LOS ANGELES — Between the aftermath of the U.S. mid-term elections, Le’Veon Bell’s cryptic comments, and rising Duke superstar Zion Williams, no one was talking about Wednesday’s National Hockey League highlights.
Back home in Calgary though, there was a common theme.
And for the next few days, Mike Smith’s three goals allowed in Wednesday’s 3-2 Flames loss to the Anaheim Ducks — and the bigger picture surrounding the struggling 36-year-old netminder — will be fresh on everyone’s mind.
Don’t expect the Calgary Flames to publicly explain what is going on with Smith as their focus is on salvaging his confidence and dealing with matters internally. It’s a complicated scenario, given Calgary’s current goaltending landscape and Smith’s experience as a No. 1 netminder and trust-factor with Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving, the coaching staff and his teammates.
He’s the ultimate professional. He’s experienced. He’s likeable. He’s a good teammate.
But whether you pay attention to the numbers or not, Smith’s are getting out of control. His 3.66 goals-against average is the second-worst in the league while his .872 save percentage is the worst among goaltenders who have made over 10 starts (prior to Thursday’s action). He’s 5-5-1.
The thing is, 16 games into the season, there isn’t a simple magic bullet solution like making a trade, putting Smith on waivers or deciding to go with back-up and inexperienced David Rittich for the rest of the season (no matter how good the likeable Czech’s numbers are).
And like it or not, there’s a good chance he’ll start Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings to try and play out of it, leaving Rittich to face the San Jose Sharks in the second half of the weekend’s back-to-back games.
Yet with two nights between games — the Flames had an off-day Thursday and were scheduled to practise at the L.A. Kings’ facilities in El Segundo, Calif., on Friday — there’s a lot to ponder.
Here’s what a handful of goaltending experts had to say:
*Regarding his age, 36, and stage of his career:
Brent Krahn, former Flames netminder and Sportsnet 960 The Fan goaltending analyst: “It is obviously coming to the tail end. When you compare him to guys like Ryan Miller, Roberto Luongo, Craig Anderson, guys who are older and as an athlete — 36 isn’t that old — but you’re creeping up there, it takes some time to understand where your game is at and to find your way. There is always people biting at your heels and it’s, ‘What have you done for me lately?’”
Jamie McLennan, former Flames netminder and TSN goaltending analyst: “I’m not worried about that. Pekka Rinne won the Vezina at 35-years-old. People talk about the NHL being young. That’s the players and their legs and the speed of the game and all that. I would argue that veteran goaltenders are a lot better now because they can read the play and handle the rigours of the game mentally. In the net, you have to be mentally strong to handle a lot of things. The stresses of the game … You see a lot of young guys that when they’re still learning the craft, it’s a lot tougher to handle the day-to-day rigours of the NHL. The biggest challenge for Mike is the body. You need to be fresh and sharp. When I look at Mike at 36, it’s more about the body holding up. It’s not the talent level. He understands what it takes to play and to be good. But you just have to get there and get into a groove.”
NHL source who wished to remain anonymous: “You can try to beat it but we’re all getting older. You can take care of your body and prepare in the offseason but there is one thing that doesn’t change — we’re all getting older. Goaltenders peak at the age of 27-years-old. Physically, you need to do extra work but something that will catch up eventually is the test of time. The top-end goaltenders have a reaction time of 0.4 or 0.5-seconds. The time they have to analyze a shot combined with the time they move into a shot … the reaction time at age of 36 might be 0.6 or 0.7. His reaction time is slower based on the physiological effects of age.”
*Where is he struggling?
Krahn: “He’s a big man but he’s playing small. To me, he looks like he’s trying too hard. That’s a tough thing to get through. He wants to stop the puck so bad and when you’re playing well, you try the same but you let things come to you. He’s trying to force a better outcome for himself. He wants to be that guy … but he looks like he’s trapped in his own head a little bit. He’s thinking too much.”
McLennan: “Mike is at his best when he’s set on plays and not moving. When he gets moving, that opens up holes and he ends up reaching and a lot of times his balance is off and he’ll end up forward. A lot of that comes from comfort level in the net and getting into a groove and feeling comfortable … I thought he was brilliant in (Calgary’s 3-1 win at) Toronto. He had that pizzazz in his game where he fought for pucks and was good in traffic and looked set in a lot of plays. Hyman thought he’d scored on that tip that didn’t go in. He knew right away, because he was confident. He was like, ‘There’s no way that’s in. I’m on this post.’ That’s what I see when Mike Smith is on his game and when he’s off his game are the details of his movement in the net.”
NHL source: “Because of what we saw at the start of last year, he saved so many games. He was superhuman last year. To my surprise and doubting him for many years, I thought this guy was totally on fire … now, is it just going back to the mean in that it’s a one-year older Mike Smith that isn’t certainly working any miracles like he did last year? The age factor, his preparation in the summertime … there are a lot of things you and I don’t know. Where’s his head at? We can look at things like new defencemen, a new head coach with a different system. You have to be aware with every change in his environment in front of him, it has an impact. In Bill Peters’ new system, you get less shots but the ones you do get are usually ‘Grade A’ Sometimes the system protects the goaltender or sometimes the system exposes the goalies a little bit more. There are things you can assess versus things you cannot.”
*What does his body language say right now?
Krahn: “Every time he makes a save, it’s like he’s relieved. He knows he’s an elite goaltender in this league and he can still play, but it’s a mental game … you can tell he’s really, really hard on himself. You watch his body language and it’s negative. He looks very tense. When you’re a goaltender, you have to be loose and react to plays. He’s tight, he’s fighting, he’s trying so hard. But at the end of the day, he’s not getting the job done.”
McLennan: “What you have to do as a goaltender, especially as a starting goaltender in the league, is to have amnesia. He allows the Silfverberg goal down the wall — you can’t wear that. You could tell he was frustrated. I’m sure at first it flies through and he doesn’t really know, ‘Do I have it?’ ‘Don’t I?’ And then he hears the crowd’s reaction and thinks, ‘OK, I don’t have it.’ I thought his body language was fine … I didn’t dislike his game … but it was one of those nights where your starter needs to give you a chance to win.”
NHL source: “When things were going great last year, he is pretty even-keeled in terms of the visuals of what he does. His experience, if there is any advantage with being 36, he does have the experience that a young guy does not. Mentally, to stay even-keeled and to show the same thing. The water down his back like he does — he did that last year. Last year, he was never too high and never too low. This year is the same thing. I don’t see a difference in his body language after goals or saves compared to last year. That’s his experience that kicks in. But what happens internally in the room … it needs to be built up again. The system also has something to do with the success of a goaltender.”
*How about the goals from Wednesday night? Starting with the first one … Yes, Noah Hanifin was beat by Jakob Silfverberg in the neutral zone to get a breakaway but Smith bobbles the slapshot and it trickles through his pads. What happened?
Krahn: “The first goal goes through him. When you’re a big guy, you have big holes but you also take up a lot of the net. Throughout the season, there has been pucks going through him and that’s a No. 1 sign a goaltender is struggling because he’s in position to make the save but he’s making holes for himself. No matter if it’s deflected or what-not, you never want a puck to go through you. That one’s a stoppable puck, no matter how good the shot is.”
McLennan: “He’s set, but it goes through the hole. People thought it went five-hole but I thought it went through his left arm and dropped down … sometimes you get ahead of yourself and that’s where some of the leaky ones go through. That’s where you’re going to see him clean things up.”
NHL source: “The other thing is the change in equipment. The chest protector that he was probably used to. Those leaky pucks are going through now because of the change in the chest and arm protectors. If you’re used to a certain size of protection, you trust a certain type of shot is not going to go through you and then they change things on you. Well, that plays into your psyche as a goaltender. Guys have been quietly and publicly discussing the changes … you see around the league that more questionable goals are creating more offence.”
*The second goal. A breakdown by the Flames’ forwards off a face-off leads to a Josh Manson shot from the blueline. A scramble in front by the Flames’ defencemen allows Adam Henrique to become open and pot the rebound.
Krahn: “A bad rebound. A shot from the point but it was just a soft (rebound).”
McLennan: “Rebounds are tough because you’re initially worried about making the first save. Then starters are always wondering where they are going to place that puck afterwards, ‘How is my positioning afterwards?’ To nitpick every goal, I can absolutely do it. But he made big save in the second period so you have to off-set that. Can he be better on these plays, absolutely.”
*The third goal comes 27 seconds after Mark Jankowski ties it short-handed in the third period. Backlund had barely stepped out of the penalty box to join the play before Rickard Rakell drags the puck around an out-of-position Rasmus Andersson. Smith makes the initial save, but Ryan Getzlaf scores the game-winner on the rebound.
Krahn: “He ends up on his stomach. He’s a big guy and does not have to chase the puck like that. There wasn’t much room there but he made room. He went down and was leaning forwards. He’s on his knees and he ends up leaning forward. He’s not letting the puck come to him … it’s not how many saves you make, it’s when you make your saves. Doesn’t matter if you win the game 5-4, 7-6, 5-1, there comes a point where the Flames were starting to get some momentum and Anaheim just comes right back. That’s a back-breaker. Whether it’s a broken play or a breakdown or whatever, you have to be that clutch, big-game goaltender. It’s not going to happen all the time but you have to find ways to stop those pucks … there were many mistakes before that (by the team) but at the end of the day, if he makes that save, we’re talking about a different outcome.”
McLennan: “I don’t fault him on that. When I look at the goal as a whole, there’s a lot of factors that go into that … you look at the coverage in front. You need help. I don’t blame him on that at all.”
*How does he get over it?
Krahn: “It’s a reactive position and you can’t go out there and get involved and do anything to get yourself going. The puck is going to come to you and you have to react. He’s good enough to get himself out of this but he can’t get discouraged. He’s super intense and everyone loves how much he cares but he has to find a way to take some of that pressure off … this is nothing he doesn’t know … but he needs to be big and needs to calm down and needs to let pucks come to him.”
McLennan: “I think Mike is as tough an athlete I’ve seen as far as handling the good and the bad. He has a rough outing? He sits there and takes the questions. He gets it. A lot of it is working on the details of his game so it comes down to working with (Flames goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet). The older you get, the more experiences you have. I’m sure he’s had stretches in his career where he’s been brilliant and stretches where he’s wanted to be better. For example, Iggy (Jarome Iginla) would go seven games without a goal. We’re talking, ‘What’s wrong with Iggy? What’s wrong with Iggy?’ He’d find a way to score and get back into the groove. For a goalie in the NHL, Mike Smith can’t work harder in the net. A forward can skate harder, hit harder, shoot harder. A goalie can’t stop the puck harder … to get back into a groove you have to play.”
NHL source: “Puck-handling gives confidence to guys that are good at handling the puck. For him to be going out and making plays, he feels good about his game when he’s able to make those plays … he can use that as a springboard to bounce back.”
*Million dollar question, so what’s next? The Flames play L.A. on Saturday and San Jose on Sunday … who do you start? And what’s the long-term plan moving forward?
Krahn: “Mike Smith has earned enough credit in this league that people know what he can do. They’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt every time until he gets himself going. He’s got enough equity built up in the bank with his coaches and teammates that know what he’s capable of. For me, in my opinion right now, the Flames are fortunate because they’ve been scoring a lot of goals. But I’d be going back and forth — one, then one, then one — just because he’s gotta get himself out of this. Rittich is playing great so you gotta go with the guy that’s hot … then, if Mike Smith really falls off a cliff here it’s going to be Rittich’s net for a bit here. And maybe that’s what Mike Smith needs. He’s a competitive guy and it’ll burn you to have another guy in net. Maybe that’s the motivation he needs.”
McLennan: “My mentality is the Calgary Flames’ success will be on the back of Mike Smith and Rittich. So, you have to have a tandem that can get it done. I believe Mike Smith can get it done and I believe Rittich can give them good minutes. The challenge with Rittich, the jury is out. Can he give you 30 games? If we’re going to play Smith 55 times, you need 27 games from somebody else. Rittich can play 27 games but are they going to be good games. The Flames are a playoff team but they need stability in net and that stems from Mike Smith. So, to me, I circle Mike Smith and say their success hinges on Mike Smith’s game and not David Rittich’s game. You have to get (Smith) to a peak level. And getting him to a peak level is not taking him out of the net and allowing him to work through the bumps and ebbs and flows. When they got wrenched 9-1 by Pittsburgh, I loved how Bill Peters went back to the same roster (vs. Washington). If you would have put Rittich in, now the question marks would have been, ‘There’s no confidence in him.’ It was a junk night from everyone and you allow them to make amends for it. Smith was good against Washington — they lost but it was a coin-flip game. It comes back to him being consistent and being consistent is him playing regularly and feeling good about his game. I go back with him in L.A. and Rittich in San Jose and you hope he has a good weekend and allow these guys do what they’re capable of.”
NHL source: “Last year, the wins were because of Mike Smith and now I think it’s because of different things. When you know your goalie has not been great throughout the game but you find a way to win, Mike Smith is appreciative of what goes on in front of him. I think payback, at some point, where he will shut the door will come soon enough. He was spectacular in Nashville, for example, like he was last year, but he just needs to rekindle those feelings and allow time to help the chemistry of the team … he has been very, very good for a large amount of years. Obviously Bill Peters is trying not to have a goalie controversy and delaying it as long as he can for Mike Smith to find his game, and, ultimately, not at the expense of the whole team. Results matter. You’re in a winning business. He just needs time to figure out to clearly see how the game is being played differently in front of him and how he can be part of the solution.”
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