David Rittich is thought by many to be the favourite for Calgary’s backup goaltender job. Now in his second season with the Flames, Rittich had some really strong moments last year playing behind Mike Smith. Unfortunately, Rittich and Jon Gillies both faltered when Smith went down in February. Even knowing that, there’s a reason Rittich is the favourite right now: he’s Calgary’s best backup option.
THE CASE FOR
Looking at Rittich’s splits from last year shows he was strong when serving as a backup. When Smith needed a rest on the second half of back-to-back nights, Rittich consistently stepped in and gave the Flames an opportunity to win. Of course, he wasn’t able to maintain that level of play once Smith’s security blanket was removed from the equation.
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While it was disappointing to see Rittich fail to rise to the challenge following Smith’s injury, the encouraging sign was how he played with Smith carrying the load. Rittich was better than Eddie Lack in that spot and provided Calgary the best backup work they’ve had in quite some time.
Of course, you can’t ignore the disparity in performance last season, either. The Flames are going to need Rittich to carry more of the workload this season, especially if they’re serious about reducing Smith’s number of starts. They’d also turn to Rittich in the event Smith misses significant time like he has the last three seasons.
Rittich has spoken at length about how much he learned last season, specifically after Smith’s injury. If Rittich can use that added knowledge and experience positively, there’s reason to be optimistic he’s in a better situation to succeed.
Also important to consider, but perhaps of less importance, is Rittich’s salary. He signed a one-year, $800,000 contract over the summer, which means Rittich is likely more affordable than any outside option the Flames might look to pursue. If the team meets the high expectations many have for them, the more cap flexibility the better.
On top of that, Rittich will remain a restricted free agent at the conclusion of this one-year deal, which keeps him under team control. Not only is his cap hit very palatable, but the team has most of the leverage when it comes to his immediate contract status, too.
THE SMITH QUESTION
How much is Smith going to play? That’s one of the most important questions to ask about Calgary this season, and there really isn’t a definitive answer. There are so many variables when having this conversation, but it’s fair to assume Rittich would be called upon at least 20 times as the team’s backup this year.
That number could easily be higher, too. Smith has missed stretches of time in each of the last three seasons, including a 13-game span last year. And if even if he does stay completely healthy, we have to remember this is a 36-year-old goaltender. To ask Smith to start 65-70 games doesn’t sound like a smart bet.
Somewhere in the 55-60 range sounds far more ideal. In theory, that would allow Smith to maintain a higher level of play by eliminating, or greatly reducing, any fatigue worries. Even at the high end of that range, Calgary’s backup goalie would still be starting 22 games.
In terms of internal personnel, the Flames have two other realistic options: Gillies and camp invite Jeff Glass (Tyler Parsons probably isn’t ready). Based on their NHL numbers last season, it’s hard to make the argument either is a definitive upgrade on Rittich.
Gillies had his moments last year and has a ton of natural ability, but to say he’s been inconsistent as a pro would be an understatement. Glass, on the other hand, is an outstanding story and an easy guy to cheer for, but didn’t exactly slam the door shut in his first 15 NHL games with Chicago. I’m also skeptical the Flames would be able to find a surefire upgrade on Rittich anywhere outside the organization, while also maintaining cap flexibility.
Even if Calgary were to look for outside backup help, whether it be Glass or someone else, doing so would have an unfortunate trickle down. Adding a new goaltender to the mix would push Rittich and Gillies to the American League, while also likely relegating Parsons to the ECHL.
It’s simply not an ideal situation and the headache isn’t worth the minimal upgrade an outside goaltender would provide, if any.
Here’s what we know about Rittich: he did a solid job in a backup role last season, albeit with a limited sample size. What we don’t know is whether he’ll be able to perform at a higher level if Smith gets injured or if the team actively tries to reduce their starter’s workload. But we also don’t know that answer with anyone else.
When weighing all the factors above, Rittich just makes the most sense as the team’s backup goaltender to start the year. It’s up to him to rise to the occasion and, if he doesn’t, it’s not like Calgary hasn’t been in similar situations before.