Pedigree vs potential: Successful Flames have little choice but patience with Smith

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • FlamesFanOtherCity

    The logic of playing a struggling player to get him through the struggles is flawed. Whether we have a winning record or not, you need to generate wins, not try to develop a starter. Smith has not been very successful this year playing two games in a row. If you start him again against MTL, he will also likely get EDM, whom he was able to beat last year. And if you start Smith then, Rittich will have gone over a week since a shutout performance.

    To date, we have seen fewer glimpses of the last year good version of Smith and more of January and post-injury Smith. If your goalie coach is saying that Smith looked great in practices and we see the effort like in Anaheim, then there is a bigger problem. Rebounds, soft goals, flopping on the ice after the initial shot….these are symptoms of a goalie that has lost their way. No issue with giving Smith starts, as we don’t have a 1b level goalie yet, but don’t consider him to be the goalie that’s going to get you to the playoffs until he starts playing like one. Keep trotting him out there and watching him give up the first goal, if you like. What was a team that could battle back will start getting frustrated of having to play that way.

    • aye

      And who would you suggest they trade for? Which goalies is available and is worth trading for? At this point in the season I see no one.
      The way I see it, more that half the league don’t have great goaltending at the moment, the ones that do are: TB, TOR, ANA, BOS, MIN, WPG, NAS, FLA (when Luongo is healthy), COL, DAL, ARI (when Raanta is healthy), CLB, NYR, and NYI. All the other teams goaltending are questionable at the moment, either underperforming vets (MTL, WAS, PIT, SJS, STL VGK, etc.), or inconsistent or unproven (PHI, BUF, CAR, LAK, etc.). So, essentially there is no realistic options at the moment.
      At this point, I think they just might be forced to ride it out for another 1/4 of a season to see how things play out with Rittich and Smith, and things around the league. After all, nobody’s running away with the Pacific at the moment, especially SJS having their own poor goaltending issues.
      Shocking that only SJS and ARI have a positive goal differential at +2 and +1. So, definitely no time to panic yet.

      • Jumping Jack Flash

        Given the parity in league the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs will come down to a couple of points. Similiarly, the spread between gaining home ice advantage vs starting the playoffs on the road again will come down to a couple points of separation. Coaches need to realize that points in November should be easier to get and just as valuable than points in March.

        I hate to say it but the NHL is not a “development league” it is a “get it done league”. We don’t have time to wait for Smith to find his game when we have a very capable backup that is in a groove. One of the many mistakes GG made last year was to undermine the importance of the backup role until he needed it…you know the old “emotional bank account” spiel that GG rattled off but did not I’ve by. By the time GG went to Rittich to tell him he was the guy, the damage was already done to his confidence by never letting him feel like he was important to the team.

        We all expect that Smith will get the call against Montreal and win or lose will play against Edmonton despite the fact that Rittich is coming off a shutout. Whatever happened to win and your in? It must be emotionally draining for the players to start a game down a goal yet this is what it must feel like. There is a trickle effect, Smith lets in the first shot, Flames chase the game, try and open up the game to generate offense leaving themselves vulnerable, leading to the lines being shortened in the 3rd period followed by complaints that the fourth line is trash and did nothing with the 5 minutes they got. The line blender is a contingency plan it should not be a go to tactic. Play your hot goalie until he is no longer hot. Have Smith use this time to find his game in practice.

        • aye

          Agree with everything you said. No argument from me for starting Rittich over Smith more going forward. I’m simply saying I don’t see trade as an option to fix the goaltending situation, because there’s no one available. The solution might be right under their nose with Rittich.

        • R4anders

          Smith has only ever had one good season, every other year it’s been average or below. Rinne is a Legit #1 and has been for years. Your argument is invalid.

          • Jessemadnote

            Smith was an all star last year, how many goalies go from an all star to retiring the next year? I agree Smith is nowhere near Rinne but I believe he’s a capable league average starter and a 13 game stretch doesn’t change that no matter what his age is. .

  • Suck It Steinberg!

    Smith was a bad bandaid solution from the beginning. He has never been a goalie whom can be counted on. He is streaky. When he is bad he is horrible, when he is good he is above average. Treliving replaced Elliot with Arizona garbage. Taking on Smith and allowing Elliot to leave still puzzles me. Yes, Elliot was bad in the playoff series, but he was part of the reason the Flames made it to the post season. Smith on the other hand is part of the reason thebFlames didnt make it last year. Between his inconsistencies, and injuries, just not a great move. Smith is done. Time to move on.

    • buts

      And Elliott is on fire…..not. Both Smith and Elliott are hot and cold just like there whole careers. Again I said here on FN in the spring that goaltending was our biggest issue to correct in the off season and BT did nothing. Like Raymond, Brouwer and Neal along with many others BT has a lot of warts.

    • SGRietzey

      Agreed on Smith being a bandaid at best. As to Elliott, I feel like the team may have lost confidence by the end, and I’d be surprised if Philly does either after last year’s playoff performance. I was a staunch supporter/defender of him up to and including the playoff series vs. Anaheim, but he’s also had a tendency towards streakiness, if maybe less pronounced than Smith. It’s unfortunate; if he’d been able to put together a bit more consistency I doubt the team is in its current goaltending conundrum.

  • Sven

    Playing Mr Smith and sitting Rittich has cost the Flames some wins

    The “goals saves against league average” statistic suggests that having Smith in net has cost the Flames 8.5 goals this year that would have been saved by an average NHL goaltender- (the worst of all 55 goalies to see the ice this season)

    The “goals saves against league average” statistic suggests that having Rittich in net has saved the Flames 6 goals this year that would have been given up by an average NHL goaltender- (9th best of the 55 goalies to see the ice this season)

    If we assume that replacing Smith with Rittich would remove the nine “soft” goals surrendered by Smith this year – and perhaps another two given that Rittichs numbers are “above average” we see the Flames goal differential go from +1 where we sit currently (with Buffalo, St Louis and Dallas) to +12 up with Boston, Tampa and the Islanders

    It is also worth pointing out that in the 409 minutes on ice this season the ability of Rittich to save the “high danger” shot is 88% – placing him first in the NHL as compared to Smiths score of 79% which places him 37th

    am I missing something?

    • The Doctor

      Smith has cost us some games, no question. He certainly didn’t cost us that last one though. That was our skaters stinking the joint out in the second period.

  • everton fc

    I think Rittich/Smith, 1/1a, is a good tandem. But only if Rittich is #1, and continues to play the way he has – calm, comfortable, competitive, and positionally strong. Smith’s experiencing his swan song. He’s an adequate backup, at this stage of this career.

  • Cfan in Van

    I disagree with two fundamental aspects of Steve’s opinion.

    “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.”
    If they rode Rittich 50% of the time, with a proven vet as his backup, this would be a stark contrast to the situation Rittich was in last year. His prep wouldn’t change that much at all, compared to expecting to start 1/3 of the time. It’s not that much of an increase. He started great in Smith’s relief last season, but the pressure of not having a proven Plan B made contributed to him faltering. This year, he has someone to lean on.

    “He (Rittich) 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.”
    Calling it quits on Smith, would be bringing up Gilles and buying out Smith. Giving Smith a 50% share of starts would be a generous acknowledgement that he’s a valued and experienced member of the team, and that the team is still willing to support him during his down slide. He’s a professional, and needs to take responsibility for what he brings (or doesn’t) to the team. If he’s so fragile that he can’t give up a few starts to a goalie who’s playing better, you’ve chosen the wrong guy, and he’s not going to work out anyway.

  • KeepitReal

    If I get up faithfully every day at the crack of dawn and gaze westward looking for a beautiful sunrise I’m gonna be disappointed. Expecting Smith to be that solid starter at this stage is looking westward every morning. Every athlete’s career is on an arc. We should be transitioning #41 to the role of a reliever and Diesel should be getting more crease time as he slowly takes firm control of the #1 spot for 19/20. We will fritter the season away if they keep trying to prop up Smith to his former position of strength. The fans deserve better.

  • SgtRoadBlock

    BT has one job left or he will be fired at the end of the Season trade for a goaltender,
    we will have to lose a Core player but that r own Fault for not dealing with this years ago, this Goaltender Graveyard patch job has epic failed .

  • Toofun

    So I just read the “Neal” and “Smith” articles and a lot of negative comments about who’s to blame for what and how we need to fix things.

    Then I took a look at the league standings and noticed that Calgary is in about 10th spot, but if they beat Montreal 5-3 tomorrow, they would have virtually the same record as San Jose (including goals for and against) and jump up to around 5th.

    Sure, we would all like to see better finish from our forwards, a better powerplay, tighter coverage from our defense and better goal tending from Smith. Realistically though, the team has done pretty well, they’ve been working hard, they are fun to watch again and they have uptapped upside potential.

    If it takes a few more games to work out some of these challenges, we;ll just have to have some patience.

    • Craftmatic4.0

      Agreed! Let’s not get 2oo down on this team. It’s been a decent start to the season, and allowed me to make fun of Oilers fans at work! They are walking on eggshells rite now! The Post season dance is almost guarantee! When this D-core finally solidifies it will be something 2 behold!

    • KootenayFlamesFan


      We are one win away from being first in our division. Having said that, we are a couple losses away from not being in the playoffs at all!

      I enjoy watching this team this year though, they always seem to make a game of it. It would be nice to see the fruits of their labor on the scoreboard a little more often – I worry that teams think that no matter how badly they play against us they still have a chance to win.

      We need to start capitalizing on our good play and put teams away early. The side benefit of this is that bad goal tending will not be such a big issue.

  • RKD

    I think Smith like Elliott is done you may get some good games here and there but not the consistency you need. Right now Rittich is giving us consistent goaltending. If
    Rittich is not going to be your starter then you need to move Smith in trade and get a consistent starter.

    • oddclod

      I’ve been waiting and chirping two years for Tkachuk Backs Bennett. FINALLLLLLY.

      The game is about pairs and Byng & Bennett deserve a chance. Good god it’s been painful watching them develop Bennett like a 4th liner.

      • R4anders

        It’s odd I can’t reply to your reply of my comment on smith. Being named to team canada does not change his career stat line. The awesome thing about numbers is that they can’t be swayed by opinion,For the majority of Smith’s career he has been an average or worse goalie … Numbers don’t lie. I hated the acquisition then and I hate it now.

  • OLdGuy

    Look you guys, the 3 game road trip, Smith was in for 2 of them and the team only scores 3 goals. I believe he is coming around. Last game 929 save percentage.

  • cjc

    The difference between Smith and Price is age, and that Price has long been a better goalie. Price is no spring chicken at 31, but Smith is still 5 years his senior (Saying that I wouldn’t give Price much leash right now either).

    You have an option until you don’t. Right now Rittich is an option. As a fan I don’t want to see this team get behind the 8-ball, so I want to see them start the most reliable goalie, and that is Rittich. If he starts sucking, let’s go back to Smith.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    I found my Sam Bennett comparable. He is a guy that does so much that doesn’t show on the scoreboard, an energy guy that can be moved up and down the line up, he is an integral piece necessary to win a cup, highly underrated because off his low offense, is often snake bitten around the net but every GM would take him….Andrew Cogliano. If we taper our expectations on Sam Bennett to fit this styalistic comparable we can all sleep better.

    • oddclod

      Agreed. Or Danny Cleary if u remember the 2000’s. Any Sam Bennett fear and hate posting has zero merit if you have ever seen his playoff hockey. This org has developed him poorly and at least have been lucid enough to keep him. Go Sam Go.

    • cityofchampions

      I would expect that we would both play our better goalie…..Rittich and Koskinen. Like Rittich, Koskinen is 4-1 with a much better save percentage than the “starting” goalie.