The Calgary Flames have a very good roster, deep up front and on the blue line. Once they get those RFA contracts for Matthew Tkachuk, David Rittich, and Sam Bennett taken care of, they look like they could once again be a force in the Western Conference.
There is, however, a big "if" here. The Flames got league-average goaltending last year from the tandem of Rittich and Mike Smith. And unfortunately, you have to question whether that's going to hold up.
While the Flames went .905 overall last season, there was a big gap there: .911 for Rittich and .898 for Smith. Inexplicably, those numbers came in a roughly even number of appearances, with Rittich getting 45 and Smith shouldering 42. The latter, of course, wore out his welcome in Calgary and went to the provincial rivals a few hours north.
In exchange, the Flames signed Cam Talbot, the guy the Oilers got sick of a way before Calgary tired of Smith.
The problem for both sides of the Battle of Alberta is that those guys are probably washed and they're just exchanging problems. It's possible that Smith will get back to being league-average, except you have to consider he's now 37 with a lot of miles on him, and he'll be playing behind the Oilers defense.
As for Talbot, he's only 31 but that two-year stretch where the Oilers had him play more than 150 games between the regular season and playoffs seems to have ground him into dust. He went from being a .922 career backup/1b to .908 to .892.
Then there's Rittich. He was better than the league average last season on the whole, but you have to keep in mind he started white-hot (.939 in October) then cooled considerably, usually hovering above average but dipping considerably as the season wore on. From February on, he turned in just an .898 save percentage in 15 appearances. Before the All-Star break, he'd been 20 points better across 30 games.
And this is all against the backdrop of the Flames having been one of the best defensive teams in the league under Bill Peters. Their xGA/60 in all situations last year was third-lowest in the league, sandwiched between Cup finalists Boston and St. Louis.
(Minnesota was the NHL’s best in this area, weirdly, but that only highlights how bad their offense was and will continue to be. I guess it also highlights how good Bruce Boudreau is at his job.)
Rittich, though, fell apart down the stretch and Smith was pretty much bad across the board, and that was kind of in both of their track records. Rittich has a long track record of dominating lower levels of hockey, like the Czech second division, but his success even in the top Czech league was spotty. He was solid in the AHL, but his time as a backup in 2017-18 left a lot to be desired (.904).
The question for the Flames, then, is which Rittich shows up in October. If it's Big Save Dave, great, perfect, they should be one of the best teams in the West again.
But what if he's average, or worse? Talbot will be a lot like Smith in that you almost certainly can't count on him to help at an average level. The same goes for the Flames' goaltending prospects, such as Jon Gillies and Tyler Parsons. Artem Zagidulin isn't walking through that door. At least not this season, since it's his first in North America.
So for better or worse, it looks like Calgary's going forward with a goalie who doesn't have the best career numbers but was really good for four months a year ago, and a guy who seems to have hit a wall two years ago.
The obvious answer here would have been to sign someone besides Talbot to be the backup, but circumstances likely prevented that. Namely, the fact that Tkachuk is going to get a big contract he richly deserves. And also that the Flames are still paying James Neal on a big contract he never deserved. And also that there frankly weren't enough goalies on the market who would both be attractive 1b options and sign for the one year Talbot did.
Again, that's not necessarily a bad thing because as long as the team in front of them does its job to limit chances — as it did so well last season — there's plenty of reason to believe they can be a very good or even great team with league-average save percentages. This is not, however, a San Jose situation in which the team is good enough to win rather a lot despite bad goaltending. And unfortunately there's a chance Calgary gets average-at-best goaltending from a Rittich/Talbot battery. There's arguably a better odds they're below average than above it.
Where that leaves them in a dicey Pacific Division remains to be seen, but the roster is good enough that even if things go very sideways in net, they'll at least be playoff-competitive in all likelihood. They would have to really struggle to be as bad as Edmonton, let alone Anaheim or LA. That would probably mean Vegas leaves them in the dust. Same for San Jose. Vancouver, who knows, but they seem to have improved a little after having been horrible last year; maybe the Flames' worst-case scenario is their best-case.
It's not such a bad thing to enter the dog days of summer like this — rolling the dice on a goalie tandem that could go either way next season. But it's certainly not ideal either.
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