Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Does Mike Smith fit as part of a tandem?

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.

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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.

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“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).

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Season Team(s) GS GS% SV%
2006-2007 Dallas 18 30.0 0.912
2007-2008 Dallas/Tampa 32 39.0 0.901
2008-2009 Tampa Bay 40 48.8 0.893
2009-2010 Tampa Bay 36 43.9 0.900
2010-2011 Tampa Bay 20 24.4 0.899
2011-2012 Phoenix 67 81.7 0.930
2012-2013 Phoenix 34 70.8 0.910
2013-2014 Phoenix 61 74.4 0.915
2014-2015 Phoenix 61 74.4 0.904
2015-2016 Phoenix 32 39.0 0.916
2016-2017 Phoenix 55 67.1 0.914
2017-2018 Calgary 55 67.1 0.917
2017-2018 Calgary 40 48.8 0.898

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.

Stretch GS GS% SV%
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.

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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.

  • SouthernFlame

    His flopping is probably due to his body reacting to stretching out that far. He can’t retract some of his muscles (probably groin) back so trying not to injure those muscles he flops out instead of retracting back and getting back into form like all the other younger goalies, he can’t keep composure because of those nagging muscles that don’t wanna tighten back up into form. That flopping is only gonna get worse. Oh and plus he is addicted to heroin and can’t cut the addiction.

  • deantheraven

    Good question, Pat, and I like your answer. So much of what happens between the pipes depends on what’s happening between the ears. Smith would have to be ok with a role equal or lesser to the one he played this season.
    We aren’t privy to what the dynamic in The Room is like with Smitty and the rest of the guys, but it seems like he and Ritter are a good match as a tandem. The real question is whether starting the season with both of these two will be an advantage or disadvantage. From here it looks like there are few better options, but we don’t know the tone of the exit meetings. Nobody saw Dougie and Ferly being shifted out last year and apparently Dougie didn’t say the right things and his teammates weren’t enamored with him enough to convince Tre that he wasn’t expendable.(For the record, I’m sure he made the Flames better with that deal)
    We’ll see what Tre thinks, after weighing the facts and post season comments from the rest of the team. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that Tre will do whatever it takes to make the team better able to compete next April. Keeping or letting Smitty go is probably like watching a tennis match in his head at this point, but who knows what will happen come Draft Day.

  • Loud_voices

    Good article! I think we would do well having both of them back as a tandem… We had the 2nd most wins in franchise history… The fact that the goalies struggled at times during this amazing season and we still finished second overall is a testament to the team we have.
    Smith is perfect as a 1B guy because Rittich still isn’t a proven starter, and if he goes through a rough patch it’s good to have that experience to back him up and challenge him to be his best. And if Rittichs not the guy we all want him to be, then Smith is there to make sure the season isn’t a total flop. I think resigning both of them is a win, win ,win.