Can Elliott Be Flames’ Top Goalie?

When I think of Calgary Flames netminder Brian Elliott, I often think back to the 2003 film Seabiscuit. In the film, a thoroughbred horse with strong bloodlines fails to live up to expectations and is turned into a staking horse to push better horses in their training. Only when he’s given up on by his original owners does Seabiscuit finally live up to his potential, with the horse seemingly trying to prove his detractors wrong.

In hockey parlance, Elliott has a lot in common with Seabiscuit. A full-time National Hockey League goaltender since 2009, Elliott has long held a reputation as a technically sound netminder who can help his team win games via excellent performances. However, in seemingly every stop he’s been in the NHL, only when Elliott has been cast into an underdog role and is “playing from behind,” so to speak, does he live up to that reputation. It’s that trait that threatens his future with the Flames, particularly in contrast with his netminding partner, Chad Johnson.

A Few Early Moves

Elliott’s time in the NHL began with the Ottawa Senators. After a brief appearance in 2007-08, he made the transition to full-time backup in 2008-09 and used to spell off top Senators goaltender Alex Auld. The following season, he was used as Ottawa’s primary starter with Pascal LeClaire working as his backup.

He didn’t get a chance to get cozy, though, as the Senators shipped Elliott out at 2011’s trade deadline in order to jump-start their rebuild with Craig Anderson in net. In retrospect, the decision to go with the more-established Anderson over Elliott seems to have worked out for Ottawa – Anderson has been quite good for them and given them options in case their developing prospects didn’t turn into solid NHLers.

Elliott was sent to Colorado and briefly backed up Peter Budaj before becoming an unrestricted free agent.

In both of his first two NHL stops, Elliott seems to have been used as a stop-gap – a “for now” option they transitioned away from when organizational plans became more clear. Despite his status in each market, he performed rather well.

Challenges in St. Louis

Elliott signed with the Blues in the summer of 2011, with a low-cost one-year contract seemingly designed to allow him to compete for the job backing up Jaroslav Halak. Over the next two seasons, he ended up gradually taking over the Blues’ net and posted slightly better numbers than Halak in almost every category.

Just when it seemed that stability had been found in St. Louis with Elliott being backed up by the very capable Halak, the Blues sent their Czech netminder to Buffalo at the 2014 trade deadline for veteran Ryan Miller.  While Miller didn’t end up being a long-term fit for the Blues – he was unable to lead the team to championship glory and signed with Vancouver in the offseason – but for the next couple seasons the Blues began transitioning from Elliott to their “goalie of the future” Jake Allen, as well as bringing in Martin Brodeur for a good chunk of 2014-15.

Despite all of this tumult surrounding his tenure in St. Louis, Elliott actually seemed to excel within all of the adversity. He needed to prove himself to cement himself on the Blues roster as he was on a two-way deal at the time. Then he needed to out-perform Halak to get more starts, then continue to out-perform him to maintain those starts. Then he had to out-perform Miller, Allen and Brodeur to keep getting starts, even as Blues management seemed to explore the other options.

Early Calgary Struggles

The Flames brought in Elliott this past summer with the mindset that he could become their long-term, full-time starter. They also brought in a long-time NHL journeyman backup in Johnson to provide a safety net for the nights Elliott wouldn’t start. Arguably for the first time in his NHL tenure, Elliott was given the net from the get-go and told to run with it.

He stumbled out of the gates, having a really rough October that forced the Flames to go to Johnson as their de facto top guy. Johnson has been excellent throughout the majority of his starts for the Flames, while Elliott has only really seemed to get comfortable in net since early December – when the Flames seemingly gave the net to Johnson.

The perplexing aspect of Elliott’s game is that he appears to be a goaltender that needs to be pushed, doubted or given up on before he can really excel. There’s an emotional aspect to his game that few other goalies in the league have; he often appears to be battling the puck, but when he has an extra bit of energy or emotion, he seems to excel with that style.

The challenge for him as it relates to cementing himself in Calgary is that he’s not a front-running goalie; he’s not the type or style of goalie that seemingly can be relied upon as an undisputed No. 1. That makes it challenging to retain him long-term, as the Flames will likely be looking at transitioning one of their American Hockey League goalies — Jon Gillies or David Rittich — into a backup for 2017-18. They’ll need to be mentored and aided in that transition. The question is whether Elliott can be the guy to mentor those guys while simultaneously handling the vast majority of Calgary’s starts.

Elliott can be an excellent goalie. He responds very well to adversity, but it seems that he requires adversity to unlock the excellence inside him.