The Calgary Flames grabbed the headlines in the hours leading up to the NHL’s transaction freeze for the Vegas Golden Knights’ Expansion Draft, acquiring Mike Smith from the Arizona Coyotes. It’s a deal that supposed to finally deliver the Flames that elusive No. 1 netminder, but just sort of looks like management is crossing its fingers after previous failed attempts to solidify the most important position on the roster.
Smith, 35, has not lived up to expectations in each of the first four seasons on his current six-year $34-million contract. It’s a deal he signed a little over one year after posting an outlying .930 save percentage and leading the Coyotes to the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But in the half decade since, Smith ranks 20th among 23 netminders who made at least 200 starts with a subverting .912 save percentage.
His baseline performance shouldn’t inspire confidence. But the Flames are banking on Smith’s numbers being reflective of Arizona’s beleaguered team defense – one that has routinely exposed its netminders – not his capabilities in the twilight of his career.
Smith will have better shelter. In Calgary, he’ll anchor one of the league’s most talented defenses, led by Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie. But greater support carries no promise of success. The Flames thought they had a goaltender that would shine behind that back line last season when they acquired Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues on draft weekend. Elliott was coming off a .930 season and had led the Blues into the third round at the time of his acquisition, but could never recover from a miserable start to his tenure with the Flames and saw his numbers plummet to .910.
By making this deal now, knowing the Golden Knights could end up with a surplus of tradable netminders, Flames general manager Brad Treliving has to believe that Smith won’t simply perform, but thrive under better circumstances. Because while on the surface it seems like a heedless decision, and makes you wonder if the Flames really had better than a haphazard plan to fix their problem in goal, there’s actually a strong familiarity with Smith inside the organization. Treliving was a member of Don Maloney’s staff when the former Coyotes general manager signed Smith to his current deal, which now has two years remaining.
Smith did not cost a bounty to acquire; Arizona dealt its No. 1 netminder for defensive prospect Brandon Hickey, a conditional third-round selection and an unrestricted free agent backup in Chad Johnson. But when you factor in the assets lost in last year’s failed investment in Elliott, the Flames have sunk a total of three high draft picks into their pursuit of a capable goaltender, and, while seeming to lack any semblance of organization, are now turning to one who’s more expensive, has been unable to attain a league-average standard, and battled the injury bug.
The Coyotes have agreed to shoulder 25 percent of Smith’s total cost – which is $3 million more than Elliott worked for last year – dropping his cap hit to a manageable $4.25 million, but that’s still more than Calgary’s tandem from a season ago.
Smith doesn’t have to be a top-10 netminder for the Flames to have success next season; they qualified for the postseason when ranking in the bottom 10 in total goaltending. But in this expansion summer, it’s hard to imagine that a cheaper, lower-risk option with more upside wasn’t available.
It’s been a half decade since Miikka Kiprusoff’s last full season, which happens to coincide with Smith’s fourth-place finish in Vezina Trophy voting.
It’s been mediocrity since for both the Flames and Smith, whose difficulties became entwined with Calgary’s curious decision in goal.
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