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Flames' Smith, Lack duo isn’t inspiring — but maybe it won’t matter

Off-season speculation tied the Flames to Ben Bishop and Marc-Andre Fleury, but instead Calgary is set to role with Mike Smith and Eddie Lack in goal. But average netminding might be all the Flames are after.

For months leading up to the off-season, rumors circled about the Flames’ goaltending situation with talk of Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury ending up in Calgary by the time the 2017-18 campaign began. So, when the Flames went out and acquired Mike Smith, he wasn’t exactly the netminder many had been expecting would come aboard to help solidify a Flames crease that has been shaky for the better part of the past decade.

Alas, the thought was that even an average season out of Smith, which is about the level to which he has played over the past several years, would be enough to be an upgrade in Calgary, but it would have made sense for the Flames to hedge their bets by landing a backup goaltender with the ability to take over as the starter if need be in case Smith stumbled or fell injured. The likes of Anders Nilsson, Jonathan Bernier, Chad Johnson and maybe even Steve Mason were options. So, who did the Flames go out and get? Eddie Lack.

In a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday evening, Calgary acquired Lack, defenseman Ryan Murphy — who is now slotted for a buyout — and a 2019 seventh-round pick in exchange for Keegan Kanzig and a sixth-rounder in 2019. As part of the deal, the Hurricanes also retained half of Lack’s salary, meaning the Swedish keeper is suiting up for the Flames’ for $1.375 million next season. While he may be coming at a cut rate, one has to ask themselves what exactly Calgary is trying to do between the pipes.

Look, it was fair for Smith’s acquisition to come as somewhat of a surprise. After all, it’d be fair to consider him a slight downgrade from the likes of Bishop and Fleury. Statistically, that’s a fact. Smith has turned in a .924 save percentage over the past four years at 5-on-5, while Fleury has maintained a .925 mark and Bishop has been the superior of the three with a .928 SP. Smith also doesn’t have the recent regular season or playoff success of either Bishop or Fleury. But at least some sense could be made of landing Smith if one were to consider that he’s got some qualities, like his puck-moving ability, that make him an interesting addition in Calgary.

But the trade for Lack is about as puzzling as off-season moves get for a team that has been bereft of quality goaltending since Miikka Kiprusoff’s best years.

Lack is as lovable an off-ice personality as the game has. From the taco pads to his affection for former teammate Roberto Luongo, Lack is just the kind of player that every fanbase loves to have around. The issue isn’t that. What the issue is, however, is that Lack has been downright awful over the past two seasons. Since becoming a Hurricane in 2015-16, Lack has turned in back-to-back years of .901 and .902 SPs, has had a bloated goals-against average and won just 20 of his 49 starts. He started to come alive near the end of the past campaign — a run of play that came after he was publicly called out by coach Bill Peters — but it doesn’t change the fact that Lack’s 5-on-5 numbers are atrocious across the past two seasons.

There are 64 goaltenders who have played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 over the past two campaigns, and of that crop of netminders, Lack ranks 59th with a .914 SP. The only netminders who have performed worse are Curtis McElhinney, Jonas Gustavsson, Michael Hutchinson, Jeff Zatkoff and Jonas Hiller, whose poor run of play is all too familiar to the Flames.

It’s not as if Lack isn’t going to get his turn in the Flames’ crease, either. If recent history is any indicator, and those in Calgary should be hoping it’s not, Smith putting together a season in which he starts 60-plus games isn’t a given. He hasn’t done so in either of the past two seasons, and, since closing out the 2013-14 campaign with 10 games on the sideline with a lower-body injury, Smith has missed another 53 games with lower-body ailments over the past two seasons. Even barring an injury to Smith, keeping the veteran fresh could mean Lack is looking at a 20-plus game season in the Calgary crease. His recent numbers make that a worrisome prospect.

Here’s the thing, though: maybe what Treliving and the Flames are banking on is that it’s not really going to matter who plays between the pipes. Though that may seem like a gamble given what has happened over the past few seasons, one can almost make sense of where Calgary is coming from.

Over the past two off-seasons, Treliving has done incredible work to make the Flames’ blueline one of the very best in the league. Mark Giordano was the perfect cornerstone on which to build the back end, the growth of T.J. Brodie was a significant step forward for the blueline and adding Dougie Hamilton and Travis Hamonic in back-to-back off-seasons gives Calgary a top-four that rivals some of the best in the league. It’s really quite the D corps, and the Flames can still look at potentially re-signing Michael Stone or adding to a sixth and seventh defenders through free agency. It may be somewhat bold to suggest those Flames defenders are the same calibre of the group Predators GM David Poile has assembled in Nashville, but there’s at least some similarity in the way Calgary is building their roster by focusing on a solid top-four defenders.

There’s also a similarity to be drawn in goal. There’s no denying Pekka Rinne was spectacular for much of Nashville’s run to the Stanley Cup final, but the fact of the matter is he has been largely average for the Predators over the past several seasons. His 5-on-5 SP over the past two years is .925 — 33rd of 64 1,000-minute goalies — and his four-year mark of .926 at 5-on-5 falls between that of Bishop and Fleury and slightly ahead of Smith. That might be an indication that Treliving and the Flames aren’t necessarily banking on a goaltender that can bail them out. Rather, what they’re looking for is one who can simply be average, which has seemingly been far too much to ask of goaltenders in Calgary over recent years.

And the reality is average goaltending should be able to get the job done for the Flames. This is a team that was 10th in possession and likely to improve this coming season with the addition of Hamonic, not to mention a team that has offensive weapons and shutdown ability on the back end. Calgary has assembled a roster that should be able to suppress shots, chances and turn pucks the other way in a hurry, and it appears the belief is that will be enough to win even if their goaltending lets them down once again.

(All advanced statistics via Puckalytics)

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