The Flames entered the 2017-18 season with a potential problem: too many goalies. Mike Smith and Eddie Lack would take the reins in the NHL, Jon Gillies and David Rittich would be a tandem in the AHL once again, and that would, unfortunately, relegate Tyler Parsons to the ECHL.
Except Lack basically wasn’t allowed to play, and when he did, he didn’t inspire confidence. This led to Rittich getting recalled, and he did – at least until Smith was injured, and the entire season jumped off the rails.
2017-18 season summary
Rittich started his season in the AHL, and he ended up finishing it off there, as well. Ultimately, he played 12 games for the Heat and posted a .889 save percentage along the way.
But it’s everything in between his AHL stints that was really interesting. With faith in Lack thoroughly extinguished by mid-November, Rittich made the first NHL start of his career on Nov. 25, stopping 24 of 26 shots in a 3-2 win over the Avalanche: far better than anything Lack had done in his four games as a Flame.
The Flames continued to lean on Smith throughout the season, but every time they turned to Rittich, he performed well. He followed up his .923 save percentage effort with a .946% in his next start, a 3-2 win over Montreal. After that came .941%, .938%, .953%, .919%, and .938%. Excluding games in which he appeared in relief, Rittich was, at absolute worst, picking up the Flames at least a point (he lost two shootout games), and posting excellent numbers the entire time.
And then Smith got hurt, and Rittich, by default, became the starter in mid-February: not even three months since making his first NHL start.
There were plenty of other things going wrong at the time – the rest of the team was having difficulty performing, a rather familiar sight from when Smith had been singlehandedly keeping them in games throughout October – but Rittich didn’t do much to further his own case. He tried his absolute best in two games against Boston, losing both, but not really through any fault of his own. He had a stellar effort in a 4-3 win over Nashville, including a heart-pounding end to the game in which he was the only thing that stood in the way of the Predators picking up two points.
But other than that, his numbers plummeted as he went to sharing the net with Gillies, only recovering when he faced weak teams like the Sabres and Senators. Smith returned to action after that, too little too late, and with the season clearly lost, Rittich made his final NHL start of the year on March 24: a 5-1 loss to the Sharks in which he posted a .848 SV% effort. After that, he was sent back to the AHL, and Gillies got his chance to close out the meaningless year.
|Games played||Save percentage||ES save percentage||PK save percentage|
Rittich’s season was a total roller coaster, completely opposite from the typical calm demeanour he often displayed in net.
Initial high level performances had some thinking there could be a lot more to this 25-year-old undrafted free agent; once he got the chance to actually be the starter, it all unravelled rather quickly. Now, the Flames don’t really have a clear answer on what to expect from him next season: and he’s a restricted free agent eligible for arbitration, to boot.
Compared to last season
There’s no question Rittich took a major step forward in 2017-18. Not so much from the AHL side – he went from a .924 save percentage in 31 games to the aforementioned .889 in 12 – but he also went from one period of NHL action (and a .900 save percentage in it) to 21 games, most of which resulted in heroic wins more often than not.
We actually have NHL data on him now. It’s only a quarter of a season’s worth, but it’s much more than we had this time a year ago, and though there are negatives to be found in it, there were plenty of positives, as well.
What about next season?
It isn’t particularly clear what’s going to happen with Rittich next.
Should the Flames bring him back? Without question. Even if they pick up another goalie, he can play the exact same role he did for the Flames in 2017-18: waiting in the wings in the AHL, ready to step up in case one of the goalies at the NHL level doesn’t work out. Only it’s even better this time, because now Rittich has had that NHL experience and understands what it’s like to be in the best league in the world day in and day out.
On the other hand… what is he, exactly? There’s always the chance he’s a late bloomer and could still be a starter, but that might be wishful thinking at this point.
There wasn’t one negative thing to say about Rittich back when Smith was starting games and healthy, so he thrived under optimal circumstances, but floundered once things got dicey. Can he overcome that? If yes, he’s great insurance to have around. If no, then he still should have some value as a backup – but Smith is 36 years old with some wear and tear on him, so it’s a question if the Flames will even have any kind of optimal goalie situation in 2018-19 at all.
Rittich is certainly easy to root for, at least.
|#5 – Mark Giordano||#7 – TJ Brodie|
|#8 – Chris Stewart||#10 – Kris Versteeg|
|#11 – Mikael Backlund||#13 – Johnny Gaudreau|
|#15 – Tanner Glass||#18 – Matt Stajan|
|#19 – Matthew Tkachuk||#20 – Curtis Lazar|
|#21 – Garnet Hathaway||#23 – Sean Monahan|
|#24 – Travis Hamonic||#25 – Nick Shore|
|#26 – Michael Stone||#27 – Dougie Hamilton|