Closing in on the quarter mark of the 2018-19 NHL season, you might not think of the Calgary Flames as Western Conference or even Stanley Cup contenders just by glancing at their 10-8-1 mark. Truth be told, they should be sitting rather comfortably atop a Pacific Division no team has taken a hold of yet, and maybe even atop the entire conference, if not for one shortcoming at the most crucial position.
There is a lot to like about the Flames. At 5-on-5, they have a plus-58 shot differential, which is fifth-best in the league. Their power play, which ranks in the middle of the pack to this point in the season, has been the fifth-best unit in November and may be turning a corner. Ditto for the penalty kill. It ranks 22nd on the season, but has killed 88.2 per cent of its chances in November, fourth-best in the NHL.
They have a league-leading five wins when trailing after two periods, and though you don’t want to be in that position, their ability to respond isn’t a bad thing. Mark Giordano is top five in scoring among defencemen with excellent puck possession numbers.
The narrative of a struggling defence from last season has vanished as well. Elias Lindholm has been a great acquisition and is a perfect complement to their two stars on the top line, while Matthew Tkachuk continues to look like the team’s future captain and has 21 points in 19 games that is setting him up for a very nice pay day when he becomes an RFA this summer.
But in goal? It’s a full-on position battle.
It’s telling that the Flames have an expected goal differential at 5-on-5 of plus-4.29, but their actual differential is minus-4. Their team save percentage is .911, seventh-worst league-wide despite David Rittich posting a .935 save rate that is the third-best mark in the league among all goalies with at least eight games played.
Starter Mike Smith, though, has an .876 save percentage that is the worst among all goalies with eight games. And that’s where all the concerns around this team’s potential land.
Is it time for the Flames to make a trade to upgrade the position? The problem is that the NHL’s goalie landscape is very thin on these kinds of options.
This is at least in part due to injuries. In Arizona, Antti Raanta has missed five starts with an injury, so backup Darcy Kuemper is needed. In Los Angeles, Jonathan Quick and Jack Campbell are out, leaving the last-place team thin at the position. Tampa Bay just lost its starter, Andrei Vasilevskiy, for a month or more. Philadelphia is down both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth.
On top of that, Smith isn’t the only under-performing starter in the league. There are plenty of those cases to go around and that works to tighten the market a little more.
Elliotte Friedman joined Boomer & Warrener in the Morning on Sportsnet 960 The FAN in Calgary Friday morning to go over some potential names, and what’s striking is how uninspiring most of them are. How many of these guys would really solve the confidence crisis surrounding Smith at the moment? Is the best option, still, to just sit and be patient?
SERGEI BOBROVSKY, COLUMBUS
We explored this option in a “Fake Trades” segment on the Tape To Tape Podcast a few weeks ago knowing that, yes, this is a far-fetched proposition. But if it was at all possible it does make a lot of sense for the Flames to consider. Bobrovsky is, like Smith, set up to become a UFA in July and all signals are pointing to him getting there and not re-signing in Columbus. A two-time Vezina Trophy winner, the knock on Bobrovsky is his subpar playoff numbers, but there’s little doubt he is the best of all these potential options.
What makes this target such a long shot, though, is that Bobrovsky has to want to come to Calgary first.
“I don’t think he’s coming to Calgary,” Friedman said. “He has control. He has a no-movement clause. I have reported that it’s believed he’s given them a list of places he’s willing to go and I don’t think Calgary’s on that list. That’s my guess.”
CORY SCHNEIDER, NEW JERSEY
From 2012-13 through 2016-17, Schneider was quietly one of the better goalies in the NHL. Those five seasons are the only ones of his career in which he played more than half the games and, in that span, he posted a .920 save percentage, which was tied for eighth-best league-wide. But injuries limited him to 40 games last season and following off-season hip surgery and a late start to this year, Schneider has an .849 save percentage in four games.
“He’s really struggling with term remaining, are you doing that?” asked Friedman.
Schneider is the ultimate risk/reward pick up. Sure, he could regain that form and if he did, he would be capable of putting a team over the top with two good months in the spring. But a goalie coming off hip surgery in his age 32 season is worrying. Plus, he’s carrying a $6-million cap hit for another three years beyond this one.
The Flames have approximately $12.4 million in cap space next season, but Tkachuk’s new deal will take up a large chunk of that. They could move some other players around to make the dollars work, but it’s far from certain that Schneider would be better than Smith this season anyway.
JIMMY HOWARD, DETROIT
Like Schneider, Howard’s heyday came a few years ago, but unlike Schneider, he’s having a good start to the season.
Howard’s .922 save percentage in 14 games is one of the better marks in the league and he’s playing behind one of the most porous defence units that allows 35.2 shots against per game. Only twice this season has Howard allowed more than three goals a game and those came in his third and fourth starts of the season.
He makes $5.2 million against the cap, which is a million more than Smith, but is a UFA at season’s end.
“That’s the one guy I looked at,” Friedman said. “If you really go up and down the teams and look at who’s really available and who can be had out there, he’s probably your best option. There has been rumours, and I stress they are rumours, that he was looking at signing a short-term extension with the Red Wings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
JAROSLAV HALAK, BOSTON
If Calgary were in this position a year or two ago, Halak would have been an obvious target as the Islanders were sending him to the AHL because they didn’t have room for three goalies and were trying to move on. Now, though, this would be much harder to pull off and the timing certainly isn’t right at the moment.
Halak is, in a way, Boston’s No. 1 for the time being. Tuukka Rask has a .901 save percentage and just took a few days away from the team to be with family. Through Rask’s struggles and over his time away, Halak has been humming along with a .932 save percentage. The 33-year-old will have his inconsistencies, though, and when that happens, he’s no more safe than Smith. Just in Halak’s past four games, he has two in which he allowed four goals or more, and two in which he allowed only one.
“If Rask was really on a roll maybe, maybe, you could pry Halak out of Boston, but Rask is struggling so Boston’s not going to deal him,” Friedman said.
CHARLIE LINDGREN, MONTREAL
One name that came up in the conversation from out of left field was Montreal’s AHL starter. With Carey Price just starting a long-term contract, there is no path for Lindgren to become a No. 1, though he is interesting as a potential long-term backup.
When Price went down in November last season, Lindgren came in with some strong games that created buzz. His first start was a 38-save shutout over Chicago and he came out of eight games that month with a .924 save percentage. But when he was called back up towards the end of the season, Lindgren allowed more than three goals in four of five March starts. In the AHL this season, he has a 6-6 record an .891 save percentage.
Again, no sure thing here. And, at 24 with a controllable contract, he may cost too much to acquire considering he’s not an auto-solution.
“The guy who’s the most intriguing really, and you don’t think of him because he’s not in the NHL right now, is Lindgren from Montreal, but that’ll cost you,” Friedman said. “If you’re worried about what Jimmy Howard‘s going to cost you, what’s Charlie Lindgren going to cost you?”
These next two names were not discussed on the radio hit, but are interesting nonetheless.
RYAN MILLER, ANAHEIM
Miller would be a long shot because when he left Vancouver to sign in Anaheim, he did it for his young family. His wife, Noureen DeWulf, is an actress so obviously California is the best place to be for her work. The Canucks wanted to keep him, but Miller left, likely for less money.
“I want to win hockey games and want to contribute to my team, as always,” Miller said last year when he returned to Vancouver for a game. “I value my family life and keep that in high regard and I wanted to make a decision that made me more present and available for my family, but still play at a high level. I think that’s the opportunity I found here with Anaheim.”
Miller has a no-trade clause in which he can submit a list of six teams to which he’d accept a trade. Calgary isn’t California, but it also isn’t the East Coast and would provide him a chance to win. At the least he’d be a good veteran backup to Rittich and, and best, he could catch fire and take over for one more Cup run.
For the time being, Anaheim has playoffs in mind and would not be thinking of making this move now, let alone to a division rival. But they are outshot by a ton on a nightly basis and, outside of a Vezina effort from John Gibson (not impossible), could fade as the season goes. If we get to the trade deadline and Anaheim is out while the Flames still have goalie problems, maybe this becomes an option. Miller posted a .928 save percentage in his first season with the Ducks last season and, in the face of terrible shot metrics, is at .929 this season.
Over the summer, Anderson “expressed a desire to be traded” from Ottawa, though he walked that back somewhat in August.
“If everything going on this summer gets cleaned up, I’ve got no interest in going anywhere else,” he told NHL.com. “I’m too old for drama.”
The Senators are one of the better stories in the league this season because they play a free-flowing style that may not get them to the playoffs, but it’s at least fun to watch. No goalie has faced more shots than the 613 Anderson has seen, so though his .909 save percentage won’t jump off the page you have to consider the sheer amount of work he’s had to handle.
He makes $4.75 million against the cap and his contract runs for one more season after this. Anderson is two seasons removed from a run to the Eastern Conference final in which he posted a 2.34 GAA and .922 save percentage, but the price may be too rich. After all, Ottawa has a vested interest in not tanking this year since Colorado holds their first-round pick, and they don’t have a quality netminder in the organization to step in as the new No. 1.