Goalie Graveyard. The New Philly. Carousel. There’s been a few ways to describe the blue paint in the Saddledome since the legendary Miikka Kiprusoff retired the gear in 2013, and most of them aren’t good. Number 34 left big skates to fill, and many a name have come and gone trying to be, if not that guy, at the least the next guy. And after some arduous years of trying, the voices are louder, now proclaiming that the heroic Big Save Dave is finally the man to step up to the throne. David Rittich is in his third year with the club, and in many circles has earned the confidence of a full-time number one NHL starter. The Next Guy.
The problem is, there were a few guys before that who were figured to be The Next Guy. If they weren’t, they never would have seen their shot. None of them however, posted the numbers, performances, or determination to do it. All the hopeful Next Guys never actually were The Next Guy. So, you would think when one finally came around to be anointed, he would in fact have the numbers, performances, and determination to back it up. Statistics far and above all those before him that didn’t make the cut.
Except as we’re about to see, he might not. Let’s take a trip down memory lane, and pick out all the Calgary Flames netminders since Kipper who have seen 20 or more starts in a season for the team, and see how the guys who missed out on the actually measure to the guy who so many people think have seemed to claim it.
Nicknamed The Raven, Karri Ramo was the first to get a crack at the full time crease in Kiprusoff’s absence. Over his three seasons in Calgary, he was extremely consistent numbers-wise, with GAA’s hovering at the 2.60 mark and SV% around .910. In the first and last of his three seasons in CGY, the team finished with 77 points, while the 2015 Find-A-Way Flames hit the 97 point mark and gave him his best run support. Ramo was statistically steady despite having 20-point swings by the team in front of him between three campaigns.
Speaking of those 77 point 2014 Flames, the other netminder to hit the 20 start mark was Reto Berra, as he split duties with Kari Ramo. He was a good jump behind Ramo stats-wise, with an 11 game gap in sample size. Just like fellow netminder Joey Macdonald, this was his last season in Flames threads, as neither would return the following season.
Joey MacDonald was the first netminder to really have a crack at Kiprusoff’s spot, splitting the starts with him in Kipper’s final playing year. Leiland Irving and Danny Taylor also dabbled in starting, with 6 and 2 games played respectively. Macdonald saw 21 games, just shy of Kiprusoff’s 24, on a team that was desperate to hit the rebuild button as the Flames finished with only 42 points in the lockout shortened 48 game season. Mac’s GAA was almost at the 3.00 mark, and his SV% barely cracked .900. He started only 11 games in the following season, which was his last with the Flames.
Ortio spent three years with the Flames, but as the log jam in the blue paint increased, he didn’t hit the 20 games mark until the 2016 season with the club, playing 9 and then 6 in his first two. But 2016 was Jonas Hiller’s second season in Calgary, and Karri Ramo was still hanging around, and Joni’s numbers didn’t shine enough in his longest tended pro-season for him to stick around any further after that.
Being brought in from the rival Anaheim Ducks for the 2015 season, Hiller was finally supposed to be the outside solution to the need for bona-fide Number One Goaltending. However, in both of his two seasons here, he got out-started by Karri Ramo and failed to post captivating numbers. Hiller completely fell off the map in 2016, posting a losing record in his final season in CGY, with a lead anchor 3.51 GAA to boot.
Neither Hiller or Ramo returned to the Calgary Crease for 2017, and The “Moose” was another attempt at looking outside the organization to fill that Kipper gap with an elite netminder. He had previously posted excellent numbers under a St. Louis Blues system that was much tighter defensively, but his numbers suffered with the Flames. Although his regular season numbers weren’t particularily atrocious, it was his legendarily bad collapse in the first round of the playoffs that sealed his fate after only a season.
Backing up Elliott that year was Johnson, who saw a whopping 36 starts when his partner struggled heavily in the first half to three quarters of the campaign. He actually posted a better regular season GAA than Elliott, and even though he had the reigns during the rough stretches, Johnson wasn’t the answer either and he also did not return after just one season.
It was stop gap time again the following year, with another veteran goalie taking the lead role. Hiller and Elliott were both 21 when they signed, while Mike Smith came in at 35 and left at 36. At this point, the team was looking towards a well stocked goalie pipeline of young prospects to take hold, and it was assumed Smith would hold down the fort until such a time as that happened. He certainly had a roller coaster career in red, being mostly a target of the fanbase for inconsistent play, although he redeemed himself with a shutout in Game One of the 2019 playoffs. Smith did not return after two seasons.
A funny thing happened while stop-gap Mike Smith rolled into town. As the team looked toward their young prospect netminders of Jon Gillies, Nick Schneider, Tyler Parsons and Mason McDonald, another young man swooped in. He backed up Smith with 21 games in his first year, and has the de-facto starter’s role since. With some stretches of dazzling play, he earned himself the nickname of Big Save Dave, but a wider look at the numbers doesn’t have him standing out much more than his predecessors.
Of the goalies with 20 starts since Kiprusoff (most of whom don’t bring back fond memories), FOUR of them had seasons with better GAA’s than Rittch’s best so far. And ONLY TWO of them had worse GAA seasons than Rittich’s 2.92 and 2.97 first and third years. Four of them also posted BETTER SV%’s than his .911, and Johnson/Elliott were also right there with .910’s in their single seasons.
Despite earning the adoration of the fanbase and the confidence of his coaches, Big Save Dave’s numbers are essentially on par with, and sometimes worse than, most who had the job before him. And most of the guys that came before him had lesser teams to work with, as no other Flames team that was backstopped had the luxury of a 107-point season calibre squad in front of them. Up to this point in this shutdown shortened year, along with posting worse numbers than his backup Cam Talbot, he was still not on pace to redeem himself. For posterity’s sake, the argument can be made that he was overstarted in the first half of the year and has simply burned out. Now, on the upside, Rittch has to this point, obviously retained the confidence of seemingly everyone in the organization, as despite faltering he continues to get quality matchups against big opponents. The other upside is, at 27, he still has track left in front of him to cement himself. As the Flames’ propsect pool in net was very optimistic not that long ago, that’s changed. Mason McDonald has parted ways with the organization, Nick Schneider and Tyler Parsons are buried in the ECHL, and Jon Gillies has a long road to redemption. Artyom Zagidulin is the only current clear young challenger coming up, and there lies uncertainty with Cam Talbot’s future in Calgary. The brass ring is still Rittich’s to grab.
It’s clear there are plenty of people hopeful for Dave to be the franchise’s first elite masked man since #34 hung up the pads. It’s also clear, however, that many have come before him who had the same expectations and didn’t reach them, and statistically he’s essentially fallen in line with them so far. If David Rittich is truly an elite goalie in this league, he hasn’t quite proven it yet. The good news for him is, he should still have some runway to prove it, if he can.