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Flames gambling their season on their goalies

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.

Clock’s ticking

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.

  • Squishin

    I’m good with Smith/Rittich this year. Gillies shouldn’t be the conversation until his glove hand and positioning improve.
    Any team is screwed if their starter goes down, with only a couple exceptions. In that sense, every team is “gambling their season” on their goalies. With a better structure in front of them, hopefully it will reduce the ten-bell workload on the goalies.

    • Scott_12

      Actually, i.e. means “that is” and is much more apropriate than aka in this situation. Underlings can be defined as subordinate or inferior, and while the back-ups are not technically subordinate, they are inferior so questioning this word choice seems nitpicky and uncalled for.

      It amazes me how quick people are to come after the female writers on this blog for minor details that I never see the male writers questioned on. Your comments not only seem wrong, but completely unneccesary and most likely sexist even if they had been correct.

        • The GREAT WW

          Backlund was terrible in his contract season.
          You think he is going to have good season this year now that he is set for retirement?!
          He better up his game because a minus 21 as a shut down expert is pathetic….
          I see Loui Erickson 2.0….

          WW

        • FL🔥MES

          Yea, I know. It’s pretty apparent that this person is a psycho and I intended to stay silent. Really pathetic person.

          BFF loved stories and I’m about due for a good one OTW. So once a hockey related story evolves please share.

          • BringtheFire 2.O

            I have 1 account. I would prefer if no one got banned as I do enjoy most peoples point of views even though they are mostly incorrect. OTW has accused me of being so many people I dont even know who I am anymore. WW has an unhealthy hate for Backlund that I do find amusing. Stajansfinalpaycheck really dislikes Stajan and now will have to find a new target. That too was somewhat amuzing at times. In the end we are all here because we love hockey. Dont hate the player, hate my game!

          • Off the wall

            Since we’re on the theme of goaltending…

            Pelle Lindbergh was my favourite goalie I ever watched.
            5’9 and 158lbs… tiny but dynamite in goal!
            Some may never have heard of him, but to those that watched him, he was exceptional.

            He led the NHL with 40 victories during the 1984–85 season (Flyers) and also won the Vezina Trophy, the first European goaltender to do so in NHL history.
            Lindbergh was the first goalie to bring a water bottle on ice with him during NHL games. Lindbergh did this to combat severe dehydration he commonly suffered from during games. At 158 lbs, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to maintain his weight!

            Jacques Plante was credited with inventing the mask, Lindbergh, the water bottle that is now accompanies every goalie and is attached behind the net each and every game.

            Ironically, Lindbergh was criticized (for his water bottle use) by coaches, players and managers.

            It’s hard to imagine someone criticizing a goalie for trying to stay hydrated, but it happened..

            Criticism comes from lack of understanding, among other things.

            Imagine if we could enjoy FN, without being disrupted by criticism. It would be a benchmark for other Nations. We’re almost there, however we are always going to have the rare critics who truly don’t understand that to advance in life, you need to drop old baggage.

            Pelle had his critics, yet he was responsible for fundamental changes in today’s NHL.
            Pelle set the stage for goalies, it’s up to the rest of us to keep this forum strong and hydrated!

          • StajansFinalPaycheck 3.5

            Dont like BTF nor do I agree with what he/she says but the dead horse comment was fairly clever. Hopefully I win our bet and he leaves FN FOREVER!!

  • where.is.ville?

    Ari is totally right! I have been saying this for ages. Without a solid backup goalie we could be in real trouble. I am not convinced by Rittich orGillies.

  • Stockton's Finest

    I have posted this before and it fits again. What is your definition of a “quality backup”?

    If Mike Smith plays between 55 and 60 games, that leaves Rittich (who I believe will win the job) or Gillies between 22 and 27 games. If your backup can be above .500, a save percentage between .915 and .920, and a GAA between 2.40 and 2.50, is that a successful season? I think if you can pull 30 points in 22 games with a backup, you are not in bad shape.

    Smith will need to be somewhere between 10 and 15 games above .500, between .918 and .924 save percentage, and around 2.25 or 2.30 GAA.

    • Brian McGrattan's Salute

      I agree, and thanks for your knowledge on the issue. I think we’re worrying about this a bit too much (although just a bit). Rittich will get better, and if Smith doesn’t go downhill we should be good. With proper management of his ice time, and actually playing the backup semi regularly to gain confidence, we’ll be good.

      A.K.A. just managing goaltending well, rather than what Calgary has always done in the past. We have had so many goalies go thru this organisation not by fluke or chance…

  • buts

    FN it starts in goal. I love Smith, let’s get a quality, Trustworthy, solid #1a. Rittich maybe, Gillies definitely no. Sparks in TO won a Calder trophy. How about Stone for him? Works for both teams.

      • FL🔥MES

        It wouldn’t surprise me if Stone is the next Brouwer. He’s got a good shot (which he rarely uses) and can play physical. At best he’s average. I’m not sure if any team would take him with salary retained. And we’re really not in a position to add much of a sweetener to entice a trade.

        So do you keep him over Ras, trade Kulak to make room for Ras, or sit stone (in which case any potential value he has would crater).

  • Jobu

    Jobu is unsure why everyone is dumping on Gillies. The man has done nothing but improve every season since he turned pro and yet everyone thinks he’s a dud. Jobu believes Gillies will be the future netminder of this club for years to come and is pretty sure the Flames franchise feels the same way.

  • TheWheeze

    The success of Vegas comes into play a lot in FN discussion. Being a cantankerous old coot myself, I believe it was an anomaly and they will be somewhat brought down a few notches upcoming season. Sure it was surprising and got everybody talking, but I believe welcome back to earth is in order. Canucks are a wreck. Oilers are all over the map. Arizona is the kid brother everyone picks on. San Jose, Flames, and Jets are going to this years top class in the division.