When the Calgary Flames acquired Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues in June for draft picks, it was largely seen as the big move Calgary needed to launch itself back into playoff contention. After all, Elliott was coming off a season in which he posted a .930 save percentage in 41 games followed by a strong showing in the playoffs. Plus the Flames, with Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton and more, had a pretty good defence corps too.
In fact, the Flames allowed fewer shots on net than the Blues in 2015-16 and continue to allow less this season. So you could have made the case Elliott was in a better position to succeed as the undisputed No. 1 in Alberta.
But after a terrible start for the team and its new supposed top goalie, backup Chad Johnson has been the unlikely saviour. He’s won six of his past eight starts, allowing just 13 goals against. Is ‘Johnny’ actually taking the No. 1 duties from Elliott?
“I don’t want to get into numbers,” Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan told the Calgary Sun. “But right now, Johnny is playing really well and Johnny deserves starts. If we’re talking about the fourth line earning extra minutes or Micheal Ferland playing on the power play a little bit, Johnny has earned some time to play here.
“And that’s a good thing. I like it more of a competition. These are the most competitive athletes you can get, and it’s good to have a little competition. But Johnny has earned, with his good play, some starts here.”
The funny thing is, history suggests Elliott likes a little competition too. In St. Louis, he always had Jake Allen pushing him for time, limiting the amount of starts Elliott got. He was never a No. 1 in St. Louis and the 45 starts he got in 2014-15 was the most in his time with the team. It was the only season where he played more than half of the games on the schedule.
The result? Elliott’s save percentages ranged from .917 in ’14-15 to to .940 in ’11-12, a season in which he earned 38 starts. It’s interesting that the lowest save percentage he posted with St. Louis came in the same season he got the most starts.
The last time Elliott was a No. 1 starter came in 2010-11, which he split with Ottawa and Colorado. In 55 games, he posted a sub-.900 save percentage. The season before that, he played 55 games for Ottawa and posted a .909 save percentage.
Johnson who, at 30, is one year younger than Elliott, has never been given a shot as a No. 1, but his track record is surprisingly good. He had a .920 save percentage in 45 games with the Buffalo Sabres last season. In ’13-14, he had a .925 save percentage in 27 games with Boston.
The Flames — and notably Gulutzan — have a lot of pressure to get back into the playoffs this season, so it should be noted that they’re unlikely to roll with Johnson as the No. 1. But given his history, it may also not be the best idea to lean on Elliott for 45-plus games.
To be sure, Elliott has been in some games where the Flames defence has left him out to dry and he is bound to bounce back from his 3-9-0 start and .882 save percentage. As the pressure of being the needed No. 1 dissipates with more starts from Johnson, and the fact Elliott’s playing for a new contract from someone this summer, he should be able to get back to close to what he was when the Flames acquired him.
But should Gulutzan and Calgary really be eager use Elliott as the workhorse No. 1 they acquired him to be, or just be content rolling a hot-hand tandem in which Elliott perhaps gets the slightly heavier workload?
With neither goalie signed beyond this season there’s no reason to force the situation. And since the Flames will have to give up a third-rounder to the Blues if they re-sign Elliott, they won’t feel obligated to commit No. 1-level starts to him.
With a playoff appearance perhaps necessary for the coach to keep his job, and UFA status on the horizon for the more proven Elliott, the safer play according to workload history could be the tandem solution. That might be the best way forward for everyone involved.