Flames Season Review - Brent Sutter and the Roster

Kent Wilson
April 13 2010 02:55PM

Calgary Flames v Anaheim Ducks

 

I was supportive of the move to bring in Brent Sutter this past off-season. Although I was ambivalent about Mike Keenan's coaching over his tenure, I liked Sutter's resume, his results in New Jersey and the fact that he had an established history with some of the Flames players (Boyd, Dawes, Phaneuf). He had guided a Devils team featuring the cheapest blueline in the league and half a season of Scott Clemmensen to a division title the year prior - a team that boasted some impressive stats across the board. With the Flames needing to tighten up the defense, it seemed like a natural fit.

Things didn't quite work out, however. Sure, the club's defense improved (even beyond the Kipper rebound which you may or may not credit to the ouster of Keenan and Dave Marcoux), but the offense cratered. More specifically, the team went from one of the better outshooting/possession clubs in the league to middling in the space of a summer. In 08-09, the Flames managed 32.2 shots on net per game (2643 total). This year? 28.7/game (2350 total). At, say, a 9% shooting%, that 293 shot difference is worth about 26 goals for or approximately four wins. The Flames also went from the one of the best clubs in the Western Conference at moving the puck North (I believe only the likes of DET and CHI were better than Calgary by this measure last year) to a merely "good" team this season. While they were right 50% in terms of corsi ratio (which is still above the dregs of the league) they were behind the league leaders and step back relative to last season.So what happened?

The Roster

In hockey, it's fairly difficult to point to one causal element when it comes to success or failure. So while it's true that the Flames added a new coach and the offensive stats went South under his guidance, it's also true that the roster changed in the off-season as well. There's some indications that the make-up of the team may have been a primary driver in the devolvement of the attack.

During last year's review, I identified the top end of the roster as the relatively disappointing portion of the line-up. While the counting numbers for guys like Langkow and Iginla were actually fairly good, the truth is it's the Flames depth that drove the bus last year. Bourque, Glencross, Moss and Conroy were knocking the ball out of the park versus their peers, setting up Iginla, Bertuzzi, Cammalleri (and later Jokinen) in a position to succeed by reliabliy moving the puck north. As a result, the big boys had highly preferential zone starts (Iginla - 58.5% offensive zone, Cammalleri - 58.1%, Bertuzzi - 55.1%), but only middling corsi rates compared to their teammates (Iginla ranked 13th, Cammalleri ranked 9th, Bertuzzi ranked 18th). As such, there was some evidence that, in order to take a step forward, the club would have to firm up it's top 6 forwards. 

The team shed Matthew Lombardi in the Jokinen trade and Mike Cammalleri in the off-season. They added waiver wire pick-up Nigel Dawes and called it a day. The assumption, of course, was that the addition of Jokinen would be the all-important "#1 center" panacea for Iginla and the top line, but that was a fools quest: not only because Iginla had already been exceling with Langkow as his center for the prior few seasons, but because there was ample evidence available that, despite the shiny totals he compiled in Florida, Jokinen was nothing of the sort. The result was a further eroding of the top end of the roster, an effect that naturally rippled throughout the roster. The Flames spent fully half the season trying to find a combination that could reliably take on the other team's big guns without, of course, capsizing the rest of the units. For example, moving Langkow and Bourque to play with Iginla in a power versus power match-up intuitively made the most sense (once it was clear that Jarome and Jokinen couldn't hack it), but that meant potentially exposing an unwieldy combination of not-so-heavy lifters in Dawes, Boyd, Glencross, Conroy, Jokinen, Nystrom, McGrattan and Moss. It was a gamble either way and not one Brent Sutter was too interested in making.

Of course, perhaps the real issue is the apparent decline of Jarome Iginla. We'll save the analysis for another day, but it's safe to say that when Sutter built the club in the summer, he assumed that Jarome would continue to be a primary, consistent driver of results up front, regardless of circumstances...

The Coaching

...and so did Brent, considering the manner in which he deployed Jarome (at first). Despite the obvious struggles of the Jokinen/Iginla pairing at the end of the previous season, Butter decided (perhaps rightly) that $12+ worth of forwards should be able to drive the bus against the big boys. As such, Iginla and Pumpkinhead were hard matched against other teams top lines for the first month or two.

They got their heads beat in. That link shows the team's corsi rate through the October and November. It also shows how Iginla and Jokinen did together when they were on the ice (player number "#99" at the bottom of the page is actually Iginla+Jokinen). The duo were underwater in terms of possession (.490 ratio) and in fact trailed the team "average" as a whole (.495). That's okay if you're, say, a trio of checkers on a shut-down line...but it's poor form when it's the club's highest paid forward and the players expected to propel the offense. Of course, the scoring chance differentials for both guys were similarly poor.

The first link also shows what floated the club in the early going: a .934 ES SV% and 9.7 ES SH% (PDO = 103.1). That's luck folks and, as we came to soon realize, not sustainable.

When things began to de-stabilize a bit in December, Butter eventually gave in a started playing Langkow and Bourque with Iginla near the end of the month. That combination endured for a brief period through the next four weeks, though was abandoned completely after the 9 game losing streak and resultant mid season mini-rebuild. Here's the corsi and percentages for the team during that time (23 games, spanning December 3rd to January 17th). The "#99" info this time is Iginla+Langkow:

corsi: 0.589 (!)

SH%: 2.2%

SV%: 94.4%

The team as a whole improved by leaps and bounds over this period, which included perhaps the best game of the year (3-2 S/O win over Vancouver). It also includes a losing streak in early December and the "beginning of the end" 9 game season killing losing streak. There's probably a few processes at work here, including playing to score effect - almost all NHL teams tend to sit on leads. As a result, corsi goes down when a club spends a lot of time up by a goal. The reverse is true. In this sample of games, the Flames percentages regressed (PDO = 97.6%) meaning they probably spent way more time chasing than leading, relative to the OCT/NOV. That said, it's hard to completely discount the difference in Jarome's outshooting with Langkow vs. Jokinen - an almost 10% improvement is a fairly massive swing. Iginla also went from below the team possession pace with Jokinen to leading the club with Langkow.

Unfortunately, a combination of bad luck (2.2% SH% meant the Langkow+Iginla combo was on the ice for preciesly ES one goal for over that time period) and bad timing (the percentages regression and subsequent losing streak) meant Sutter would move away from that pairing, never to be seen again.

I regard this as perhaps Butter's greatest failing this season. His misidentification of Iginla and Jokinen as a viable power vs. power option and then his inability to find and stick with other solutions. There's two basic ways to manage match-ups in the NHL: power on power where you hope your best players out play there opposition's, or by sheltering the offensive guys by feeding the lesser lights to the wolves. Teams with elite players usually do the former. Middling squads whose offensive firepower doesn't measure up do the latter (prime examples in the WC include the Coyotes and Predators). Brent never recovered from the initial realization that he couldn't go PvP, so he didn't spend enough time trying to fabricate the a "shut-down line" strategy (until it was too late). The match-ups, as a result, were wishy-washy from December on with Iginla sometimes facing tough cimrcumstancs...sometimes not.

Here's how the club did down the stretch (starting March 03). Decent if unspecacular possession stats. Except for Jarome Iginla, who was well under water (.458 corsi ratio). He scored 2 ES goals over that 20 game stretch. Despite the upheval, the removal of Jokinen, and the addition of Stajan/Hagman etc, Calgary's best player floundered like a fish out of water in the final quarter of the season. And Sutter was much less militant about matching him against the big guns as things got desperate (in fact, he actively sheltered him in the last few games before things got irrelevant). But it didn't matter. This perhaps suggests that the lack of another elite player was just as important as the strategy itself this year.

That's a discussion for another time, however.

Conclusion

The good news, if you're looking for such, is the Flames aren't terrible. They aren't even "bad", per se. They inhabit the ever bloated middle class of the NHL: good enough to challenge for the post-season, but obviously below the upper tier clubs. The depth guys were again quality this year, especially with a player like Rene Bourque taking another step forward and the likes of Moss (once he was healthy), Dawes, Hagman, Glencross, Nystrom and, in the end, Backlund, proving they can reliably carry the mail against like-opposition.

The bad news is, the top end of the roster is the weak point; Iginla is pricey and aging and he can't get it done with just "okay" linemates anymore. And Sutter's baffling series of gambits before and at the trade deadline did precisely nothing to improve the situation. If the Flames problems were, say, support player related (as they were back in the day when Langkow, Huselius, Tanguay and Iginla were kicking butt), the addition of Hagman et al may have done some good. But the result was just a bumping down of similar-rated players. Adding Ales Kotalik and then sitting Nigel Dawes isn't a win. Playing Stajan with Jarome instead of Langkow doesn't get you anywhere. I think The Flames needs were at the very top end of the rotation, but instead Phaneuf and Jokinen were traded for deck chairs.

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Former Nations Overlord. Current FN contributor and curmudgeon For questions, complaints, criticisms, etc contact Kent @ kent.wilson@gmail. Follow him on Twitter here.
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#1 Wanye
April 13 2010, 04:33PM
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Ah denial. Stage 1 has commenced.

If you are wondering Kent, we are at Stage 35 of dealing with awful hockey up here in Edmonton. We now let players run down management and demand trades and we don't even care a bit about what that does to trade value!

Call me when Stage 3 'bargaining' commences. That is usually one of the hardest stages. We can offer some advice.

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#2 Wanyes bastard child
April 13 2010, 05:03PM
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Wanye wrote:

Ah denial. Stage 1 has commenced.

If you are wondering Kent, we are at Stage 35 of dealing with awful hockey up here in Edmonton. We now let players run down management and demand trades and we don't even care a bit about what that does to trade value!

Call me when Stage 3 'bargaining' commences. That is usually one of the hardest stages. We can offer some advice.

I liked stage 17 the most myself.

'drinking yourself stupid as you hopelessly cheer on yet another crap season of your beloved team.'

In fact, im still stuck on stage 17, do I have to move on to 18 at some point?

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#3 dotfras
April 13 2010, 06:15PM
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Denial? Seems like a pretty accurate perception of what happened this year.

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#4 Domebeers.com
April 13 2010, 06:17PM
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One comment, not even that related but it kinda is. Yeah, it is good we have depth, but depth shouldnt cost you 6 million (Hagman, Kotalik). Depth is usually cheap, on good teams.

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#6 flamesfanfreddy
April 13 2010, 07:44PM
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I only wish that some of the Flames ownership will see some of your posts and would ask DS/BS what they were doing/thinking. Not as much in saying that fans know how to coach but in todays age of stats at your finger tips they should have been aware of some of this stuff. Just thinking that Roger Neilsen would have a field day in todays age with all of this info avaiable.

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#7 Sean Elekes
April 13 2010, 09:17PM
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Buddy, If you don't win the Cup, you suck. There's no difference between Edmonton not making the playoffs for years on end, and Calgary making the playoffs and losing in the first round every year. One cup every 30 years (3%) just dosen't cut the muster.

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#8 George.T.
April 13 2010, 09:50PM
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You're so right Sean, its SOO easy making the playoff every year, and its even easier winning the cup on a constant basis!! I mean how can you NOT make the playoffs when ONLY seven of eight teams in the conference reach 100 points. I mean its SOO simple!! Your so SMRT!!!

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#9 SmellOfVictory
April 13 2010, 10:24PM
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Sean Elekes wrote:

Buddy, If you don't win the Cup, you suck. There's no difference between Edmonton not making the playoffs for years on end, and Calgary making the playoffs and losing in the first round every year. One cup every 30 years (3%) just dosen't cut the muster.

Actually, given the number of teams in the league (30) and the attempts at creating a homeostatic parity between teams, one cup every 30 years would be the very definition of cutting the muster (sic).* In addition, there is obvious difference between finishing last in the league and finishing in a playoff spot, as a team must win a notably greater number of games in order to make the playoffs when compared to the 30th-ranked team in the league; the ranking system used to determine a playoff spot inherently maintains a difference between playoff and non-playoff teams.

Regardless, I'm not arguing that the Flames are in good shape, or that the GMs have been making good moves. I'm merely arguing that your argument sucks a lot.

*granted, there were less than 30 in the Flames' early years, but variance could account for that

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#10 Antron
April 13 2010, 10:58PM
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conclusion of this article is bang on! the flames have missed the boat on making a complete team. Had top end talent few years back now have depth and no power.

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#11 SmellOfVictory
April 13 2010, 11:42PM
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The thing about the "decline" of Iginla is this: what?

The guy is consistently near the top in team fitness, so saying his decline is physical is a bit silly. He's still got a rocket of a shot, and is clearly the team's best finisher of the forwards (aside from when Nyzerman comes out to play ;) ). He's never been the fastest skater, so what exactly is this "decline"? I declare that it is mental.

Iggy has been stuck on what has essentially (barring one season) been a mediocre and/or loser team his entire career. He's got a rotating door on his left wing and a couple of perennial swap-outs at his center. He's expected to carry a greater proportion of the load than almost any other player in the NHL, and he's constantly being pressured by the media. I've gotta say, if I were in his position I'd be pretty mentally drained as well; low team stability, a dour jackass at the helm, losing every player you develop chemistry with, being on a team that is constantly failing to meet expectations.

People say he is now unable to carry a line on his own. I sincerely think he still has that capability, but his ability to tap into it is blocked by the quagmire of utter crap he's been stuck in. This is why I want to see Darryl Sutter gtfo - I want to see if Iggy picks up some passion in his game again on a more consistent basis with the dark cloud gone from above his head.

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#12 B
April 14 2010, 08:07AM
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@Kent

I agree with Kent that Langkow should play with Iginla and I guess Mayers could be considered a "deck chair" (role player?) But in no way are Stajan, Hagman, White, Higgins, and Kotalik "deck chairs". Those 5 guys alone will cumulatively get you 100+ goals most seasons. Let's not forget that Jokinen and Phaneuf (combined 11 million+ cap hit) scored a combined 6 goals in 52 games after being traded.

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#13 Tach
April 14 2010, 09:05AM
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Kent,

I may be foreshadowing your next post but having a defence core at the start of the season with cap hits like this:

Bouwmeester - $6.6 million Phaneuf - $6.5 million Regehr - $4.0 million Sarich - $3.6 million

He put his bets on his top end talent being on the back end being sufficient enough to carry the day.

It seems to me his bet basically didn't work out, he realized that in January and hence the Phaneuf move. In evaluating Sutter from that end I guess there are a number of critiques to make.

A) Was betting on the back end to be a reliable driver of results a good bet? I think there is some work out there demonstrate that it is not.

B)He didn't evaluate his back end talent accurately. It seems to me that all his bets ended up being bad ones. I don't think one of those 4 defencemen provided value on the season, although towards the end Bouw and Regehr were getting closer.

C) When he moved Phaneuf, we didn't need more 2nd to 3rd line guys, we needed one bona fide 1st line guy and he didn't get it.

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#14 SmellOfVictory
April 14 2010, 11:45AM
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B wrote:

@Kent

I agree with Kent that Langkow should play with Iginla and I guess Mayers could be considered a "deck chair" (role player?) But in no way are Stajan, Hagman, White, Higgins, and Kotalik "deck chairs". Those 5 guys alone will cumulatively get you 100+ goals most seasons. Let's not forget that Jokinen and Phaneuf (combined 11 million+ cap hit) scored a combined 6 goals in 52 games after being traded.

I don't think White was being included in the "deck chairs" comment; as to the forwards, they're all potentially good 2nd/3rd liners, but 1st liners? None of the guys has ever reached 30 goals in a season, and the highest ppg pace they've reached (and that was generally just one or two seasons of many) is about 0.7.

Kent's argument that they're deck chairs isn't because they're bad players in general (although they've all underperformed this year), but that they're the wrong part being brought in. The Flames already had a strong supporting cast, and while it's not a terrible idea to bolster it a little, it was a mistake bringing in four guys of similar calibre when what the Flames really needed was one really good top liner.

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#15 mikeH
April 14 2010, 12:12PM
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Great stuff, thank jeebus we have you to do the mathy analysis. Just amazing how Jokinen was such a boat anchor for Jarome in the first couple months and sad they pulled him apart from Lanks (although they could have scored a few to better make your point).

I'd just like to tell the ownership one thing: Fire Daz and hire Kent. Actually Kent, if they are potentially hiring an asst. GM, maybe you should get the jump and change your name to Sutter right now. Can't hurt your chances.

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#16 A18
April 14 2010, 12:38PM
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I have to agree that the Flames were not terrible or even bad. They were a good team on paper at the start of the season, then became mediocre over time. I was of the opinion prior to season even beginning that if D.Sut. could not help this team overcome the first round this year, his tenure in Calgary needs to be over. The man has a had half a decade, it's a result driven business and one NW Div. Championship after your miracle run is not enough in my opinion to constitute further employment for the GM after successive failures.

Every year it's seems like there has been a different excuse. Last year it was defensive issues, this year it offensive issues (I understand this is a gross generalization of the issues, it's just to make a point). When is enough?

I think he has hit his pinnacle, just like in San Jose. Perhaps the ownership group brings him back and he proves me completely wrong next season. That being said he has made good decisions and give him credit for bringing the team out the dungeon pre-D.Sut. era. Of course it's not all his fault and I don't even know if there is a viable replacement for him.

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