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?
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…
…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 (!)
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.
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.