Goaltending is an enigma. It’s the one position that seems to defy logic and predictability, and yet is the most important position in the game. Goalies can literally steal a game for their team one night and on another, practically gift the win to their opponent. Finding a true number one goalie is incredibly difficult and because each goaltender’s development can occur at seemingly any time between ages 18 and 35, it is nearly impossible to predict who is a good goalie or if someone will become one.
The Calgary Flames know this as much as any team in the NHL. They are just one of 13 teams to have a former goaltender’s number hang from the rafters of their home arena. Only three teams have the number of more than one goaltender retired. It’s hard to be a goalie in the NHL and even harder to be a starting goalie for a long time.
It is a well known fact that since Miikka Kiprusoff retired in 2013, the Flames have been desperately searching for a reliable starting goalie to fill his shoes. Unfortunately, this search was nothing short of a failure, that is until last season. Mike Smith, acquired in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes, was 35 years old, but fresh off a good season on a terrible Coyotes team. Brad Treliving hoped that a change of scenery coupled with a much more reliable defense corps in front of him would help Smith solidify himself as a premier number one goalie in the NHL. Until he went down with a groin injury in February, Smith was exactly that: a reliable starter the Flames could count on night in and night out. He posted a .921 SV% until that point and was among the leagues best goalies.
The problem is that after he returned to action a month later, he wasn’t nearly as good as he was before. Among other things, Smith’s fall from grace was a major factor in the Flames falling out of the playoff race. In his last eight starts, Smith posted a .880 SV%, causing his season average to fall to .916 SV%.
A .916 SV% is nothing to bat an eye at. League average for last season was .912 SV%, so on a whole, Smith performed fairly well. He was an above average goaltender who was a victim to a late season injury that he probably came back from a little bit too quickly. Nothing should be taken away from Smith’s 2017-18 campaign which was pretty good, maybe even great when considering the terrible goaltending the Flames are used to seeing.
The question that remains now is which Smith the Flames will see next season. Will it be the .921 SV% Smith who propelled his team into the playoff race? Or will we see the .880 SV% Smith who looked his age and struggled to make saves? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but is that good enough to get the Flames back into the postseason? How good does Smith need to be next year for the Flames to play more than 82 games, and is that level of play a fair expectation for him?
There are two metrics I like to look at when evaluating goalies: wins, and quality starts. Quality starts is a Hockey-Reference statistic developed by Rob Vollman in his Hockey Abstract, defined as “starts with SV% > average SV% for the year, or at least 88.5 SV% on nights with 20 or fewer shots against.” Looking at last year’s numbers, Smith finished 14th in overall save percentage among all goalies who played more than 40 games. If he had maintained his .921 post-injury, he would have been tied for sixth. For quality starts, Smith was 20th, but tied for the 12th most.
For quality starts, Smith was 11th overall, but tied for the sixth most in the NHL among goalies with at least 40 starts.
10 of the top 12 teams in quality starts and 13 of the top 15 in save percentage made the playoffs last year. 12 teams that were ranked in the top 15 in both categories made the playoffs, or 80%. Each of the three teams that did not advance to the playoffs despite ranking in the top 15 in both categories, two (Dallas and St. Louis) were below league average in goal scoring and behind Anaheim, the lowest scoring playoff team. The last team, Florida, is a common outlier in this data set.
There was a linear correlation between standings points earned and team save percentage, as well as a linear correlation between standings points and team quality starts last season.
Equations for the trendlines are:
- PTS vs. SV%: 1517x-1286
- PTS vs. QS: 1.96x+6.06
Outliers from the trend generally point to teams with high powered offenses above the line including Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Vegas; and low scoring offenses below the line including Buffalo and Arizona.
If the playoff cutoff is at 97 points like it was last season, it would be a reasonable to expect that a postseason bound Flames team to have at least a .912SV% and post 46 quality starts.
The caveat here is that these values are team averages, meaning they are a combined average of all goalies who play games for the team. With the assumption that Smith plays 60 games next season and David Rittich plays 22 games, Smith only accounts for 73% of the team’s total starts. Rittich’s performance will also play a significant role in the team’s overall averages.
Last season, Rittich started in 16 games for the Flames, posting a .904SV% and 10 quality starts. If we assume he repeats his performance next season over 22 games, Smith will need to post a .915SV% and 33 quality starts for the Flames to earn 97 points and likely a playoff berth.
From the surface, this looks like an achievable goal for Smith next season. He may have faltered late in the year, but his overall save percentage at .916 should be good enough for the Flames to make the playoffs. Adding one more quality start to last year’s total of 32 would give him enough to hit the team goal of 46, giving the Flames an 80% chance of making the playoffs. Even at his career save percentage of .913 and .535 QS% would put him at 32 quality starts over 60 games played.
However, Smith is an aging netminder. He’ll turn 37 in the middle of next season and these are the years where his career averages are expected to fall. This was the same narrative at the start of last season though, and Smith was able to perform admirably in the Flames’ crease. Time will tell if Smith can replicate his performance, but if he can stay relatively healthy and maintain his career averages, the Flames should be fine in terms of goaltending next season.