If the Calgary Flames had simply acquired Cam Talbot in exchange for Mike Smith last season, if would have been considered a huge win, no question.
Even if they instead signed him as a free agent, the move still isn’t so bad, especially not if the ex-Edmonton Oilers goalie fills the role he should, as David Rittich’s back-up.
Smith vs. Talbot
Ultimately, Smith did sign with the Oilers. It was just a crazy coincidence though, with the two teams effectively trading much-maligned goalies in the offseason (even if Talbot did go on to spend time with the Philadelphia Flyers after a trade-deadline deal). In any case, seeing as Talbot is a spry 32 to Smith’s 37 years of age, the Oilers would arguably have come out ahead in any such swap, mainly due to Talbot’s higher chance of a comeback season.
That’s in spite of the undeniable fact Smith had the better 2018-19 campaign. He may have had an .898 save percentage and 2.72 goals-against average with the Flames, but he also earned a winning 23-16-2 record and seemed to turn his underlying game around to at least reach NHL-caliber levels since the start of the calendar year.
That arguably led to the Flames justifiably going with Smith in the playoffs. Granted, the Flames may have lost their first-round series to the Colorado Avalanche in five games, but Smith wasn’t to blame.
The early flame-out may admittedly have led to some second-guessing, with one popular opinion heading in being that the Flames should ride Rittich instead. Now, the Flames get their chance, because it might not have made sense to choose Rittich over a known commodity like Smith before. It definitely does to do so over Talbot.
Following a very good 2016-17, in which Talbot went 42-22-8 and led the Oilers to the second round, he’s fallen from grace. He was mediocre in 2017-18, going 31-31-3 with a .908 save percentage and 3.02 GAA. In 2018-19, he went 11-17-3 with an .892 save percentage and 3.40 GAA, losing his starting job to Mikko Koskinen.
Talbot Must Be Rittich’s Backup
It remains to be seen whether or not Talbot can rekindle some of the magic he made in that one season during his all-too brief career as the Oilers’ No. 1. The Flames should remember that Talbot initially found success as Henrik Lunqvist’s backup for the New York Rangers, going 33-15-5 over a two-season stretch from 2013-2015. That led to the Oilers seeking him out and trading away futures for the guy. It obviously didn’t work out, but, if expectations are lowered, Talbot obviously has the capacity to get a few wins here and there.
The actual magic trick would be finding the perfect balance between the number of starts both he and Rittich should get. It’s also the million-dollar question, right alongside what exactly do the Flames have in Rittich? Or what do they believe they do, anyway? The answer may very well be the Flames’ goalie of the future.
The present may be in doubt though, because, as much as Rittich impressed early on in 2018-19 in relief of a struggling Smith, it was the opposite scenario down the stretch. From Dec. 29 through early March, Rittich may have gone 12-3-3, but he only had a save percentage of .892.
Thankfully, Rittich did rebound somewhat over his last five starts. He went 3-2 with a .928 save percentage, ending the campaign on a high and with a passable 27-9-5 record and .911 save percentage overall. It’s still not the stats line you should feel comfortable with from your potential starter before giving him the keys to the car (especially not the “911” part), but the Flames have few options remaining after having signed Talbot. They’ve made their bed by signing a guy who had the best seasons of his career as a No. 2. They must own it now.
The Flames still have to re-sign the 26-year-old Czech, who’s a restricted free agent. Despite Rittich having filed for arbitration, it’s almost a foregone conclusion they do, even if his 67-game NHL career is admittedly a small sample size. I mean, if ”The Chronicles of Rittich” were the name of the (not-so) popular movie instead, it would be considered false advertising, because it would be so damn short. There is little question Rittich is the hero of the story at this stage, though. There’s no one else left.
To be more accurate, it’s at least largely up to him, with Talbot clearly only signed to help him along the way. Talbot’s effectively the sidekick. As long as he’s not here just for comic relief and keeps the laughs in net to a minimum, the Flames should be fine. After all, haven’t you heard? Having swapped goalies, the Flames are actually in better shape in net than they were last season, when they won the entire Western Conference. Rittich was a big part of that accomplishment. He must continue to be.