In case there was still any debate as to who the Calgary Flames’ Most Valuable Player is this season, goaltender Mike Smith’s absence and the team’s performances over that span say it all.
And Smith’s surprise appearance at practice on Tuesday ahead of the second of three games on the Flames’ critical late-season road trip tells you a lot about how desperate the Flames are for something positive.
Just days earlier, his coach had said Smith would be staying behind in Calgary to continue rehabbing with no firm timeline for a return to the blue paint. Then Smith flew to Buffalo to take part in Tuesday’s practice session with his teammates and plant the seeds of his comeback.
The narrative is that Smith simply reached the stage in his recovery that required a ramping up of his activity. He joined the team again for today’s game day skate.
“Obviously it’s been a while since I practiced,” Smith told reporters after Tuesday’s optional practice at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo. “I’ve been working with (goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet) a little bit and felt it was time to test it with live shooters and some different situations.”
But make no mistake, the move was as much about providing a boost to the moral of a fragile, frustrated and floundering squad that has seen its other star player struggle in the absence of the MVP netminder (more on that later).
“I think when guys see that he’s out on the ice, with how well he’s played for us, it’s always a boost of hope a little bit,” Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan said after the skate of Smith’s surprise appearance. “It’s like getting any other top guy back — when they start to skate, it starts to create a bit of excitement.”
The actual emotional effect on his teammates isn’t something you can quantify, but their effort against the Buffalo Sabres will be one indication as to whether or not they think internally that their season is salvageable with the return of their star netminder waiting around one of the next few corners of their journey.
When Smith went down suddenly in the dying seconds of a win against the Islanders in New York on Feb. 11, the Flames were in a playoff spot with 66 points — good for third in a tight Pacific Division. They’ve earned just eight points in 11 games since then and woke up on Wednesday in 11th spot in the Western Conference standings, five points behind the San Jose Sharks in third in the division and three behind the Los Angeles Kings in the second wild card spot.
What a difference a few weeks make.
With respect for a very talented Johnny Gaudreau, who still sits top 10 in scoring with 74 points through 67 games, it’s Smith who has the Flames even flirting with the notion of making the playoffs by keeping them in so many contests while healthy this season.
It is reminiscent of the Miikka Kiprusoff days, when a team largely offensively dependant on one player (Jarome Iginla) and struggling with the concept of consistent defensive play (a possession game was non-existent for this franchise until the arrival of Gulutzan) would ride Kiprusoff’s heroics into the playoffs only to disappoint in the postseason.
Kiprusoff hid so many flaws. Smith has done the same this year. And even the ones he hasn’t been able to completely cover up with his play, he has at least dampened the effects. The baffling T.J. Brodie spiral has been going on all season, but Smith made big saves at timely stages of games to keep the team in so many of the 47 games he’s started.
The 23-16-6 record with Smith as the last line of defence is in stark contrast to the 3-6-2 without him. Smith’s 2.53 goals against average would be so much more inflated if not for his .921 save percentage — which ranks seventh best among goalies who have started at least 30 games this year.
Gaudreau’s contributions on the season as a whole have been impressive. Earlier in the year he was considered no less than co-MVP with Smith and was probably thought by many to be the most important piece of the Flames’ playoff puzzle. But it’s true that you don’t really know what you’ve got till it’s gone. And sometimes you discover more truth about others during that absence.
At a time when the team has needed him most, Gaudreau has scored just twice in the 11 games without Smith and once in the last 10. He’s gone point-less in five of the 11 contests, too, despite the fact Gaudreau has a respectable eight points in that span.
But they’re not translating into victories. And both time and opportunities are running out for the Flames — who woke up with a 14.1% chance of making the playoffs according to SportsClubStats.com.
During Smith’s absence, young goalies David Rittich and Jon Gillies have allowed a troubling 40 goals. Neither has gained much traction or earned the confidence of the guys in front of them.
Smith’s actual return might be the only thing that can salvage their season. But he can’t do it alone and his arrival is still not imminent. Before that happens, the team needs to take care of business against the cellar-dwelling teams like the Sabers and Senators that they have to beat if they want to extend their year.
And if the cost of a Smith flight to Buffalo to join the team can help spark the right mix of determination and desperation, then it was worth it.