The Flames made moves on every front this offseason. They plugged holes in the forward lines by adding four fresh faces, brought in another big name defenceman (at the expense of another one), while still stockpiling plenty of helpful depth in the minors.
The one area left untouched was the goaltending, which is looking more and more like the team’s weak spot, and not just relative to outside of the net. The Flames have taken risks this offseason, but their biggest might just be remaining with the status quo in net. Last season quite clearly started falling apart when the situation in net did. The Flames have not resolved that.
Do the Flames have good enough back-up? How many games can Mike Smith play?
— Bob Myke (@Bm30Bob) July 21, 2018
What do you think about the Flames' goaltending options or lack thereof? Smith has played in 55, 55, and 32 games his last three seasons. We're probably rolling with the same crew this year I guess.
— redofsea (@redofsea) July 21, 2018
Mike Smith has been a starter since the 2010-11 season, playing in at least 55 games every season (34 in the 48-game lockout shortened season) other than his injury-hampered 2015-16. The Flames acquired him to be a starter, and a starter he shall be.
The question is if he’s actually a starter or just nominally one. Smith has had injuries of varying severity in his past three seasons and he just turned 36; who knows how long he’ll hold up? Smith was an .921 goalie pre-injury and a .880 goalie post. Albeit, that’s comparing a 47-game sample to an eight-game sample, but there’s still cause for concern. It’s likely that he’s more of a .915+ goalie than a <.900 one next season, but they aren’t safe odds.
Smith is going to be a bit of a question mark next season, but so are his potential backups. David Rittich and Jon Gillies have been good in bursts, but nothing convincing enough that either of them have locked down a job. If one of them does, you probably can’t expect more than around average backup performances.
Basically: the goaltending situation is very shaky. You’re leaning heavily on a guy who seems ready to break any second now and your backup plan is two goalies who just may be fine backups, nevermind NHL starters. If everything is fine, I’d imagine that Smith gets about 50 starts. Still the lion’s share, but with 30 or so games to figure out what Rittich and Gillies are. If everything is not fine, throw it all out the window.
Who would your guess be for starting goalie in 19/20? Not sure if Smith will have what it takes getting closer and closer to 40.
— Calgary Flames Tweets (@GoatMonahan) July 21, 2018
The battle is mostly between Rittich and Gillies. Tyler Parsons is still in need of development, while Nick Schneider and Mason McDonald are dead in the water.
The battle between Rittich and Gillies will mostly be solved this season, and I’m giving the inside edge to Gillies. Rittich has had some success at the North American level, but mostly in a backup role. He projects to be a backup if he sticks around in the NHL, and that’s a big if. Rittich could be unconvincing, it’s probably over for him in North America next season. If he isn’t good enough next season, that’ll mean it’s been two seasons of him teetering somewhere between the NHL and AHL at age 27. That’s not going to get him many jobs.
Gillies has always had a starter’s pedigree attached to his name, and to his credit, he’s been getting better as years go by. He’s not a UFA until he’s 27 and he’s not waiver-eligible until 2019-20. Gillies has a longer runway, which gives him a leg up on Rittich. The advantage Gillies has is his contract, which seems signed with the intention of him being a full-time NHLer with a one-way salary kicking in next season. If that doesn’t tip things in his favour, I’m not sure what does.
If nothing works, hopefully they have enough cap to throw at Sergei Bobrovsky.
Is Steve Mason an option worth looking at for a backup goalie on a cheap one year deal? Still don’t know how confident I am in either Rittich or Gillies if Smith falls off or gets hurt at some point this year
— Russo (@arusso_9) July 21, 2018
Steve Mason is one of the bigger names left on the UFA market, if not the only one. He’s two years removed from some strong seasons with the Flyers and is probably at his lowest point in terms of value. He’ll be a cheap, no-risk pickup.
But he’s at that low value point for a very good reason. Mason has been a career below average goalie, getting hot for a few years in Philly and then dropping off again. Maybe you get that ~.920 stud again. The likely chance is that you don’t. The Flames took another risk on a goalie like that last season in Eddie Lack and it went about as well as you could have expected. Sometimes, goalies just don’t bounce back.
How will we measure success this Flames' season? making the playoffs? home ice 1st round? getting to second round?
— kingcambie (@kingcambie) July 21, 2018
- fired the coaching staff and replaced them before the playoffs were over
- traded a top line winger, top pairing defenceman, and top prospect in one go
- spent big bucks in free agency
- did all of the above and may not be finished just yet
… all because they finished just about six wins out of a playoff spot.
If you’re going to overhaul the roster to the point where players with safe jobs last season could potentially be AHL-bound this season over what was, in hindsight, a below average season, you set the bar high.
I would personally expect a strong push for a top three spot in the division at the very minimum (I would personally say they finish second behind the Sharks) and an appearance in the second round. I wouldn’t think a first round exit (depending on opponent/how the series goes) is necessarily a failure, but at least disappointing.
What will the opening night line-up be?
— lance street (@lancestreet12) July 21, 2018
How would you configure forward lines with our current depth?
— Harshita Chhabra (@harshitaDBB) July 21, 2018
I think it will look something like:
That’s the realistic option. I feel I would try Dillon Dube on the fourth line instead of Troy Brouwer, and either Juuso Valimaki or Oliver Kylington on the third pairing rotating with Brett Kulak.
What are the chances that Bennet AND Hanifin both ‘make the leap’? Is Cgy a legit contender if they do? What would it look like?
— Cameron Hilton (@cameron_hilton) July 22, 2018
Noah Hanifin has been in the process of making the leap:
Noah Hanifin, meanwhile, took a big step forward last season. He's still the 67th-ranked defender though, while Hamilton sits at 16. pic.twitter.com/VNr1FAZ6ih
— Emmanuel Perry (@manny_hockey) June 27, 2018
Hanifin is only 21, too. He has space to get better and likely will. Another season under Bill Peters should help him, as will an all around talented team.
Sam Bennett is someone you can be less optimistic about. It’s convenient that the question asks about both Hanifin and Bennett, because they have very similar stat lines over their careers (Hanifin: 83 points in 239 games; Bennett: 89 in 241). You will recall that Hanifin is a defenceman.
Who knows how true it is, but the general thinking that forwards peak earlier than defencemen kind of puts Bennett in a negative light. He’s three full seasons into his NHL career and is still below mediocre, and the excuses are wearing thin. He’s played with good linemates, he’s not at centre anymore, he’s been sheltered etc, etc. Eventually, it might be time to admit that Bennett is just an okay player.
The caveat is that the Flames aren’t relying on Bennett to break out this year. They hoped he would be the third centre in 2016-17, and that fizzled out along with most of the Flames’ secondary scoring. They hoped lifting him to easier circumstances would help in 2017-18, and that was okay for a bit, but a lateral move on 2016-17 when it was all said and done. Through their summer additions, they’ve given him a new centre (likely Derek Ryan) and a new right winger (likely Michael Frolik), who at least are slight upgrades on his previous linemates. If Bennett doesn’t get something going this year, his linemates will survive with another option slotted in.
Hanifin, on the other hand, would be a more critical failure if things didn’t pan out. Part of the reason for moving Dougie Hamilton was to spread the wealth between the top two pairings. Gio-Hamilton was an elite pairing, but Brodie-Hamonic was a stylistic mismatch. The logic behind the trade from a hockey perspective was that Brodano was also an elite pairing, perhaps not to the same degree, but still elite, and Hanifin-Hamonic would be a solid second pairing. If that all fails, the Flames have a slightly worse version of what they had last year. Not great.
Kulak seems to have a TJ Brodie-ish skill set and trajectory
What do the underlying numbers say?
— Cameron Hilton (@cameron_hilton) July 22, 2018
If we’re going by trajectory, TJ Brodie is far ahead of Kulak at this point in Kulak’s career. When Brodie was 23, as Kulak was last season, he was a bonafide top pair defender with Mark Giordano, anchoring one of the NHL’s low key best pairings for the 2013-14 season. So the trajectory is a bit off: Brodie was established by the time he was 23, and Kulak just finished his first full NHL season.
The contexts are way different too, so it’s kind of comparing apples and oranges. Brodie was a bit fortunate when he was coming through the system, as he broke onto some very bad Flames teams. Not to undermine the glory days of the Brodano pairing, but you have to admit that it’s much easier to stand out playing next to Norris-calibre Giordano with Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid, Deryk Engelland et al. playing behind you. For Kulak, he had to break onto a team that had Brodie, Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, and Travis Hamonic playing in front of him while he got Michael Stone as a partner.
So it’s also kind of hard to compare them on an underlyings basis. Kulak (perhaps unfairly) got the tag as a Brodie-lite when he stepped up in Brodie’s absence for the first few games of the 2015-16 season, when he posted some great numbers in a small sample size. Ditto last year, when he made an impact in the 21 games he played. But with 70 under his belt in these circumstances? He’s been mostly a negative by possession standards. He can hold his own, but he just doesn’t look that great relative to the production of everyone ahead of him.
I think they’re similar in narrative in that they’re both late round draft success stories, but I think that’s as far as the comparisons go. Brodie was an elite player (and might just still have it in him, or so the Flames hope) by the same time Kulak arrived in the NHL. Kulak is a handy bottom rotation guy, but he just doesn’t have what Brodie had at the same age.
How worried is Brett Kulak
— Clay (@clayTRON8000) July 21, 2018
He should be very worried!
I think waiving him ahead of arbitration was a pretty strong punch to the gut. Teams were unlikely to claim him on waivers (based on announced arbitration figures, any team claiming Kulak would probably have to pay over seven figures, which is more baggage than teams are willing to pick up on the waivers wire), so all this did was erode Kulak’s bargaining position while sending a strong message to him ahead of camp: we can get rid of you.
Kulak is a fine third pairing defencemen, but that is an expendable asset. He’s not a guy being held down by the circumstances, he’s just a guy. Kulak will play nice, safe hockey for ~15 minutes a night. That’s what he does, and he does a fine job of that, but there are others nearby that can do the same thing but better. You can’t keep talents like Kylington and Valimaki down forever. If he’s making six figures, he’s an easy contract to bury or stash in the press box. He should be scared.