Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

WWYDW: Mike Smith’s ever-changing role

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?

  • withachance

    Does anyone know how often a backup typically plays in a playoff series? It sounds like there is less of a need for a backup than previously thought.

    I’m pretty confident if rittich is the starter for the rest of the way. Let’s not forget about kipper who was a relative unknown too before bursting on the scene!

    • supra steve

      The Flames, at this moment, are a Cup contender. An injury to Rittich puts Smith as your starter and Gillies as the backup. Unless Smith really starts to show he’s rebounding, like right bloody now, the Flames will need another option.
      Did we learn nothing from the Elliott playoff bed soiling?

      • withachance

        an injury to a starter is going to be brutal for every team in the playoffs. A tandem that is viable in the playoffs is pretty rare and is always a surprise. Doesn’t seem like a pressing need based on a “what if”

          • withachance

            Wouldnt trust any of these teams’ backups in a playoffs game: VGK (probably would take Smith over Subban in the playoffs), SJS (both Dell and Jones have been pretty bad this year), Dallas, Minnesota, Vancouver, Edmonton.

            Thats only in the west. All in my opinion at least

          • supra steve

            So the West’s current 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th place teams…and Malcolm Subban who has a .904SP compared to Smith’s .889. I will grant that San Jose is having tender trouble, but both have slightly higher SP than Smith.
            Thanks for making my point.

          • withachance

            lol im talking about the last stretch. Smith was a garbage fire in the first quarter but hes been fine the past quarter of the season. Id still take him right now over any backups in the west thats not NSH and WPG…

          • supra steve

            My point would be, Smith DID such earlier on, when he was playing regularly. Now, with spot duty, he MAY be OK. If the Flames are a serious contender, he could single handedly crush their playoff dreams if he’s forced into service. If that’s a risk the team is willing to take, then so be it. But it is a real risk that could come back to bite the team and squash a real possibility of a Stanley Cup in 2019.

          • withachance

            My point is why do the Flames need two goalies who are capable of carrying the team through the playoffs when no other team has that? If a contender’s starting goalie is injured (see Fleury, Rinne, Hellebuyck, Andersen, etc) would that team be expected to still get a cup? NO, because its a risk to literally every team in the league

          • supra steve

            Never let the facts stand in the way of a good argument. Brossoit .943 SP, Saros .910, Sparks .905, Suban .904…all young and improving, all better SP than Smith .889 who is old and apparently failing.

          • withachance

            Yes those are great backup options, but if any of those teams had to rely on them for a whole playoff series, then Id say theyre pretty screwed… Backups are backups for a reason. You think anyone would be afraid to come up against Sparks in a playoff game compared to Andersen? Im not saying Smith is the future backup for the next decade, just saying if Rittich is injured, the team is screwed regardless of who we have as a backup

          • SGRietzey

            This may be a shock, but a talented team can win in spite of poor goaltending, and both Dell and Jones ARE playing poorly this year. Jones is at a .903 and Dell is only marginally better than Smith at 0.891. League average save percentage has between 0.911-0.915 for the last decade. That literally makes them both below average on the year.

  • radiomonkey

    Given the quality of his body of work over the last 11 months, Smith’s role through this season is the following: Rest for Rittich so he’s fresh for the playoffs. Feed Smith easy starts at home and the easier halves of back-to-backs. He’s not reclaiming the starting role, but he can help the new starter get accustomed to the new workload. 10-12 starts for the rest of the season seems about right.

    • SouthernFlame

      Agreed. If and when we clinch a playoff spot with a few games left to play in the season we should probably bring up Gillies for a game or two as well? Just to get him some minutes? Smith isnt one to just lay down and die, he’s a fighter and I have confidence in him. (which means nothing but you asked soooo)

      • Fat Tony

        Shouldn’t worry about giving Gillies minutes. We are trying to win the division here, giving us the best chance at home ice advantage and a favorable first round match up. The only way he see Gillies again this season is if someone is injured or if losing the last couple games wont affect our position in the Pacific or the standings overall.

  • Heeeeeere’s Johnny

    Philipp Grubauer……anyone? He stole the starting job from Holtby last year, but who was in net when they hoisted the cup. Don’t count Smith out yet sheeple.

  • Heeeeere’s Johnny

    If Rittich goes down I don’t believe there is another affordable (in terms of assets required to acquire) goalie that I would bank on carrying the Flames to the cup. If we can trade for someone who will be next year’s backup at an affordable cap hit I think it bears doing, but I wouldn’t invest anything in a rental goalie.

    • Dr. Gonzo

      I have no trust in Smith if Rittich goes down. Smith has lost it physically, as we seen last year with Jagr. Smith is not capable of carrying this team in 1 series, let alone 4 if Rittich gets hurt. The Flames do have some currency, I do not want to see the Flames go for a rental in the back up position either, but if they are able to upgrade and move out some bad salary, why not.

      • Heeeeere’s Johnny

        I agree. I just don’t have a great deal of confidence that any goalie available for a reasonable cost could carry the team either. If Rittich goes down then I feel like this year would be lost so better to keep our powder dry for next year

        • buts

          You can bet there’s a goalie in the AHL that could backup here and give us depth without costing alot now. He just isn’t in Stockton. Peterson in LA’s farm is one. Check Tampa’s system as well.

  • quinneroma

    The problem with Smith and the Flames is salary cap. Not sure any team will want him unless they get Kylington and/or a pick as well in exchange for an upgraded backup??? Not to mention Treliving’s loyalty to Smith, they go back to the Coyotes. I think you have to roll the dice with Smith, IF Rittich gets hurt. Could also try Parsons, if he improves a bit down the stretch here. He’s been wildly inconsistent on the farm. Gillies isn’t an option, apparently he’s been terrible.

  • Lazarus

    There is zero need to jettison Smith as I’ve said through the last how long.
    I’m quite happy the clamoring about needing a backup has died down..what a difference a game makes hey? The Chicken Littles really need to chill and it seems they have..at least until he loses again then I’m sure it will be back to Square 1.

    • RU63

      well said. However, we do need is a 3rd string goalie, i have no faith in Gillies or Parsons to be a backup if one of Smith or Rittich goes down. Maybe trade Gillies for a proven goalie to mentor Parsons in Stockton, and answer the call-up if needed.

  • meat1

    I cringe at any trade talk that involves trading any of our young d-men that have played up here this year. Our cupboards are relatively bare down on the farm. We need to keep the youth we have AND keep our draft picks. If we can acquire a backup goalie by moving other bit pieces fine, but otherwise let’s remain status quo.

  • Lazarus

    1958-1959 Habs won their 4th Cup in a row. Planted was the starter, the backups? Charlie Hodge, Claude Cyr and Claude Pronovost? Who? Exactly..
    I doubt Habs fans were piddling themselves for a backup half way through the season.
    The whole we need a 1B goaltender or we are doomed is nonsense. Rarely do teams have that luxury. Almost every team is in the same boat, this isn’t a new issue. It’s as old as the league itself

    • Dr. Gonzo

      How many games were played in 58-59 playoffs? There were onlyv6 teams in the league, 4 teams in the playoffs and I’m not sure if they played a best of 7 or not. Terrible comparison. If my Aunt had balls, shed be my uncle…

      • Lazarus

        I don’t know, look it up.
        What’s it matter about games played, or league size?

        If you can’t see how it is comparable I don’t know what to tell you. Good luck lol

      • BendingCorners

        Glenn Hall started in 500 consecutive games. Most starters played nearly every game in a 68 or 70 game season and then played nearly every game in two playoff rounds. No masks. Not much padding.
        Good goalies get ridden hard and always have been.

    • withachance

      You hit it on the head in your last couple of sentences. Which team can comfortably say they can rely on their backup to on a cup run…. Not a lot.

      Not sure why fans are clamouring for a backup when Smith is winning, albeit unconvincingly, and everything argument starts with an IF rittich gets injured. What if Rittich doesnt get injured??

  • The Beej

    I think everyone has worked with someone who is under appreciated but is always taking the time to do the little things. Those administrative duties. Mike Smith could still make himself indespensible.

    Make coffee
    Practice duty
    Scheduling: Team meetings
    Team building stuff
    Team outings

    Lots of stuff he can do to help earn that fat paycheck.

    • Keith Chucky

      RAMO….. Are you kidding? or off the rocker?
      He had a PTO with Toronto and failed that. He claimed to have an injured knee, kind of like (in my opinion) like he did with us when he had a bad game.

  • BendingCorners

    Relying on Rittich is only anxiety-inducing because he is new. A solid backup in case he is hurt would be great but only if the price is low enough.

  • Off the wall

    I’m trying to remain impartial, so I looked up the advanced stats on Rittich and Smith.

    Smith had a very bad 1st quarter. He was 5-7-1 with a .876 SV%. Only had 30% quality starts. That would explain the flopping game.

    2nd quarter Smith had a 7-2-0 record with a.900 SV%. He jumped 10% in quality starts to 40%, from the previous quarter.

    This current quarter, he’s only played one game, however he is 1-0 with a .957 SV%. And a quality start.

    For reference, the league average is 53% in quality starts to be deemed good.

    I think Smith is trending in the right direction, he seems more focused and isn’t flopping around.

    Rittich 1st quarter was exceptional. 6-1 record with a .933 SV%. 78% quality starts!
    Anything over 60% QS is amazing.

    Rittich 2nd quarter was good, but not as great as his 1st.
    He had a 8-3-3 record with a.915SV%. He dropped to 60% quality starts, though still very good.

    Rittich 3rd quarter he’s 3-0 albeit with a .907 SV%. There’s no rating on his quality starts, probably because of the data. However, he is playing well, but not as stellar as his previous 2 quarters. His quality starts avg is 59.3%

    Smith is trending up to the median avg of quality starts, but because of his 1st quarter of bad starts, it’s taking a while for his numbers to reflect this.

    We still have the 3rd and 4th quarter to play out, however indications are that Smith is getting better and Rittich although always steady, isn’t the 1st quarter goalie with unreal numbers. He’s shown the number 1 goalie results, but let’s not count out Smith on improving. He is.

    He’s still 13-9-1 on the season, with 2 shutouts!

  • Flameon13

    Hate to say it, but if Neal doesn’t pick it up before the deadline would anybody be opposed to trading:
    Neal, Smith and Stone
    Lucic, Rieder, and Talbot?

    Cause if we can’t get production from Neal atleast Lucic can make other teams think twice about messing with Johnny.

      • Flameon13

        He hasn’t but I was told by an oiler friend that he is quick and is a good penalty killer. The big part of it is if Stone can recover by then and getting who may possibly a better back-up based on him playing well in that role in seasons past

        • Flameon13

          Fair point, but Neal might also be too sluggish to play well with Mcdavid. The biggest point of this trade is to trade bad contract for bad and to get a younger goalie who may have number almost as bad as Smith’s this season but also hasn’t had our defensive group in front of him. It also moves Stone’s 2 yr 3.5mill AAV contract for an expiring contract that is not only affordable but can play quick and responsibly.

    • HOCKEY83

      You want to take one of the worst contracts in the league out of Edmontons hands? As well as Talbot who’s having a worse year than smith? Great trade???

  • Dunk

    Smith looked calm and confident last time out. Lets hope it continues. If we were to get anyone else we would still need to go through a get aquainted process.
    Which could backfire…Smith is the best solution all around.

  • Joeyhere

    I would prefer we not waste assets for a backup but if the Flames do trade for a goalie it should be because it also addresses the need for a backup next season
    Keep smith for now but no way are we resigning him for next year

  • Day1-Cfan

    Right now it looks like the team is doing a good job of picking up points and they seem to be gelling.
    Smith makes me nervous but his record is still respectable despite the freebies that he seems to give up ( his last start was much better). Hope he can keep trending up. Smith will be trying his damnedest to do his best to try and earn himself another contract for next year and this team is probably as close to getting a cup as he will ever get. I think he will do for the rest of this year unless he or BSD get injured. We are close.
    If rest of the bottom 6 start contributing regularly and consistently we can make some noise come playoff time.

  • Abagofpucks

    Stand pat on the goalie situation and go get a good top 6 rental and a good third liner that can win faceoffs. Big save Dave is your number 1 goaltender and Smith is a decent back up. Nobody is gonna take Smith off your hands this year so stop kidding yourselves.

  • Cfan in Van

    Slightly off topic:
    Anyone who reads the Athletic should check out Kent’s article on Flames trade targets. Very in-depth, focusing on 8 forwards, 4 D, and 5 Goalies. Lots of relevant info on fit and contracts.

    It basically summed up my previous feelings. Go light on the investment, but a cheaper depth pickup would a good move.

    Although I’m not bent on acquiring another goalie at the moment, I find Lehner intriguing. He’s faced his mental health issues, and given up alcohol as a way of treating them, and playing some of the best hockey of his career.

  • Dr. Gonzo

    What’s it matter for games played? Well if in today’s NHL a playoff team that wins the cup is going to play anywhere between 16 and 28 games. In 58-59 the maximum was 8 games.

  • Derzie

    Not enough has been said about a league wide correction for goalies. Goals are way up this year. The rule and equipment tweaks are finally paying off. As a result, every goalies needs to be re-evaluated. There are keepers that are positively & negatively affected by the changes. This seasons results should be given much more importance than historical results.

  • PasstheDube

    Go with Smith as a backup. I thought he looked great in his last start. Now I know it was against Arizona, but the Flames started the game flat and the Yotes pushed hard in the first 7-8 minutes of the first and Smith made some key saves to keep scoreless. The Flames eventually woke up and outplayed the Coyotes, but Smith held down the fort during a bad start by his team. I think he’s finally working his way out of this horrendous start to the season

    • Getpucksdeep

      I’m going to be even more of a heretic! The ON site has a note at how good Larent Broissoit has tunred out in Winnipeg. We gave up on him early and so did the oilers. My point is a guy like Gillies toiling away on a defensively weaker Stockton team, can still blossom one day. To be sure Parsons may be the guy but its still a little early to ignore any decent goalie prospect.

  • Mickey O'Reaves

    Mike Smith has been an ultra-competitive, very good starter for many years. Now he is definitely in a back-up role near the end of his playing days. That has to be a rather large adjustment for anybody.

    But a goalie like Smith would be exactly the kind of back-up insurance goalie that many GM’s in Treliving’s position right now would be looking at: a back-up who has had success as a starter.

    Can’t see Treliving going out and getting another goaltender for this year’s drive. He’ll look at things afresh when the playoffs are over.