What We Learned: What do the Flames have in net?

Travis Hamonic (left) and Mike Smith (right) are introduced by Flames GM Brad Treliving (center). (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

Flames GM Brad Treliving has been on a bit of a media tour in the last week, and a common theme keeps coming up.

Understandably, he’s been asked by multiple people — Bob McKenzie for TSN, Eric Duhatschek for the Athletic, and more besides, I’m sure — what the hell he thinks the Flames have in net. Mike Smith and Eddie Lack is the tandem the Flames are more than happy to go with. The Mike Smith and Eddie Lack who played in the NHL the past couple seasons? And the Mike Smith who’s 36? You gotta be joking, right?

But a lot of what Treliving said made sense, at least on the surface: If you look at Smith’s performance last season, he was a .914 goalie overall — and .925 at 5-on-5, which is potentially a better indicator of quality — despite the fact that he faced the most scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes of hockey than any other 1a or 1b goalie in the league (those with at least 1,000 minutes at full strength).

The .914 is a little below league average, which is to be expected, because it’s Mike Smith and he played for Arizona. But .925? That was 19th out of 49 goalies, and it’s actually pretty good. Add in the fact that the Coyotes gave up nearly 32.6 scoring chances of all qualities per 60, and almost 13.3 — more than 40 percent of them — were of high quality, and you think to yourself, “Hey, Mike Smith played well, huh?”

Meanwhile, the Flames’ goalies last season — Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson — faced much easier circumstances. Elliott’s high-danger chances against per 60 minutes ranked eighth-lowest in the league. His scoring chances against was third-lowest. Johnson was considerably worse off (36th in both categories) but still faced far less difficult circumstances than what Smith did.

You can say what you want about the Flames’ goaltending last season, but the quality of that defense certainly made it fairly easy on Elliott, who got into 49 of their 82 games. Then they upgraded that defense both by letting some iffier aspects of that team go (so long, Deryk Engelland) and bringing in a guy they figure will be a very solid addition to their second pairing (welcome, Travis Hamonic).

That Hamonic acquisition in particular is crucial because it gives TJ Brodie a partner who can actually play hockey at an NHL level; remember when there was talk the Flames were going to trade Dougie Hamilton? It was because Brodie was getting his minutes with Mark Giordano, while Hamilton had to lug Jyrki Jokipakka up and down the ice, to ugly results. Then Hamilton got bumped up to the top pair, and all of a sudden it was Brodie who had to carry the water for Dennis Wideman, and the same thing happened. Hamonic was rotten for the Islanders last year, no doubt, but all indications are that if you give Brodie someone to work with who can skate backwards, he’s going to deliver positive results. Hamonic, for whatever concerns you may have about him, is a huge upgrade from the Flames’ fourth option last season.

Plus, if Glen Gulutzan is smart, he’ll shore up those matchups for Brodie and Hamonic by putting them out with the “3M line” of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk, who were an incredible unit last season when Tkachuk was just a rookie. Brodie, more often than not, was out there with the Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-[fill in the blank] line, and none of those guys are proven play-drivers in the way the 3Ms are. Giordano and Hamilton can fend for themselves against top-end talent, but a little shelter from the storm should go a long way for Brodie and Hamonic.

So they now very clearly have one of the best top-four groups in the league and even if you don’t like Michael Stone and Matt Bartkowski as that third pair (and frankly, there’s no reason you should) you can rest easy knowing they’ll probably combine for about 14 minutes a night against bottom-of-the-barrel competition.

The thinking is Smith, given what he’s faced in Arizona the past few years, will raise his save percentage thanks to the lower number of chances the team in front of him allows. With this in mind, it’s theoretically possible that Smith will deliver 50 or so games of much stronger performances than what the Flames got from Elliott or Johnson last season. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be that hard. The Flames had the ninth-worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the league last season.

The goal here shouldn’t even necessarily be to exceed the league average in terms of overall save percentage; the Flames made the playoffs last year (and sure, it didn’t go well) with outright “bad” goaltending. Getting something even in the mid-range of the league probably assures them another trip to the postseason.

But there’s a huge caveat to all this, which is that the Flames understand what being 36 years old means for goaltenders, even those who, like Smith, have a relatively small number of games played given that age. The problem is that their new backup, Eddie Lack, was one of the worst regular goalies in the league over the past two years. In fact, his .902 save percentage over that span is second-worst in the league among all goalies with at least 50 appearances, ahead of only Antti Niemi.

The good news, one supposes, is that like Smith, Lack kinda has the benefit of saying, “Well the team in front of me sucked!” The Hurricanes gave up the 16th-most scoring chances and ninth-most high-danger opportunities per 60 among all goalies with at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5 last year. So perhaps the operating assumption is that he’ll turn around behind a defense this good, too. But at the same time, he faced the 10th-fewest shots per 60 minutes in the league last season; Smith faced the absolute most.

So if you figure the Flames are going to limit Smith’s starts to 50 or 55 (which would be wise), that means you’re getting 20ish games of Lack, who’s an almost total unknown.

The issue, then, is something else Treliving brought up in these interviews: He said when Smith is on his game, he’s one of the best goalies in the league. That’s one of those things that’s true of almost any goalie with an even half-decent track record — anyone can rip off a run of .925 for five, even 10 games. So how likely is it that Smith, at 36, goes on that kind of run for more than a little while? You have to imagine the answer is, “Not very.”

It’s worth noting he started off incredibly hot last year then faded hard down the stretch. Smith was .932 in his first 16 games, but went .906 in his last 39. Not sure to what you can attribute that, whether it’s the workload, his age, or both. Or neither, one supposes.

The point is, Treliving can talk about all the best-case scenarios he likes with his goaltending choices. That doesn’t change the fact that, for the second straight summer he’s turned over his entire battery because the organization just hasn’t developed any real answers in-house in years. God, when was the last time the Flames developed their own goaltending, period? (Going back to 2000, the only guy they drafted who played more than a handful of games in a given season is freakin’ Joni Ortio. And Joni Ortio is awful.) They have a few promising guys on the way, in Jon Gillies and Tyler Parsons, but that doesn’t help them this year.

And that’s really the problem: It’s another year of rolling the dice, hoping for the best, in or around the prime years of guys like Gaudreau, Monahan, Backlund, Frolik, Hamilton and Brodie. They have so much young skill on this team that to even enter the season with a, say, 50/50 chance of torpedoing it with bad goaltending seems wildly irresponsible.

But Treliving may be right insofar as everything could work out exactly right for them. If that happens, they might even avoid getting completely embarrassed by the Ducks in the playoffs for the first time in a while. Wouldn’t that be great?

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Have you guys heard Ryan Miller has wanted to play in California for a long time? It’s true!

Arizona Coyotes: Derek Stepan is one of the leaders on the Coyotes because he’s one of like six guys on the team who can legally rent a car.

Boston Bruins: Doesn’t speak very highly of Boston’s forward depth if Kenny Agostino is even close to sniffing a roster spot.

Buffalo Sabres: The way the Sabres’ lines are shaping up, maybe they won’t get completely caved in the second Jack Eichel steps off the ice this year.

Calgary Flames: God damn are the Flames’ owners gross. There’s absolutely no excuse for what they’re asking for from the city in the midst of an economic downturn.

Carolina Hurricanes: Wow, the Hurricanes might actually have a goalie who’s good. Brave new world, man.

Chicago Blackhawks: Yeah a second line of Patrick Sharp and Nick Schmaltz joining Patrick Kane seems like a pretty clear downgrade.

Colorado Avalanche: I have a lot of reasons why not them.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Things may be getting ugly between the team and unsigned RFA Josh Anderson. The good news is they have absolutely no history, organizationally, of starting a long, slow, acrimonious process that alienates their promising young forwards who they end up trading.

Dallas Stars: I will never get tired of the annual “This guy who can’t play really wants to make the team, and he just might do it!” PTO stories. If RJ Umberger makes the Stars, that’s an indictment of the team rather than a credit to the player.

Detroit Red Wings: Yeah that’s usually how it works with two goalies.

Edmonton Oilers: Folks, Milan Lucic is In The Best Shape Of His Life.

Florida Panthers: Bob Boughner is one of those guys where people have been saying for years, “He should really get a crack at coaching in the NHL.” The junior results are all there, right? This is an interesting team for him to take over; I could see things going either way.

Los Angeles Kings: Every team should do this. What fun!

Minnesota Wild: This is the right approach with any over-30 guy you expect to carry a decently heavy load for you.

Montreal Canadiens: Man, David Schlemko has been on seven teams in the past three seasons? How is that even possible?

Nashville Predators: No no no no no. Don’t do this. Don’t.

New Jersey Devils: Regardless of our various allegiances, I think we can all agree that one thing every NHL fan should want is for something to go Taylor Hall’s way for once.

New York Islanders: Keep the dream alive!

New York Rangers: Chris Kreider is one of the more fun players in the league to watch when he’s on his game, so I’m with the Rangers’ coaching staff on this one.

Ottawa Senators: I’m not holding my breath.

Philadelphia Flyers: This actually seems not-encouraging.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Sid Crosby apparently loves podcasts. Bet he’s a big Chapo guy.

San Jose Sharks: Not sure if you guys heard what happened to Patrick Marleau, but…

St. Louis Blues: “Probably almost nothing” is my guess.

Tampa Bay Lightning: I want Steven Stamkos to play the full 82 so badly. Feels like we’re being consistently robbed of his talent. C’mon Steven!!!

Toronto Maple Leafs: Morgan Rielly has had 11 D partners in his short career? That’s crazy, right?

Vancouver Canucks: Now this is a headline.

Vegas Golden Knights: Speaking of “don’t hold your breath,” this is an all-timer.

Washington Capitals: Barry, I gotta tell ya: Nah.

Winnipeg Jets: Connor, I only want what is best for you!

Play of the weekend

Folks I have actual highlights to share with you. Can you even believe it?!?!?!?!?!?!

This Boeser kid looks like a good one. By the way he played college hockey.

Gold Star Award

Oh my god hockey is back!!!!!

Minus of the Weekend

Sign Jagr.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “CoopWills23” is going out on a limb.

Ryan McDonagh for Tyler Bozak Jake Gardiner 2nd 2018 & 2nd 2019 or 1st 2018 & 3rd 2019

Signoff

It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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