Saturday, June 17, 2017

Examining the Smith Trade: Eight Points to Ponder Before Passing Final Judgment

In a city that does love its hockey Mike's, you can add yet another.

Although based on the initial reaction, this one has a lot of work to do to build up the same fan adoration that exists for the other three.

It took up until nearly the 11th hour but Flames general manager Brad Treliving finally found a name to scribble into that vacant slot at goaltender before submitting his protected list to the league office today in advance of the Vegas expansion draft.

Joining Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Micheal Ferland is goaltender Mike Smith.

Nope, that's certainly not the sexy name the residents of Flames nation were hoping for. Far from it.

Poaching from his old organization once again, Treliving acquired Smith in exchange for college defenceman Brandon Hickey, a conditional third round pick in 2018 (that converts to a second rounder should Calgary make the playoffs) and the rights to pending UFA Chad Johnson.

Regarding the latter, trading away Smith left Arizona with only one goaltender (Louis Domingue) and two spots to fill prior to the expansion draft. Per expansion rules, all teams must expose at least one goaltender that meets the stipulated exposure criteria, as well as protect one goaltender. Adding Johnson quite possibly was nothing more than a paper move to help the Coyotes meet that requirement. Johnson is a pending free agent on July 1 and could still end up signing back in Calgary.

To describe the fan reaction to the trade as lukewarm would be a gross overstatement. Based on what I observed on social media, many fans were outraged at the acquisition.

The sky falls a lot when you're a passionately invested fan of any sports team and in this market, fans love their Flames.

In hopes of shortening the lines at all the walk-in clinics and urgent care centres around town, here's a closer look at eight angles to the deal. Perhaps after taking a deep breath, taking a step back, and taking some of these points under consideration, the need for medical attention will subside.

Eight Points to Ponder:

1. Surprisingly Solid Save Percentage

Those that dabble in advance stats will often quote even-strength save percentage as a more fair way of comparing goaltenders.

To quote Rob Vollman from his book Stat Shot, "Power-play opportunities are so dangerous that even a short hot or cold streak can have a disproportionate impact on a goalie's year-end save percentage."

Over the last two seasons, 52 goalies have made 40-or-more NHL starts. On that list, Smith ranks 11th, which is around the 21st percentile. That's actually pretty good. Here's a look at the top dozen along with other notables.

Even-Strength SV% (2015-16 thru 2016-17)

1. Carey Price, .935
2. James Reimer, .934
3. Matt Murray, .933
4. Braden Holtby, .931
5. Craig Anderson, .931
6. Corey Crawford, .931
7. Sergei Bobrovsky, .930
8. Devan Dubnyk, .930
9. Antti Raanta, .929
10. Jonathan Quick, .927
11. Mike Smith, .927
12. Henrik Lundqvist, .927

Other than how high on the list James Reimer is, those are some of the best at the position. Here are some other household names that fall behind Smith.

14. Cory Schneider, .926
15. Ben Bishop, .926
19. Brian Elliott, .925
22. Frederik Andersen, .924
24. Cam Talbot, .924
25. John Gibson, .924
29. Marc-Andre Fleury, .923
31. Chad Johnson, .923
33. Pekka Rinne, .922
34. Tuukka Rask, .922
37. Martin Jones, .921

The Justified Asterisk

If you look at Smith's career statistics, the worst of his six seasons in Arizona was three years ago in 2014-15. As a refresher though, that was the year Arizona went a pitiful 24-50-8 for only 56 points. In the last 15 years, only three teams have compiled worse records:
  • 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres, 21-51-10, 42 pts
  • 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche, 22-56-4, 48 pts
  • 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres, 23-51-8, 54 pts
I mention this because when you play goal for one of the worst teams in recent NHL history, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that your stats are going to suffer. Anybody quoting historical stats for Smith that covers a body of work of three or more years is going to have numbers that are weighed down by that one particularly disastrous season.

I have no idea how much it impacts it overall but it's definitely something to keep in mind. You know that on that woeful team he would have been facing far more high-danger chances than most goalies. 

2. Dragged Down by the Coyotes Defence

Further to the above point, while I'd take Oliver Ekman-Larsson on my team any day, the list of defensively strong Coyotes defencemen is rather short. Alex Goligoski put up decent numbers offensively as No. 2 in blueline minutes but his strengths are more in the attacking zone.

Now you're into guys like Connor Murphy, Luke Schenn and Michael Stone, who admitted when he was rescued by Calgary that he was having an off-season. Rounding out the group are raw kids like Anthony DeAngelo and Jakob Chychrun.
Further compounding the overall weak Coyotes blueline was the team's inexperience and lack of depth at centre, which is typically the next most important position defensively when it comes to stifling dangerous chances from the slot. Other than Martin Hanzal's 51 games, the next two most relied-upon pivots were rookie Christian Dvorak and sophomore Jordan Martinook. Add to that a host of fourth line spare parts like Josh Jooris, Brad Richardson only played 16 games and Alex Burmistrov who only appeared in 26 games after coming over from Winnipeg.
While Calgary's been no defensive juggernaut either the last couple years, the talent level overall that Smith gets to play behind now will comparably be much higher. It's safe to say the Flames top four will be much better, even without knowing the identity of who will play with TJ Brodie. Calgary's obviously much deeper up the middle also with Mikael Backlund leading the way, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and veteran Matt Stajan.

It will be both a refreshing change for Smith and also be a better situation to succeed.

3. Manageable Money

With Arizona retaining 25 percent, that whittles Smith's annual average value down to $4.25 million. It's not cheap but it's less than what they paid Jonas Hiller when Calgary brought him in three years ago.

Based on last year's goaltender cap hits, that AAV for a goalie would rank 22nd in the league, placing Smith in the lower-third income bracket of NHL starters.
For a guy whose recent play ranks him well inside the upper third of the league in terms of EV SV%, paying him a salary consistent with what the lower third are earning is a fiscally sound equation.

Plus, with the salary cap increasing, that means Treliving should have money left over to address other shortcomings such as rounding out that aforementioned top four D.

4. Short Term is the Best Term

While longer term with the right player -- someone younger that could be a long-term piece -- would have been welcomed, two years of term has all along been viewed as the ideal fit because don't forget, Treliving is also standing 5 feet and 8 inches away from a dart board and is still holding three fine-looking darts in his hand.

Tyler Parsons, David Rittich and Jon Gillies are all in the Flames pipeline and that's who Smith is bridging the gap too.

While Calgary's history of developing goaltenders is pretty poor, when you've got three young men being groomed simultaneously, the odds that you hit the bullseye on at least one are far greater than if you only had just one, which has often been the case in the past.

Here's a snapshot of where all three should be at in their careers when Smith's contract expires:

Tyler Parsons

By then will have two years of AHL/ECHL hockey under his belt, assuming he turns pro this fall as is expected. For comparison, fellow OHL graduate Matt Murray was late in his second pro season when he got called up to Pittsburgh late last season and led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. So could he be ready that quickly? I wouldn't call it likely but it's certainly possible.

David Rittich

Turning 25 this August, he's truly the international man of mystery here. Came over from the Czech Republic advertised as "raw" and proceeded to outplay Gillies in chalking up a .925 SV% and five shutouts in his first season. The Flames may have something here. Two years from now, he'll have three years in North America on the resume and you never know, that might include one season in the NHL. Time will tell.

Jon Gillies

By the summer of 2019, will have three-plus seasons of AHL experience under his belt. Considering he had season-ending surgery just a month into last season, he's only amassed just over one year so far. For college grads that ascend to the NHL, three full AHL seasons is usually the sweet spot.

Here's a look at NCAA grads in the NHL today. I've included the round they were drafted, how many years of college they played and how many games/seasons in the minors they played. Jonathan Quick got to the NHL the fastest but as you'll see, his path was more the anomaly.
  • Jon Gillies (3rd round, 3 years) - 1.25 seasons and 46 gm in AHL
  • Jonathan Quick (3rd round, 2 years) - 1.5 seasons and 71 gm in ECHL/AHL
  • Connor Hellebuyck (5th round, 2 years) - 1.5 seasons and 88 gm in AHL
  • Cam Talbot (FA, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 118 gm in ECHL/AHL
  • Cory Schneider (1st round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 136 gm in AHL
  • Scott Darling (6th round, 2 years) - 5.5 seasons and 158 gm in SPHL/ECHL/AHL
  • Ben Bishop (3rd round, 3 years) - 4 seasons and 165 gm in AHL
  • Chad Johnson (5th round, 4 years) - 4 seasons and 170 gm in AHL
  • Ryan Miller (5th round, 3 years) - 3 seasons and 172 gm in AHL
  • Jimmy Howard (2nd round, 3 years) - 4 seasons and 186 gm in AHL

So if you're those three kids, you're excited today that the starter's job is still right there in waiting for them. They won't threaten for it this fall but by next season, you never know.

If Gillies or Rittich busts onto the scene as early as next year, there are lots of options of what to do with Smith. You can move him, or keep him around as an experienced back-up.

Smith's addition buys more time for these prospects to develop properly while not blocking their path whenever the first one is ready.

5. Affordable Acquisition Cost

I'm not going to tell you he came cheap. But if he backstops Calgary into a playoff spot, a second round pick (although late second round) is a price many GMs would be willing to pay to bring in a No. 1 goaltender and then get a chance to be in the post-season party. Remember what Nashville did coming out of the No. 8 spot in the West. You just never know.

Let's not forget that the names thrown around in goalie rumours the last month included Sam Bennett. Heck, I proposed in this piece earlier in the week that it could take surrendering Gillies to bring in a potential No. 1 goaltender in waiting. Instead, both of those players remain.

The only prospect they parted with was Brandon Hickey, who is an interesting situation as they might well have lost him for nothing next summer anyway.

Hickey was a third round pick in 2014 whose value rose initially. But where he slotted in comparison to the likes of fellow D prospects Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington and Adam Fox was subject to debate. I've heard whispers that some within the Flames front office weren't as high on him as they once were.

In returning to Boston University for a final season, the Flames faced the very real possibility of losing Hickey for nothing if not signed next summer before Aug. 15.

Knowing that Calgary badly wanted to sign him this off-season but couldn't get it done, it's not a reach to suggest next year with no more leverage and unrestricted free agency just a few months away, it would not have gotten done either.

6. What to Make of a Goalie's Age

Smith is older, for sure. But he's a goalie, they're always older.

Smith just turned 35 so he'll be 36 during the final season of his deal. Looking to put his age into context, here are some names you'll know.

Older than him:
  • Ryan Miller
  • Craig Anderson
  • Henrik Lundqvist

Younger but within a year:
  • Pekka Rinne

For local context, Smith will be a little bit younger in his final year than Kiprusoff was in his final season with Calgary.

I don't think anyone is claiming he's going to be lights-out for the next several years but Calgary only cares about the next two years, or even less should Gillies, Rittich or Parsons ascend to the starter's job sooner.

7. He's an Established No. 1

I've seen some referring to Smith as just another Elliott. Well, not really.

One not insignificant difference is Smith has proven he can shoulder the workload of a No.1 goaltender. This is something Elliott has never proven.

Did Elliott have an extended stretch of excellent play last year? Absolutely, he won 11 straight at one point. But he started poorly and things didn't finish well. Two good months in the middle doesn't make you a proven starter.

Elliott has started more than 50 games in a season only once and that was seven years ago with Ottawa when he made 51 starts. That year he had an abysmal .893 save percentage so he didn't prove he could be that guy that season either.

On the other hand, workload has never been an issue for Smith. Known as an excellent all-round athlete who keeps himself in great condition, he has started 55-plus games in four of the last six seasons.

Let's not forget about the acquisition price of re-signing Elliott also. That would have cost Calgary a third round pick (sent to St. Louis, a condition in his trade to Calgary). In the end, the net cost for Smith could end up being the same as it would have been for Elliott.

8. The Great Mystery: Who Rounds out the Tandem?

It's still too early to truly assess the Flames goaltending situation as we only know half of the equation.While Smith has been the name in the spotlight today and for good reason, we still don't know the identity of who will sit in the other chair.

Despite being included in the trade to Arizona, it could very well still be Johnson, although you wonder what other irons Treliving might have in the fire.

Via Vegas, perhaps a Philipp Grubauer is in play. Or Calvin Pickard from the Avs. It's still too early to rule out Antti Raanta as an option too, although it sure looks from afar like the Rangers are positioning themselves to try and not lose him.

Smith has had some lower body injury issues over the years so whoever they bring in to back up might get more of the workload than initially expected. But this won't come as news to Treliving, who knows Smith well. I'm sure that is a consideration as the search for the No. 2 continues.

As well, Smith's injury history suggests that Gillies or Rittich might get some periodic NHL looks sooner than later too, which wouldn't be the worst thing for their overall development.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


Recent Flames Reading:


  1. So the Flames gave away an unsigned prospect in Hickey who I think they had lost interest in him anyway. If they had resigned Elliot, they would owe St Louis a 3rd pick, so almost a wash, unless upgraded to a 2nd to ARZ. All in all not a bad deal.

    1. Pretty much nailed it. Not sure what happened with Hickey but by not signing when Calgary wanted him to, that should send up the red flags. When Jankowski went back for his senior year, he wanted to sign but it was Calgary that insisted he go back to school for one more year and then sign after that. This was the opposite and speaks to the player's desire to not be with Calgary. Perhaps he just felt with Andersson, Kylington and Fox that the competition was too stiff for his ETA. Or, perhaps just bad player agent advice (or 'player advisor' as he's still in college) as that happens.

      Add it all up and the price does appear to be minimal.

  2. Darren: Thanks for the thoughts; you answered my question from your last post. My question is What are your thoughts on Condon as a backup? A FA who should be relatively inexpensive who has shouldered the load as an emergency starter the last two years for different teams.


    1. I think the team really likes Johnson so that's what I'm expecting but if Johnson sees opportunity elsewhere, this type of fit would be fine for Condon. Expecting to play 25 games, but could start 40 if Smith gets injured, that sort of thing.

  3. Eight good reasons. Since I already posted a much shorter response on another site saying basically the same thing, I think this must be one of the rare occasions when I am right -I think you do a great job of analyzing the Flames and I'm happy when I find myself thinking the same thing you do. Keep writing, I love your blog.

    1. They say great minds think alike. As for our explanation though? I have no idea. :-)

  4. My initial reaction was similar to that of many -- quite negative. But sober second thought and reading some good analysis such as yours above has me now thinking that it makes a lot of sense. I think Parsons is the next Kipper (or Jonathan Quick as a better comparison to his style) and Smith will be a solid bridge to him. As you noted, this sends the right message to him, Rittich and Gillies, which is very important.

    1. But this team would love one of those three prospects to be the goaltending answer of the future and play 8-10 years here, grow with the team, be one of the faces of the franchise. Will be interesting to watch them this year as they try to climb the ladder as all three got a great message Saturday that there is a job here and Mike Smith is just keeping the seat warm for whoever earns it.

  5. Good read. Ty

  6. Good write up D. I get tears in my eyes thinking of how good next season will be.


    1. I went thru half a box of tissues from the range of emotions that overwhelmed me after reading this dripping-in-sincerity comment!

  7. Does Smith allow Calgary to bring up Gilles or Rittch as back ups, similar to what Vancouver did with Luongo and Schneider. I don't think it does, if Treliving plans on getting a Quality back up like (Rantaa, Condon, Grubauer, or Pickard) a proven back up whose capable of playing 25-35 games a year(and perhaps stepping in as the result of injury) Someone who might be capable of becoming a number 1 but as yet is unproven then getting Smith works, 2 years is a manageable term.
    But we still have 3 highly rated goalie prospects all of which are playing in Stockton next year. Not enough nets for all of them, what do the Flames do?

    1. I fully expect a back-up goaltender to be coming in from elsewhere. Highly doubt they entrust that role to the current prospects who are coming along but not ready for that yet.

      As for where to play the prospects, it's no issue. My guess as of today is same duo of Gillies and Rittich in the AHL and with Parsons the No. 1 guy in ECHL.

      I suspect they might try to unload McDonald. Won't get much, but that would free up some playing time. Just a guess though.

  8. Darren, do you think There's a scenario where the Flames offer Vegas the first round pick for a defenseman and a goalie that Vegas picks up during the expansion draft? It would mean 2 roster ready players for the Flames and a high prospect draft pick for Vegas

    1. If I'm George McPhee, I'm not bundling guys. I'm selling off the extra assets individually to maximize overall return. Talked about the draft pick situation over the weekend in a #FF80F podcast just posted today. In short, I can't see them moving it given they're already without a second and third round pick. Thanks for the note.