October is just about in the bank and we’re starting to get a feel for step one of the rebuild. The Flames haven’t been as bad as many expected, though with 12 points in 11 games they are still 6th out of 7 teams in the difficult Pacific division, ahead of only (haha) the Edmonton Oilers.
Here’s some thoughts on the thr first 10, including Hartley’s habits and some words on Iginla’s reputation as a slow starter…
– For those wondering if the Flames will be bad enough to pick first overall this year, it looks like the race to the bottom is led by the Buffalo Sabres with everyone else a distant second. Buffalo has been pretty unlucky to start the year to be sure, with just a 5.7 SH% at even strength, but they also have the very worst possession rate in the entire league (43%). If we narrow that to close score situations (in order to correct for score effects), BUF sinks to just 38%. Which is, uh, one of the worst 10-game runs I’ve seen in a long time.
To be blunt, the Sabres will have to get much luckier and better at driving play just to be bad.
Here’s hoping they don’t pick Sam Reinhart.
– Back to Calgary – Bob Hartley’s decision making has been somewhat erratic so far, but we can put that down to a coach experimenting and tinkering with things in effort to discern just what he has with this roster. A few things have been consistent, though:
1.) Hartley doesn’t like playing the bottom end of the roster
Hartley is okay with dressing a tough guy or two, but he doesn’t want to play them more than 5 minutes a night. Ditto any new body or kid who shows up – Colborne was relegated to 5 minutes or less when he arrived and Roman Horak saw that treatment too on his brief call-up. Hartley also has very little use for Shane O’Brien, who is only averaging about 10 minutes of ice per night (which is miniscule for a blueliner).
2.) Hartley is channeling Alain Vigneault (Vancouver version)
The Flames have some of the most extreme zone start discrepencies in the league. Unlike Brent Sutter, who more liberally spread things around, Hartley is gifting the high ground to a select set of players (Colborne, Russell, Wideman and the kids) and absolutely burying a few others (Backlund, Brodie, Giordano and Butler). Colborne and Russell are north of 70% while Brodie and Giordano are south of 37%.
3.) Hartley rates Backlund defensively but not offensively
Related, but it seems like Bob Hartley sees Backlund more as a Manny Malhotra figure than Frans Nielsen (the latter at least gets PP time). Backlund got a few reps in the top-6 rotation this year, but recently he’s been restricted almost exclusively to d-zone draws and the PK.
Of course, this type of stuff becomes a bit of viscous circle for a guy like Backs – he needs to show he can produce to stay on a scoring line, but that’s difficult to do when you aren’t put in a position to score. I don’t know if this is because Hartley trusts Backlund more than guys like Colborne and Monahan to take the tough minutes, or rather if he doesn’t think Backs can do much with offensive zone time anyways. Maybe it’s a little of both.
– Related: it probably makes sense for Backlund to get the lion’s share of d-zone draws and such, but it certainly doesn’t make sense to play one of your best possession forwards seven minutes a night as happened against the Capitals on Saturday. I’m not sure what the solution is given the log-jame at center though.
– Unrelated: I heard Eric Duhatschek on the FAN960 last week talking about Jarome Iginla’s slow start and he noted with annoyance that an "advanced stats guy" upbraided him on twitter about that particular narrative. He responded that everyone – even Iginla – knows that Jarome is a slow starter.
I have a lot of time for Duhatschek as a hockey analyst. He’s thoughtful, engaging and typically writes good material. But on this topic, I think he should consult the evidence.
In an effort to investigate the "Jarome is a slow out of the gate" angle, Mitch Smith put together a chart of Jarome Iginla’s first 15 games of each season going all the way back to 2001. The result? Iginla scored at nearly a PPG pace or better to start six of those seasons.
To put it another way, he scored at a pace equal to or better than his overall season pace in seven (63%) of those 12 years. In fact, in only in three of those years did he manage a total that was significantly behind what he finished with.
Last season, Jarome scored 10 points in his first 15 games (0.67 PPG). He finished the season with a 0.75 PPG pace, although mostly because he managed 11 points in 13 games with the Penguins to end things off.
Maybe we’re talking about merely goal scoring rathern that overall points? Same thing. Iginla scored seven or more goals in his first 15 games six times in Mitch’s sample. He scored five or less in the other six. So 50% of the time, he started with a 40 goal pace or better.
So why do people (including Jarome) think that the erstwhile Flames captain is perennially slow out of the gate? During his time in Calgary the spotlight was always bright and the expectations always high for Iginla. So whenever Iginla struggled to score points over the first month, it was a big story, meaning everyone remembers the times when he struggled because they were considered unusual. In contrast, his strong starts aren’t considered as noteworthy and kind of fade from memory.
Stanley Cup of Chowder took another look at this issue in response to Iggy’s lackluster goal output in Boston. Same result.
– About the only points I can give this myth is that Iginla has had more relatively slow starts lately as opposed to earlier in his career, which would contribute to the story’s persisteance. Of course, he’s also reaching the sunset of his time in the league, so that’s as much to do with him slowing down in general than some kind season opening malaise I think.
– "Stats guys" like myself are often derided for taking the fun out of hockey/sports coverage, mostly because of investigations like the above. I personally have a lot of time for narratives in hockey, but I prefer them to be unique, engaged with the facts, and not merely recycled scripts or fuzzy conventional wisdom.
– Of course, it’s kind of silly to talk about a slow start for Jarome this year. He has eight points in 10 games and his goal scoring struggles are entirely percentage based (30 shots on net, but only 2 goals or a SH of 6.7%). Pucks will start going in at a higher rate for him eventually no doubt.
– There is still no obvious answer to Calgary’s goaltending question. Neither guy has been good in aggregate, although both MacDondald and Ramo have made some highlight reel saves in each of their starts. Ramo has the better ES SV% and we know that Joey Mac is mediocre at best, so the way forward is to play the former as much as possible in order to get a feel for his true talent level. The more shots Ramo faces, the better the org will be able to peg his abilities at the end of the year, at which point they can determine if they should start shopping around for another starter or not.
– Part of the reason Hartley may be gifting offensive zone starts to the kids and Russell/Wideman is because all of those guys lead the team in on-ice SH% (about 12% or better). Backlund and Brodie are at the other end of the spectrum (4.5% and 3.5% respectively).
As such, the coach seems to be reacting by playing the guys who are scoring more often in the o-zone and the guys who can’t seem to score in d-zone. Of course, the percentages are going to regress towards the mean (about 8%) for both groups eventually, so it will be interesting to see if the player deployment changes as the bounces change.
– Another guy with a high on-ice SH%? Joe Colborne (12%)…which is probably why he’s stuck in the top-6 recently. He has looked a lot more like an NHLer since getting a bump in ice time. Of course, it’s tough to properly evaluate Colborne when he is starting so rarely in the defensive zone at even strength, but at least he doesn’t look as slow and hesitant as he did when he first arrived.
– Here’s hoping Curtis Glencross’ goal from the other night snaps him out fo whatever funk has been haunting him. Rough start for a guy I usually have a lot time for. Good news is – he can only get better.
– The least talked about pleasant surprise for the Flames so far? TJ Galiardi, who leads the team in possession (52.3% fenwick) and isn’t a dude who gets butter soft assignments. Could be a keeper.