Heading into the season, there was legitimate reason to be skeptical of Mike Smith and whether he’d provide the type of upgrade that was needed in Calgary’s crease or if he’d live up to the buzz around him.
It’s never been difficult to see what his biggest supporters have seen in him. A towering presence between the pipes at 6-foot-4, when he’s running hot he relentlessly eats up the puck with impressive efficiency. When asked to backstop a strong team like he has at international events with Team Canada, he’s enjoyed success. And despite the time gap in between, the memories of his stupendously great 2011-12 season in which he unseated the Chicago Blackhawks en route to carrying Arizona to the Western Conference final are still kicking around in the mind.
Evaluating Smith’s performance in the years since that playoff run is an exercise fraught with landmines, however, as contextual caveats complicating matters even more than with your typical netminder. Playing behind such a dreadfully listless team like the tanking Coyotes were, Smith’s individual numbers inevitably took a hit, hovering somewhere around league average for the large majority of the past five seasons. How much of that can be excused on account of the team in front of him, and how much was actually an indicator of his true talent level has been a point of contention since he was traded to Calgary.
The Flames were clearly comfortable betting on Smith’s numbers being more team-related, forgoing a number of other enticing goaltenders who were potentially available in favour of Smith. It was a sizeable bet on their part, and an unnerving one at that, considering the implications it could have on the Western Conference landscape.
Based on their dramatically improved play in the second half of last year and the tantalizing talent throughout the lineup, the Flames were a trendy pick to be a real player in the Pacific Division. But a lot of that optimism ultimately hinged on what Smith would bring to the table.
It’ll take more than just a couple of weeks for us to get our true answer on whether or not Calgary made the right call, but the early returns have been rather noteworthy and warrant closer inspection.
Aside from a spotty recent showing at home against the Senators – who ran roughshod through the entire province of Alberta over the weekend – Smith has been stellar early on. Thus far he’s saved the Flames north of four goals more than a league average goalie would’ve under the same workload, putting himself in some elite company amongst his peers:
|Player||GP||Shots Faced||Goals Saved Above Average|
(all stats in the article are pulled from Corsica, and accurate through Tuesday night’s games)
For our purposes, perhaps most compelling of all is the ‘shots against’ column, which provides a good snapshot of what’s been going on in front of him so far. It’s surprising to see that Calgary’s defence, which we presumed would once again be an area of strength, has been alarmingly porous in the early stages of the season.
To put their struggles in perspective, only the Penguins have been bleeding shots against more rapidly than the Flames have at five-on-five:
|Metric||Flames Total||Flames League Rank|
|Shot Attempts Against/Hour||55.4||28th|
|Unblocked Attempts Against/Hour||45.4||30th|
|Shots on Goal Against/Hour||33.0||30th|
|Expected Goals Against/Hour||2.84||28th|
Here we get into the important distinction between descriptive and predictive. Actual goals against paint a picture of what’s already happened, whereas expected goals against helps us get a better sense of what should’ve happened based on historically similar shot profiles (and theoretically what will happen moving forward unless something fundamentally changes).
In the Flames’ case, they have the fifth-greatest discrepancy in the league between the two, which is entirely due to the fact Smith has been playing out of his mind, stopping 40-plus shots in three of the team’s first six games.
In the pursuit of potential explanations for what’s going wrong in Calgary, there’s a couple of things worth considering.
1. The Personnel
When the Flames dipped into the trade market and paid a premium for Travis Hamonic’s services, there was a widespread belief that the move vaulted them into the discussion for which team had the best top-four, alongside the Predators and Ducks.
The top pairing of Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano were spectacular last season and the Flames’ rise coincided with the decision to permanently stick the two together. They’ve once again been rock solid this year, aside from a few bounces here and there, tilting the ice in their team’s favour whenever they’ve been on the ice.
It’s the second pairing of Hamonic and T.J. Brodie that’s been worrisome, as they’ve had a rough go holding up their end of the bargain. Everyone vividly recalls the fits Connor McDavid gave them on the national stage in the season opener, but there’s hardly any shame in that considering he does something similar to essentially every defender in his path. The bigger concern is that it hasn’t gotten much better for the pair since then, even as the competition has lightened up.
|Partner 1||Partner 2||CF%||FF%||SF%||GF%||xGF%||On-Ice Save %|
|Dougie Hamilton||Mark Giordano||52.2||50.5||52.9||41.5||53.1||91.6|
|TJ Brodie||Travis Hamonic||48.4||44.3||42.8||43.6||38.4||95.0|
|Michael Stone||Matt Bartkowski||48.3||43.4||38.2||37.3||47.6||94.5|
(CF% = Corsi For %, FF% = Fenwick For %, SF% = Shots on Goal For %, GF% = Goals For %, xGF% = Expected Goals For %)
It’s disappointing given the hype and expectations heading into the year, but isn’t necessarily completely out of left field given either since both Brodie and Hamonic troubles of their own last season.
For Hamonic, his uncharacteristically poor 2016-17 was attributed to a combination of injuries and the funk that hung over the Islanders as a whole. For Brodie, it was easy to point to his suboptimal partners as the explanation for his dip in play, as he spent his year bouncing around from Deryk Engelland, to Dennis Wideman, to Michael Stone.
It was easy to throw last year out the window and bet on their more promising track records. But now that those external factors have improved and the performance continues to lag, it’s fair to start being critical and asking questions.
If you look around the league, most teams typically have at least one pairing atop their depth chart that they can consistently rely upon. What begins to separate the good teams from the rest of the pack is the ability to show more than one look and confidently roll four lines without fear of imploding when the secondary or tertiary players hit the ice.
For the Flames to get there, they’ll need Brodie and Hamonic to step up and be better than they’ve been thus far.
2. The System
Insert obligatory disclaimer about how it’s incredibly early and why that lends itself to wonky results which may or may not be sustainable. With that said, there’s no shortage of trends that we should be taking notice of and following closely.
One particular trend worth keeping an eye on as the sample size builds is the pace at which the Flames are playing. If we use combined shot attempts for and against as a proxy for how fast a team is playing at five-on-five, Calgary has jumped from 26th in pace last season to third this year.
Even though they’re a talented team, I’m skeptical they’re built to keep getting into those kinds of higher event track meets and coming out ahead on the other side. It makes for a better viewing experience, but how loose they’ve been structurally must be driving coach Glen Gulutzan and his staff mad.
|Team||2017-18 Pace||2016-17 Pace||Change in Pace|
The Flames have won four of their first six games and they can thank Smith for those points. But when you dig a bit deeper beyond the superficial win-loss record, you uncover some red flags that warn of potential trouble on the horizon unless they’re able to iron things out defensively.
Because even if Smith is able to prove his skeptics wrong by keeping it up and delivering a strong season in net, routinely relying on any goalie as much as the Flames have relied on theirs isn’t a recipe for sustained success.
The season is young, which can be a double-edged sword – on the one hand it leaves plenty of time for Calgary to find a solution and fix its issues, but on the other if they’re unable to do so sooner rather than later these early trends could wind up being the initial warning signs for a team in trouble.