With a 4-2-0 start to his Calgary Flames career, Mike Smith has been one of the early positives to the 2017-18 season.
While still very early, Smith has shown a number of promising trends that should bode well for the Flames if they continue. Not only is Smith personally trending better than he has in recent years, he’s also been a significant upgrade on where Calgary was in net one year ago.
All things considered, Smith’s acquisition by the Flames in June was a relatively low risk one. Even so, Calgary’s hope was for Smith to give the team true number one goaltending over an entire season, and thus, move them forward in an area where they’ve struggled the last five years. While I caution the sample size is extremely small, there’s plenty to like with what we’ve seen in the early stages of Smith’s first season in Calgary.
So far, so good
Through the first two weeks of the season, Smith’s numbers have been solid. Other than a rough outing against Ottawa, which really can’t be pinned on him, Smith has given the Flames an opportunity to win every single night. His overall and high danger save percentages are below, via Corsica, along with where they rank amongst other goalies with more than 100 minutes so far.
It’s too early to put a lot of stock in where Smith ranks relative to the rest of the pack, because early season save percentages are rarely true indicators. However, if projected over a full season, Smith’s outputs are well above average and would remain that way even if they were to come down a little closer to the league average, which is a likely outcome.
I say that because of how Smith’s numbers early on stack up against what he’s done the last few seasons. Plotted below is a look at Smith to start this season compared to his final three years in Arizona, again via Corsica.
While playing with a new, and better, team this season, history suggests Smith’s numbers will still come down a little closer to where we’ve seen them recently. Accounting for an upgraded team in front of him, something in the 0.920 range overall doesn’t seem out of the question.
Smith’s work against high danger shots might be the most interesting part of all of this. He has been stellar when facing 10-bell chances this season, which the Flames are giving up a lot of currently. Calgary was a top 10 team last season, averaging 7.7 high danger chances per game, but they’re up to 9.5 through the first six games of this season.
That puts Smith in a very familiar situation considering what he had to deal with his last couple years with the Coyotes. Per NaturalStatTrick, last season saw Arizona surrender a league-worst 844 high danger chances, good for 10.3 per game, which puts it right in the ballpark of what Smith has faced early on with the Flames. I’m curious to see what happens when the raw number of top flight chances inevitably and/or hopefully comes down.
Finally, Smith’s early season durability is a nice sign. The 35-year-old has made all six starts for Calgary so far and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Over the summer, I pointed to Smith’s potential to take on a true number one workload as one of the main reasons he could be an upgrade on what the team had in net last season. To this point, anyway, it looks like he’s on track to do just that.
Since Miikka Kiprusoff’s final full season in 2011-12, the Flames haven’t had a goaltender start more than 45 games in a season. We all know Smith isn’t going to start 82, but 60-65 looks to be very much in play. For the first time in more than five years, Calgary’s goaltending decisions are based solely on when to rest their number one and not when to get the other guy playing time.
It was Brian Elliott last season who set the 45-start high mark for the Flames since the 2011-12 campaign ended. As we know, though, Elliott’s one year with Calgary was a turbulent one at best, as he struggled with consistency all year long. Things started on a rough note for Elliott and that played a big role in the team’s disappointing start one year ago.
It’s clear as day from the eye test Smith has been a massive upgrade to begin this season as compared to what the Flames got from Elliott and Chad Johnson to start last year. When comparing the three goalies and their first six starts with Calgary, Smith comes out way ahead despite a much heavier workload.
Clearly Smith has seen too many shots his way in his first six starts, and that’s a conversation for another time. The Flames weren’t great defensively to start last season, either, but they’re giving up even more this October. Seeing Smith’s strong numbers despite that is encouraging.
Both Elliott and Johnson caught fire at different times last season but were unable to sustain for long periods of time. As such, we can’t be certain what we’re seeing from Smith is foreshadowing of what’s to come over a full year or just a temporary nice start to the season; the final 76 games will tell us that.
However, Smith’s proven history of shouldering a heavy workload, his decent numbers in recent years mixed with a new team in front of him, and a solid start to this season are all positive signs Calgary might have their number one guy, at least for the short term. Knowing how starved the Flames have been in that area for the last half decade, I think most fans will take that.