March 20 2014 02:01PM
For a period of time in November, the Flames were awful. Like, just horrible and awful and garbage and every other word that you can think of that meant bad. Their record in October was a perfectly fine 5-5-2, but the November record of 4-7-2 wasn't. The question is: why did this happen?
Well, there's three main water carriers on the team this year: Giordano, Brodie and Backlund. Giordano plays more with Brodie than anyone else (and vice versa) and Backlund has been playing and thriving against top six players for a couple of years now. Even with only three guys to carry the load, the Flames are better than a few teams at even strength. So, did their missing ice time cause the November swoon or was it something else?
First up, we have Giordano. Obviously losing a player as high a calibre as Giordano would have an impact on most of the teams in the league, and it just so happens that Giordano was hurt at basically the exact same time the swoon occurred. Let's see the splits:
|Overall Team CF%||Team CF% Pre-Injury||Team CF% w/o Giordano||Team CF% Post-Injury|
|46.5% (42 GP)||45.6% (8 GP)||45.5% (18 GP)||47.4%(42 GP)|
So, there doesn't seem to be a meaningful drop from before the injury to the injury in terms of shot attempts. There's a large improvement afterwards, but I think a large part of that is more regression than anything else. (It's really hard to be that bad in the NHL, although somehow two teams are below like 44%.) Although I'm fairly certain Giordano had a large impact positively when he came back, I don't want to mistake causation with correlation - so I'm not going to give him all of the credit yet. It just seems to me that one player can't have increased the CF% that much by himself.
TJ Brodie was the biggest loser when Giordano went out, as he went from having a line mate who could carry the load to one that was just total suck in Chris Butler. Brodie's Corsi% suffers a dramatic drop when he is away from Giordano, but it's hard to say what has more impact on the reduction in his numbers at first glance: loss of a good mate or gain of a bad one.
A cursory look at his WOWYs, however, show that it is the second one. Even though Brodie has played the same type of competition throughout the entire year, his numbers away from Giordano show that at the very least the other defensemen on the team can't carry the load the way Giordano does. Brodie's CF% improves when he gets away from basically all of the Flames' regular defensemen. Funny enough, Giordano and Brodie are almost the exact same when they're away from each other - 47.2% versus 47.1%. This suggests to me that Brodie and Giordano are highly reliant on each other in that they play like an elite pair when together and are replacement level when apart due to the rest of the team.
Backlund is another case where the timing seems curious. Somewhere around game 40, it appeared - at least by eye - that Backlund was on a sort of TOI upswing. It seemed, to me at least, that maybe the increase in TOI for the best forward on the team was driving the team to better results. Here's the scatter plot of 5 game samples for Backlund:
And the polynomial curve:
Once again, we don't want to mistake correlation with causation - but knowing what we know about Backlund being an elite player defensively, he's going to get some credit. The thing that stands out to me is when he breaks the 30% TOI plane - both the CF% and GF% increase markedly, and at around the same rate.
On their own, none of these events could've had the effect on the Flames that they did. Combined, it did have a little effect. I'm not sure how much, but it wasn't huge.
|Overall Team PDO||Team PDO (Pre-Swoon)||Team PDO (Swoon)||Team PDO (Post-Swoon)|
|980 (67 GP)||981 (12 GP)||913 (18 GP)||1009 (37 GP)|
It turns out that the PDO of the team reveals the answer we seek: in a 12-game sample, a 981 is pretty okay. It's about average. In any sample, a 913 is garbage. Even if a team is shut out (i.e. SH% of 0), it's bad - a 913 reflects below-replacement level goaltending. The team was shooting 9.1% over the course of November, which is actually somehow more than average, but only by a tick or so - this year the league's average SH% is 8.1% and over an 18 game sample that's within a standard deviation. That means that league average goaltending is about .919. The Flames were not even close to that: .822% over the course of November. Reto Berra is at fault for most of those 18 games. (I still can't believe that Burke got a 2nd rounder for him. Miracle worker.) I say he's at fault because that's 93 points below what replacement level is. In practical terms, that meant an ~5.5 extra goals against, even though the team was scoring at an above-average pace. After the injury, and with more Rämö play, that number has improved to a respectable level even though the team came back to earth in terms of SH%. I can't understate how negative an effect Berra had on the team.
I believe a variety of institutional factors, bad luck and bad timing were the culprit of the team's poor November. The combination of increasing Backlund's TOI, getting Giordano back and getting Brodie away from the black holes that comprise the rest of the Flames' defense all at the same time, plus an absurdly low PDO turning into a normal one got the Flames out of the tail spin. We know that those three are good players, so them returning should have a positive impact, and we've seen that in the results above. I figure that the PDO (i.e. Berra) is at fault for most of the swoon; the only number that appears to either really change significantly in a negative way is the even strength save percentage. If I had to estimate it after looking at the numbers, it's 40% good players and 60% luck that caused the swoon and the recovery.
So, is it likely to happen again? There were a couple of other rough patches this season, but none as long as this one. I'm going to chalk those up to the normal ebbs and flows that come with a team lacking as much talent as the Flames do. As long as the Flames continue to improve their CF% and get better than replacement-level goaltending (which Rämö has given them this year), I doubt another run like this would be as reflective of the construction of the team.