Pending unrestricted free agent Mike Smith says he’d like to be back with the Flames next season. On the surface, bringing Smith back on a short, affordable deal seems like a viable option, especially with how he performed down the stretch and in the playoffs. Smith would have to be part of a tandem with David Rittich, though, who is younger and has a higher ceiling at this stage.
Based on a few things said at the end of the season, and how he’s historically performed with a smaller workload, I’m uncertain Smith is an ideal fit to be part of a timeshare.
Is it a mutual fit?
The one thing we know for sure is Rittich needs to be part of the equation next season. He’ll turn 27 this summer and presents Calgary’s best chance at a long-term number one, which is something they haven’t had since Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013.
Nothing against Smith, but Rittich has to be the priority going forward; he’s more than a decade younger and gives the Flames a shot at something they haven’t had in six seasons. That’s where things get complicated, because I get the feeling Smith has his eye on being a number one again next year, or at least being in a position to compete for that type of gig.
“I think you always want to be the guy,” Smith said at locker clean-out last week. “I’m a competitive guy, I’ve played a lot of games throughout my career, and you always want to play. That’ll be something that’ll be talked about. Ritter had a great season this year. Both guys want to play, so it’s a good problem to have.”
There’s nothing wrong with both guys wanting to play; internal competition is nice to have and theoretically pushes both goalies to be better. But if there’s an expectation to play a certain amount of games, or a frustration when that doesn’t happen, things can get difficult.
“I think after All-Star break I played some of my best hockey and most consistent hockey I had all season,” Smith said. “I think, to be honest, I probably didn’t handle not playing as well I should have. I probably wore it a lot harder than I needed to and it probably affected the way I played early on in the season.”
None of this is to say Smith wouldn’t be perfectly fine in a timeshare scenario, especially if other options don’t pan out. If that were the case, I think it’s something Rittich would be open to, because he spoke glowingly about his partner last week.
“When I came here I was so lucky he (was brought in by) the Flames last year,” Rittich said. “I can see him in the net and in practice and in the game. Every time when something happened to me in the game, if it was bad or good, he was always there for me to try to help me.”
By all accounts, Rittich and Smith were able to form a really strong bond despite all the outside noise throughout the year, which is something to keep in mind. Smith admitted he learned a lot this season, so perhaps he could be in a better spot to accept a tandem role for 2019-20. I may be somewhat skeptical, but I’d approach another year of a Rittich/Smith duo with an open mind.
All about volume
The other thing to keep in mind is Smith’s performance when he’s not playing all the time. Smith has a reputation of being more effective when seeing a high volume of starts and a high volume of shots. For the purpose of this article we’ll focus on the former over his career, which is tracked below (in the “GS%” column).
While not a perfect science, it is interesting to see four of Smith’s five best statistical seasons come with him seeing 67.1% of his team’s starts or more. Likewise, four of Smith’s five worst years have come when he’s started less than half of his team’s games. The same trend popped up when looking at how things played out in 2018-2019 specifically.
Smith had a horrid month of October despite starting the bulk of those games, so we’ll leave that out of our sample size. It was at the beginning of November when Rittich started seeing more action, while Smith’s workload picked up again following the team’s All-Star/CBA break.
|October 30 – January 22||15||38.5||0.888|
|February 1 – April 19||21||58.3||0.914|
As you can see, Smith was significantly better when he got the net at a higher rate. Smith started 15 of 39 games between October 30th and the break and struggled; that’s in stark contrast to how he played down the stretch, where he started 21 of Calgary’s final 36 contests (including playoffs).
Again, this is anything but iron clad science, but it gives some statistical backing to a reputation that’s already out there. It definitely adds to my uncertainty about whether Smith is an ideal fit for a 1A/1B type situation, or the more traditional one-two split.
I’m not trying to paint Smith with a selfish brush by any means. In fact, it’s just the opposite: he’s a proven veteran that believes he can play number one minutes at this stage of his career. The way Smith performed down the stretch and in the playoffs suggests he might be right. I don’t know if Smith’s turnaround this season will be indicative of the future, but I’m not going to write it off, mainly because of how driven and competitive he is.
What I do know, though, is Rittich needs to be in a tandem situation next season, at the very least; there’s too much promise and potential to not give him that shot. Whoever he ends up being paired with, Smith or otherwise, needs to be okay with an even split at best, or possible being clearly second on the depth chart.
If Smith is ready to embrace a role like that, I believe he’d be a good fit to return on an affordable, one-year deal. If he’s not, I wouldn’t begrudge him one bit; Smith has had a strong career and has earned the right to find what he believes is an ideal fit as a UFA. If he’s looking for a shot to get true number one minutes, though Calgary probably isn’t that situation.