It wouldn’t be fair to say that David Rittich came out of nowhere for the Calgary Flames – after all this is the third season in which he’s appeared in an NHL game. That said, this is the first season in which he’s become a household name for fans of the league.
While you still wouldn’t put him amongst the game’s elite at the position, he has made a name for himself in helping the Flames to the top of the Pacific Division. Having played in 34 of the team’s 58 games this season, Rittich has made a case for being the Flames’ most important piece so far this season.
Rittich: A Numbers Game
At 26, Rittich has made a case to start for the Flames come playoff time. Heading into the 2018-19 season, the native of Jihlava, Czech Republic, had played in 22 regular season games for the Flames between 2016 and 2018. His record was 8-6-3 with a .904 save percentage and a 2.92 goals against average.
When he wasn’t with the Flames over those two seasons, he spent time with the Stockton Heat with his best season coming in 2016-17 when he had a 2.27 GAA and .924 SV% in 31 games with the AHL affiliate, while maintaining a 15-11-1 record.
That said, he took a step back with the Heat in 2017-18 playing in just 12 games with a 7-5-0 record. His numbers spiked to a 3.18 GAA and .889 SV%, but were slightly better a level up with the Flames.
Now, while I said it would be unfair to say that he came out of nowhere, the fact is that Rittich (with the help of the team in front of him) has relatively come out of nowhere this season.
Having made appearances in 34 games this season, Rittich has a 20-5-5 record with a 2.66 GAA and .911 SV% to go along with his first career NHL shutout.
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He’s tied for 10th in wins this season and has the second highest win percentage (.800) next to Tampa Bay’s Louis Domingue. And while his save percentage is next to average, he sits 14th in the league in goals against average – 11th if you take out the goaltenders that have played fewer than 30 games this season.
But what makes him so important to a team that has a proven starter in Mike Smith?
Stacking Up With Smith
The fact is Smith isn’t getting it done for the Flames. In his second season with the Flames, Smith has appeared in just 28 games so far for Calgary this season and has a relatively average 14-11-2 record to show for it. On top of that, his .891 SV% and 3.06 GAA is nothing to write home about.
On top of that Smith has had at least seven really bad starts with his quality start percentage hanging around .423 for the season. Add that to his minus-12.93 goals saved above average and it’s pretty obvious why the Flames have relied so heavily on Rittich this season.
As Andrew Berkshire wrote on Sportsnet, “Breaking things down by zone and looking at expected save percentages, we can see Rittich’s out-performing of Smith might be even more staggering than raw save percentage would show.”
While his numbers vary slightly when it comes to special teams, he’s put forth a strong effort at five-on-five and given his team a chance to win on a nightly basis. Isn’t that the definition of what a most valuable player is?
Rittich: Flames’ or League MVP?
This may be a slight stretch – I accept the criticism that will come with my suggestion – but has Rittich done enough for the Flames to put his name on the ballot for the Vezina Trophy? How about the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player?
The Vezina might be a stretch – after all, there are a number of goalies who have been statistically better than Rittich this season, his winning percentage aside. But the definition of the Hart Trophy is the player judged most valuable to his team.
Isn’t that what Rittich has been for the Flames this season?
I mean, sure, they have the offensive players in Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk. They have the guys on the backend like Mark Giordano and Noah Hanifin, but would this team be where they are now without the help of Rittich in net?
He’s allowed two or fewer goals in 18 of his 34 appearances this season. He’s seen 30-plus shots in 13 of his games and that includes three games in which he faced 40 or more shots. On top of that, he’s 11-2-5 in one-goal games which shows that he’s been able to stand on his head when his team has needed it.
He may not qualify as your prototypical Hart Trophy candidate, but without him the Flames could be heading down a different route. Forget first in the division and the conference, the Flames could arguably be fighting for a playoff position if Smith was their full-time starter this year.
So before you jump on the other side of this argument, take a second to think about these five words – most valuable to his team. Is that what Rittich has been for the Flames? So why not make him a Hart candidate? After all, Rittich has lit the Flames’ crease on fire so far this season.
That being said, coming out of nowhere like this at the age of 26 likely means his overall play and success might not be sustainable long-term.
Have thoughts about the column? Let me know on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes or @Tape2TapeTHW.
Tape2Tape is a column looking at some of the biggest stories from around the world of hockey. Discussing different topics, it focuses on delivering some opinion to hockey’s biggest fans. Whether you agree or disagree, we would love to hear your thoughts.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.