The Flames looked as though they might have started the 2017-18 season with, perhaps, too many goalies. As the year progressed, it looked like they settled into a groove. Then injuries struck and everyone kind of fell apart, leaving plenty of questions, and no real long-term answers.
The Flames haven’t had a long-term goaltending solution in place since Miikka Kiprusoff retired at the end of the 2013 lockout season. Since then, they’ve bounced around: maybe Karri Ramo was the answer? Reto Berra? Joni Ortio? Jonas Hiller? Brian Elliott? Okay, how about Mike Smith?
And there was the answer: Smith. Sure, he may have been 35 years old to start the year, so this was going to be a short-term solution at best, but the Flames had just built up their roster and, now, picked up an experienced starter. And then he shut out the Ducks in Anaheim, putting an end to the Honda Center curse, so you knew it was only good times from there on out. Aside from the occasional shelling and four sub-.800 save percentage games in 2017, the Flames had it made.
It was a point further emphasized when, no longer holding out hope for veteran Eddie Lack, the Flames called up David Rittich, and he ensured the Flames at least got a point in every single one of his starts, putting up high quality outing after high quality outing and making the Flames look like they had their tandem for the playoffs, and even a chance for Smith to get some off days.
Except, following the Flames’ bye week, they started losing. At first, Smith kept them in the games; then his numbers started dropping, as well. Nobody was playing well, until they had a come from behind victory over the Islanders, and Smith got hurt in the final second.
And all of the shine instantly wore off.
Tackled with being the starter, Rittich’s sparkling record inverted, and he immediately started losing games and putting up poor numbers. Tasked with helping out at the NHL level, Jon Gillies did the same, but looked even more lost than Rittich the entire time. The Flames’ original AHL tandem floundered their way about until Smith was ready to return, at which point he, too, floundered, turning in his worst stretch of the season and helping the Flames get eliminated from playoff contention that much quicker.
When things mattered the most, the Flames’ veteran goalie and their two experienced prospects all fell flat on their faces (leaving the entire top of the cage open for easy goals against). Worse yet, Rittich’s play disintegrated even further upon being sent back to the AHL, and a full season later, the Flames are no closer to finding that long-term replacement for Kiprusoff, five full seasons after his retirement.
Which brings us to the central question: what would you do for 2018-19? There isn’t much out there on the free agent market; certainly nobody who is likely to be an upgrade on Smith, who is still under contract for another season. The Flames don’t really have the assets to trade for anybody, though they could always surprise. Their group of prospects looked great on paper, but after the years Rittich and Gillies have had, not to mention Tyler Parsons’ injury-plagued rookie season, things maybe don’t look as bright as they did this time a year ago.
So, do you hope the now 36-year-old Smith can replicate the good parts of his season, less so the bad ones? Can one of Rittich or Gillies step things up and become a full time NHL backup, at the very minimum? Do you try to trade; maybe a Philipp Grubauer or Juuse Saros will be too expensive for their current teams? Take another shot at free agency? Or maybe the goalies are fine as they are and it’s the defence that needs fixing?
Who would you see the Flames start the 2018-19 season with?