There’s no questioning the Flames underperformed in 2017-18. They were a team that had playoff aspirations, and they failed to even make it within spitting distance of the dance.
That obviously couldn’t stand, and so, Brad Treliving has been busy over the course of this offseason, adding to a forward group that was the fifth worst in the NHL in goals per game (and had the league’s third worst shooting percentage). James Neal, Elias Lindholm, Derek Ryan, and maybe even Austin Czarnik, if he can break out, have all been added to a lineup that was previously underwhelming.
But there’s another area the Flames may have problems that hasn’t been addressed this offseason: goaltending.
The Flames couldn’t score, but it’s also important to note that, with Mike Smith, David Rittich, and Jon Gillies in net, they only managed a .905 team save percentage: tied for 20th in the NHL. The only teams with a worse overall save percentage that actually made the playoffs were the Flyers and Penguins.
It’s entirely possible that, even with the Flames’ efforts to restructure their skating group, their goaltending could sink them. As things stand today, with about a month to go until preseason really starts hitting, they’re relying on a 36-year-old and two still largely unproven prospects to carry them through an 82-game season, and hopefully more games thereafter.
One can’t really fault the Flames for their approach. It’s far easier to upgrade a forward group than it is the goaltending: there are a lot more forwards out there, and it isn’t so singular a position that one bad performance can ruin the entire game. The Flames addressed the area they could, and they should be better for it.
But the team is also starting to enter a period in which it needs to get going on its championship aspirations. Neal’s contract will only likely really be worth it in the beginning years. As good as he’s remained to date, the spectre of age will continue to hover over Mark Giordano (to say nothing about how he may have just gotten a downgrade in partners). The same will go for Smith.
Most of the team was born in the 1990s, but their starting goalie, top defenceman, and probable top line forward all have a shelf life that will expire sooner rather than later. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen this season – but at some point, it will happen.
We can split Smith’s 2017-18 season into two main categories: before his big injury and after. The same goes for the underlings, as their roles drastically shifted, from backup (or AHL starter) to starter (or NHL starter when the other guy wasn’t working out).
|Before Smith’s injury||After Smith’s injury|
|Smith||.921 SV% (47 GP)||.880 SV% (8 GP)|
|Rittich||.927 SV% (10 GP)||.885 SV% (11 GP)|
|Gillies||.750 SV% (1 GP)||.903 SV% (11 GP)|
We do need to take note of sample size and circumstances. Gillies’ one game before Smith’s injury was in relief of Eddie Lack in what was already a blowout; he doesn’t deserve that ugly a number. On the flip side, though, a number of games he played after Smith’s injury were when the season was effectively over and the games meaningless, so his superior numbers also deserve a grain of salt.
Rittich was great as a backup, and seemed to just straight up crumble when he had to become the starter. Maybe that means he’ll be great as a backup in 2018-19; maybe the more recent numbers warn us not to trust him.
And for most of the season, Smith was excellent, and we should probably pay more attention to his numbers before his injury that kept him out for a month, rather than the disaster that followed after. Unfortunately, that’s a gamble. The Flames are, essentially, hoping a 36-year-old man with additional wear and tear on his body will be able to bounce back to the form he had in his first three-quarters of a season with them: a season that was trending to being the second best of his career (i.e. not an average performance from him, but an exceptional one).
They’re banking on a career season from a player who has shown hints of being able to do it in the past, but not consistently. Kind of like how they were banking on players like Sam Bennett and Micheal Ferland to have career seasons, and when they didn’t, and one other player (Michael Frolik) faltered, their forward depth was shot. It’s a risk.
Is there really any other solution?
Unlike with the forward group, though, there really aren’t that many options for help out there.
The only free agents with real NHL experience still on the market are Kari Lehtonen, Steve Mason, and Ondrej Pavelec. Mason and Pavelec were backups at best or didn’t really play at all in 2017-18, haven’t really had good seasons since 2014-15, and shouldn’t be viewed as saviours.
Lehtonen is interesting, however: he had a .912 save percentage in 37 games played. While his last truly good season probably came in about 2013-14 (.919 save percentage in 65 games), there is an important distinction to make between his overall save percentage and his even strength save percentage.
In 2017-18 his even strength save percentage was .929; the Stars had the league’s 14th best penalty kill (i.e. average). In 2016-17 his save percentage was .902, but Dallas’ then-league-worst penalty kill played a major part in hurting his numbers: his even strength save percentage that year was a respectable .920.
Lehtonen will be turning 35 in November. If he’s to be the potential saviour the Flames pick up for free, then he runs into the exact same problems as Smith: he’s old, and who knows how many more decent performances are left in him. The Flames are either going to have to rely on older guys or still unproven prospects.
There’s always the option for a trade, but you have to give to get, and the Flames really don’t have much to give. Ask yourself: would you be comfortable dealing Juuso Valimaki and maybe a second or third round pick for someone else’s goalie who may or may not be the long-term solution? Because that’s what it might take for a new shot, and one that might not even work out at that.
The Flames are probably stuck hoping Smith returns to exceptional form and that at least one of Rittich or Gillies works out (and for the long term, at that). Unfortunately, that could end up dictating their season – but there aren’t many other options.