The Calgary Flames found a gem of a goaltender in David Rittich. Despite only playing 52 career games, he’s had a rapid ascent into the hearts of many fans, earning the nickname “Big Save Dave” as he backstopped the Flames to victory time and time again this season.
With Rittich’s campaign going so well, comparisons to Flames goaltending great Miikka Kiprusoff have already been made, but it’s far too early to tell what the Flames truly have in Rittich. What is objectively true though is that Rittich has given a sense of stability and hope as the starting goaltender that Flames fans have not truly received since Kiprusoff’s retirement.
As Kiprusoff rode off into the sunset during the 2012-13 season, he left behind a net that could not be properly tended to for years and years. Few would have predicted season after season of continuous goaltending woes for the Flames.
To say that there hasn’t been any hope at all would be unjust for some former Flames. There were seasons where it looked like the Flames went out and got the exact tandem they needed so that there would be less uncertainty in net.
In 2014-15, the Flames’ primary goaltending duo was Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo. In 2016-17, they had Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. There was good reason to believe that Brad Treliving was doing everything he could to solidify the back-end since joining the team as general manager.
No single goaltender really panned out all too well for Treliving though, as he’s been in an annual search for a goaltender or two ever since he arrived. Enter Rittich. With any luck, Rittich is going to be a reliable goaltender for several years to come and having that stability alone is enough reason to praise the work of Derek MacKinnon, Flames director of pro personnel.
So let’s break it down. From Kipper to Ritter. How have the Flames managed their starting goalies? Below is a chart that shows when a goaltender started a game. Games go from left-to-right in groups of ten games. The colour scheme is arranged from most games started to least and is specific to each individual season.
It’s pretty clear that a carousel of goaltenders have made their way through the Saddledome. In 2012-13, Kiprusoff’s lockout-shortened final year (24 games started), he was backed up by mostly Joey MacDonald (17 GS), and also Leland Irving (5 GS) and Daniel Taylor (2 GS).
Unfortunately, the aforementioned group of goaltenders did not put up enough combined wins to get the Flames into the playoffs. Instead, they fully entered rebuild mode. With the Jarome Iginla trade and drafting Sean Monahan in the ensuing offseason, the Flames knew they were heading into a few rough years.
In 2013-14, a very different set of four goaltenders started games for the Flames, with only MacDonald (9 GS) being a returnee. Ramo (38 GS) took the reigns and started the most games while Reto Berra (26 GS) served as the backup. Joni Ortio (9 GS) also started games for the Flames. The introduction of the new playoff alignment did not matter much to the Flames, as they were far from being competitive.
As they entered the 2014-15 season, expectations were still tremendously low, but the team managed to catch lighting in a bottle under Bob Hartley’s tutelage. Bringing in veteran goalie Hiller (48 GS) to guard the posts with Ramo (28 GS), the Flames most valuable goaltender was arguably the lack of one. Empty-net third period comebacks galore got the Flames a unexpected ticket into the postseason. Ortio (6 GS) played in a stretch of games where both Hiller and Ramo were injured and also played the final game of the season.
Speaking of Ortio, the Flames ran into a conundrum to start 2015-16. They had three goaltenders in the NHL. Ortio (19 GS) spent much of his crucial development process sitting in the pressbox and didn’t get the bulk of his starts until the latter half of the season in games that didn’t matter. Ramo (37 GS) and Hiller (23 GS) started most games as a tandem, but they failed to reach the playoffs. This was also the season that saw Niklas Backstrom (3 GS) join the Flames after being in a trade that sent David Jones to the Minnesota Wild.
Come 2016-17, the Flames were poised to attempt making the playoffs. They brought in Elliott (45 GS) and Johnson (36 GS). Between the two of them, they held the fort and comfortably took the Flames into the playoffs. They were the 1-2 combo that Glen Gulutzan relied on for the entire season, and it wasn’t an end of season game where Jon Gillies started his first NHL game while Elliott and Johnson rested for the playoffs.
With the organization moving on from both Elliott and Johnson in the following off-season, Treliving looked for a more permanent solution in net. He sought out Mike Smith (55 GS), who had two years remaining on his contract. The ultra-competitive netminder indeed did his very best to start every game he could. He was a workhorse for the Flames and really did give the Flames a chance to play in the post-season.
Eddie Lack (2 GS) was also brought in as a backup, but his time with the Flames was short-lived, as his play was not good enough for him to keep his job. Instead, Rittich (16 GS) took over as the backup to Smith. It did not matter to Smith who the starter was as he was play multiple stretches of games in a row and it wasn’t until he went down with an injury that Rittich and Gilles (9 GS) saw a more even split of sharing the net. However, the Flames quickly fell out of playoff contention and Smith’s return was too little too late; not that his goaltending post-injury would have gotten them there either.
This brings us to the current season. No off-season moves were made to look for a goaltender as the Flames were confident in the abilities of Smith (24 GS) and Rittich (27 GS). For one goaltender, he quickly descended into the bottom of the league in terms of save percentage. For the other, he instead propelled to be among the best in the league in the same category.
A tale of two goalies, Smith couldn’t seem to find his game, while Rittich became a fan favourite and frequently relied upon goaltender. Heading into the All-Star break, it’s clear that their roles have been solidified. Smith will continue to backup Rittich for the foreseeable future (unless the Flames seek a new backup prior to the trade deadline, of course).
Sixteen. That’s the number of goalies that have started games for the Flames since the 2012-13 season. While it’s not quite as impressive as the Philadelphia Flyers having seven different goalies start for them this season alone, it definitely still highlights the instability the Flames have had in net.
That number will likely increase before the end of the season, not to mention what may unfold in the upcoming offseason. Who will the Flames add a backup? How will Tyler Parsons develop for the remainder of his AHL season? Only time will tell, but for now, the starting job is Rittich’s and that’s all the matters.