Many rules have exceptions.
In hockey, it often comes when a highly-paid starting goaltender stumbles.
The general rule is repercussions for poor player performance. Others members of the Calgary Flames have experienced it over the first quarter of the NHL season. Michael Frolik was a healthy scratch when his efforts in early games didn’t match his pace from practice. Mark Jankowski has also spent time in the press box, along with defenceman Michael Stone.
Even $5.75-million, three-goal man James Neal was stapled to the bench in San Jose on the weekend because of his inability to ignite his offence.
Yet there was Mike Smith in the starter’s crease again Tuesday, expected to get the nod against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday at the Saddledome, despite an embarrassing set of statistics that don’t even fully paint the picture of just how bad he has been at times.
By now you probably know the numbers by heart. An .877 save percentage that ranks below every other NHL starter and nearly half the backups. A 3.51 goals-against average that barely makes the league’s top 40. And maybe worst of all, Smith owns a 5-6-1 record while David Rittich sports a 5-1 mark with a 1.91 GAA and .935 save percentage.
Rittich has started consecutive games just once this season as the Flames remain (publicly) confident the 36-year-old Smith will rediscover the game that made him the team’s MVP for two-thirds of last season before an injury seemed to spark this downward spiral.
Smith’s likely counterpart on Thursday, the Habs’ Carey Price, is going through a somewhat similar mental battle and saw his backup Antti Niemi start for a second straight time in Edmonton on Tuesday — but it typically doesn’t go much further than that for veteran goalies who make too much money to sit on the pine for too long.
But it’s not just about optics. There is a bit of a method to the madness that leaves pits in fans’ stomachs every time Smith is trotted back out and allows an early goal that puts the team behind.
The truth is they have very little in the way of options, even though their path forward appears obvious.
If and when they finally decide to give Rittich a true split as a reward for his play, the mental approach he takes into every start is different than that which he has used successfully for parts of two seasons so far. When given an expanded role last year during Smith’s recovery from injury, Rittich didn’t fare so well and the Flames sputtered down the stretch to miss the playoffs. They’re playing the long game with Rittich as a developing professional, and with the prospects faltering on the farm, they’re looking all in on Rittich for next season.
His resume so far in the NHL is that of a great backup. He looks like he could potentially become more, but the only way to find out is by taking that leap of faith. By doing that, they are effectively calling it quits on Smith, sending what’s left of his confidence to the showers.
And as long as the team is in a good position in the standings, that’s next to impossible to do for a team that saw the best of Smith less than a year ago, and continues to see glimpses of it — like the (post-Evander Kane goal) performance in San Jose.
Is it frustrating for fans to watch? Absolutely. But this isn’t a young goalie experiencing growing pains like the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray, or even a veteran like Jake Allen who has never quite shown the consistency of an elite goaltender. The only current comparable is Price — who is getting a bit more benefit of the doubt than Smith from an equally fervent fan base.
Price’s coach, Claude Julien, is in the same position as Bill Peters in Calgary. And like it or not, Price (like Smith) earned that No. 1 status over his NHL career and won’t lose it until there is no other choice for the team but to move away from him.
“Carey’s our No. 1 goalie … Carey’s a good goaltender,” Julien told the Montreal Gazette this week when discussing Niemi’s consecutive starts. “So as much as it’s going to be talked about, there’s no issues there and we’re looking forward to having him back in the net, too.
“Sometimes, it’s like anything else — especially for a goalie. We’ve seen it with different goaltenders in the past. They just take a step back and then you get back in between the pipes and you regain your confidence and your form and everything else. It’s a tiny reset in his case and then we’ll see the Carey Price that we all know very soon.”
It’s pedigree versus potential.
Flames fans can only hope that Julien’s words about Price hold true for Smith, too.