In the Land of Noise



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.

So What?

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.

  • beloch

    We probably shouldn’t expect an increase in Sv% in the short-term. Hartley clearly prefers MacBackup to Taylor, and MacBackup’s current Sv% is 0.901, which is almost bang-on his NHL career average of 0.903. That’s slightly better than Kipper was before he was injured, but low enough to keep Calgary’s PDO below league average.

    Interestingly enough, the Leafs are currently getting the best goal-tending in the league from an unlikely duo, one of whom, Ben Scrivens, is both the same age as Taylor and has a similar AHL record over the last two seasons. The primary difference between Scrivens and Taylor is that Taylor broke into the AHL at a much younger age and Scrivens had 12 more games of NHL experience before this season started. Scrivens’ Sv% is 0.928 and he’s the Leafs defacto starter until Reimer is back from his injury, while Taylor has played one (somewhat disappointing) game and warmed the bench ever since.

    I’m not saying Taylor would play like Scrivens if given the chance. I’m just flabbergasted that Hartley and Feaster aren’t *curious* enough to find out if he can play that way when the alternative goalie, MacBackup, is virtually guaranteed to plod on at roughly 0.9. Goalie save percentages swing so wildly on a game-by-game basis that they have absolutely *no* clue how Taylor will perform. All Feaster and Hartley know is that the one game he did play was 0.009 worse than MacDonald’s been so far this season. Yeah, hang onto that 0.009 guys. It’s totally gonna make the difference between 8th and 9th!

    P.S. MacBackup has actually already dropped two stinkers (0.857 and 0.852) worse than Taylor’s solitary start in just 5 games this season! Did Taylor make a pass at somebody’s wife or something?

    • I mostly agree, except the Flames have had 89.3% goaltending at ES so far. Meaning even if MacDonald is replacement level at even strength (about .910) we can still expect the Flames puck stopping to improve out of chance alone.

      Im with you on Taylor though. I’d be nice to see if they have anything there, rather than sticking with the known (mediocre) commodity.

  • At what point does Feaster start making decisions on Iggy and/or Kipper?

    It’s almost too obvious that they will be on the brink of 8th place or just barely in 8th place around the trade deadline, give or take a few points. It’s so tight for that final spot in the West, and Calgary is obviously not convincingly better than any other team.

    I just can’t figure out what’s stopping Feaster from bringing in ROR? Especially after Backlund went down! You would think he would make it happen at nearly any cost to improve Calgary’s chances.

    The same thing could be said with Kipper’s injury. Why is Babchuck still on this team?

    Buy or Sell. Just do something!

    • loudogYYC

      I don’t think bringing ROR in is as simple as you may think. It’s no secret the kid is a good player and there are about 15 teams that could offer a better trade package to Colorado than us.
      I’m actually worried the Oilers could land him if Tambellini and Lowe put their heads together.

      This season is turning out exactly as I feared. I calculated that if the team had less than 19 points by the end of February they would be far enough out of the race that a small dismantling of the roster would be a no-brainer. Here we are with 2 games left in the month and 4 points up for grabs.

      I call a 1-1 record for a perfectly mediocre 19 points in 19 games, and another reassurance from the club that everything’s gonna be alright.


      • beloch

        I wonder if there is a lot of competition for him… I would of thought he would have been traded by now.. but maybe Feaster doesn’t think that highly of him.

        I would actually applaud the Oilers if they picked him up, rub in it Feaster’s face…

      • ChinookArchYYC

        “I’m actually worried the Oilers could land him if Tambellini and Lowe put their heads together.”

        Don’t worry those two couldn’t figure out a one car funeral procession.

  • RexLibris

    Excellent observations.

    If memory serves me, I seem to recall a common narrative over the last few seasons that the Flames would drop games against the must-win lesser lights only to then beat the higher-caliber teams in games that were seen as foregone conclusions to an ignominious season’s end. The result was always that they would win just enough when they ought not to, such that it kept playoff hopes barely alive until the final week or two of the season.

    While this smaller season obviously leaves a greater margin for chance to affect results, I am left wondering if the harder schedule ahead might not result in a better showing by virtue of the historical circumstances mentioned above.

    I’m still sticking to my 10th-ish in the West prediction.

  • Subversive

    Nice mention Kent! I don’t always agree with Dowbiggen, but I love how he’s always willing to pick a fight with anyone.

    My favourite line of the article: “…a higher standard than amiable banter should be demanded of “experts” covering 50-60 games…”

    Also, perhaps tangentially relevant, I listen to MLB Network radio a lot on XM and the analysts on there frequently use WAR and BABIP now, which is a major shift. I think we’ll start to see some of the advanced metrics seep into MSM hockey analysis in the same way over the next couple years.

  • beloch

    Oh man… I just noticed the poll currently on the Flames site:

    “Who will be the next Flame to score his first goal of the season?”

    Sven Baertschi

    Akim Aliu

    Chris Butler

    Anton Babchuk

    Derek Smith

    Cory Sarich

    Blake Comeau

    Tough choice!

  • beloch

    One thing that stands out this year is that, right now, 1 point over .500 gets you into playoff position. I don’t know that this pattern necessarily changes in the last 2/3 of the season: maybe 51 points gets you into the playoffs this year rather than 55 or 56.

    For the Calgary Flames that’s a huge difference.

    • beloch

      Sportsclubstats currently seems to think the Flames need to go 0.6 over the remainder of the season and finish at 53 points to have a roughly 50/50 chance of making the playoffs.

  • redricardo

    The comments about advanced stats working their way into MSM is by far the most interesting conversation for me. I mean, if you look at the trends, they’re going to start popping up eventually. My money is on Elliot Friedman using them first. But, these are the questions I have.

    In Canada, of the 3 major broadcasters, who’ll start working advanced stats into their broadcasts first?

    Why has nobody done it yet? Is it as simple as the fact that trying to get a PJ Stock or Charlie Simmer to explain Fenwick Close and PDO is not going to happen, or are the networks concerned that the average fan won’t relate.

    I mean, let’s face it. Whoever decides to start using advanced stats in their broadcast is going to have to spend their time educating their viewing audience on what that is. I have buddies who love hockey, who laugh at a Corsi rate and shooting percentage, and still tell me that Backlund is an awful player who can’t score and the Flames need more grit. If CBC decides to introduce advanced stats to their broadcast, possibly with Friedman holding tutorials in game about what that is, and how it’s important to the game, there’s going to be a lot of confusion, and work put into blazing that trail. Follow that up with TSN being able to just start using that on their broadcast because CBC already put a lot of work into educating the national audience, and I wonder if members of the MSM are just afraid to go first.

    Either way, I’d love to sit down with Friedman, Duthie and Kerr sometime, and get their thoughts on the future of advanced stats in hockey broadcasts, why they aren’t being used yet, and where they see the trends taking them.

  • redricardo

    Like in the YouTube clip Cherry shows a bunch of shots of the player diving to block shots in his own end as proof that the Corsi number is malarkey, saying any team would love to have a player like that.

    This ignores the fact that most teams would rather have a player that’s spending all their time in the bad guys end, taking shots and making the other team block.

    Bringing advanced stats into broadcasts isn’t as simple as Dowbiggin suggests. Because for most networks, that means changing the paradigm they’ve been showing their own audience for decades.

    But I find the whole thing fascinating.

    • loudogYYC

      Totally agree that the introduction/education part will be difficult.

      My buddies don’t seem to understand the importance of underlying numbers either, but I also don’t know how to explain it in layman’s terms.

      Kent, has MSM reached out to you yet?

  • Purple Hazze


    “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.”

    Any idea how this compares to how many games other teams have played a team on the 2nd series of a back to back? I get a lot of heat from Oiler and Cancuks fans that say we’re always playing a team the night after they’ve just played them … 5 or 6 games out of 17 does sound high, but I would think the NHL schedule would balance this out between teams over a season or else GM’s would complain?

  • MC Hockey

    I don’t think it HAS to be hard to educate the public on corsi or Fenwick or other advanced stats, they are just a proxy for possessing the puck. And if you have the puck you can either have a chance to score or your possession ensures you prevent a goal against. I agree Friedman would be the logical among existing Canadian hockey media types to explain and introduce it to most fans but clearly MSM outlets could hire Kent who has written for The Calgary Herald (or me if truly desperate as I have worked in publishing for 14 years but just in sales)