That elusive grass on the other side could not look greener. The Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues can only stare longingly.
The Flames really thought they needed Brian Elliott last summer, and for good reason. They were fresh off finishing dead last in the NHL in save percentage, and all their NHL-level netminders were unrestricted free agents anyway. It made too much sense to make a trade. General manager Brad Treliving also knew the price for Elliott, never a bellcow starter but an elite platoon goaltender, would pale in comparison to what the Tampa Bay Lightning wanted for Ben Bishop or the Pittsburgh Penguins wanted for Marc-Andre Fleury.
Elliott for a 2016 second-round pick and a conditional 2018 third-round pick? Sure. Huge upgrade for the Flames in net. Advanced statistics such as 5-on-5 save percentage suggested Elliott was as effective as any goalie in hockey last season. Why not give him a chance to start at 31?
But if Treliving could get a do-over today, he’d probably take back those picks. Not all of what’s transpired in 2016-17 has been Elliott’s fault. Chad Johnson, signed supposedly to back up Elliott, has simply played too well not to be Calgary’s starter going forward. And it didn’t help that Elliott struggled so mightily out of the gate, with an .882 save percentage in his first 12 appearances. The Flames really thought they needed Elliott, but now it really seems they don’t.
About 1,700 miles away, the Blues just might be pining for their old stopper Elliott. And they, too, likely never felt they’d be in this position. Elliott served them faithfully for five seasons but, as great as he often was, he was never quite good enough or clutch enough to separate himself from his high-profile partners, from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Jake Allen. Elliott had just one season left on his contract, and the Blues were ready to give Allen his shot. He was always their long-term project, and it was time for St. Louis to let him flourish as a real No. 1. Given coach Ken Hitchcock struggled with flip-flopping between goalies during countless early playoff exits since taking over the bench in 2011-12, the idea of relying on one true starter seemed ideal for a Stanley Cup contender like St. Louis. General manager Doug Armstrong inked a capable backup in Carter Hutton for a bit of insurance.
Who knew Hutton would end up important enough to recently appear in six straight games, twice in relief and four times as a starter? There’s no point trying to spin it: Allen has been a huge disappointment. His .900 SP is easily the worst of his four-year career, and he’s posted an .887 mark across 15 appearances since the start of December. He’s been bad enough that Hitchcock publicly challenged him last week to take responsibility and be better.
Is the problem Allen’s workload? His career high in starts is 44, making up 53.6 percent of St. Louis’ games. He’s started 33 of 45 this season, which is 73.3 percent. Maybe Allen’s body hasn’t yet adjusted to the extra minutes.
Hutton’s past week was a microcosm of his career. He entered Tuesday’s start having allowed just seven goals in his past five outings with a .939 SP – then promptly got lit up for five goals on 23 Ottawa Senator shots. Hutton is who we thought he was: a solid backup goaltender who can perform well in short spurts but lacks the talent to succeed as a starter or even a platoon goalie. Even if Allen isn't the answer, Hutton isn't either.
That’s where, believe it or not, Elliott might come in handy. What if Armstrong explored reacquiring Elliott? It might work for several reasons.
1. Elliott is a pending free agent. That benefits both teams. If Calgary knows Johnson is its starter now and plans to re-sign him, might it want to get something for pending UFA Elliott rather than lose him for nothing in free agency? If the Flames needed a backup in return and didn’t feel prospect Jon Gillies was ready for promotion from the AHL, perhaps the Blues could include Hutton along with a low- to mid-round draft pick. Seems fair enough.
2. Elliott has turned around his game just enough. Elliott isn’t outplaying Johnson, so it doesn’t appear Elliott will wrest the job back anytime soon, but he does have a .913 SP over his past nine appearances. It’s a start.
3. It would benefit Elliott twofold. Not that he would have an official say, as his contract has zero movement restrictions. But rejoining the Blues, not necessarily as a starter but at least as a platoon partner to spell Allen, would help Elliott’s wallet immensely. He’s done nothing but lose money since 2016-17 started. If the season ended today, Elliott would be viewed on the open market as a goaltender who had a shot to show he’s a No. 1 and flopped. He won’t earn anything close to starter’s money or term as a UFA. But a redemptive performance with the Blues might at least nudge his value back to what it was a year ago. Secondly, Elliott hasn’t lived in Calgary long. He called St. Louis his hockey-season home for five years. Transitioning back to Missouri less than a year after leaving wouldn’t be the most difficult of moves in theory.
The Blues have the worst save percentage in the NHL at .892, which is a shame given the team’s overall depth and talent. They were first in SP last year at .919. The Blues should be thinking about playing meaningful hockey into June but are instead barely clinging to a Western Conference playoff spot. They have plenty of promising young regulars, from Colton Parayko on defense to Robby Fabbri up front, but their contention window is now. Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo are in their primes. Veterans Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny and Jay Bouwmeester are exiting theirs. Hitchcock will step down as coach after this season. The Blues can’t afford squandering 2016-17, especially when the Western Conference looks like anyone’s to win. Allen’s ego may have to suffer for the sake of one good push for glory.
Elliott, then, would be a nice affordable stopgap, as opposed to Bishop or Fleury, who would command roster players and/or good prospects in a trade. Reversing last year’s swap with the Flames might be the best thing for all parties involved.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin