So far through the 2018-19 season, Mike Smith has had quite a journey.
At first, he was the Flames’ undisputed starter. When the cracks started to show, David Rittich got a few more games in – but Smith was still the starter, the logic being he’d be able to play himself out of his funk. He couldn’t, though, and it got to the point he was singlehandedly costing the Flames games. Soon enough, he was relegated to Rittich’s backup.
It was completely earned; while Rittich is near the top in the league’s save percentage (both in all situations and at even strength), Smith is right at the bottom.
Then there’s the fact of the matter that Rittich is 10 years younger than Smith: even if Smith was having a better season, Rittich’s career is likely to outlive Smith’s at this stage. The Flames have failed to successfully address long-term goaltending since Miikka Kiprusoff retired; Rittich may well be the closest they’ve come to finding their netminder of the future. It only makes sense he gets the majority of starts.
That would be all well and good if this was another transition year for the Flames, but it isn’t. They sit second in the NHL, both in terms of standings and points percentage. The red flags surrounding the team are minimal: a couple of high-scoring players have high shooting percentages, that’s about it. This is a legitimately good team that’s playing well enough to, dare we say, potentially win it all.
And that means the Flames will require two talented goalies to carry them through the rest of the season. Rittich will need nights off, and his backup will have to be able to inspire confidence in his team should he need to dress in the postseason. Which begs the question: can Smith still be that guy?
The Flames have played seven games through 2019 so far, and Smith has dressed in three of them: back-to-back efforts against the Red Wings and Bruins when Rittich was hurt, and a start against the Coyotes, one of the lesser teams in the league. He had a good game against the Coyotes, a modest showing against the Red Wings (in which his defence may have been more to blame for the goals surrendered than he was), and a poor game against the Bruins.
But do any of those games inspire confidence? The game against the Bruins can be forgiven: it was the second of a back-to-back, which can be a difficult scenario for any goalie, not just Smith. However, the Bruins were the only quality opponent of the bunch, and the only quality opponent Smith has faced since suiting up against the Predators on Dec. 8 (a game he won, albeit still with a rough goal against thrown into the mix).
How much stock should be put into Smith’s good performances against teams that likely aren’t playoff-bound? Yes, he’s helping the Flames get to the playoffs by playing well against lesser opponents and giving Rittich nights off here and there, and that should help the team come April, but once it actually is April, can he be relied upon to perform well? The Flames are a legitimately talented team, but goaltending can undo even the best of them: and if the Flames have Cup aspirations this year, being one injury away from hoping Smith has the ability to get the team playing in June could be a tall order.
It’s not as though there aren’t options for the Flames. They probably won’t be trading for any big names with high cap hits, but there are lesser names who could potentially be reliable backups (it’s clear, at this stage, the Flames don’t need a starter: it’s Rittich, easily).
The Flames have 15 games before they really have to make a decision as to what to do at the trade deadline. They face some tough opponents in that mix: the Capitals, the Sharks, the Lightning, and the Penguins chief among them. There’s also only one remaining back-to-back, so it’s not entirely clear what games Smith would start in that stretch – but he may not get teams that the Flames could potentially meet in the playoffs.
There’s a lot to ponder with Smith, then. Would you keep him around, but only play him against lesser opponents? If he continues to perform well against them, has he earned the right to be the Flames’ lone backup goalie? Would you feel more comfortable trading for someone else, and then, would you keep Smith on board as the team’s third goalie, or try to trade him away, or even waive him? Would you see how he fares against a tougher opponent? Or has he lost your trust in the net all together already?
How should the Flames approach their goaltending – and Smith, specifically – as they ramp up to the trade deadline, and how should they be looking at fortifying the net for the playoffs? Can Smith do it? What would you do?