The Flames’ goaltending situation is a discussion that simply hasn’t gone away all season. The emergence of David “Big Save Dave” Rittich and the decline in play from Mike Smith has created a giant cloud around the crease, and the decision on who will start for the Flames seems to change with the wind.
Unfortunately, while the narrative remains, the neck-and-neck battle for the crease has all but disappeared. There is no question that Rittich is the Flames’ best goaltender, most consistent goaltender, and should be the one starting for the Flames in game one of the playoffs. This is as much fact as it is opinion, and those standing behind Smith’s recent “return to form” simply do not have the facts to back up that claim. Rittich has been better since October, and has continued to be better into the new year. Let’s break it down.
Unlike previous seasons, the Flames are blessed to be one of the most lethal offensive teams in the league this year, currently sitting fourth in the NHL in goals scored. This has allowed them to endure erratic goaltending throughout the season by outscoring their opponents. Both goalies have had bad games this year, but the Flames have had the firepower to overcome the below average goaltending performances.
Generally the Flames have been a tough out when getting at least average goaltending. This season, the league-wide average save percentage is around .904. Out of their 68 games this year, the Flames have posted at least .904 in 38, or 56% of their games. They have won 31 of these games which works out to a winning percentage of .816.
On the flip side, the Flames have gotten below average goaltending in 44% of their games, 30 in total. They have just 10 wins in these games, for a winning percentage of .333. An average is meant to be exactly that, with a fairly even split of games on either side, but it’s clear that goaltending is one of the biggest issues facing this club this season. With just consistent, average goaltending, they could be contending in the same realm as Tampa Bay.
Team-wide, the Flames seem to be doing a very okay job in net, straddling the average line and using their offense to bail out mediocre goaltending performances. Where the real problem lies is with the splits between Smith and Rittich. Digging further into the game-by-game save percentages, the two goalies start to trend in very opposite directions.
Full season splits
For the purposes of this assessment, each game this year is credited to the goalie who either recorded the win or the loss. To date, both Smith and Rittich have played 34 games apiece. Here’s how the two ‘tenders break down in terms of above and below average performances.
Above Average SV%
Below Average SV%
Rittich has performed above average in 23 games (68%), in comparison to 15 for Smith (44%). However, Smith has a much higher winning percentage in games where he does post above average results, winning 87% of those matches. Rittich has won 78% of his, not as high a clip as Smith, but still vastly above middle ground. One reason for this split could be that the Flames seem to allow more shots against in games where Rittich is above average SV%. On average, the Flames allow 27.5 shots in the above average Smith games compared to 31.1 in the Rittich ones. For whatever reason, Rittich’s strong play hasn’t turned into two points in the standings at as high a rate as Smith’s. This could be due to a number of factors outside of the goaltender.
Above average is really all the Flames need to be successful, so the more interesting analysis is when looking at the below average goaltending games. Smith has eight more below average performances in the same number of games played as Rittich. Simply put, that’s not very good. What’s even worse is that Smith has won just six of his 19 below average games, good for a .316 winning percentage. Rittich on the other hand, has a .364 winning percentage in his 11 below average games. The two percentages seem close, but prorating Rittich’s over the same number of games as Smith (19) translates to one full win more for Rittich.
So what does this mean? It means that not only does Rittich play above the NHL average 24% more than Smith does, but even when Rittich does have a bad night, he’s more likely to win that game than Smith and will give the Flames an extra two points in the standings over the same period.
Splits since Jan. 1
One caveat to all of this is the recent play of both netminders. Rittich was clearly the team’s number one goalie leading up to the Christmas break, but since then Smith has stolen back starts, even starting in five straight a couple weeks ago. If we conduct the same analysis only since Jan. 1, 2019, perhaps some insight can be found as to why Rittich hasn’t started as much.
|Above Average SV%||Games||7||9|
|Below Average SV%||Games||7||5|
In the new year, the Flames have played 28 games and both goalies have 14 apiece. Looking at the splits between above and below average performances closely resembles the full season picture. Smith has been below average seven times (50%), compared to five times for Rittich (36%).
In above average games, both goalies have a high winning percentage, 71% for Smith and 89% for Rittich. The difference since the New Year is their respective winning percentages in below average games. Where Rittich has the incrementally higher win rate over the whole season, he’s won just one below average game out of his five, for just a .200 winning percentage. Smith has won three of his seven games, a .429 winning percentage. This could be one of the most important reasons clouding the goaltending controversy in Calgary. Despite Rittich playing better in 14% more games than Smith, starting duties have still been split due to Smith continuing to win games he’s played poorly in. The Flames’ skaters have bailed Smith out of poor performances to the point where the perceived gap between him and Rittich seems smaller.
In the end
There’s no doubting Smith’s ability to pick up wins. But at the end of the day, there just isn’t enough to support the case that Smith and Rittich are comparable goaltenders. Rittich performs better more often, and in the games where he doesn’t play great, he still wins at a higher rate than Smith – even with Smith’s recent winning record. The goaltending controversy in Calgary has gone on too long. It’s time to accept the fact that Rittich is the better goalie and should start not only most of the games the rest of the season, but also game one of the Stanley Cup playoffs.