When your hockey club misses the playoffs for a third straight season by such a narrow margin, it’s natural to take a look at what your club’s weaknesses have been and to try to address them. The easy things to look at are the areas measured in percentages – face-offs and special teams.
To be blunt, there is great room for improvements in the face-off dot and some smaller room for improvement on special teams. In fact, a small improvement by the club’s centres would’ve probably gotten the Flames into the playoffs last season.
Calgary missed the playoffs by five points in the 2011-12 season. They boasted the league’s worst record in the face-off circle, with an abysmal 46.2 winning percentage. The 29th best team, New Jersey, won just 47.1 percent of their draws but were a lot better than Calgary. The Flames also boasted the league’s 13th best power-play (scoring in 17.7 percent of their advantages) and the 9th best penalty kill (killing 84.3 percent of opponent advantages).
EVEN STRENGTH PAIN
Now, these numbers are connected in a couple ways. First-off, the Flames were out-scored at even-strength to the tune of 17 goals. This corresponds with a wide swath of data that says that Calgary was usually out-shot and over-matched at even strength. Add in that only two players won more than half of their draws at even-strength (Jarome Iginla and Matt Stajan) and you can probably figure out that the Flames weren’t happy with their performance.
At least Iginla was usually beating the other team’s better players in the face-off dot, although the departed Olli Jokinen took more draws against the team’s best players, and typically lost them.
SPECIAL TEAMS SUCCESS
Despite all of this, the Flames still managed to put together a winning record. A lot of the credit for this can be attributed to the performance of their special teams. More specifically, the Flames penalty kill was, at times, excellent and the power-play was statistically mediocre, but still good enough to win a few games.
The PP’s mediocrity can be seen in a more impressive light when one considers that only one regular player won more than half of their face-offs – Mike Cammalleri. Outside of Cammalleri, the team’s regular draw-takers with the man advantage (Iginla and Jokinen) usually lost and the team had to flee the zone and re-group. (For the record, none of Calgary’s penalty-killing centres averaged a face-off percentage above 50 percent, yet the group managed to be very effective.)
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
The importance of the power-play and winning face-offs can be seen in one important area – one-goal games. The Flames posted a 19-5-16 record in one-goal games last season, finishing in the bottom third of the league in that category for the third straight season. A very small improvement in face-offs across the board – perhaps moving the Flames from being statistically horrible in the dot to being merely bad – would equate with potentially critical goals on the power-play or the reduction of goals at even-strength. Five or six key goals scored (or goals prevented) in the team’s one-goal games could have put the team in the playoffs. As it stands, the team’s massive under-performance in winning key draws was the most obvious thing keeping them from the post-season.
IS THERE REASON TO BE HOPEFUL?
Looking at the remaining (or expected) centres for the Flames next season, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The team has parted ways with Olli Jokinen, who both took the lion’s share of the team’s key face-offs…and lost most of them, unfortunately.
The remaining hold-overs from last season include Matt Stajan (51.8 percent), Mike Cammalleri (45.6 percent), Mikael Backlund (45.4 percent) and Blair Jones (42.4 percent). For what it’s worth, Cammalleri and Backlund were usually playing against the opponent’s first and second lines. The wild-card could be newcomer Roman Cervenka, who played all forward positions in the KHL and won about half of his draws over the past two years.
In short – it doesn’t look like much improvement should be expected from the Flames in the face-off circle next season. As such, don’t be surprised if the club continues to let points slip away in crucial one-goal games.