Over the past several seasons, beginning with Miikka Kiprusoff’s decline in the Calgary crease, the Flames have had difficulties shoring up their goaltending situation and “all-star” would have been one of the last descriptors given to any netminder who has donned the Flaming C in recent years. That ends now, though, because as of Wednesday that’s exactly what goaltender Mike Smith is: an NHL all-star.
With the announcement Wednesday that Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick is battling a minor injury and will skip all-star weekend in Tampa Bay, the NHL has called upon the Flames’ starting netminder to take the vacated spot on the Pacific Division squad. And while some may view Smith’s inclusion on the club as the league simply picking the next available netminder, the reality is that his play this season, and especially over the past two months, has more than warranted the selection. In fact, if these selections were based entirely on merit, Smith would have been part of the roster all along.
Though the past several seasons haven’t been all that kind to Smith, who was the No. 1 for the lowly Coyotes franchise before a summer trade sent him to Calgary, this season has seen the veteran netminder recapture his former form. A Vezina Trophy contender who sported a .930 save percentage, 2.21 goals-against average and eight shutouts in Arizona in 2011-12, Smith’s play since has left much to be desired. Lay the blame on the Coyotes’ overall performance if you will, but Smith’s .912 SP across the past five campaigns put him among the worst starters in the NHL across that span. But Smith has been so good for the Flames, so consistent on a nightly basis, that it wouldn’t be far off to suggest that this, not the 2011-12 campaign, has been the best season of his career.
In Calgary this season, Smith has seen action in 41 games and been as good or better than some of the league’s top netminders, including current Vezina frontrunners such as Andrei Vasilevskiy, Connor Hellebuyck, Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne. Of goaltenders to see at least 20 games this season, only Vasilevskiy, Carter Hutton and Corey Crawford have posted SP figures better than Smith’s .926 mark, and Smith’s 2.39 GAA is the seventh-best total in the league. That’s all the more impressive given Smith’s workload. Only Henrik Lundqvist and Frederik Andersen have seen more rubber this season.
It’s not as though some early season heroics pumped up Smith’s numbers, either. Rather, it’s been his play across the past two months, and more specifically the past three weeks, that has bolstered an already stellar campaign. Since the start of December, over which time Smith has played 19 games, only Lundqvist and Rask have bested Smith’s .927 SP, and the only netminder better than Smith since Jan. 4 is Jonathan Bernier, who boasts a .958 SP to Smith’s .947 mark. Unsurprisingly, he was named one of the league’s three stars of the week in mid-January and Smith has been the driving force behind a run of play that has seen Calgary get back into a playoff position with points in each of their past 10 games.
Smith isn’t the only replacement at the all-star game, however, as the NHL has also decided to tab the Lightning’s Brayden Point to fill in for the injured Victor Hedman. And while the Smith appointment makes a world of sense, it’s hard to make heads or tails of the league’s reasoning behind sending Point.
Statistically, of course, Point’s incorporation into the Atlantic Division roster is merited. He’s tied for seventh in the division with 19 goals and tied for eighth with 43 points, and he’s become a key cog for a Lightning team that is leading the Eastern Conference and hosting the all-star festivities. In that sense, it’s not hard to understand the NHL’s reasoning. But there are a few reasons why the decision makes no sense.
First and foremost, Hedman’s injury opens up a spot for another defenseman to be added to the contest, which most believed would make way for another one of the division’s high-scoring rearguards to fill his place. And if the NHL wanted to make a Bolt-for-Bolt swap to replace Hedman, there appeared a readymade option in rookie standout Mikhail Sergachev, who is fifth in scoring among Atlantic defensemen with eight goals and 27 points. Even Torey from the white-hot Boston Bruins, Jake Gardiner from the Toronto Maple Leafs or Keith Yandle from the neighboring Florida Panthers would have made sense as a replacement.
That brings us to the second reason the decision is strange. While, yes, Point is deserving given his numbers and it’s good for the hometown team to have some representation, the Lightning already had three others participating in the weekend in Vasilevskiy, division captain Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Why not pass off the second spot to another top team’s skaters? The Bruins, in particular, have been good enough to warrant a second player. If not Krug, maybe Patrice Bergeron or David Pastrnak could have filled the spot. And — the third reason Point’s inclusion is a bit bizarre — while many were of the belief another one of Boston’s top-line forwards replacing Hedman was out of the question, that clearly wasn’t the case with Point, a forward, filling in for the star defender. There would have been no quibbles with Pastrnak, who has more points, or Bergeron, a legitimate Selke and possibly even Hart Trophy candidate, taking the spot if it was open to forwards. Granted, one or both may have turned down the league, but there are other forwards — Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Stone, Vincent Trocheck among them — who could have been brought in to spread out the divisional representation.
But one final thing that stands out about Point’s selection is that it feels like there was a potential missed opportunity — and we say potential because, like others, Dylan Larkin may have been asked and turned down the invite. Larkin, the Detroit Red Wings leading scorer, won’t be at the event this season with the team instead sending blueliner Mike Green. And while Green has earned his spot, it seems a shame that we won’t now be given the opportunity to see Larkin, the fastest skater record holder, go head-to-head with Connor McDavid, who some believe is the rightful record holder in the full-lap skate. There was a touch of controversy with some believing Larkin’s head start makes his record tainted. Thus, including Larkin and pitting him against a field that included McDavid would have made for the perfect must-see moment in the skills competition. There’s always next year.
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