Calgary Flames

Why the Flames goaltending decision is more complicated than it looks

Right after the Game Two loss to the Dallas Stars, I wrote a post on why David Rittich should be the Flames’ goalie choice in Game Three. Coming off a loss in which Cam Talbot gave up a couple of soft goals not to mention the second half of a back to back, going to the goalie who was your starting goalie all season seemed like a smart call.

I was wrong. Talbot played his heart out and was the best player on the ice that game. He posted a 35 save shutout enroute to a 2-0 Flames win. However, by trusting Talbot in that situation, the second half of a back to back after he had an alright game prior, the Flames sent a very clear statement about their goaltending. Talbot was going to be their guy.

Coming into the season, Rittich and Talbot were both signed for $2.75 million dollars per season, although Rittich had an extra year on his contract. The Flames came into this season with Rittich being the definitive starting goalie, and Talbot in line to be the backup.

That plan played out through the first half of the season with Rittich starting 32 games before December 31st. However, he only started 16 games in 2020, with Talbot starting just about as many. Be that due to injury or just a dip in form, the Flames turned to Talbot more regularly in the latter half of the season, and that trend continued right though the playoffs, where Talbot put the team on his back.

Coming off the back of an incredible playoff performance, there is no doubt that Talbot will be looking for a raise, and almost certainly will be looking for an increased role. If the Flames opt to keep him at a higher salary, it will be sending a clear message to Rittich that he is not their definitive starting goalie going into next season.

It is very rare that a team will pay their backup or 1B option more than their starter, especially when both goalies are around 30. Best case scenario, GM Brad Treliving can work some magic to bring Talbot back at the same salary as last season, but that seems incredibly unlikely.

Whatever the Flames do will likely be guided by what they see Rittich as. Is he an NHL calibre starting goalie? Is he a tandem 1A/1B goalie? is he a backup? Each one carries a different consequence for Talbot.

Rittich as a starting goaltender

Rittich has been very strong in the front half of the two seasons in which he was a regular goalie for the Flames. However, in both of the last two seasons he has suffered some form of injury or major dip in form in the back half of the season. Because of this, it is hard to know exactly how good he can be in a full season of play as a starter.

On top of that, Rittich has a grand total of 16 minutes of playoff experience. He did not play in the playoff series against Colorado in 2019, where it was ultimately Mike Smith who was the Flames’ best player in the series. This season, Rittich only played in the one game for half of the second period against Dallas. This is hardly enough for the Flames to know what they have in Rittich as a playoff goalie.

Could he be a starting goalie for a playoff Flames’ team? Possibly, but there is no data to know either way. The big question is does the team see him as the goalie to build their playoff team around. If the answer is yes, then they will be looking for a backup goalie who can come in and play minimal minutes to give Rittich a break through the season, and play if he gets injured.

Is that Talbot? Assuming Talbot can come back at the same salary as last season then possibly. He can play in relief of Rittich, and can hold his own when the Flames need him. Keep in mind, however, that Talbot is 33, and is in the back leg of his career. Perhaps him having some stability as a backup in Calgary for his family is what he will want, but again time will tell.

Rittich as a tandem goalie

The Flames may come back and see Rittich as being potentially better as part of a tandem situation. With teams trying to manage their goaltenders’ loads to prepare for a playoff run, maybe they feel this is a better situation for the team.

The Flames have not shown any indication of this being the case as of yet, by bringing in Mike Smith to be the clear starter in 2017 and bringing in Talbot to be the backup last season. That being said, Rittich has not been excellent in a starting role, so having him starting about every other game may be a better fit for the team.

The big question here is does Rittich want to be part of a tandem? It is clear that he is an incredibly competitive goalie who likes to play a lot of minutes. It seems unlikely that he would want to be playing only half of the team’s games when he is healthy, especially given he is going into the last year of his contract. However it may be something that the team can sell him on as part of a bigger plan to work him into a starting role down the road.

There will be a lot of goalies on the block this summer, so the Flames could have some choice in terms of who they think will be the best fit with Rittich on a split. The team could look at someone like Thomas Greiss, Michael Hutchinson, or others that will be looking for a new contract this season.

Or they could look at Talbot again in that tandem role. They know what he is and he has expressed interest in being in Calgary. Having Talbot him in Calgary for another season may provide added stability in net for the Flames.

The big question will be the number, as you do not want to the salaries of your tandem goaltenders to be too far apart. If Treliving can keep the number similar to where it was last season, this may be the best option.

Rittich as the backup

After a rough back half of the season, and having the starting job taken away from him in the playoffs, the Flames may look at Rittich as a backup goalie. In an especially tough year for team profits and the team’s cap amount, the Flames may need to pinch some pennies and splash cash on one of the bigger names floating around the UFA pool this off-season. That could be a Matt Murray, Braden Holtby, Jacob Markstrom, or someone that the Flames trades for.

However, if they see Rittich as a backup, do they see Talbot as the starter? While he was their starting goalie through the playoffs, is he equipped to be one for an 82 game season? Given his age and history, if the Flames give Talbot the starting crease, it’d likely be on a short term basis with a salary that both parties see fit given the term.

The Flames have had about two half season’s to see Rittich, and given how he has played, it seems unlikely that they see him as a backup option. Given the current core’s age and stage, the Flames are in a win-now mentality. David Rittich has been their goalie over the last two seasons, and has been a big part of why they have made it to the playoffs. How they see him and his trajectory will determine what the Flames do with Talbot.

What is most likely?

It is hard to know exactly which way the Flames will go here. It seems like retaining Talbot is the path of least resistance. It seems as though both sides want to try to make this work, but again it comes down to the number, and more importantly to the fit. No matter what way the Flames go on this, expect it to be a very interesting off-season.

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Photo courtesy: Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press via AP

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