So the Flames’ goaltending has not been totally ideal this season. It currently sits at a .900 save percentage, tied for 24th in the NHL. (Not last!)
It wasn’t ideal last season, either, and that was with a completely different cast. Then, however, it was .892, very much the worst in the league – and the only team below .900.
When’s the last time the Flames had what could be considered ideal goaltending? Uh… 2014-15, probably, when every percentage went the Flames’ way, and their .911 collective save percentage was tied for 15th in the league.
Except in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the Flames had the same goalies for the most part, give or take a stray Joni Ortio. Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo held down the fort one year – not masterfully, but well enough to give the rest of their team a chance night in and night out – and then had the fort cave in the very next season.
But both their contracts were up, and with a new cast, it should have been saved. And for some reason, it hasn’t been.
Elliott and Johnson are still the ideal tandem
Hiller and Ramo are both out of the NHL now. Fine, whatever. The Flames needed a clean slate anyway, and they got it in Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson.
And really, as bad as things have looked as of late, this was still the best option for the Flames. It took a high second round pick to get Elliott, and Johnson was a free agent pickup. They’re both a bit older, in their 30s now, but they cost a combined $3.2 million: cheaper than either goalie the season before.
And I want to stress this: they didn’t cost a lot to get.
Who would you have rather the Flames picked up? Ben Bishop, sporting a .904 save percentage this season? Imagine taking him on, giving him a big money deal – because that would have happened – and not having Matthew Tkachuk at all, because sixth overall was the asking price.
Marc-Andre Fleury? He’s going to cost Dougie Hamilton money for the next two seasons, he has a .904 save percentage this season, and acquiring him probably would have cost more than the 35th overall pick.
Another free agent? Out of everyone we targeted as a free agent possibility – and there weren’t too many of those available – James Reimer has the best save percentage, at .916. Johnson is second at .913. Reimer makes double what Johnson does and is signed until 2021 for what would be pretty much the same performance.
As much as the goaltending has been a problem this season, this is probably as good as we were going to get. The Flames didn’t give up anything major to get their pieces. They aren’t stuck with them long-term. And every single other feasible option would have provided results just as mediocre, regardless.
Elliott and Johnson may not be working out perfectly, but they were still far and away the best options for this team: both back when they were first acquired, and still today.
So what’s to be done?
Elliott’s results have been much more surprising than Johnson’s.
Prior to his 2015-16 with the Buffalo Sabres, Johnson was generally just a really good backup goalie. Then Robin Lehner got injured, and he proved to be the best option Buffalo had to the tune of playing 45 games – an NHL career high by 18 games for him.
Just over halfway through this season, he’s played 30 for the Flames. If that pace were to keep up, he’d hit 46 this season. It’s not unprecedented for him now, but going back through his career, the last time Johnson approached 90 games in back-to-back seasons was from 2011-13 – a span during which he played all of four NHL games. The rest were in the AHL.
Johnson gave an all-world performance earlier in the season, which was very appreciated; it’s entirely possible fatigue has just gotten to him at this point.
Which is why it’s even more important for Elliott to be better, starting now. This is not the .925 goalie the St. Louis Blues enjoyed for five seasons. (And before anyone goes “but the Blues are obviously better!” let’s not discount that with roughly the same cast of defenceman as last season they have the worst goaltending in the NHL this season, and they’re one of the teams the Flames are battling against for a wild card spot right now.)
I’ve got a theory, though.
Via Corsica, Elliott’s 25-game rolling save percentage average from last season into this season really doesn’t look so hot:
But extend it back further, and… oh.
In 2015-16, Elliott’s big uptick in save percentage started at about the end of January. If anything, though, this looks like he’s due for an upswing (and we’re kinda starting to see that in current play). The further you go back through his career, the more oscillating it does, although the lows have been much more extreme this season.
Now, there’s nothing that actually guarantees he’s due for good games. He’s on a new team with a suspect bottom half of the defence. He appeared to have, one way or another, lost the confidence of his coach (although hopefully this whole “win and you’re in” thing is a step towards changing that). And then there’s the fun adage that goalies are, simply, voodoo.
But considering the state of available goaltenders both in the offseason and probably for the rest of this season, Elliott was probably the Flames’ best bet – and he still is.
I think that all there’s really left to do in the meantime is hope he actually is due. If he rebounds and consistently puts together good games, then the Flames might just be fine in net after all. If he doesn’t… well, then it was a good thing the Flames sought out two cheap goalies who aren’t committed beyond this season, isn’t it?