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Does acquisition of Smith really fix the Flames’ goaltending problem?

The Flames made the biggest splash ahead of the expansion draft roster freeze, acquiring Mike Smith from the Arizona Coyotes. But can Smith bring the stability Calgary’s been searching for in their crease?

The Flames made the biggest splash ahead of the expansion draft roster freeze, acquiring Mike Smith from the Arizona Coyotes. But can Smith bring the stability Calgary’s been searching for in their crease?

You can almost assuredly count the Flames out for Marc-Andre Fleury and it would be safe to assume Calgary won’t be active in the free agent market for their next starting goaltender, as Flames GM Brad Treliving has come in under the wire ahead of the expansion draft roster freeze with a deal for netminder Mike Smith.

The trade, completed Saturday afternoon with the Arizona Coyotes, brings Smith to the Flames in exchange for the rights to unrestricted free agent-to-be goaltender Chad Johnson, prospect Brandon Hickey and a conditional third-round pick. The draft choice, however, will become a second-round pick should Calgary make the post-season. Additionally, Arizona has agreed to take on 25 percent of Smith’s cap hit in the swap. That reduces his impact on the cap from $5.67 million per season to a more manageable $4.25 million.

That the Flames have scooped up a goaltender before the roster freeze comes into effect isn’t altogether surprising. What is, however, is that the netminder heading Calgary’s way is Smith. As noted, some had believed the most sensible move would be an acquisition of Fleury, who was looking for a fresh start after losing his starting gig with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and, alternatively, some consideration had been given to chasing a No. 1 through free agency. Landing Smith, though, takes care of the matter. But whether it takes care of it effectively might be a different story.

Smith will certainly bring some elements to Calgary that the team hasn’t had in recent years. First and foremost is his puck-moving ability, and that Smith can help the Flames execute a breakout is something that can be of use to coach Glen Gulutzan. Smith also has some playoff experience and that of a netminder who has been to the Western Conference final. That’s a bonus. But from a pure goaltending point of view, does Smith really bring more than, say, Steve Mason? Is he more talented than an up-and-comer such as Philipp Grubauerr or Antti Raanta? Will Smith be better this coming campaign than Jaroslav Halak?

Some in Calgary may believe the Smith acquisition brings them a surefire, top-tier starting netminder, and if one were to look only at the 2011-12 campaign, that might be the case. That season, Smith was near unbeatable, leading the Coyotes to the Western Conference final after posting a sparkling 38-18-10 record, .930 save percentage and 2.21 goals-against average. He also racked up eight shutouts that season, which was his first in the desert. But that was five years ago and Smith hasn’t quite been the same since.

In fact, in the four seasons since the lockout-shortened campaign, Smith’s numbers leave much to be desired — so much that it’s hard to really rate Smith in a category that’s much above the realm of average. There are 29 goaltenders who have played at least 150 games in the past five seasons and of those netminders Smith’s .912 SP is the fourth-worst. The company he keeps isn’t exactly a who’s who of the yearly Vezina Trophy race, either. Goaltenders with similar marks over the past five campaigns include Antti Niemi, Kari Lehtonen, Jimmy Howard and Pekka Rinne.

It’s not as if Smith has been much better than his counterparts at 5-on-5, either. Over that same four-year span, Smith is below average among the goaltenders who have suited up for at least 150 games. His .924 SP moves him up the ranks, to be sure, but it still puts him 20th of the 29 netminders. By comparison, Brian Elliott, whom the Flames traded for last off-season to come in as their starter, boasted a .919 SP at all strengths over the past four seasons and had a .928 SP at five-a-side.

The argument could be made that the Coyotes dreadful defense has played a role in Smith’s poor performances. There is certainly some level of truth to that, too. Having an effective defense can help any goaltender shine. Rinne, for instance, was remarkable for much of the Predators’ post-season run thanks, at least in part, to the all-star calibre blueline he had playing in front of him. Smith saw a level of quality on the blueline in Arizona that was much different. Often, the Coyotes iced an inexperienced and frankly replacement-level defense corps that didn’t do Smith many favors, and it doesn’t help that the poor defense was supplemented by an equally inexperienced offense.

Smith will, however, be coming to a Flames team that boasts a defense that is leaps and bounds more talented than the one he played behind as a Coyote. Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton alone showed more ability in 2016-17 than the entire Arizona defense corps. That’s not to mention an offense that has more depth, both in the top- and bottom-six, than the Coyotes boasted. 

It’s hard to say the blueline improvements will be enough to turn Smith from an average netminder to one that can put the Flames into Stanley Cup contention, though, and if that’s what Calgary is hoping for, they could end up sorely disappointed.

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