If there was any debate before, there surely isn’t now: Mike Smith is the Flames’ MVP this season. With a .921 save percentage over 47 games, he has been far and away the best goalie the Flames have had to offer, sometimes singlehandedly winning games. The team has gone completely off the rails in his absence, from being in control of their own playoff fate to already looking solidly out of it with a month still to go.
The Flames got some welcome news the other day, though: Smith unexpectedly joined the Flames in practice. While he won’t be ready to go immediately, it sure does bring some optimism that he could be back sooner rather than later.
Which begs the question: how often should he play when he returns?
There still isn’t an official timeline for Smith’s return quite yet, he just appears to be one step closer to returning to the crease. That said, the Flames could be virtually – or mathematically – eliminated by the time he’s ready to return, which would make this all for naught.
Let’s assume the Flames stay in the same position they are now: not out of it just yet, but in an extremely precarious spot, and in desperate need for at least two or three other teams to come crashing down in failure. That’s where the question of Smith’s usage really applies.
David Rittich was posting excellent numbers as a backup, but since Smith went down, he’s fallen apart: just two games with save percentages over .900 out of six contests, compared to a perfect seven-for-seven when Smith was healthy (not counting games in which he appeared in relief). Meanwhile Jon Gillies, up on emergency recall, just hasn’t been able to put it together, and unfortunately looks more stunned rather than capable when he’s minding the net.
In short: the Flames absolutely need Smith if they’re to have any chance at getting back into the playoff race, because neither Stockton starter is cutting it.
But even then, Smith could play out of his mind, literally post 10 shutouts in a row, and it still might not be enough to get the Flames into the postseason.
That’s the risk you take when Smith returns: is it worth it? Is it worth playing a soon-to-be-36-year-old goalie for the remainder of the season – however many games that ends up being – for a chance at the playoffs, even when the team no longer controls its own destiny? Smith is projected to be the starter next season as well; will he be able to repeat his performance from this season? Would having him play out the rest of the year, once healthy, hurt that? Is it worth the risk?
Remember that, without a first round pick this year, the Flames get no joy, no consolation prize for missing the playoffs. It’s truly postseason or bust, and resuming running Smith into the ground might be the only way to get there to begin with.
The Flames have 15 games left, including just one more set of a back-to-back. Six of those games are against bottom-five NHL teams. Four more are against teams the Flames are trying to catch for a playoff spot.
What would you do once Smith is healthy? Have him start every single game in a last ditch effort? Ease him back into things? Have him play only the divisional games, or just the games against top opponents? Try to preserve him for next season, when the team may do better overall? Or keep him on the shelf all together to be safe, and let Rittich and Gillies end things, the chips falling as they may?
In a ideal world in which Smith is back in action sooner rather than later, how would you play him?