Is anyone going to argue if I were to suggest David Rittich has been Calgary’s best player through the first two months of the season? With December upon us, the Flames are barely a .500 team, but I shudder to think where they’d be without Rittich’s steady, and sometimes outstanding, goaltending. To this point, Rittich has shouldered the NHL’s heaviest workload, and dialing back on his duties won’t necessarily be easy.
A career pace
No goalie in the NHL has played more than Rittich through November and October. As such, Rittich has faced the most rubber of any goaltender. And, thankfully, with his heavy usage, Rittich also boasts one of the league’s top win totals.
It was two years ago the last time the Flames had a goalie used as much as Rittich has been this season. At this time in 2017, Mike Smith sat second in the league in starts (23), minutes (1,314:24), shots faced (740), and saves (681). Before that, you have to go back to Miikka Kiprusoff’s tenure in Calgary, which shows you how unusual it is to see what we’re seeing from Rittich.
The most significant part of this, though, is the unprecedented pace Rittich is on compared to the rest of his career. If this clip continues, Rittich would end up starting 65 games, which would be the highest total in Calgary since the 2011-2012 season by, you guessed it, Kiprusoff (68). But it would also shatter career highs for Rittich, in any league.
Rittich’s high watermark for appearances came back in 2015-16 when he saw action in 48 games with BK Mladá Boleslav of the Czech Extraliga. Even if the Flames pulls back on Rittich’s usage, he’s still almost certainly going to play more than he ever has in a single season.
How’s he handling the workload?
My answer here is so far, so good, with the caveat that I need to see if over a full campaign. Fair or unfair, most are going to remember how drastically different Rittich’s performance was in the first half of last season compared to the second half.
|October 3 – December 31||20||0.920|
|January 1 – April 6||22||0.902|
Now, it’s important to remember Rittich sustained a knee injury on Dec. 31 that he played through for the rest of the season. Rittich revealed that fact at the end of last season, but didn’t want to give any details on how much it actually hampered his play.
I feel safe in my belief the injury played a part in his statistical drop-off, though, because he was so good up until that point. In saying that, it’s also fair to be curious as to how Rittich will perform as we move into the second half of 2019-20.
You can count on one hand how many “bad” games we’ve seen from Rittich this season. By and large, he’s given the Flames a chance to win in each and every start. But, for a goalie on a pace unlike anything he’s ever seen in his career, careful management is going to be vitally important.
“He’s been open and honest with us if he’s tired, which is good,” said goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet when I asked him about Rittich’s usage over the week.
“The other day in Buffalo, I asked him if he wanted to morning skate… we had an optional. He said he didn’t, so I think it’s huge like that when you can get a road goalie to go in there and see some shots and give (Rittich) a rest. He put together a good effort that night, too. It’s just managing the work/rest ratio.”
(Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports)
The issue Calgary faces is trying to strike a balance between winning games now and having Rittich fresh come the playoffs. Sure, Rittich could start 65 regular season games and then be good for 20 more in the playoffs. But, knowing he’s never come anywhere close to those type of minutes, do the Flames really want to roll the dice?
“We’re definitely going to get (Cam Talbot) in there a little bit more here soon,” Sigalet told me. “We sat down with both of them…(we) just kind of set a plan moving forward. We need both guys going and David is going to need some rest.”
There’s no question Rittich has been the better of Calgary’s two goalies this season. However, I would suggest Talbot has played better than his 0.893 save percentage would suggest. Take an ugly 6-0 loss in Vegas, where the Flames waved the white flag in from of him, and Talbot’s numbers would look a whole lot more respectable.
December presents some opportunities to get Talbot work and, more importantly, give Rittich some rest. When the chances are there, Calgary has to use them, because we have no idea how touch and go this playoff conversation is going to be come February, March, and April.
The Flames have games upcoming with Buffalo and Los Angeles, which both serve as solid Talbot options. He was supposed to start against the Sabres on the road last week, but with the team embroiled in the Bill Peters mess, Calgary opted to stick with the incumbent. Los Angeles, on the other hand, sits 28th in the league, which is the typical type of opponent for a backup.
Furthermore, the Flames have a pair of back-to-back sets this month, which gives them two more openings for Talbot. Mix in a no-brainer start for Talbot on the 27th against his former team in Edmonton, and maybe a look against the Blackhawks on New Year’s Eve, and you’re up to five Talbot starts in 13 December games.
Eight starts this month for Rittich would bring his pace down to around 60, which is already significantly more manageable. There might not be another month to get Talbot in as frequently as you can in December, so Calgary needs to pounce.
It could very well give Rittich the rest he needs if the Flames end up in a tooth-and-nail playoff fight come the back half of the season.