There’s no secret the primary (lone?) area of concern for the Flames heading into next year is scoring. Calgary finished with the second least amount of goals during the regular season, with their 201 total narrowly beating out the Boston Bruins (196). With an offense that inept, improvement is going to have come from multiple areas. The focus for toay is powerplay goals. More specifically, drawing more penalties in order to score more powerplay goals.
When it came to the man advantage last year, the club was flat out terrible from just about every angle. The Flames managed just 39 5-on-4 goals last season (28th) and a measely three 5-on-3 goals. Their PP success rate was a putrid 16% (26th). And it wasn’t simply a case of pucks not going in either. According to Hockey Numbers, the Flames generated just 49.6 shots per hour with the man advantage, good for 25th in the league.
So the Flames didn’t generate a lot of chances and, appropriately, didn’t score a lot of goals. Now there’s a number of ways to try to improve those figures (better personnel, better strategy, better luck), but one method would be to simply draw more penalties. On top of everything else, Calgary was one of the worst clubs in the league at garnering man advantages: only Boston (265) and Montreal (261) were more inept than the Flames (268) at goading their opponents into the box.
It seems a simple enough thing, but even if Calgary had drawn a median amount of PP opportunities last year (308), they would have increased their goal total by about 6, assuming a steady 16% success rate over those additional 40 PP’s. That’s worth one win in the standings – a non-trivial amount when it comes to a playoff bubble team like Calgary.
The effects of minimal playoff time tend to ripple throughout the roster. Not only is the PP the most offense rich portion of the game for the attacking team, it also decreases the amount of time the opposition’s best players are on the ice and decreases the amount of penalties the good guys take. Spending less time on the man advantage is one of the reasons almost every Flame player to a man had a lackuster offensive season this year. For example, Jarome Iginla saw over 400 minutes of PP time in 2008-09. That’s 113 minutes more than this past season (289). Ditto Jay Bouwmeester, whose 351 minutes a man up in 08-09 were 114 minutes more than he saw in Flames colors (237). Daymond Langkow (-118) and Olli Jokinen (-35) were in a similar boat. Unsurprisingly, the only two regular skaters to see a significant bump in PP time were Rene Bourque (+115) and Mark Giordano (+53) and they had career years in terms of offense.
At this point, I’m not sure precisely what moderates penalty drawing. Some players routinely have a strong penalty differential (Iginla is one of them) while others routinely end up at the other end, suggesting a skill component. At the team level, however, PP opportunity totals seem almost totally random. Intuitively, one would think that any club that can drive possession at ES (that is, spend more time in the opponents zone) would draw a lot of penalties, but not so. Last season, mediocre (or worse) possession clubs ended up in the top half of the league in terms of PP opportunities, including CAR (332), DAL (328), TBL (326), ATL (316), COL (310) and FLA (309). On the other hand, capable puck possession clubs like DET (307), CHI (298) and NJD (273) ended up in the bottom half. So while the Flames added more penalty takers (Ivanans, Jackman, Jokinen) than penalty drawers (Tanguay, Dawes) this off-season, the good news is they may just end up drawing more penalties by virtue regression to the mean (assuming drawing PP opportunities on a team-wide scale is mostly random).
Let’s hope that’s true. More PP’s won’t necessarily fix what ails the Flames offense by itself…but it would certainly help.