The Flames headed into last night’s games tied for second in the Pacific Division, holding a game in hand on Vancouver and trailing the plummeting Ducks by a single point.
Yes it’s early in the season, but few would have predicted so much success for Calgary even if they were particularly high on this group. And pretty much all the points come despite the fact that Mike Smith has been quite bad.
Smith did not have a particularly good track record when the Flames acquired him, given that he was injury-prone, not particularly good save for a couple lucky seasons, and 35 years old. It was a big gamble for a team that seemed to be ready to start competing in a tough Western Conference, and for a while it seemed like it would work out.
Before Smith hurt his groin and missed a month last season, he was a .921 goaltender in 47 games. Really good! But after that, over his final eight appearances of the season, he lost six times and carried a save percentage of just .880. The Flames weren’t particularly well-built last year, but Smith’s inability to bounce back plus the team’s wholesale lack of a good backup option were probably the biggest contributors in costing the club a playoff berth.
This season there was more reason for optimism: Smith was (apparently) healthy again, the team improved offensively and probably didn’t take too much of a step backward on the blue line despite trading Dougie Hamilton. But now one has to wonder if Smith will ever actually recover from that groin injury. He’s 3-3 this season, sure, but that’s despite going .885 in six starts, with only two of those appearances even being north of .867: a 43-save shutout in Nashville and a 24-save performance in a 5-2 win over Boston.
The argument against Smith is that he’s a known quantity, and that the quantity sucks. He had a good run to start his career in Calgary but he’s 36 and only six or so months removed from a groin injury. The argument for Smith is that the Flames gave him too much money and that backup David Rittich is still rather an unknown quantity.
Rittich is 26 and has just 26 games of NHL experience, in which he has a .913 career save percentage. But he has a pretty good (not great) AHL track record and in his four appearance so far for the big club this season (one of which was in relief of Smith) he’s allowed just six goals on 119 shots, which ain’t bad.
That included 37 saves in a 3-2 loss to Montreal last night, which made it the second game in a row in which he faced 40-plus shots. The Flames look like a mess defensively, which isn’t helping Rittich or Smith, but they’ve also outshot their opponents in five of their nine games, so again: They can probably shoot their way out of problems around even substandard goaltending.
Rittich, to be fair, wasn’t very good in taking over from Smith last year during his injury (.884 during his time as a de facto starter), but was very good as a pure backup (.928). The argument that he has earned more starts is and should be well-taken, and certainly Smith has played himself out of a sure job by the same token. The only reasonable course of action for this club, which has so many guys in their mid-20s, is to relegate Smith to the bench as soon as possible.
To do otherwise would be malpractice; what is this team going to do? Spend another year squandering Johnny Gaudreau’s immense scoring talent? Torch the final season of Matthew Tkachuk’s ELC on yet another campaign without a postseason? Potentially waste one of Mark Giordano’s last years as a high-end defender? All because this GM hasn’t had an answer in net since he took over and his most recent bright idea was, “What if we get the guy from Arizona who stinks?” Come on.
It seems like the Flames might not be the answer in the long term; Rittich might only be fine, and neither John Gillies nor Tyler Parsons have been especially good at the AHL level. For all Gillies’ success at the amateur level, it’s been mostly diminishing returns as a pro to this point, and Parsons’ first 10 games in the AHL have him sitting at around .840, after going .902 in the ECHL over 28 games last year.
You wouldn’t want to read too much into six-game samples, but one thing is looking increasingly certain: For the cost of a low-round pick, Calgary could probably choose from any number of backups around the league who would be reliably better than Mike Smith. Not that it’s hard to be better than .885.
The alternative is hoping Smith corrects course and gets back to, I don’t know, like .910 or something? That would be a massive improvement, but even then you’re really hoping the offense has improved significantly. The Flames got a .909 collective save percentage from the four goaltenders they used last season (Smith, Rittich, Gillies, and four games of Eddie Lack, another failed Treliving brain-genius pickup) and missed the postseason by 11 points.
The offense has almost certainly improved, but has it improved enough to make up the difference if the goaltending isn’t better? Math-wise, you gotta say the answer is no.
Which would be too bad for a group this talented and likeable. It’s not that these guys won’t have more kicks at the can in the next few seasons, but ever year they don’t make the playoffs is another opportunity wasted by bad goaltending that could have been easily avoided.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
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