We’re 17 games into the Flames 2013 season and Calgary has just 17 points, good for 13th in the Western Conference. The Chicago Blackhawks are 18 points ahead of the Flames in the standings. The line between the contenders and pretenders seems to have already been permanently etched in stone.
In truth, we’re still very much operating in the land of noise. The current standings and success rates offer only the merest hint of how good each team actually is in the broad scheme of things. In fact, we probably won’t get to the true talent "signal" at any point this season given how short it is, but at 48-games we’ll at least sort of have a better idea than we do now.
17-games seems like a lot, but it isn’t. It’s 17-poker hands, really, where the shuffle of the deck and luck of the draw have had as much influence over the proceedings as each player’s ability. Calgary has alternated between great performances and bland ones so far, but in aggregate they haven’t been as bad as their record implies given their shot rates and chance ratios. Certainly there are worse teams who have better success rates right now (*cough* Maple Leafs *cough*). In an alternate universe, where Kipper starts out the season like Craig Anderson rather than Vesa Toskala and Iginla scores on 20% of his shots rather than 4%, the Flames goal differential is +3 rather than -11 and the team is sitting comfortably in the middle of the playoff race.
None of this is to say Calgary is actually a contender or to excuse the obvious flaws in the line-up. We have years of data suggesting Calgary isn’t all that competitive and the established criticisms about the make-up of the roster remain relevant. As a result, I think realistic expectations should again settle on the team actually being a 7-10 club in the West, as they have been for three seasons.
I’m noting all this because:
1.) The team isn’t as bad as it seems and, in particular, their performance to date probably deserves better a better record than they have compiled. The Flames landed on the wrong tail-end of the distribution through the early going which is just the way it goes sometimes.
2.) Calgary will inevitably go on some sort of hot streak before the season ends, in part because their luck can’t be this bad forever and in part because even terrible teams win a few in a row now and then. We’ll hear a lot of stories about how the team is suddenly buying into what the new coaching staff is teaching, or how the roster has finally gelled, or some other such post hoc explanation, but in fact it will most likely be the natural up-and-downs of NHL hockey. I suggest everyone be as skeptical about those narratives as I hope you are about the tales of toughness and problems of leadership that are making the rounds right now.
This isn’t merely a mathy conclusion or something born of staring at spreadsheets – it’s a realization made from writing about the Flames and NHL hockey almost every day for 6+ years. If I’ve learned anything at all in that time it’s that extrapolating a team’s current performance and projecting it forward – particularly in times of extreme highs or lows – is never a good idea.
For now, we’re swamped by randomness and issues of small sample size. We’re starting to get a feel for Bob Hartley’s coaching methods, how each player falls on the depth chart and just how successful they will be in those roles as time goes by, but we’re not there on how good the team is overall. Although the first 17-games of this year will exert a certain amount of influence over if or how the Flames will compete for a playoff spot, it’s not necessarily indicative of this roster’s true talent level.
The Soft Schedule and other stuff
– One of the other "small sample" caveats right now is each team’s strength of schedule. The great tragedy of Calgary’s poor start (depending on your perspective I guess) is the Flames had probably one of the softest opening schedules in the league. Eleven of their first 17 games were at home (65%). They have only faced a handful of quality opponents as well, with just seven of those 17 games (41%) coming against clubs like Detroit, Los Angeles or Chicago. On top of all that, the Flames have had the benefit of a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back series five or six times already if memory serves.
Calgary’s luck is bound to improve in terms SV% and SH%, but the road is bound to become a lot rockier as well.
– I was a guest on "Mic’d Up", a Calgary-focused sports podcast this weekend. For about an hour Chris and crew grilled me about my blogging past, how I came to be managing the Nations Network as well as stuff about the Flames and NHL hockey in general. Mic’d up can be found on itunes and the next episode should appear on their website pretty soon.
– We have a new Draftstreet freeroll for the week. I have had good feedback from some folks who have participated in a few of these, so give it a try if you haven’t already. The prize money available for this week is again $300 and you’ll need to have your roster set for Thursday nights games. LINK!
– Finally, if you missed it last Monday, Bruce Dowbiggen wrote about Manny Malhotra in the Globe and Mail and how major networks and MSM outlets didn’t properly report his role and peculiar usage in Vancouver. Myself, Cam Charron and Thomas Drance get mentions.