The Calgary Flames put all their eggs (goaltending-wise) in the Mike Smith basket last season, and that worked out better than most expected … yet they still failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That thought has to gnaw at all but the most optimistic people involved with the Flames. At least, it should, as for all the bold changes “riverboat gambler” GM Brad Treliving made, they’re rolling with the same goalies behind Smith in 2018-19.
As a reminder, the rotation of David Rittich, Jon Gillies, and Eddie Lack absolutely flopped last season, with Rittich’s less-than-ideal .904 save percentage representing the high water mark behind the often-dazzling Smith.
One of the criticisms of the Smith acquisition revolved around his injury history, and when that issue reared its head last season, the Flames really took on water. Players don’t exactly become sturdier as they age, so it would be foolish for Calgary just to “hope for the best” with the 36-year-old netminder, especially since Smith is one of many towering NHL goalies who be tall enough to serve as an NBA small forward. That big frame doesn’t exactly lend itself to longevity.
It’s also not as if Smith’s enjoyed a low-impact stroll to 36; this isn’t the equivalent to, say, Tim Thomas not really logging those big NHL reps until he was 31.
Since joining the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2011-12, Smith’s played the seventh-most games (367), and tellingly, faced the second-largest volume of shots (11,256, only trailing Henrik Lundqvist). Smith could be a Zdeno Chara-level fitness freak, and he’d still be jarringly susceptible to additional injuries.
So, there are enough red flags to make you worry.
Yet, while the Flames decided to cross their fingers that they’d settle upon an in-house solution (barring a desperate training camp phone call to, say, Steve Mason?), they aren’t sticking their hands in the sand about the fine line they need to walk with their grizzled veteran of a goalie.
[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]
“The wear and tear, remember, isn’t just the shots, it’s getting ready, getting the gear on. You hear people say: ‘Oh, he wasn’t very busy tonight. Only 26 shots’ … well, he’s mentally preparing on every shot,” Treliving said, via George Johnson of the Flames website. “There might’ve been 12 blocks and 20 misses. So he’s still preparing for 58. How many up-and-downs is that? It can take a toll.
“We’ve got a plan but a lot of it is predicated on Mike. But it’s a balancing act. He wants to get his work in but there’s a time once the season is up and going where discretion is the better part of valour.”
Treliving brings up an important point even beyond all of the “ups-and-downs,” as goalies need to focus and track the puck all game long. When Braden Holtby discussed fatigue during that hiccup during the 2017-18 regular season, his emphasis was as much on the mental rigors of the game as the physical challenges.
“Physically, I actually feel way better this year than last,” Holtby said. “If you’re fatigued physically, that’s on you. That’s not on anything else. But mentally, it does catch up.”
Holtby (who recently turned 29) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (now 24) both acknowledged being tired last season, and they’re far younger than Smith, so it’s positive to see Treliving discuss taking an approach with Smith that would echo the way MLB teams obsessively protect the arms of their pitchers.
Of course, it’s one thing to say all of the right things in mid-September, but what about if the Flames need those critical points in March, particularly if Smith is once again lapping his backups?
It’s also worth asking if Bill Peters – a coach who must be agonizingly anxious to finally clinch a playoff berth – would be willing to look big picture and give his big goalie needed rest. That would be a concern with any coach, yet especially one who admitted to handling things poorly with Eddie Lack, and whose goalies floundered in Carolina.
(There’s no guarantee that Peters is at fault for faulty Hurricanes goaltending, or to what degree he might be to blame. Still, he was a common denominator as Carolina struggled in that area.)
Even for those of us who thought they erred in trading away underrated defenseman Dougie Hamilton, the Flames look like a fascinatingly dangerous team on paper.
On the other hand, they looked just as formidable heading into last season, only to fall well short of expectations, even with a mostly spry Smith. For a team that clearly holds some pretty lofty ambitions, it’s awfully scary to risk so much on the health and freshness of their 36-year-old goalie.
At least they don’t seem totally oblivious to the risks they’re taking.
MORE PHT FLAMES COVERAGE:
• Three questions facing the Flames
• Under Pressure: Brad Treliving
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.