Since the franchise began in Atlanta in the 1972-73 season, the Calgary Flames have only had stable goaltending for two distinct periods. The first was during the tenure of Mike Vernon throughout the 1980s and very early ’90s, the second was during the decade that Miikka Kiprusoff tended the twine.
Since Kiprusoff retired at the end of the 2012-13 season, the Flames have used a dozen different goaltenders. They’ve turned over their entire goaltending duos in each of the past two off-seasons, giving the organization three entirely new tandems in three seasons. The jettisoning of backup Eddie Lack to the American Hockey League could’ve been disastrous. Instead, the accompanying arrival of Czech rookie David Rittich may have helped solidify the position for the first time in years.
All Aboard The Carousel
Since Kiprusoff retired, the Flames have used 12 different goaltenders. Each season, some different source of instability seemed to creep in.
- 2013-14: The first season of the rebuild began with KHL import Karri Ramo and veteran backup Joey MacDonald. MacDonald struggled and was eventually waived and sent to the AHL, replaced by Swiss import Reto Berra. Berra didn’t fare amazingly well, but did enough to earn a trade to Colorado at the trade deadline. MacDonald returned from the farm to play out the rest of the season.
- 2014-15: This season saw the Flames bring back Ramo, but also sign Jonas Hiller as a free agent. Both netminders struggled with inconsistency – and rookie Joni Ortio came up occasionally due to injuries – but the goaltenders got hot enough during the stretch drive to push the Flames into the playoffs.
- 2015-16: This campaign saw the Flames do something unusual: they began the season with three goaltenders – Ramo, Hiller and Ortio – due to a fear of losing Ortio on the waiver wire. The arrangement saw none of the three goalies get a ton of playing time, and eventually the team waived and demoted Ortio and went back to their previous tandem.
- 2016-17: The Flames dumped Ramo and Hiller after their tumultuous season, bringing in Brian Elliott (via trade) and Chad Johnson (via free agency). Both goalies had their peaks and valleys, but Elliott’s ice-cold performances in a playoff sweep by Anaheim led to the Flames going with a different tandem the following season.
- 2017-18: The Flames brought in Mike Smith from Arizona and Eddie Lack from Carolina, via a pair of trades.
MacDonald, Ortio and Lack just weren’t great fits. Berra was inexperienced in North America and probably could’ve used more AHL time. Ramo, Hiller, Elliott and Johnson all struggled with consistency to varying degrees, and the stylistic differences across each tandem made the Flames seem a bit schizophrenic on the ice – playing one way with one goaltender and much differently in front of the other one.
A (Relatively Unknown) Stabilizing Force
Rittich seems like an unlikely stabilizing force for the Flames. An undrafted product of the Czech Republic, he played several seasons for his hometown team HC Dukla Jihlava in the Czech secondary league before joining BK Mlada Boleslav in the Czech Extraliga for two seasons. It was there that he drew the attention of the Flames; in town to scout a different player, Flames pro scout Derek MacKinnon was impressed by Rittich’s performance. He was signed at the end of the 2015-16 season.
"Oh, there’s one other weird thing — he might want you to shoot two pucks at his head." ICYMI, on #Flames backup David Rittich and a strange superstition that seems to be working. He's now won his first three starts at NHL level … https://t.co/g0IpVwCGS0
— Wes Gilbertson (@WesGilbertson) December 18, 2017
To say that Rittich has been a bit under-the-radar with the Flames organization may be an understatement. He was ostensibly signed so that the minor league team would have a veteran backup to push star prospect Jon Gillies, essentially as a stalking horse, an older asset in an organization full of young netminders at the minor pro level. But he seemed to thrive in the environment; you could argue that since there were no expectations for him, there was also no pressure, so Rittich was free to just play and not worry about consequences. He ended up posting better numbers in his AHL rookie season than Gillies.
When Lack struggled, the decision was made to promote Rittich to the NHL.
Through his first four appearances with the Flames this season, the striking thing about Rittich’s game is how consistent he is – both game-to-game and compared to new teammate Smith. He’s able to play the puck, though not to the degree that Smith does, but his battling style in the net is very resemblant of Smith’s as well. He’s also been lauded as very competitive, with Stockton head coach Ryan Huska noting that he’s committed to helping his team win – no matter what his personal numbers look like.
Rittich’s early performances have seemingly given his team confidence in his abilities, and as a result both the eye test and the number indicate that the Flames play basically the same way in front of Rittich as they do in front of Smith. The team’s shot rates, possession stats and scoring chance numbers are nearly identical between the two goaltenders, something the Flames haven’t seen in years.
The Answer Going Forward?
It’s tough to say that a goaltender with less than a dozen NHL appearances is the answer, but Rittich’s performances in tough situations – always starting the second half of back-to-back stretches on the road and putting up strong performances – definitely suggests that he’s an NHL caliber goaltender.
Smith is under contract for the 2018-19 season, but Rittich is a pending restricted free agent. He’ll have arbitration rights this summer and his waiver exemption expires this season. If he’s returning to the Flames organization next season, it’ll likely be at the NHL level. Re-upping Rittich as backup would give the Flames a cost-effective secondary goaltender, as well as buy highly-touted farmhands Gillies and Tyler Parsons some development time.
Rittich may not be the Flames “goaltender of the future,” but for now he’s giving them a chance to win – which is more than Lack was providing as backup. At the very least, that’s earned Rittich consideration for future employment.