Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich was not going to entertain the question – not publicly, at least.
After stopping 26 of 30 shots in the Flames’ 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last Sunday, he was asked if he had allowed himself to think that that start may have been his last in a Flames uniform.
The 28-year-old is a pending unrestricted free agent who most certainly would help a contender looking to shore up its goaltending depth.
“Don’t try and make a story here,” he responded. “This is my team and I want to stay with this team as long as I can.”
Despite the clear attachment Rittich feels to the team that scouted him as an undrafted goaltender in the Czech Republic and brought him to North America, he may be more valuable to the Flames as a trade asset as the organization turns the chapter on one of its more disappointing seasons in recent memory.
In an interview with TSN this week, general manager Brad Treliving said that while some things have improved under head coach Darryl Sutter, the results haven’t been there for the team as a whole.
“When you are in the position that we’re in at this time of the year, we all have to own it and so it starts with myself, the players, everybody involved in the hockey department,” he said.
Despite the lauded signing of Jacob Markstrom, widely considered the best free-agent goalie available this off-season, Rittich has been the better of Calgary’s two netminders, sporting a .904 save percentage and 2.90 goals-against average. From the 2018-19 to 2019-20 seasons, he won 51 games – 11th-most in the league. Still young and with just 118 starts under his belt, Rittich could be more than just a rental for a team looking for a longer-term solution in net.
Centre Derek Ryan would also be an attractive piece for a contender. Ryan anchors the North Division’s best penalty-kill unit. Among the 171 NHLers with 100 faceoffs taken, he’s ninth in winning percentage (57.3) and according to Natural Stat Trick, in a limited sample size against Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, Ryan has been on the positive side of possession numbers.
And then there is Sam Bennett, the most polarizing trade asset on the Flames roster and whose trade request became public two weeks into the season.
On the surface, the physical and gritty Bennett appears to be tailor-made for Darryl Sutter hockey. Alas, Bennett has just a single goal in 14 games under the new coach and playoff Sam Bennett (19 points in 30 games) won’t be making an appearance this season in Calgary.
For his part, Bennett addressed the speculation this week, saying he’s happy under Sutter and enjoying the increase in responsibility.
But as tough a pill as it may be to deal the highest-ever draft pick in franchise history for pennies on the dollar, it seems inevitable that Bennett will get moved either at the deadline or in the off-season.
Beyond Rittich, Bennett, and Ryan, the Flames roster has other names that could attract suitors and fetch much-needed draft capital.
Blueliners Nikita Nesterov and Michael Stone offer depth to contending teams. Brett Ritchie adds physicality, Josh Leivo can moonlight on a scoring line and Joakim Nordstrom can kill penalties in a defensive role.
For his part, Sutter doesn’t think much of Trade Deadline Day (sorry James Duthie), calling it “irrelevant” and a “made-for-TV or made-for-gossip event.”
SPARKS OFF THE FIRE
-One interesting narrative about Markstrom’s growing pains under Sutter is his performance based on shot volume. From the start of the 2017 season through April 3, his save percentage when facing more than 40 shots in a game was a whopping .947. His points percentage in those 19 starts is 0.711. When seeing 25 to 29 shots in a game over that same timespan, his save percentage drops to .897 and points percentage decreases 0.404. Markstrom’s numbers rather linearly indicate that the fewer shots he faces, the worse he performs. It’ll be an interesting dynamic going forward – the coach who prefers low-event hockey, and the long-term goalie who thrives in the exact opposite style of game.
-Like many people, I’m surprised Sutter has scratched Juuso Valimaki, who has sat four times in 14 games under the new coach. I’ve written about how regardless of the team’s direction, they should acquire a veteran to play regularly with the young Finnish blueliner. An alternative scenario? Have him skate shifts with veteran Chris Tanev. Tanev has positively impacted the play of regular partner Noah Hanifin and Vancouver Canucks blueliner Quinn Hughes, who he played more than 700 five-on-five minutes with last season. Valimaki looks tentative and slow to read plays in the defensive zone, and there are few better partners than Tanev.
-This week we’ve seen Sutter shake up his top-two forward lines and top-two defensive pairs. Johnny Gaudreau finds himself not with longtime linemate Sean Monahan but rather Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, while Monahan is skating with Andrew Mangiapane and Dillon Dubé. The Tanev and Hanifin pairing is no more either, as the former Vancouver Canuck is skating with captain Mark Giordano and Hanifin is paired with Rasmus Andersson.
-Believe it or not, this season could end up being one of the worst in this franchise’s history. As of this column’s publication, the Flames have a 0.438 points percentage, which would be tied with the 2012-13 for the third-worst points percentage in Atlanta/Calgary Flames' 48-season franchise history. The only other worse seasons? 1972-73 (0.417) and 1997-98 (0.409).
-To end on a positive note, it was a nice gesture by Sutter to don a Logan Boulet No. 27 Humboldt Broncos jersey on Green Shirt Day this Wednesday.