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Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Calgary’s goalie usage sets positive early precedent

The Flames are expected to start David Rittich Saturday night in Colorado, which would get their backup goaltender into action in the Flames’ fifth game. It’s an important decision, mostly because it shows the team is serious about managing Mike Smith’s workload. Who knows if the team will stick with that commitment over 82 games, but it’s a positive precedent to set early this season fo a couple reasons.

MANAGING SMITH’S WORKLOAD

I don’t know if I can put it any simpler than this: Calgary needs to ease up on Smith’s pace compared to last year. The guy turns 37 in March and it makes no sense to see Smith as one of the busiest goalies in the league again. Sure, the guy wants to play every night, and that type of competitiveness is a great trait. If Smith isn’t going to manage his rest, though, the Flames have to do it for him, as harsh as that might sound.

Prior to sustaining a lower body injury against the Islanders on Feb. 11, Smith was on pace for 70 starts. That’s too many for any goaltender in this league, let alone one who was 35 for the majority of last season. I know age is just a number, but you can make a salient argument Smith was starting to wear down prior to his injury.

Smith started 41 of Calgary’s first 48 games last season and was absolutely stellar. His 0.926 save percentage prior to the All-Star break was elite; only Andrei Vasilevskiy (0.930) and Corey Crawford (0.929) had higher marks among NHL starters. Smith represented the Pacific Division at the event and things started to dip upon his return.

Dates GS SV%
Oct. 4 – Jan. 24 41 0.926
Jan. 30 – Feb. 11 6 0.892
March 11 – March 31 8 0.880

When looking at Smith’s splits upon his return from All-Star weekend, and then after his return from injury, you’ll see a noticeable difference. Is it a sure thing Smith’s dip in performance prior to the injury was due to being tired? We’ll never know, mainly because the guy would never admit it, but also because this isn’t a perfect science. However, I do wonder what type of numbers we might have seen in the back half of the season had he been on pace for, say, 60 games instead of 70.

In that same vein, I also wonder if Smith’s heavy workload contributed to his injury on Long Island. We’re talking about a goalie who’s missed significant time in each of the last three seasons, so it’s not crazy to suggest a lighter schedule might improve Smith’s durability.

Of course, all of this is predicated on a capable backup goaltender. Knowing Calgary’s aspirations this season, the temptation to keep playing Smith would be tough to resist in the event their backup wasn’t performing at an NHL level. That’s what we saw while Eddie Lack was still with the Flames last year and, knowing how he struggled, was understandable.

GETTING RITTICH GOING

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Going to Rittich early also helps avoid another issue from last season: waiting too long between backup starts. Lack’s first start came on Oct. 25, which was the team’s 10th game. Going back to the 2017 preseason, that ended up being a good month between game action.

Lack only started two of the team’s first 23 games last season: Oct. 25 and Nov. 15. His second start came in Detroit and only happened due to a minor Smith injury. I’m not trying to make excuses for Lack, because he wasn’t good, but it’s tough to perform going eons between starts.

Upon Lack’s demotion to Stockton, the team turned to Rittich and got what they were looking for: a backup who could win. Prior to Smith’s injury, Rittch was one of the league’s best statistical backups; he went 5-1-2 in seven starts with a 0.927 save percentage. Because the team was winning with Rittich in net, they could finally dial back on Smith’s workload.

Rittich started his first NHL game on Nov. 25 in Colorado and would start six more prior to Smith’s injury in February. Overall, Rittich started seven of 31 games during that stretch, which was a discernible change.

Prior to Rittich’s first game, Smith had started 20 of 22 games, which was good for almost 76 starts. If you extrapolate his pace from Nov. 25 to Feb. 11, however, that number drops to a much more manageable 63.

As I wrote about in September, Rittich was Calgary’s best backup option heading into the season. The hope is be he can be closer to the goalie he was prior to Smith’s injury, as opposed to the struggles we saw following.

NOV. 25 – FEB. 11 FEB. 12 – APRIL 7
GP RECORD SV% GP RECORD SV%
10 5-1-2 0.927 11 3-5-1 0.885

There are zero guarantees, but we do know Rittich was able to perform when he had the security blanket of backing up Smith. He doesn’t even need to be a 0.927 goalie for the Flames to be confident in more frequent usage, either; somewhere around 0.912 would give the team a shot of going .500 with Rittich in net. If Smith can be at 0.920 the rest of the way, Calgary is probably a playoff team.

CONCLUSION

Everyone has different target numbers for ideal Smith starts this season. Mine is 55, which would mean seeing Rittich (or another backup) in net for 27 starts, or 33% of the time. I’m no math whiz, but I’m pretty sure that works out to an average of once every three games.

Even if 60 is a more realistic number, 22 starts for Rittich is 27% of the team’s games, which works out to one in every four. The point is, Smith needs to sit more often, and the only way that happens is if the Flames get solid work from their backup. The fact Calgary is going to Rittich five games into the season gives him a fighting chance to make that happen.