Problems up the middle

 

 

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.

  • T&A4Flames

    One thing not mentioned, and an area I believe we will improve on is the shoot-out. If I’m not mistaken we finished last, I think 17 SO losses if memory serves. We have added a significant amount of skill that can help in that area. So, maybe there will be a few more points to be had there.

    • Good point T&A. The Flames were 6 points out the playoffs (5 points behind LA, but I think they would’ve won all tie breakers). So, if we had only won in the shootout 6 of those 17 times, Flames would’ve squeaked in, and the Kings awesome playoff run would’ve never occurred.

      If, would’ve, should’ve, could’ve, but DIDN’T. Damn this team is frustrating.

    • Although they are a few players that seem to have better than average skill on the shoot-out, the S/O is almost entirely random variance when it comes down to the team level. It’s a coin toss that tends to level out over time, so Calgary may better at this year as a matter of regression.

    • the forgotten man

      Shootout is more of a coin toss/wheel spin kind of thing than actually winning according to a teams skill level. This past season the Flames had almost zero luck in the shootout, while in the 2011 season the team was one the best shootout teams. Did the Flames somehow lost all their skill from 2011 in 2012? Nope, the luck just started going the other way for a change.

  • This is a point my friend constantly harps on – the Flames CANNOT score without winning faceoffs. It’s a simple piece of logic that requires no advanced stats to figure out. If you don’t have the puck and you’re constantly fighting for it back, then you cannot score. Simple.

    Why the Flames didn’t sign someone like Jay McClement is beyond me. Dude only makes $1.5M, plays all roles (PK, PP, ES), plays the top competition, and wins facoffs.

    I can only assume the lack of room, contract-wise, is the reason that never happened, and not something else like Feaster thinking we were going to still get Brad Richards a year later.

  • T&A4Flames

    The problem with that line of thinking (if we just improve in one area we would’ve/could be this year in the playoffs) is that you also have to subtract all of the things that went Calgary’s way, but aren’t likely to again. For example, Kipper’s great season.

    Not to say the team shouldn’t be diligently working at improving themselves in those areas that need improving, just that it’s never that simple.

  • On the teams record in one goal games. Isn’t it more meaningful to look at point percentage rather that win percentage. Only losing 5 one goal games in regulation earned them a lot of points.

    A quick calc has them 7th best in point percentage, which I think would be expected to fall if anything? Though may be out weighed by improved shootout luck.

    Just some food for thought.

  • RKD

    The Calgary Flames are severely lacking depth down the middle.

    Mike Cammalleri is not a #1 center, he’s there by default. Cervenka is slotted as a #2 center who has not played a single NHL game.

    They lost of a lot of size with Jokinen and Moss going elsewhere. It’s going to be tough sledding at even strength.

    • Depth they have. Cammalleri, Cervenka, Backlund, Jones, Stajan, Horak (throw in Reinhart too, as another potential callup). Just no clear number one. Not to say one of those guys couldn’t be a capable #1, we just haven’t seen it yet.

      • RKD

        I agree there is no clear #1 one. That depth is ok, remember Cervenka has no NHL experience. Stajan was pretty terrible all year until he turned it up at the end of the season.

        Cammy is a skilled goal scorer, but he lacks size. Montreal went with smaller forwards for a couple of years. They got hot in the playoffs with Halak, but everything went downhill last season.

        What did Montreal do? They end up adding three gritty players. Not saying Calgary doesn’t have grit, just that their depth centers have a long way to go.

    • How does losing a player who is hurt for 50+ games a season hurt the Flames? Sure, Moss was part of the OMG line and they used to kill it, but Moss didn’t play much this past season.

      There was no guarantee Moss could ever come back and play enough games to be a difference maker. If you’re constantly coming back from an injury and taking time to get up to speed, you’ll never be a real contributor. His 20 goal season was an aberration. Moss is a plug and easily replaced (though the Flames don’t seem likely to do so).

  • RKD

    lack of depth down the middle has been the flames achilles heel for a spell now, come to think of it so has scoring as well. mcclement would have been a sound move.

  • First Name Unidentified

    Re: Flames centers.

    here is how some of the top teams’ center positions look:
    Hawks: Toews, Sharp, Bolland, Frolik
    Flyers: Giroux, Briere, Schenn, Coutourier
    Pens: Crosby, Malkin, Sutter, Kennedy
    Sharks: Thornton, Pavelski, Couture, Handzus
    Kings: Kopitar, Richards, Carter (can play center), Stoll, Fraser
    Bruins: Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand, Horton
    Rangers: Richards, Stepan, Boyle, Halpern
    Blues: Oshie, Berglund, Arnott, McDonald
    Caps: Backstrom, Rebeiro, Johanssen, Laich
    Canes: E Staal, J Staal, Skinner, Tlusty

    I think those are pretty good players down the middle for those teams. Do Flames’ centers stack up against those players at all? A make-shift #1 center, a european import, a young player coming off arguably his worst season so far, and a bunch of plugs..these are who we expect to perform as pivots for the entire season?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if we are the laughing stock of the league next season, if there is an NHL season.

  • the forgotten man

    1989…Nieuwendyk, Otto, The Killer, Hrdina and Berezan

    2012… Mini-me, Cervenka, Backlund, Jones, Bag of Pucks

    Main reason this team is going nowhere…double face palm.

    Unless Kent & Lambert fire up the Delorean and they bring Jankowski back from the year 2020??

    I have some plutonium sitting around in the shed.

  • First Name Unidentified

    all the cup winners or strong contenders since joe malone and newsy lalonde donned the blades have had 2 premier centres. esposito/sanderson. lemieux/francis, messier/garagekey. kopitar/richards. feel free to add to the list, you don’t contend in the nhl unless you have depth down the middle. the kings are going to feast on feasters pivots.

  • the forgotten man

    Doesn’t this seem like pretty good set of centers under the age of 25?
    1st line potential – Jankowski
    2nd/3rd line potential – Reinhart, Backlund, Arnold, Horak
    4th liner – Jones

    Doesn’t do much for the win now, but I don’t think the future is as dim as most people are saying.