In a year where everything has been going right for the Calgary Flames, you can look at the crease and fathom how things could’ve gone so wrong if it wasn’t for David Rittich.
After faltering through the pre-season there wasn’t a lot of confidence in Rittich when Mike Smith also struggled early in the year, however he’s been absolutely dominant, taking over the starting job in the process.
Now sitting with a record of 20-4-4 after 28 starts, Rittich is making some serious noise in the Vezina trophy race. Heading into play on Monday, Rittich is tied for 7th in the NHL in Wins, and has the fewest regulation losses of any goalie with at least 22 starts. The next closest is Andrei Vasilevskiy (TB) with 7 losses in regulation.
Wins are often the first thing that get looked at when deciding the Vezina trophy, and Rittich should certainly be in the discussion as the season continues. While he probably won’t post a 40 win season, his winning percentage should definitely be considered.
Obviously when judging records between goaltenders, you have to compare the overall skill levels of the teams involved. Calgary being 2nd in the league in goal-scoring is definitely a big reason why they win on many nights, so this could hurt Rittich’s cause. However, it is worth noting that 3 out of Rittich’s 4 regulation losses have come in games where the Flames were shutout, meaning basically if the Flames scored once, Rittich was always a guarantee to get them at least a point.
The next argument that could go against Rittich is that he hasn’t started enough games compared to Mike Smith to really be in the conversation. In terms of starts, Rittich’s 28 place him at 21st overall in the league, however that’s only two behind the aforementioned Vasilevskiy.
Marc Andre Fleury (VGK) has a whopping 46 starts and has been a big reason why the Knights have done well this year. John Gibson (ANA) has 44 starts and is undoubtedly carrying that team, although he’s starting to slow down.
Pekka Rinne (NSH) won last year’s Vezina, with Connor Hellebuyck (WPG) and Vasilevskiy (TB) being runner-ups. They had 59 (10th), 64 (T-4th) and 64 (T-4th) starts respectively, showing that while games played don’t determine the winner alone, they definitely factor in. In 2016-17, the three Vezina finalists all had 62-63 starts.
A Vezina candidate has to prove that they can play at a high level over the course of an entire season, and anything under 55-60 starts usually doesn’t cut it. It’s realistic that Rittich may start 23-24 of the Flames final 29 games, however they may choose to rest him heading into the playoffs if things get locked up early. This would still leave him under the 55-60 start threshold, definitely hampering his chances at the trophy.
When looking at Rittich’s other stats such as Save% and GAA, it still puts him in the upper echelon of the NHL. His .918 SV% puts him 6th among goalies with at least 26 starts, and his 2.49 GAA has him tied for 6th with last year’s Vezina winner Pekka Rinne.
At 5v5, Rittich has a 0.936 SV% which is good for 3rd in the NHL among qualified goaltenders (26+ starts). Only Robin Lehner (NYI) and Tuukka Rask (BOS) are better and only marginally at 0.939 and 0.937 respectively.
When we narrow the scope to high danger chances, Rittich jumps to 1st among qualified goaltenders with an 0.879 SV%. Rask is 5th at 0.865 and Lehner is 13th 0.842.
Finally, let’s be honest and include once last consideration: Brand Name Value. Most of the annual NHL award winners are often in the very top at their respective positions for many years, making it extremely difficult for players who are busting out to get into the discussion. It takes time to get recognition from voters, and someone like Rittich could get overshadowed by playing in Calgary, along with the big seasons many other Flames are having.
Let’s look at some of the regular names who have been in the Vezina conversation this season:
John Gibson (ANA) - He was the frontrunner for a time this season, single-handedly keeping the Ducks playoff hopes alive. Since Jan 1 he’s 2-7-2 with an .882 SV% and a 4.02 GAA. The Ducks have also fallen all the way to 13th in the West, if he can somehow drag them back into a Wild card spot, then he’ll be in consideration.
Pekka Rinne (NSH) - No goaltender has won the Vezina in back-to-back years since Martin Brodeur in 06-07 and 07-08, however Rinne may have as good of a shot as any. Despite some talk of Juuso Saros taking over early in the year, Rinne has been very good as the Preds sit 2nd in the Central.
Robin Lehner (NYI) - Lehner’s situation is very similar to that of Rittich in that he hasn’t played a ton compared to other goaltenders, but he’s been very good when he’s played. He leads the NHL in both GAA and SV%, however with fellow Islander G Thomas Greiss at 4th in both categories, will that hurt Lehner’s cause? You’d have to think Lehner gets serious consideration given the Islanders success this year, but if he’s getting consideration, should Rittich as well given he’s in a very similar situation.
Andrei Vasilevskiy (TB) - Tampa has easily the most skilled group of skaters in the NHL but they also have fantastic goaltending to go along with it. Vasilevskiy will be in the conversation simply off record alone, but it is worth noting that his backup Louis Domingue who has been a career backup up to this point has a 17-4-0 record this year. Does that at least affect Vasilevskiy’s case in the eyes of some voters?
Frederik Andersen (TOR) - Andersen has 23 wins this year and sits in 3rd in the NHL with a .923 SV%. He is THE guy in Toronto which will help his case for the Vezina. He also plays in Toronto, which will help his case for the Vezina.
Marc-Andre Fleury (VGK) - I hadn’t realized this but Fleury has never won a Vezina in his career. This may be one of his best shots at it, currently leading the NHL in starts and performing well for Vegas. He was a big reason the Knights were able to turn their slow start back around into a comfortable playoff spot. He also leads the NHL with 6 shutouts. As mentioned above, award votes often go to players who have been deserving for a while, this could be Fleury’s year because of that.
From a starts perspective, the cards will be stacked against Rittich making his way into the conversation, so he’ll probably have to put together a stunning record to account for that. At 20-4-4 he’s already made good progress on that, but it he starts another 22 games, he’d probably have to at least be 36-7-7 to really jump into it.
Of course the Flames success and the fact that Mike Smith has been swiss cheese will also help Rittich’s case. Again, it may come back to the voters going with who they know, so Rittich may have to cut his teeth for a few years before getting top consideration.
One thing’s certain, Rittich has been tremendous this year, and there’s a different trophy you know he’d much prefer to win.