Don’t believe the hype that there’s a Calgary Flames goaltending controversy. The only controversy should be how analysts refuse to give David Rittich the respect he’s earned as the team’s undisputed No. 1 in front of Cam Talbot.
Rittich’s Path to the NHL
There are a lot of theories as to why hockey fans outside Calgary find it hard to see Rittich as the quality goalie he is. It may have something to do with his relatively unconventional path to the NHL, with him having gone undrafted and gotten signed from out of the Czech Extraliga a few years ago.
Of course, that can’t be the whole story. A lack of draft pedigree is seemingly one of the qualifying factors to win the Vezina Trophy. Since the turn of the century, only five winners have been first-round picks (Andrei Vasilevskiy, Carey Price, Tuukka Rask, Olaf Kolzig and Martin Brodeur twice).
Those are only six of 17 trophies, though… about a third. And, even though Brodeur is one of the best in history, he’s only one of three to have won the award twice in that span. The other two are Tim Thomas, who was a 1994 ninth-round pick, and Sergei Bobrovsky, who, like Rittich, went undrafted altogether and started his career in his native, Russia.
The Truth Behind Rittich’s Stats
So, why the hesitation? Flames writer Jeremy Stanford believes it has something to do with Rittich’s uninspiring stats, even though he continues to string wins together and come up huge in clutch moments. Hence his equally uninspiring, eye-roll-worthy “Big Save Dave” nickname. However, not only is his .915 save percentage well above the .909 league average, but he’s tied with the likes of St. Louis Blues savior Jordan Binnington.
Not only that, but, even if both rank only Nos. 20 and 21 in the league, no fewer than 10 backups, playing relatively limited minutes, place ahead of them. That means Rittich safely places in the upper half of the league’s legitimate starters. Sure, one of those backups is Talbot, with a 2.54 goals-against average and .922 save percentage, which is undeniably impressive especially considering how badly his last few seasons with the Edmonton Oilers went. As great at Talbot’s rebound season is going, that shouldn’t take away from Rittich’s, though.
For instance, Rittich ranks higher than many established No. 1s. Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price, Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson all rank lower. Granted, a few of those names are in the midst of poor seasons playing behind bad teams, but the Flames, despite leading the Pacific Division for the time being, are far from world-beaters. Three points separate them from the ninth-place Winnipeg Jets heading into action Saturday night.
Rittich vs. Talbot
Nevertheless, Rittich remains a difference-maker with a 19-11-5 record. That equates to a .614 points percentage, which is nothing at which to scoff. Many might assume that has more to do with the team that won the Western Conference last season playing in front of him. If that were the case, you would expect the Flames to give up fewer than the sixth-most shots in the NHL (32.6) and for Talbot to have a better record than the 7-7 he does.
It’s great that Talbot is performing as well as he is, both for him and the Flames. Seeing as he’s on a one-year deal, Talbot is clearly seizing the opportunity to try to re-establish himself as a starter in this league, but the fact remains Talbot’s best seasons, statistically speaking, have come as a backup, with exception to in 2018-19, when he lost the starter’s job to Mikko Koskinen and played a smaller role due to a lack of effectiveness.
Just because appearances are Talbot’s outperforming Rittich, it doesn’t necessarily make it true. Remember, Rittich continues to earn wins at more of an efficient pace than Talbot. If the Flames do decide to play Talbot more at Rittich’s expense, it should only be for the purposes of preventing Rittich from burning out, which is a legitimate concern. After all, Rittich has made over twice as many appearances than Talbot, but it’s clearly for a reason.
Maybe, just maybe, the Flames know what they’re doing in that regard. Maybe, just maybe, they and their fans know firsthand just how valuable Rittich really is. Of course, the cat’s about to be let out of the bag, seeing as, as alluded to earlier, Rittich is officially an all-star goalie.
Even if Rittich’s replacing the injured Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes, he deserves the accomplishment, just like he deserves the No. 1 spot he’s rightfully earned. The recognition may never legitimately come, but, as he’s proven with a 54-26-13 record up to now, the wins surely will continue to.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.