Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving often jokes that the name of the game shouldn’t be hockey, it should be goaltending. If you have better goaltending than the other team, you give your side a good chance at winning.
For the Flames in the 2019-20 season, the name of the game is this: they’ll only go as far as David Rittich can take them.
On Wednesday, I tweeted this:
To me, #Flames entire season hinges on David Rittich. If he's decent, they're a playoff team. If he's "real good," they'll contend for the division. If he's anything like he was in 18-19's first half, it could be a special season in southern Alberta.
— Ryan Pike (@RyanNPike) October 2, 2019
Based on some of the responses the tweet received, it’s probably smart to add some context.
Last season, 49 goaltenders started 25 games or more. Here’s how they performed:
- The “average” starting goalie (Tuukka Rask) had a .912 save percentage.
- The cut-off for the top 25% of the league’s regular starters was .918.
- The cut-off for the bottom 25% of the league’s regular starters was .907.
During the first half of the 2018-19 season, Rittich was en fuego. He took over for a struggling Mike Smith and thrived. He won a ton of games. He played a ton of games. His save percentage prior to Dec. 31 was .920, comfortably putting him in the top quarter of the league’s goalies.
After suffering his injury on Dec. 31, his performance the rest of the way understandably suffered. He posted a .902 save percentage in the 2019 portion of the calendar, putting him significantly below the cut-off for the bottom quarter of starters.
So what we learned in 2018-19 was that a healthy Rittich could be excellent for half of a season and that he’s not a great starting goalie when playing through a knee injury. The second part is pretty obvious – damage somebody’s mobility and shockingly their performance isn’t great – but the first part is pretty impressive.
New Flames backup Cam Talbot is coming off a season where he was consistently not great and bounced between Edmonton and Philadelphia. While he seems likely to bounce back playing in front of a more consistent defensive group, it’s probably not wise to hang the team’s fate on him finding his form again.
So that leaves Rittich. His performances in the pre-season and in the season’s opening game against Colorado strongly suggest that he’s on his game. Even if he stays healthy all season, it’s unlikely that Rittich can maintain a .920 save percentage over the long haul – he’s bound to have some ups and downs. But even if he’s consistently slightly above league average, somewhere around .915 (about midway between average and very good), he’ll be a huge asset to the Flames.
If Rittich can be consistently pretty good, the Flames should be in good shape. If he can be better than that, it could be a fantastic season.