Flames counting on freshly re-signed Rittich to be alpha dog in net

David-Rittich

Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich looks on during practice in Calgary, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh / CP)

Despite being surrounded by champagne, dancing family members and five-star food, David Rittich said Saturday he wasn’t in the mood to celebrate the biggest payday of his life.

Mere hours after putting the final touches on a two-year contract extension with the Calgary Flames, announced early Saturday morning at $2.75 million annually, the colourful Czech netminder said he needed to catch up on sleep before raising a glass in his honour.

“I don’t have the energy to celebrate today,” chuckled Rittich, from a family member’s wedding an hour outside his hometown of Jihlava, Czech Republic.

“I packed my bag and was ready for the flight to Toronto early (on Saturday) for my arbitration (scheduled for Monday). I didn’t sleep until 2 a.m. and had set my alarm early. No sleep. Maybe I’ll celebrate with my friends later on.”

Some believe fatigue has been an issue with Rittich the last two seasons, as his numbers have dipped in the second half of both his first two full NHL campaigns.

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With that in mind, Rittich has embarked on a more rigorous training regimen this summer with an eye on suiting up for more than the 45 games he played last season.

“I would like to play more than last year, but it’s up to how I play,” said Rittich, 26, a free-agent signing by the Flames out of the Czech Extraliga four years ago.

“I’m working really hard so I think I can play more than 60 games.”

That will almost certainly not be necessary, especially on a Western Conference team in a league moving more and more toward 50-50 splits like the Flames did last year with him and Mike Smith.

Smith is in Edmonton now, replaced by former Oiler Cam Talbot (also for $2.75 million) who is looking to turn his career around as the Flames backup.

Many believe it’s Rittich crease to lose, but no one should be expecting him to carry the load.

Goaltending will very much be a shared responsibility in Calgary this year, with hopes Rittich will show enough to be deemed the starter come playoffs.

Part of why Smith wasn’t re-signed was it is time for Rittich to be an alpha dog, more of a go-to guy.

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Thankful for all Smith did to help him evolve the last two years, Rittich was happy to give up one year of unrestricted free agency to sign a two-year deal that gives him financial security he couldn’t have fathomed four years ago when he toiled for Mlada Boleslav.

“I’m happy with two years – I can prove I can be a starting goaltender,” said the six-foot-three, 206-pound goalie whose progression in North America saw him take the NHL by storm before steadily progressing as an NHLer.

“In my head, I just want to be better than last year – I want to be stronger and faster, that’s my progress. If you look back three years, every year is better and that’s how I want to work. I just want to be better this year than last year.”

His 27-9-5 record last season with a 2.61 goal against average and .911 save percentage suggests he’s earned the trust of teammates who are empowered and amused by the fun-loving jokester.

As the backup, he has been an overwhelmingly pleasant surprise. As a starter, filling in for injured Smith two years ago, he faltered – something GM Brad Treliving believes will aid Rittich in the long run.

Treliving is the first to reiterate he doesn’t believe it’s a question of whether Big Save Dave can be The Man.

“We’re not putting a whole bunch on him to be the starting goalie – we think he has a chance to be a really good goalie in this league,” said Treliving.

“If you look at him since he joined our team, he’s taken a step every year. We believe he is a really good developing goaltender and we still think he has another step or two he can take. I like how the tandem sets up.”

Rittich will drink to that … eventually.

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