After Calgary’s gut punch shoot-out loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night, the team sits last in the Western Conference with just four points in six games. Despite playing five of their six first games at home, Calgary has won just once in regulation and sports a goal differential of -8, good for second worst in the West ahead of only the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Flames early going struggles seem to validate fans worst fears heading into the season: that the summer additions were needless and the club is doomed to inexorably spiral into irrelevance and obsolesce before inevitably having to blow it all up and start anew.
The truth, however, is that there are some very clear signs lurking just beneath the surface that the team has improved greatly over the previous Sutter iterations. In fact, the differences in key stats are so stark that it’s hard not to be truly excited about the team for the first time in many years.
The Good News
Although Calgary has given up eight more goals than they have scored, the Flames have nevertheless outshot the bad guys in aggregate 203-150 for a +53 shot differential. That’s a lot in just six games. In fact, their per game shot rate is second in the league (behind the Carolina Hurricanes) at 33.3 and their shots against per game is second lowest in the league (25.0) behind St. Louis. At +8.3 shots/game the Flames sport the second highest average differential so far after those same St. Louis Blues.
That is a drastic improvement over the Flames last year under Brent Sutter. That team spent altogether too much time in their own zone and they ended up underwater to the tune of -3.3 shots/game. To put that in perspective, the Oilers were at -4.0 shots/game.
To be fair to Sutter, we’re only six games into Hartley’s tenure. Still, I don’t think I can recall any six game segment under Brent where the Flames put together this kind of dominance in terms of shots and possession. Certainly not last season anyways.
The Flames even strength possession rates have similarly improved. As things stand, only two regular skaters are currently underwater in terms of corsi: Jay Bouwmeester (-2.07/60) and Blake Comueau (-29.60/60), whereas half the team including many of its stars were plumbing the depths by this measure last season. Overall, Calgary is 9th in the league in terms of fenwick close (a stat that corrects for score effects) witha ratio of 52.98. That’s better rate than such notable teams as Chicago, Vancouver, Philadelphia, New York Rangers and San Jose.
Why The Improvement?
Before we move on to warnings and caveats, let’s discuss why the team seems to be much better at keeping the puck at the good end of the ice this year. The conversation begins with Mikael Backlund.
The third line
In spite of poor counting numbers last season, Backlund was one of the the Flames best possession and chance forwards last season. He has paired with Lee Stempniak to take another big step forward in this regard in 2013 however. The pair are currently leading the club in terms of corsi by a country mile (+35.14/60 and +33.95/60) even though Hartley is very smartly giving each guy more defensive zone than offensive zone face-offs at 5on5. That third line featuring Glencross on the wing humiliated the Hawks on Saturday night again and again and it’s faintly astonishing they ended up with zeros across the board.
The Backlund unit is mostly facing other third liners right now, but like the Conroy/Moss/Glencross line from 2008-09, they are absolutely crushing their opponents so far, at least when it comes to dirving the play north.In fact, their play is so strong by this measure so far that it is skewing the rest of the team’s relative corsi rating (calculated by subtracting a players on-ice corsi from the team’s corsi rate when he is on the bench). So even though Jiri Hudler is +11.48/60 in absolute terms in three games, his relative ccorsi is still -12.9…because the team has been +24.41/60 with him on the bench over that period. Yeesh.
A better blueline
Dennis Wideman instead of Scott Hannan is the first obvious step here, but the improvements on the back-end are deeper and more pronounced than that. Chris Butler has gone from facing the big boys with Jay Bouwmeester to playing on the third pairing (where he is much more comfortable), mostly because TJ Brodie has jumped into the top-4 rotation and made an immediate impact. The 22-year old sophomore has the second best possession rating on the team behind only Wideman (+15.30/60) and that’s likely only because his zone start ratio is six ticks lower than the veterans (50% versus 56.9%).
The insertion of Wideman and Butler into the Flames top-4 as well as the move to finally re-unite Giordano and Bouwmeester on the top pairing has made the Flames a lot stronger in terms of moving the puck out of the zone and in transition. In contrast to guys like Sarich, Hannan and Robyn Regehr near the end where "up and out" was all too common a puck distribution tactic, Calgary is now able to effectively transition from defense to offense. A mobile defense corps also makes it tougher for the bad guys to consistently attack with speed.
The Czech Connection
It’s hard not to be impressed with Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka in the early going. The pair has combined with Matt Stajan (!) to form an apparently deadly trio – or at least one that is creative and sneaky enough to be opportunitic and cause the opposition fits now and then. Hudler is also the only Flame forward sporting an above average on-ice SH% right now (23.53%!) so that is likely coloring our perception of him a tad.
Still, they have outshot their opponents and mostly faced other team’s top-6 forwards. Which brings us to the final point.
Hartley’s Rational Decision Making
The other thing the second line has going for them is zone starts. Hartley has rightly given Cervenka and Hudler the high ground so far – the pair boast the most favorable zone start ratio amongst Flames regular skaters at 57.1 and 57.7% respectively. Given what we know about Hudler and that this is Cervenka’s first season on NA ice, it’s the right strategy to employ.
Right behind them, however, are Alex Tanguay (56.3%) and Jarome Iginla (55.6%). As we discussed repeatedly around these parts last year, the Flames aging big guns need a bit of a nudge to stay above water in terms of shots and chances at ES and so far Hartley has obliged.
As mentioned, the top-6 is getting the high ground in favor of Stempniak and Backlund. Also seeing fewer offensive zone draws are Blair Jones (43.8%), Tim Jackman (40.0%) and Steve Begin (27.3%). The only guy who doesn’t fit from a strategic perspective in the sub-50% category is Mike Cammalleri (48.9%), although there are only so many o-zone draws to go around.
Aside from face-off and match-up decisions, the Flames certainly seem less offensively bland and rigidly defensive than they did under Sutter. Defenders are much more active on the rush and the club seems freer to try things in the offensive zone without fear of a mistake resulting in an earful on the bench. This might be a compltely subjective, fanciful reading on things, however.
So Why are they Losing?
Two words: bad luck. Or, if you prefer, rotten goaltending and an inability to finish. The Flames have suffered through the very worst puck stopping in the league so far with Kipper’s 87.5 ES SV%. That’s lower than the average PK save percentage most years, so even if you think Kipper was in-line for step back after his big season last year (like I do), there is still almost no way that will continue indefinitely.
In addition, the Flames have only scored on 6.5% of their shots at 5on5 through six games, the sixth lowest rate in the NHL. Altogether, that sums to a PDO (SV% + SH%) of just 94, and as well all know, PDO aggressively regresses to the mean over time.
Warnings and Caveats
Even with a lot of arrows pointing the right way, let’s keep in mind this is the first 10-games of the season and the results – even the "advanced ones" – should be taken with a pinch of salt. Calgary has mostly played at home and mostly against either lower tier teams (Edmonton, Colorado) or clubs on the second night of a B2B (Chicago, Colorado). Those factors have no doubt colluded to skew things in Calgary’s favor somewhat, inflating their shot differentials to some degree.
The other problem for Calgary is they have less time this year to wait for their luck to even out and reverse their fortunes. They have already played 12.5% of the regular season and their rotten luck has already put them 5-points back of the playoff picture and behind the 8-ball. Even with good shot totals the Flames won’t have three or four months to turn the ship around a la the LA Kings if pucks continue to bounce off of posts or if Kipper continues allow beach balls behind him for much longer.
Finally, some of the organizations enduring issues still remain, although they’ve been papered over with strong performances from depth players and decent coaching so far. The Iginla, Tanguay pairing continues to play mostly against other club’s top units and as a result they are rather "high event" (ie; giving up about as much as they generate). So even with a zone start of about 56% the pair are still barely breaking even possession-wise (+1.28/60 and +0.72/60) at 5on5.Ideally, a good team’s best offensive forwards should spend more time in the offensive zone, either because someone else is taking on the tough minutes or because they are generally capable of outplaying the bad guys. That continues to be not quite the case in Calgary, even with the rest of the roster more or less beating up their counterparts.
The Flames 1-5 start is unnerving for a fanbase that has watched a team slide from contender to pretender over the course of 5 or 6 seasons. There is strong evidence that their current record is not a true indication of their performance or actual skill level, however, meaning there is a silver lining to an apparently ominous cloud.