Brad Treliving has done many things right since becoming the Calgary Flames’ general manager in April 2014, but goaltending is one area where he would surely appreciate a do-over. The Flames have dressed 11 different netminders during Treliving’s tenure, most of whom were his own acquisitions that lasted two seasons or less.
The team has not had a proven franchise starter since Mikka Kiprusoff. Instead, the Flames have spent the last few years hanging their hopes on tandems who share the crease more or less evenly with varied success. First it was Jonas Hiller-Kari Ramo. Then it was Brian Elliott-Chad Johnson. Then came Mike Smith-David Rittich.
Cue in the summer of 2019, when Calgary re-signed Rittich for two years and then signed Cam Talbot for one, opting to let Mike Smith go. It looked like more of the same; another 1-2 punch with Rittich and Talbot, where the starter was unclear, and both goalies would get similar ice time. Indeed, the analysis and the quotes from head coach Bill Peters and Treliving made it seem this season was going to go that way. Via Sportsnet:
“Bill has already said that he likes to split his goalies. He doesn’t like to play one guy a ton more than the other, so I think it’s going to be a healthy competition between us for as many starts as we can get. That’s how everyone gets better.”Cam Talbot on joining the Flames
But so far in the early goings of the season, the deployment has been surprisingly one-sided. (from “Less cola, more minutes … Flames goalie Rittich proving he can handle workhorse role” Calgary Sun, 07/06/2019) As of Nov. 6, Rittich has 13 starts, second league-wide only to Marc-Andre Fleury who has 14. Meanwhile, Talbot has only five starts, placing him in the company of established backups like Michael Hutchinson and Juuse Saros. Talbot has played on the tail end of back-to-back games, and seems to have all the hallmarks of a backup. Right now, it’s Rittich’s crease to lose.
Granted the season is still young, but Rittich’s deployment so far has been shocking. In a season where fans were expecting a fairly even split between two goalies, not only does Rittich look like the Flames’ established starter, he’s on pace for 60 starts on the year.
With a little envy in their hearts for teams like the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadies who have had a consistent starter for years, combined with a little nostalgia for the Kiprusoff days, Flames fans would love nothing more than for Rittich to emerge as this team’s next long-term franchise goalie. An optimistic fan might say “Big Save Dave” is already Calgary’s long-awaited savior in net. A cautious fan would be wary of crowning him as the next Kiprusoff too early.
At what point can the Flames sleep easy knowing they have found their next franchise starter? At what point has Rittich really proven himself?
Rittich Proving the Doubters Wrong
The sentiment on Rittich’s tenure with the Flames seems to vary widely between those in Calgary and those outside of Calgary. Most Toronto-based outlets were skeptical of Calgary’s goalie situation when doing pieces like “season recaps” or “summer predictions.”
The Hockey News’ Matt Larkin has speculated that Calgary will go after Braden Holtby in free agency, thus implying that Rittich isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the Flames’ long-term solution in goal. The very first question NHL.com’s Dan Rosen asked about Calgary in his 31 in 31 series was whether or not Calgary had good enough goaltending to be competitive.
Nobody outright said that Calgary’s goaltending was bad, just unproven. While others were getting letter grades over the summer, Rittich and Talbot got a giant question mark.
To be fair, their doubts were directed at Calgary’s goalie tandem as a whole, not Rittich, specifically. Fortunately for the Flames, both goalies have had a great start to the season. Talbot has so far exceeded expectations, which were tempered by his uninspiring season in 2018-19.
The feeling in Calgary towards Big Save Dave is way less skeptical. He’s adored by the fans. Those who watch him play regularly, rather than just twice a year when the Flames play the Leafs, know he’s been very good. He has probably been better than his stats suggest, making him slightly underrated in most circles.
In a vacuum, his stats this year paint a picture of a solid NHL goalie, but not a miracle worker. He holds a .915 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.79 goals against average (GAA), with a 3.30 goals saved above average and a Quality Start percentage of .571 (for context, a .530 is exactly average according to Hockey Reference). In more advanced stats like High-danger GAA and High-danger SV% he falls right near the middle of the pack.
In a position as dicey and unpredictable as goaltending, and with a small sample size, none of those numbers are concerning. Actually, in a complete reversal from last season, goaltending seems to be the least of the Flames’ concerns right now.
Where Rittich seems to excel, particularly this season, is in the big moments. The times when the potential to swing momentum in his team’s favor is high. When the Flames are down by a goal or two late, he prevents them from getting into an even deeper hole.
Big Save Dave Has the Hallmarks of a Starter
My theory is that Rittich is underappreciated in markets outside of Calgary because the regular, consistent work he does will not make the highlight packs, which are the only thing most other fans will see. He’s not a flashy goalie. However, when he occasionally mimicked Mike Smith and misplayed the puck last season, those highlights will be spread all over the Sportsnet and TSN recaps.
The truth is, many people around the league still think of Rittich as a backup. But given his deployment this year, that stopped being true the day Calgary parted with Mike Smith.
Obviously there won’t be one specific moment where Big Save Dave has “made it,” where he officially gets a seat at the grown-ups table. But if I were to quantify it, I believe that finishing among the top 15-20 goalies this season will solidify his reputation throughout the league. All it takes is one full season as a consistent starter for people to take notice.
Here’s to hoping 2019-20 is that season.