If the season ended today, the netminder brought in by the Flames to be their saviour in the cage – Brian Elliott – would be the worst goaltender in the NHL.
Alright, maybe not the worst, but with a lackluster save percentage of just .839 — lowest among all goalies with at least three starts thus far — it’s fair to assume general manager Brad Treliving is feeling a tinge of buyer’s remorse.
Brought in to clean up the mess left by Karri Ramo and Jonas Hiller, Elliott’s 14 goals allowed over his three starts in Flames colors have done little to convince the Flames faithful that he’s the answer to their woes.
But he’s hardly been the only problem.
Sure, it stung to watch him allow six goals in the season opener, to the rival Edmonton Oilers no less. And allowing another four in Game 2, also to the Oilers, and another four in his next start against Carolina was no treat either. However, given how unbalanced the defensive play in front of him has been, writing off Elliott this early would be foolish.
Putting aside the fact that Elliott has been thrust into a new environment, playing under a new coach and behind a new defensive unit, let’s take a look at his past performance to put his current slump in perspective.
Over the past five seasons, Elliott has posted a save percentage above .920 on three different occasions, with that percentage rising as high as .940 in 2011-12 and .930 last season when he led the league in this category. In between those stellar performances, he bottomed out at .907 in the odd lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign and posted a .917 in 2014-15.
His average over that five-year span was a percentage of .925, second-best among all NHL netminders. That half-decade also included 25 shutouts for Elliott, again the second-best in the league, topped only by Jonathan Quick.
So there should be no question Elliott has what it takes to impress in Calgary, regardless of what is happening right now. The issue isn’t his skill in net, but rather the overall fit. And don’t be fooled, just because the goaltender position can seem isolated from what the rest of the team is doing doesn’t mean that it truly is a separate world.
It’s a position grounded in anticipation. In reading and predicting how plays will unfold and adjusting to be ready for the most likely outcome. That aspect of the game is tied to how a goaltender’s defense plays in front of them.
Playing behind a defensive unit that has a mandate to block shots at every turn (think John Tortorella) yields a very different set of anticipated results than a unit that swarms the opposition and utilizes their speed to limit time and space (à la Pittsburgh).
That being the case, transitioning from St. Louis to Calgary means far more than learning to play in a different building or adjusting to life in different colors. The foundation of Elliott’s anticipation has been altered, and sometimes it simply takes time to adequately adjust. Ask Frederik Andersen how life in Toronto has been so far.
And that would all be true even if Calgary’s blue-liners were playing well. But, luckily for Elliott, they most definitely are not.
With a new head coach in tow, the Flames’ back end has been a work in progress since Game 1. First came the jumbled pairings, which saw longtime duo Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie start the season with new defensive partners (a misguided experiment, as it turns out). Since then, the story has been Brett Kulak taking the place of veteran Dennis Wideman, who’s been a healthy scratch for the past three games.
While Gulutzan has made every effort to reshuffle the deck and find combinations that work, his system has led to problems all over the ice — whether it’s due to inherent flaws or his players’ failure to follow his instruction.
Case in point, the Flames have already amassed 60 giveaways just five games into the season — the most in the league. They’ve also racked up the fifth-most blocks in the league, meaning even though they aren’t allowing a significant amount of shots (Calgary has endured the 11th-fewest shots in the league so far), they’re still consistently being pushed back into their own zone, and being forced to shut down opposing chances.
Adding to their defensive zone woes is the team’s lack of effectiveness in the faceoff circle. While they’ve excelled at neutral zone faceoffs, Calgary ranks 11th-worst when it comes to defensive zone draws, winning just 45.1 percent of them. Yet another situation in which the Flames are gifting the opposition chances at controlling play in their own zone.
But the biggest issue, by far, has been the Flames’ frequent marches to the penalty box.
Calgary has been one of the least penalized teams in the league over the past few seasons, and yet, they’ve been astonishingly bad in this department so far in 2016-17. In their season-opener, the Flames took seven minor penalties, one of which resulted in a powerplay goal for Edmonton.
In Game 2, the Flames took six minor penalties. Two powerplay goals for Edmonton (and a shorthanded tally, by the way).
During Game 5 (Elliott’s third start), the Flames took eight minor penalties. Two powerplay goals for Carolina.
There’s no denying the fact that Elliott has been a far cry from the goalie Treliving thought he was getting when he acquired the 31-year-old. But between the subpar defensive play, the incessant parading to the penalty box (which, in effect, tilts play towards Elliott) and the fact that the season is only five games young, it’s far too early to fault the former All-Star.
He’s no sure thing, but given how well he’s played in the past — and as recently as last season — Elliott has earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt. At some point, the veteran will settle in and prove he’s up to the task.
The bigger issue at this point seems to be the disjointed play of Calgary’s defense, and that may be a much more difficult issue to solve. If Gulutzan is able to right the blue-line ship, then better numbers for Elliott should follow.
If not, then the Flames better hope the former Blue settles in quickly, because he’ll be the only thing standing in the way of another embarrassing basement-dwelling finish.