It would be hard to argue that the goaltender isn’t the most important position in hockey. No other player has the ability to singlehandedly alter the outcome of a game, for better or for worse. With an elite netminder, even the most mediocre of teams can end up in the win column. With a bad goalie, the best team in the league can suffer a lopsided loss. 

And, as it always seems to be, goaltending is the hottest topic surrounding the Calgary Flames this season. The de facto number one goalie, Mike Smith, has struggled in the first quarter of the year, and the Flames have had to rely upon sophomore goalie David Rittich, in just his third season in North America, to be the anchor in their crease. The difference in performance between the two goalies has been nothing short of drastic. 

In fact, out of all goalies who have played at least eight games this year, Smith has the worst SV% at .876 and the sixth worst GAA at 3.48. Rittich, on the other hand, has the third best SV% in the NHL at .935, and the second best GAA at 1.91.

It’s almost comical how much better Rittich has been to start the season, but, because Smith has more experience and was penciled in as the starting goalie at the beginning of the year, he has retained the title. Chalk that up to archaic tradition. Rittich is chomping at the bit, however, and looks like he’ll finally get a string of starts together. Hopefully he’ll build on what is on it’s way to being an indisputable case to usurp Smith on the depth chart. One of the biggest reasons why this has yet to happen is that Smith’s record sits at 5-7-1, not spectacular by any means, but also not so bad that it warrants a big shift from the coach just on its own. The narrative that we keep hearing is well, Smith is still picking up wins, so it’s worth keeping him in net to help him find his game. This mentality is dangerous though, and that excuse for keeping Smith in the starter’s net is shaky at best. Last night’s game is proof. 

To truly see how bad Smith has been, we’re going to set the bar as low as we can. Generally, the goalie who stops the highest percentage of shots ends up being the winner. There are times when the opposite occurs, where the winning goalie ends up having a lower save percentage than the losing one. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does occur when there is a big difference between the performance of skaters and the goalie, and this bar is extremely low. Out of the 272 games played in the NHL to date this season, only 38 have seen the winning goaltender post a lower save percentage than the loser. There are a few plausible reasons as to why this may happen:

  1. The losing goalie played a good game, but the skaters struggled in front of him, either by allowing a high volume of shots, or not scoring enough goals. Both goalies played well and have high save percentages.
  2. The winning goalie played a bad game, but was bailed out by a strong offensive effort from the skaters. These games are likely high scoring, or the winning goaltender did not face a high volume of shots. Both goalies could have poor save percentages in this situation.

Generally speaking, it’s not a good thing to have a high number of these types of games. It’s not ideal to need to score several goals to make up for shoddy goaltending, and also not ideal to squander great goaltender performances with lacklustre offensive production. 

Up to the morning of November 13th, the Anaheim Ducks lead the league with six games where the winning goalie’s save percentage is lower than that of the losing goalie’s. Three teams have yet to see this happen, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and St. Louis Blues. 

The Flames are tied for second place in these games with five. Not great to be near the top of this list, and most of the teams with high counts are among the worst in the league. There are a few teams that are not, however, including San Jose, Montreal, and Colorado, not to mention the Flames themselves. A possible explanation for these teams being included is that despite having goaltending issues, these teams boast offenses that are able to bail out their goalies and still earn wins; in other words, their goaltending problems are masked by a good offense. In the case of the Sharks and Canadiens, Martin Jones and Carey Price have struggled to start the year. For Colorado, Semyon Varlamov has been excellent, and in two of their four games, Varlamov saw 41+ shots. The losses can’t be blamed on him. The context of each game is essential.

The records for each team in these types of games is below.

The Flames are first in the league for the total number of wins in these games. Their only loss was in their first meeting against Montreal, where Rittich saved 37/40 and the team had a terrible game. Breaking down the games unfortunately show an expected trend. Smith and Rittich both have two wins each. 

DateOpponentResultWinner SV%Loser SV%Goalie
10/06/2018VancouverW16/20
0.800
30/35
0.857
Smith
10/13/2018ColoradoW24/26
0.923
38/41
0.927
Rittich
10/23/2018MontrealL21/23
.913
37/40
.925
Rittich
11/01/2018ColoradoW21/26
0.808
31/37
0.838
Smith
11/03/2018ChicagoW12/15
0.800
36/40
0.900
Rittich
  • Game 1: Smith allowed four goals on just 20 shots, but the Flames managed to win the game by scoring five against Vancouver. 
  • Game 2: Rittich and Semyon Varlamov both played well, the Flames goalie allowing just two goals on 26 shots. The Flames controlled the game though, and fired 41 shots to eventually win in overtime.
  • Game 3: Rittich’s excellent game against Montreal that the Flames didn’t reward him for. 
  • Game 4: Smith allowed five goals on 26 shots, but the Flames again dominated the game and fired 37 shots against Varlamov to force a win. 
  • Game 5: Rittich allowed three goals on just 15 shots, but the Flames controlled play and scored four on 40 shots against Corey Crawford.

Rittich had two games where he played well, and one game where he had a rough outing but was bailed out by the Flames high powered offense. Smith on the other hand, had two games where he won solely on the back of his teammates. Those games could have gone either way and Smith’s record is very fortunate they went in the Flames’ favour. 

In another world, Smith’s record just as easily be 3-9-1. If that were the case, it would be a lot harder to justify giving him second and third chances. After last night’s performance, it’s hard to argue that Rittich doesn’t deserve an extended look in the Flames’ crease.

 

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