CALGARY — The coach’s challenge to David Rittich during exit meetings last spring revolved around being a better pro.
Spending more time in the gym, less time over dinner plates.
David Rittich took it to heart, but insists his longtime trainer back home took it, well, too far.
“My goalie coach went a little bit crazy,” said the 27-year-old Czech netminder in his beautifully broken English with a smile.
“We work out for four hours. I don’t really want to think about it anymore. It was really hard.
“He was losing his mind because he say, ‘you could be goalie No. 1 in the NHL – you have to work more harder than last year.
Indeed, the happy-go-lucky Rittich left Calgary for the summer well aware he’d likely have a new tandem-mate and the opportunity would almost certainly be there for him to “be the alpha male,” as Flames general manager Brad Treliving described it.
Signing a two-year, $2.75-million contract in line with the one–year salary Cam Talbot signed as an unrestricted free agent, the ever-popular Big Save Dave is here at training camp as the likely starter opening night.
The plan is to split time between the two, just like Mike Smith and Rittich did last year when the hot hand was quietly given the go-ahead by coach Bill Peters one and two days ahead of each start.
The goal, in Rittich’s eyes, is to continue the progress he’s made each of the last three seasons since signing as a free agent out of the Czech league’s Mlada Boleslav.
His first year, largely in Stockton, the undrafted prospect couldn’t speak a word of English, had never stepped foot in North America and responded by stopping the puck better than any goalie in the Flames system.
His 27-9-5 record and 2.61 GAA last year set the stage for him to be The Guy in Calgary this year, but it was his focus on Peters’ challenge that could make it all possible.
“Ritter is an unbelievable kid with a bright future,” said Peters in the spring.
“There are things he can do to allow himself to be able to play more games, too, as far as his ability to look after himself with nutrition, with everything that goes along with that, to make a real solid commitment to being a pro, a big-time NHL pro. And he’s going to do that.”
He sure did.
“So, we spent one hour in the gym, one hour at the beach for running and after we had two hours in the gym for games and gymnastics and things like that,” said Rittich of his summer schedule.
Did the Flames dispatch strength and conditioning coach Ryan van Asten to see Rittich’s progress?
“I think if he were going to see that they’ll lose his mind,” chuckled the six-foot-three, 206-pound goalie.
“I think my junior coach is a little bit harder, but I’m good with that. You’re going to find in January and February what you did in the summer.”
That’s what the Flames are counting on.
In each of his last two seasons with the Flames, Rittich’s strong play has certainly diminished somewhat as the season went on.
Thus the suggestion he shape up to a degree.
On Tuesday, he continued his pre-season mastery with a 20-save shutout in a 2-0 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
In 65 previous minutes this fall he’d allowed just one goal on a measly 12 shots.
It’s a far cry from the troubling pre-season Rittich pieced together last year when his struggles had many in town debating the merits of trying to upgrade via the waiver wire.
Turned out Rittich would be just fine, which is certainly the way he’s trending already.
“For sure I feel more comfortable now,” said Rittich, whose focus on improving his stickhandling saw him race out toward the blue line at one point Tuesday to make a play, a la Smith.
“I had to check my pants after that play,” he added with a laugh and an eye roll.
Alas, the stage is set for Rittich to prove it’s his job to lose.
“My English is better, my feelings on the ice are better and I played way more games than the year before, so I’m way more comfortable than last year,” he said.
“But, who cares about how I’m feeling. I have to show it on the ice.”
GAME STUFF: Peters issued a stern warning to Dillon Dube and Oliver Kylington before the game, reminding them time is running out on making enough of an impression to stay in town. “I think he’s come off it a little bit,” Peters said in his morning scrum about Dube. “His wall play has been poor, his D-zone awareness has been sub-standard. The things that nobody wants to talk about that allow you to be an everyday NHLer and earn the trust of the coaching staff, has slipped. Now it’s time to get it back.”
As far as Kylington, Peters was similarly curt: “We’d like to see some consistency out of him. Simple puck plays. Hard in the D-zone. There are other guys that are fighting for that opportunity and that ice time.” Michael Stone and PTO Andrew MacDonald are battling with Kylington for the sixth spot on the defensive rotation.
It bodes well for both that Tuesday’s lineup looked like the opening night roster, and Dube and Kylington were both in it. How’d they play? Peters thought they responded well to his warnings … Sean Monahan’s nifty redirect of a Johnny Gaudreau centering pass put the Flames up 1-0 on the power play midway through the game. 33 seconds later Sam Bennett’s solid showing on the second line with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik continued with a goal … It was interesting to see Milan Lucic in front of the net on the first power-play unit … Flames will send a scaled-down version of their squad to San Jose on Thursday before returning for their final pre-season game Saturday against the Oilers … Derek Ryan was hit awkwardly into the boards in the third period, earning Nelson Nogier a penalty that could easily have earned an angry visit from linemate Lucic. Alas, it’s pre-season, so the big man stayed chill.
Gaudreau – Monahan – Lindholm
Bennett – Backlund – Frolik
Lucic – Ryan – Mangiapane
Czarnik – Jankowski – Dube
Giordano – Brodie
Hanifin – Hamonic
Kylington – Andersson