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Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

How big is the drop off from Mike Smith to David Rittich?

In Greek mythology, there exists a Titan named Atlas whom is tasked (more accurately, punished) with separating the world from the sky, by holding the sky on his shoulders for all eternity.

Through two-thirds of the 2017-18 season, Mike Smith has been the Flames’ Atlas, keeping the sky from falling. Aside from perhaps Johnny Gaudreau or Matthew Tkachuk, he’s been their MVP, and if Smith is out of commission for any stretch of time, it would be a huge hit to the Flames.

But exactly how huge?

Since being called up in late November, David Rittich has played admirably in the few spot starts he’s been afforded. Through 10 games – that include unfortunate relief appearance roasts against Edmonton and Tampa Bay – Rittich has a .927 SV%. In games he’s started, the save percentage turns to a sterling .938. Both numbers are a tick better than Smith’s .921 SV%. However, Rittich has played in just over a fifth of the games Smith has, so let’s not get carried away.

The real positive, in my opinion, is one that will make the mainstream media moist to hear: he passes the eye test with flying colors. Rittich has looked calm, collected and methodical from the first puck he saw in Colorado. Many young goaltenders will manifest their inner jitters through awkward play, but Rittich has never looked out of place thus far.

He’s looked every bit the part of a legitimate NHL goaltender, which bodes well if the Flames will need him to be one every other night for the next while.

Smith v Rittich

Stylistically, every goaltender has their own style quirks. Jonathan Quick and Carey Price are polar opposites in playing style, but at the end of the night, both are top echelon puck-stoppers. For an NHL goalie, it’s about what you do in the crease, not how you do it.

Rittich seems to have been trying to adopt Smith’s puck playing tendencies into his own game more lately, being more active behind the net and playing pucks to his defenceman whenever possible. To me at least, it seems to be an attempt on Rittich’s part to keep the system consistent in Smith’s absence as opposed to it being part of his regular game. It’ll be key for Rittich not to overdo it if he takes over the starter’s net, because if Smith can get himself into a pickle or two every game, Rittich doing too much may spell disaster.

Style, though, is pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. It’s a results oriented league, and contrasting Smith and Rittich’s results this year in detail may grant us better insight into where the drop off may be, and where the Flames will need to make adjustments – if any – to ensure they don’t overexpose their rookie goalie.

5v5 Stats Mike Smith David Rittich
Minutes 2096:52 356:30
Corsi For % 52.66 49.73
Goals For % 51.30 61.29
Save % 93.32 93.33
On-Ice Shooting % 6.76 9.64
High Danger SV% 89.20 89.55
Medium Danger SV% 96.89 99.05
Low Danger SV% 98.37 97.58
PDO 100.1 103.0

The comparison between the 35-year-old NHL All-Star and the rookie 10 years his junior is, quite frankly, wild.

Rittich has posted nearly identical numbers to Smith in every category. Again, sample size warning is in full effect as Smith has seen more than five times the 5v5 action Rittich has, but thus far, the drop off has been literally zero.

What stands out on Rittich’s side is that he’s seen a more fortunate Flames team ahead of him. They own the Goals For ratio by a significant margin, 61%, despite being mostly outplayed, posting a 49.73 CF%. This is reflected in Rittich’s PDO of 103, propped up by a SH% three ticks higher than Smith’s, at 9.64. The Flames are actually shooting below average in front of Smith.

Rittich is also posting a gargantuan MDSV%, at 99. That’ll probably go down. Meanwhile his High Danger save percentage, like Smith’s, is among the league’s best. A team having the confidence in their goaltender to make the save if a risk at one end turns into a quality chance at the other shouldn’t be understated. Thus far, Rittich has earned his teammates’ trust. It’s hard to say if there will a regression there too, seeing as some goalies – like Smith – have always been good against high danger chances, while other goaltenders have always struggled. Which is one is Rittich? Again, that’s why a bigger sample size is needed.

To this point though, the Flames seemed to have stumbled upon found money in Rittich. Signed as a 24-year-old from the Czech Superleague, he has developed over the last 18 months into the ideal backup goaltender: one who doesn’t decrease the quality of netminding when the starter takes a rest. His numbers in every category have, at minimum, matched Smith’s, and the Flames as a whole haven’t dropped their play in front of him.

Too many times in years gone by have the Flames looked like a completely different team in front of their backup – Eddie Lack included – but such has not been true of their play in front of Rittich.

Starting goaltender David Rittich

Well, what can we expect out of starting goaltender David Rittich?

The occasional spot start vs. the everyday job is, without a doubt, a different kettle of fish. Different pressures, different expectations, greater stakes. Rittich has largely seen starts on the backend of back-to-backs, where the expectation isn’t usually to win. He’s also been tasked with relatively easy opponents.

Rittich’s seven starts have come against Colorado, Montreal, Vancouver, San Jose, Florida, Edmonton and New Jersey: not exactly a murder’s row, and nothing like the double serving of elite the Flames get to see in their next two games in Boston and Nashville. Should Rittich indeed be forced to take over the starter’s net for the next while, we can consider this his final exam. He’s fared well in his midterms, but now comes the real test. Real pressure against real opponents.

From purely a stats view, what can we expect to change? The Flames’ PDO in front of Rittich is due to regress, likely via SH%, and it’ll be up to Rittich to keep the roof from caving in when it does. Smith’s greatest trick this season has been finding points in the absence of run support. Rittich will more than likely need to do the same. Frankly, that’s what quality starters do in the NHL, and that’ll be his stiffest test as a starter. Nothing we’ve seen to this point suggests he’s incapable of taking on such a challenge, however.

No goaltender will stop 99% of the medium danger chances he faces and we’ll get to find out if Rittich, too, is a formidable HDSV% goaltender. Smith has been able to weather the shooting percentage storm with consistently strong play, so if Rittich is indeed every bit as good as his stats suggest, he should, too.

Likening Smith to Atlas is no exaggeration in the context of the Flames’ season, and most teams would crumble if they lost their Titan for any stretch of time. Luckily for the Flames, they appear to have a backup to Atlas, shown capable of holding the sky in short spurts. In some variations of Greek mythology, it was Hercules who took over from Atlas.

The sky is heavy though, and Hercules was never able to hold it for an extended period of time. Rittich has been able to be the Flames’ Hercules thus far, but there’s no guarantee he can be their Atlas. After all, not even the actual Hercules could.

The early returns on Rittich are extremely encouraging though, and if Smith is indeed sidelined, the Flames’ season is far from extinguished. If anything, Rittich’s starting goaltender audition has been well earned.

  • buts

    Small sample size on Rittich, who should have played more, possibly preventing Smith’s injury….thanks GG. If we miss the playoffs our unaccountable coach will use Smith’s injury as an excuse.

    • supra steve

      If Rittich had been with the Flames right from camp, rather than the failed Lack experiment, would Smith have got a few more nights off? Not sure who’s idea Lack was, but it was a loser from day one.

      • Mickey O

        Treliving was always going to bring in a back-up with NHL experience. Nobody was enthused with Lack (probably not even Treliving if you hooked him up to a lie detector), but risking one of two AHL goalies to step up was too much of a gamble.

        More than a few here thought Rittich over Gillies was the better option; but Treliving is a pretty conservative dude and wanted that NHL goalie security blanket.

        • supra steve

          I am familiar with that (experience) argument, but there are plenty of tenders with NHL experience that are terrible, Lack being an example. Why is/was that the “conservative” move?

          Rittich was the superior AHL tender last season, was a year older than Gillies and had more professional experience. I thought he was a no-brainer as backup after Smith was acquired. The only danger, I suppose, was the thought that a long term injury to Smith would require the backup to play more…but then even if that happened, did they really think Lack was the answer? Turns out he was not.

      • ThisBigMouthIsRight

        Just a Guess who’s Idea it was… Players brought in who previously played for teams with GG.. Higgins, Grossmann, Vey, Bartkowski, Jagr, Lack…. But they all just might be a coincidence?

        • Mickey O

          It worked out perfectly in the end. Chad Johnson likely would have been a decent back again. But this way Lack stunk, Gillies was the first call up and wasn’t good at all, then they went to Rittich. If Johnson was still here, we likely would never have seen Rittich, and he might have gone back to Europe after the season…

  • Mickey O

    “Gulutzan says good news on Mike Smith. Injury not as bad as feared. Smith is day-to-day.”

    GG…Don’t even think about bringing Smith back too quickly. Even at day-to-day for Smith, Rittich should get the next 3 starts. Groin injuries are tricky, come back too early and you risk a really long-term injury.

    Supposedly the plan was to give Rittich this start all along. That sounds easy to say after the fact, and the Isles game would have been a better spot for him anyway. But continue to play lights out, Mr. Rittich.

    • BringtheFire 2.0

      I’m starting to think that maybe Smith has more say in how many he starts he gets then Gully. A; “trust the veteran” thing. I hope Gully uses the injury as an excuse to rest him more.

      • Cfan in Van

        To me, this is baffling.

        He went down hard after catching the post with his skate, as he twisted around into position. He immediately grabbed his groin and couldn’t even skate off the ice afterward. I guess they must be saying that he was never injured… but if he was, how could it NOT be his groin??

  • Mickey O

    There’s an argument to be made that Smith plays the puck too much. He’s always coming out of his net, and always wants to push the play. Player’s scramble to get to the boards at their blue line in case Smith fires the puck their way.

    The trouble with that strategy is players never get a mental break, even for a few seconds. It is okay to slow down the game and to let a defenceman handle the puck every once in a while.

    • ThisBigMouthIsRight

      I did notice during the Islanders game that Smith seemed to stop wandering out to stop the puck & play it in the Third. I think something was tweaked earlier in the game? Perhaps when he was run into and 1/2 pushed into his net earlier in the game?

      • Mickey O

        You’re spot on. Smith didn’t look right in that game from the get go, especially in the 3rd. A couple of months ago he never would have let in the first goal, and probably would have saved the second one, even though it went through a tiny opening in Stajan’s skates on a screen. On the Eberle break-away he wasn’t even close to stopping the puck with his glove hand, and was lucky it clanged off the crossbar.

        Getting the call to go the the All Star game wasn’t ideal either. He was probably looking for some down time, and it was a long flight. Then when he got back he was out doing charity work.

        He needs some time off to just zone out from hockey every once in a while. Having him forced out with an injury may very well be a blessing in disguise.

    • HOCKEY83

      The argument is that the Flames D corps are injured less frequently due to not having to go into the corners and fight for the puck. He doesn’t always play the puck and the D do get to slow down the game once in a while behind the net. In any interview you hear from the D corp they love the fact that they don’t have to expend as much energy fighting for that puck in the corners. The players get a mental break when they are on the bench. pretty sure after 55 games the players have caught on to his style of play. They are professionals after all.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    That exam analogy is perfect. I was thinking too that in a way, with Smith hurt, this is sort of like his REAL season debut. There’s a different kind of pressure on him this game-particularly given the competition-and i’m interested in seeing how he handles it.

    But whenever I think about how good Rittich’s been, I can’t help but remember Joni Ortio, too…

  • Lazarus

    It has been a few days since a rookie has come in and started 7 games and had 7 quality starts. Rittich has.

    Incredible. Let him run with it a bit. I’m not worried at all and looking forward to seeing him get some starts.

  • Skylardog

    There is no drop off, but we need to keep in mind the next 2 are Boston and Nashville, possibly 2 of the best 4 teams in the league. Smith is forecast to miss just 2 games at this point.

    We need to be reminded that a loss or losses in the next 2 may not have anything to do with Rittich vs Smith.

    • Atomic Clown

      A win against both teams, either due to stellar goaltending or an offensive outburst would be a huge confidence booster, and a testament to this teams mettle. Here’s to a Rittich shutout, and a Bennett hatrick

    • MontanaMan

      There’s a vote of confidence. If we lose the next two, it may not have anything to do with our goaltending! Why don’t we see how the next two games play out before making excuses.

  • Jobu

    We dont have enough of a book on Rittich yet, but we do have some evidence that he can start and finish an NHL game cleanly. We know hes well liked, and a very hard worker. And yet everyone, and I mean EVERYONE has signed off on this guy being nothing more than a backup. Given his current performance, I’m astounded that no one believes he can take the starters role once Smith is done. Jobu’s sending super-star-starter-jamba Rittichs way.

    • Cfan in Van

      He could definitely take over the starters role, with a bunch of huge “ifs” attached. I’m potentially more excited about his ability to lighten the load on Smith during his second contract year. Smith has been great, but next year they’re going to ACTUALLY need to limit Smith’s starts, instead of just talking about it. They’ve potentially got the back-up to do it now, as long as he earns the trust of Tre and whatever coach we have next year.

  • Burnward

    All I know about a goalie is that the crazy ones are usually good.

    I think Rittich is the right crazy. Plus he’s got Bart Simpson on his mask. Therefore he must be awesome.

    Science.

  • Alberta Ice

    If the Flames play like they did the 3rd period against the Islanders, Rittich will do just fine. If they play like they did the 1st and 3rd periods against the Rangers, Rittich will be hung out to dry just like Smithy. Here’s trusting they keep up what they got going last game- the same look they had during that 7 game winning streak- a juggernaut. GFG.

  • McRib

    David Rittich looks like the real deal to me from his sample size thus far in the NHL and I think he has legit starter potential. The past couple of months he has been a much more consistent goaltender than Mike Smith. Rittich is calm in his crease like all great starters and he has fantastic lateral agility. Two traits that usually make or break NHL goaltenders.