For four weeks, Chad Johnson was truly living his dream.
In a well-documented stretch from November 15 through December 10 that was acknowledged by everyone associated with the organization as having saved Calgary's season, Johnson started 13 of 15 games and went 11-2-0 with a league-best .946 save percentage.
This was absolutely perfect for Johnson.
Here he was, playing in his hometown and being hailed as the man, as Calgary scratched and clawed its way back into the playoff race and out of that cavernous hole they had dug by being the NHL's worst club in the opening month.
But after back-to-back four-goal-against losses opened up the door again for Brian Elliott, the two split playing time over the next 5-6 weeks.
Start of the Downwards Spiral
The good start to the season for Johnson began to unravel on Jan. 19. First, there was four goals against on 21 shots in a home-ice loss to Nashville. Two nights later on an intense Saturday night at the Saddledome, he surrendered three goals on four shots and was promptly pulled less than six minutes into an ugly loss to the rival Edmonton Oilers.
Playing time was hard to come by after that and when his intermittent starts came, he didn't seize the moment. From Jan. 19 through the end of the regular season, Johnson won only two of nine starts -- both on the road -- and his .856 save percentage was worst in the league.
With Mike Smith brought in from Arizona to be the undisputed No. 1, it appears the vagabond-like Johnson will once again be spending his off-season in search of a new opportunity, one in which more playing time could be had.
Hearing free-agent goalie Chad Johnson very likely returning to the #sabres— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) June 28, 2017
It was with Buffalo two years ago where Johnson made a career-high 40 starts. Robin Lehner is expected to be the Sabres starter but it's a team familiar with Johnson, who fashioned a .920 save percentage in his one season there.
Still technically Arizona property until July 1 (thanks to the Smith trade in which the Coyotes needed Johnson in return to have a goalie to protect per expansion draft requirements), we won't learn anything for certain for a couple days yet. But assuming Johnson is on the move once again, who does that leave for back-up options for general manager Brad Treliving?
Six names to consider are listed below. But first, what does Calgary have in Smith? I asked Treliving that question on Monday when the Flames new goaltender was introduced to the media.
What Smith Gives the Flames
"We looked at all different options," said Treliving. "It's having that guy that has been there and done that. We know he's 35 but the one thing with Mike is he's a specimen. He looks after himself and it's not like he's been playing 60 games since he was 19 or 20 and came into the league, he was a late starter."
It's true. Smith started his career playing two seasons with Dallas before spending the next three-plus years in Tampa Bay. It wasn't until he arrived in Arizona at age 29 that he started shouldering the workload of a true No. 1. Prior to that point, he had never started more than 40 games in a season and only three times had started more than 20.
"There's a mindset that No. 1 guys have," the Flames GM continued. "It's a hard position. Having to do it everyday. Some days it doesn't go great and the pressure that comes with it. Having to deal with that No. 1 mentality is a different thing too and he's done that. He's been there and done that."
Now it's about finding the right guy to pair with him. You hope it's for only 20-25 games as Smith has started 55-plus games in four of the last six seasons (and 60-plus in three of them). However, injuries happen and two years ago, for example, he was limited to 32 starts.
"Having that guy that you can roll out there every night is important," says Treliving. "But I also think that today's game, the way the schedules have gotten jammed, the crampedness, even in a non-Olympic or non-World Cup year, we're still looking at how do we best complement Mike."
Six Back-up Goalie Candidates
In no particular order, here are six goaltenders who might be considerations for the back-up role in Calgary.
1. Eddie Lack, Carolina
Contract Situation: 1 year left on 2Y/$5.5M deal ($2.75M AAV)
2016-17: 18 starts, 8-7-3, 2.64 GAA, .902 SV%
Why Available: The move from Vancouver to Carolina hasn't gone well. In his two seasons with the Hurricanes, his .902 save percentage ranks him 51st out of 52 goalies with 40-or-more starts. With the acquisition of Scott Darling this summer, no longer is he viewed as Cam Ward's successor and instead he's on the outs with a Darling-Ward tandem likely the plan. Acquisition price would be minimal if anything at all. One even wonders if this is an opportunity for Calgary to move out a contract such as Lance Bouma's $2.2 million and open up a 4th line role for a prospect like Garnet Hathaway.
Reason for Interest: Once a highly regarded prospect, Lack was solid in his two seasons with Vancouver, which came with Flames coach Glen Gulutzan an assistant coach on the Canucks. His .917 save percentage in 72 starts from 2013 to 2015 ranked him 20th of 47 goaltenders with 40-or-more starts over that span. Not only is Lack available, Carolina is nowhere near the salary cap ceiling and is in a position to eat some of his $2.75M salary, which they will surely have to do (CBA permits them to pay as much as half) in order to move him.
Reason to be Cautious: Which is the real Lack? The Vancouver version or the Carolina version? These last two seasons haven't painted a very pretty picture and one wonders if Calgary feels they could trust the quirky Swede. In carving him up last March (see clip below), exasperated Canes coach Bill Peters was certainly at wit's end.
2. Philipp Grubauer, Washington
Contract Situation: RFA. Just completed 2Y/$1.5M deal (750,000 AAV)
2016-17: 19 starts, 13-6-2, 2.04 GAA, .926 SV%
Why Available: Prospect Pheonix Copley, 25, re-acquired in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade, just signed a two-year deal. Coming off an excellent season in the AHL, he appears to be NHL-ready. With Grubauer in need of a new deal, the arbitration-eligible pending RFA is set for a raise and how much does the cap-crunched Caps want to pay a Braden Holtby back-up.
Reason for Interest: He's young, he's put up solid numbers in his 51 career NHL starts (.923 SV%) and it would give the Flames yet another potential goaltender of the future.
Reason to be Cautious: He will likely be expensive to acquire. With Copley not waiver-eligible until 2018-19, Washington does not need to move on from Grubauer right now and they will be quite content to bring him back -- and it sounds like that's their plan -- unless they get an offer they can't refuse. In particular, having lost Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft and with pending UFA Karl Alzner likely not returning, the Caps are seeking a top-four defenceman and Calgary's not a compatible trade partner in that regard.
3. Anders Nilsson, Buffalo
Contract Situation: UFA. Just completed 1Y/$1M deal
2016-17: 23 starts, 10-10-4, 2.67 GAA, .923 SV%
Why Available: A pending UFA on July 1, the towering 6-foot-6 Nilsson will be looking to join his fifth NHL organization since being drafted by the Islanders in the third round in 2009. The Swede has also made stops with Edmonton, St. Louis and last year he played in Buffalo.
Reason for Interest: He's still relatively young, he's coming off his best season statistically -- albeit a small sample size -- and as a free agent, there would be no acquisition cost. The latter is a good thing for the draft pick-deprived Flames. In addition to last season, two years ago when he went to the KHL for a season, he turned in a .936 save percentage with the Kazan Ak-Bars.
Reason to be Cautious: There's always a red flag when over a four-year span, a player has been with four different organizations and also spent a season in the KHL. Would there be enough trust in Nilsson to bring him in to back-up Smith, a responsibility that could mean 30-or-more starts if Smith gets injured again? Also, prior to last season, he had underwhelmed. From 2011-12 to 2015-16, Nilsson's .900 save percentage ranked him 74th out of 78 goalies with 40-or-more starts.
4. Jonathan Bernier, Anaheim
Contract Situation: UFA. Just completed 2Y/$8.3M deal ($4.15M AAV)
2016-17: 33 starts, 21-7-4, 2.50 GAA, .915 SV%
Why Available: A pending UFA on July 1, who is stuck behind John Gibson in Anaheim, Bernier will likely be looking to find a new situation. He should not command anywhere near what his last deal was worth at over $4 million. For a reduced price, would he be willing to sign for a couple years to bridge the gap to the prospects in the Flames system.
Reason for Interest: Bernier will likely never justify being selected 11th overall by Los Angeles in the 2006 draft, but he's coming off a solid year. Taking over for Gibson for the final month last season when the Ducks starter got hurt, Bernier went 11-0-2 from March 7 through the end of the year and was instrumental in them winning a fifth straight Pacific Division title. He's proven he can be a decent back-up with an ability to be the No. 1 if injuries strike..
Reason to be Cautious: How much money might Bernier be looking for and is it prohibitive. With better back-up situations out there (e.g. Philadelphia) in which he would be looking at more playing time and a better shot at taking over as the No. 1, he might price himself out of Calgary's back-up goalie budget. Plus, after a great season in Toronto in 2013-14, the last two were mediocre so you wonder to some degree what you would get with Bernier.
5. Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey
Contract Situation: UFA. Just completed a 2Y/$1.45M deal ($725K AAV)
2016-17: 23 starts, 8-13-3, 2.64 GAA, .916 SV%
Note: Kinkaid has signed with NJ and is no longer available.
G Keith Kinkaid re-signs with the @NJDevils for 2 years, $2.5 million. It's a $1.25M cap hit. He'll get $1.2M in 17-18 and $1.3M in 18-19.— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) June 29, 2017
6. David Rittich, Calgary
Contract Situation: RFA. Just completed his one-year ELC.
2016-17: 31 games (AHL), 15-11-1, 2.27 GAA, .924 SV%
Why Available: Rittich is already in the Flames system. After a couple seasons playing in the main Czech league, Calgary signed him as a free agent last spring and brought him over to North America. In splitting time with Jon Gillies in Stockton, Rittich posted the better numbers. He ranked second among rookies in goals-against and save percentage and was tied for second overall with five shutouts.
Reason for Interest: He was very good most of last season in coming in and stealing playing time away from Gillies. Over the last two-thirds of the year, it was basically a 50-50 split in playing time between the two and in the playoffs, Rittich also shone in starting games 3-5 of the Heat's heartbreaking five-game opening round loss to San Jose. With Gillies just one year removed from major hip surgery, Rittich is considered the most ready right now of the team's internal options.
Reason to be Cautious: When he was signed, Rittich came advertised as raw but with high potential. Given his upside and the possibility he might very well be the prospect that is ready for the NHL next, the best move for his development after only making 29 starts last season would be more playing time in the AHL rather than sitting on the bench as a back-up in Calgary. Sure, he was great some nights but on other nights was not so great. Treliving has hinted this off-season that he feels the best place for all of the Flames young goaltenders would be in the minors where they can continue to get regular playing time, work on their consistency and build up experience.
I know that plan 'A' has always been to have two established NHL veterans as Calgary's two goaltenders for this season. The organization is excited about what their reserve list looks like at that position with Rittich, Gillies and Tyler Parsons, who should turn pro this fall, but none of them are ready yet for full-time NHL employment.
One suggestion has been to rotate Rittich and Gillies so they can play in the AHL when they're not sitting on the bench in the NHL, but that doesn't change the fact that Calgary will need its No. 2 goaltender to play 20-25 games minimum and possibly more if an aging Smith ends up on the IR at some point, something you have to factor in when you're talking about a goalie of his age.
As I'm sure you've noticed, this has been a city that has been very hard on its goaltending ever since Miikka Kiprusoff exited town four years ago. Playing in a hockey-rabid Canadian market is difficult enough, the level of scrutiny on that particular position is that much more. It is a lot of pressure to heap upon a young prospect and not something you want to subject them to that until you know they're ready. Otherwise, you could really do long-term harm.
With Calgary arming up this summer with the addition of Travis Hamonic on the blueline, this is an indication that the Flames see themselves as a team that can make noise this season and be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. I'm not convinced, an untested, not-yet-ready prospect as the team's back-up is a path Treliving will feel comfortable going down.
#Flames GM Brad Treliving went to Chicago searching for a top-4 D. He found two instead. One for now, one for later. https://t.co/5pYLL12CQk pic.twitter.com/EHhnYdRPUx— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) June 24, 2017
Now there are other goaltenders available beyond the names listed. Veterans available include Ryan Miller and Steve Mason, but this role probably isn't what they would be seeking. There are also other options like Darcy Kuemper, Antti Niemi or Ondrej Pavelec but like most of the guys listed above, each of these choices certainly do come with their own warts.
Who will emerge? Who knows, but we should find out soon. Potentially the back-up goaltender's identity will be learned within the next 48 hours with the annual free agent frenzy officially arriving at 10 a.m. MT on Saturday, July 1.
Heck, maybe it will still be Johnson.
For my money, bringing back Johnson would still be the option that tops all of the others in terms of experience, potential, personality fit and acquisition cost.
But if Johnson has decided he wants to move on, or the club has decided to move on from him, then it could very well come down to the best of the rest.
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:
- Six-Year-Plan: Two New Additions Bolster Flames Defensive Corp Now and for Later - Brad Treliving went to Chicago looking for a top-four defenceman. Instead, he came home with two of them. A look at how Calgary's D stacks up now and in the future. (June 24, 2017)
- Examining the Smith Deal: Eight Points to Ponder Before Passing Final Judgment - There was much anger when the Smith trade was announced, but was it warranted? Upon sober second thought, it could be argued that the Smith deal was an ideal move. (June 17, 2017)
- Protection List Priorities: Hurt Feelings Should be the Least of Treliving's Concerrns - Hockey is a business and it needs to be operated that way. Last year Troy Brouwer took advantage with a big pay day. Now it's time he's exposed to the other side. (June 17, 2017)