used to be famous for. He is either going to leave a hero with a cup or used and forgotten like so many before him.

    • L.Kolkind

      http://www.thehockeynews.com/news/article/2020-vision-what-the-calgary-flames-roster-will-look-like-in-three-years

      This is a kinda interesting article. They tried to forecast the roster, not allowing any blockbuster trades though. Smith and Lack have no place on the roster in 3 years which is predicatable. The one thing that does stand out to me is that we might need to trade away an LD. We have Kyllington, Valimaki, and Fox all looking to be very serious contenders for top 4 defensemen and all are left handed shots. I think trading Gio while not pleasant to do might be the best option. We could get a lot in return for Gio, whether that be an RD or RW. This doesn’t need to happen that soon, but in a couple offseasons, I do think it could be a prominent issue.

      Stone is also predicted (hopefully correctly) to not be on the team, his spot will be taken by Andersson. The other most notable switch is Bennett flanking Janko with Foo on the 3rd line, while Dube, Shinkaruk and Lazar make up the smallest 4th line.

          • piscera.infada

            “Soon” is relative though. I’d also argue that if one of Kylington/Valimaki or Fox/Andersson proves over the next 3 seasons that they’re better than any of Brodie, Hamonic, or Stone, you have the ability to trade those players. In fact, I’m of the mind that Stone was signed, to be traded within the next two years–dependant on how Andersson develops. The thing is, the value of Brodie and Hamonic should not crater to a point wherein they would be undesirable should a better, younger player supersede them. On the other hand, Stone does have to re-establish his value–which again, I firmly believe the Flames have banked on here. Moreover, If you’re foreced to roll with a 6-man rotation for a season consisting of Gio, Hamilton, Brodie, Hamonic, Kylington/Andersson/Fox/Valimaki in whatever configuration is best, congrats, you’re a pretty damn good team for that year.

      • BlueMoonNigel

        No mention of Riitich in the article. The Lack trade means no Rittich here this season. If Parsons is in Stockton in October, where’s Rittich?

        Seems the club should move him ASAP and actually get something for him rather than piss around and let him leave for nothing. He’s not worth at least a draft pick to another club?

      • Jumping Jack Flash

        From an asset management perspective, I agree with trading Gio in a couple of years. However, I think this analysis is missing one big piece, Mangi will be a top 9 player in 2 years.

    • Cfan in Van

      Question: If we gave the same pick for any other goalie who we wouldn’t be interested in signing again after 2 years (for a similar reduced salary), would you also say that it was a complete loss unless the Flames win the cup in the next two years? Because that’s an extremely hopeful result, no matter what goalie they acquired.

      • L.Kolkind

        I had written a lengthy reply, but something went wrong when I clicked reply and I have to get going to the gym, so now I’ll do a short version.

        No goalie worth acquiring can be had for as little as a 2nd. The best goalies to trade for appear to be up and coming backups that show promise, such as Talbot, Jones, and you may remember Kipper. The other goalies that were available were either horrible options like Fleury or Bishop or in the first category like Raanta.

        Yes, going for the cup is extremely hopeful, but isn’t that the goal? If you don’t believe we can win the cup with Smith why trade for him, when if all we needed was a stopgap we had two very capable goalies that would have cost far less both in terms of acquisition and cap hit. A far more appealing approach would have been to sign Johnson to a cap hit of ~2 million and having Rittich/Gilles backup. The following season we could bring up the other and have an extremely cheap, with a high potential tandem. Parsons would be the AHL starter at this time and we would likely be able to trade away whichever goalie we deemed expendable.

        If we could trade for whichever goalie, and only for two seasons which is a stipulation that won’t happen. I would be fine with trading for two seasons of Murray, Price or Holtby. Goalies like these can win wherever and with whomever in front of them. Yes, we still give up a 2nd round pick, but this time we actually give ourselves the chance to win the cup.

        People have been talking about windows and trading away draft picks is what creates windows. Teams that draft and develop properly shouldn’t have to trade away the future to “win now” as the continuous influx of young cheap, talent provides the team with the needed firepower and depth needed to win the cup. The 2nd we traded away now may not seem like a big deal but in 6 years when hopefully we would be competing, we would have a young cheap player who could step in.

        • piscera.infada

          No goalie worth acquiring can be had for as little as a 2nd. The best goalies to trade for appear to be up and coming backups that show promise, such as Talbot, Jones, and you may remember Kipper. The other goalies that were available were either horrible options like Fleury or Bishop or in the first category like Raanta.

          I don’t disagree with the overall tenor of what you’re saying here, but will point out a few things about this year’s goalie situation. First, none of the options you listed (or what we hoped could be acquired) could have been acquired. Fleury was well publicised as not wanting to waive his no-trade to Calgary (as Treliving by all reports, tried a few times). Likewise with Bishop. Although with Bishop, he also signed a contract I would not want to pay, because I simply don’t think he’s that good, and that was a monster deal which would have basically sealed the fate of Gillies, Rittich, an Parsons. With regard to Raanta, I hoped the Flames could have made something work there. Alas, he ended up going for what amounted to the 7th overall pick, and ‘B’ defensive prospect, and acquiring a large cap-dump in Stepan (4 more years at $6.5 million, per). The Flames simply could not have paid that price.

          My hopeful choice all along was Grubauer, but considering the fact that the Capitals left a palatable player exposed to expansion so Vegas wouldn’t take him, coupled with the fact that there was very little reporting about potential trade talks there, one has to conclude that Washington was looking to keep him. As such, I’m not sure he was ever really “available”.

          As I’ve said a few times, I don’t know about Smith, nor do I really know about Lack. I probably just would have preferred to re-sign Elliott. That said, I completely understand why both parties were likely happy going their separate ways.

          All of that really points to, what else was there? The organization could not firmly bank anything on either Gillies or Rittich being ready to play meaningful NHL starts this upcoming season. Sure, they maybe have performed well there, but it’s probably just as likely they weren’t. I get why Treliving did what he did in the end. It was not an ideal price, nor is it likely going to prove to be a home-run in terms of talent. But I get it.

        • Cfan in Van

          The win-now window begins now, but by no means does it end by the time Smith’s contract is up. They got Smith so that he can hopefully be more consistent, and not be a huge reason we get swept in the first round. Smith is here to patch a hole, and allow the team to do better. Of course the cup is the goal, but I don’t think that’s the primary reason Tre brought in Smith. No goalie can guarantee a cup within 2 years, even one that costs 7 mil and 4 top prospects.

          Smith was relatively affordable, and available for what we can afford to give up for him. That’s not the case with the trio you mentioned. Murray/Price/Holtby would come at a ridiculous cost. Smith has proven he can be a starter, where none of Johnson/Rittich/Gillies have done that. And giving Rittich/Gillies more time in the AHL won’t ruin their development, they’ve only got one year of experience at the AHL level and still have plenty of time to work at improvement, sharing the net on the farm.

          I’ve never been a huge Smith fan, but I realize that choosing him was one of the few reasonable deals there were to be had. If you are a proponent of properly drafting/developing and starting young, cheap talent, then acquiring a top tier goalie really shouldn’t be on your radar at all. Really, it was a compromise so that we can lean on our promising goaltenders in a couple years, while keeping our young, cheap, talented prospects.

          • L.Kolkind

            Wasn’t Elliott already the compromise? We could’ve spent only a 3rd this year on a goalie around the same skill level and at half the cap space. My point is spending assets on a stopgap goalie is stupid. We could’ve gotten the same quality of goaltending that Smith will provide without wasting any draft picks or prospects. Any UFA goalie that signs a 1-year contract under 2 mil would’ve been my goalie for this season. What was the point in wasting that 2nd if as you say the goal isn’t to win the cup and it’s only to have a decent goalie until our prospects are ready? This was the worst kind of compromise, we didn’t get a goalie worth acquiring while still wasting assets. We lose twice in this deal, one for getting two for spending assets to acquire him. We now have wasted 2 very valuable 2nd round picks, who could’ve been at or near the top of our prospect pool, and are now our rivals prospects. I don’t personally dislike Smith or think he is horrible, but the asset management is non-existent and Treliving has been dishing out picks for, mediocre players/goalies that could’ve been gotten at the free agency without wasting any picks.

    • oilcanboyd

      Anyone who says Smith’s contract is too long is nuts…if Gilles and/or Rittich is NHL ready sometime in the next season they can easily trade him before the TDL in his second year.

    • HOCKEY83

      “Anything short of winning the cup”…expect much. Smith getting us to the playoffs will make the trade worth it. The odds we win the cup with Smith ,Gillies, Rittich or Parsons are all equally low. Smith is way better than Elliott. Treliving did not ruin any of those goalies careers. They ruined their own careers. Did he play for them. The team playing in front of them plus their own bad play ruined their careers. Smiths contract is not too long. 2 years at least is what’s needed before gillies or rittich is ready. Parsons at least 3 or 4 years. Pretty sure the organization knows better than you how much time their prospects need.

    • L.Kolkind

      That’s not something going for Smith, that’s something going for the Flames. So if we had Elliott this season, he would also have the benefit of no Wideman/Engelland.

  • Jobu

    Taking a closer look, Smith has always played behind below average defenses. Either his numbers are going to skyrocket, or he could let in a lot of “sleepy” goals due to a work load hes not used to. Time will tell, I suppose.

  • Flint

    Where does one find shot volume by quality in the stats world. I’d like to back this up but I remember reading years back that Florida, Arizona, and a few other rinks really have a home/away shot disparity. In other words, what people in those rinks think is a shot would often not be counted in CGY, EDM, VAN, TOR etc.

    I wouldn’t expect a big move in Smiths numbers (even with a much better defense). If anything, I’d bet on a slight drop. Arizona goalies always have steller numbers/years and when they move on from there…. not so much.

    If someone in the know looks. I bet Smith has a really high low quality sv% vs the mean, and also a very high volume of low quality shots. But here’s hoping I’m wrong.

    • piscera.infada

      I’m not sure how to get the individual performance metrics for a goalie, although I’m sure someone else around these parts knows. However, based on last year’s numbers (from Natural Stat Trick), the Coyotes gave up by far the most high-danger chances against (844–the next worst team was the Islanders [796]). As a team, they had the third best high-danger save percentage (.897–behind Columbus [.898] and Montreal [.902]). It would difficult to infer that Smith–who started 67% of their games (55 of 82)–was not somewhat responsible for that number.

      I’m not bullish on Smith, but I’m also not as horrified as some appear to be either.

    • reidja

      Why does low qual sv % matter? Especially when Pat pointed out that ARI allowed the most high qual shots and Smith had one of the better high qual sv %’s. What am I missing?

      • Flint

        Low qual sv % matters because it’s where you can see noise in sv% numbers based on stat-counting bias with most clarity.

        As a former goalie I can tell you that nowhere near all low qual shots are counted. Some will count a dump as a shot, some won’t. And you can see/confirm that in home/away splits. Almost all (I would say 99.999% of medium danger shots are counted.) and yet high danger shots have more inaccuracy as well because of rebounds/whacks/scrambles. What is one shot? What is 4 shots in a scramble?

        So, if you see an outlier in low danger. You can check home/away splits. If you see an outlier in H/A splits and low danger, I would look at high danger. If that’s also an outlier… I wouldn’t have much confidence in it. You can also confirm these theories by looking at the backup.

        If your starter and backup are very disparate you have problems, but one of them probably is not stat-recording accuracy/consistency. You may be able to trust the numbers more.

        • Flint

          I’ll give you something else to chew on. Remember Trevor Kidd? Of course you do. But I bet you remember Trevor – the Flames goalie (who played in a traditional hockey market). Or, maybe you remember Trevor – the Leafs goalie (also a traditional hockey market).

          Very few people remember the Trevor Kidd who played in CAR and FLA. You don’t remember .922 RAW sv% Trevor? .915 RAW!… Nope. You remember .901 career Trevor (as in sub.900 Trevor when in traditional, less generous with Shots Against hockey markets)

  • cjc

    It might be worth looking at comparables. Age and the decline in performance that comes with it is the biggest concern for Smith. The numbers below are from Quant Hockey – 2017-2018 will be Smith’s 35 year old season. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, 35 yo goalies have either rocked it or cratered. There hasn’t been much in between (career save percentages in brackets):

    The good:
    Anderson 16-17 40 GP .926 (0.916)
    Luongo 14-15 61 GP .921 (0.919)
    Kiprusoff 11-12 70 GP .921 (0.912)
    Brodeur 07-08 77 GP .920 (0.912)
    Khabibulin 08-09 42 GP .920 (0.907)
    Vokoun 11-12 48 GP .917 (0.917)
    Theodore 11-12 53 GP .917 (0.909)
    Miller 15-16 51 GP .916 (0.915)
    Thomas 09-10 43 GP .915 (0.920)
    Osgood 07-08 43 GP .914 (0.905)

    Then the bad:
    Backstrom 13-14 21 GP 0.899 (0.914)
    Mason 11-12 20 GP 0.898 (0.909)
    Turco 10-11 29 GP 0.897 (0.910)
    Kolzig 05-06 59 GP 0.896 (0.906)
    Hedberg 08-09 33 GP 0.886 (0.901)
    Legace 08-09 29 GP 0.885 (0.911)

    Only six of those 16 goalies managed >50 games (seven if you include Anderson, who would have played 50 last year). Based on that, Smith’s chances of getting 50 games in aren’t amazing – either because of injury or being terrible.

    As for how he’ll perform, I’m not sure this list provides a lot of clues. However, it’s interesting that 35 yo goalies have either been above average to great, or absolutely putrid. Smith has only had one amazing season, so maybe he’ll be the first to land in the average category.

    • Jessemadnote

      The only issue I have with this is you choose the 27 age, or 28 or 31 and probably have scattered results similar to this. Goalies tend to be a lot less predictable in their career arcs.

  • HOFer_dirty30

    I’m confident in Smith as long as he stays healthy. But I “lack” confidence in the backup. Lack has sucked and he is one player I don’t see rebounding

  • freethe flames

    Goalies are voodoo; last year I thought BE and CJ had solved our problems and then they had the season they did. This year all I will do is wait and see.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      So we sit him against Wash, Bo’s, and TB. Only .906. against the Flames yet I remember him consistently being their best player in those games.

  • KenBone18

    Smith was average behind a terrible Arizona D Core. Now that we have the best D in the west, I think he’ll be a Vezina trophy candidate for the 2017 / 2018 season.