Some NSFW language in the video
…In case you’re wondering, reports are that Joey MacDonald was, apparently, the panda in the above video.
Now, can the Flames continue to perform as they have so far this season, or are we staring at a statistical mirage?
The Flames are currently sitting with a PDO of 983 based on a save % of 90.5 and a shooting % of just 7.8.
That means, statistically speaking, the Flames are pretty much hitting their potential or slightly below. They have weaker possession numbers overall, though nothing abysmal, but their shots for and against right now are 29.8 and 30.0, respectively. A pretty narrow margin.
At the time of this writing, their powerplay is middle of the road at 21st, and the penalty kill 25th overall in the league. They have played two more road games than home games thus far, and are being outscored on the road (29-22, though four of those came in a 5-1 blowout loss to the Stars) while breaking even at home (20-19).
Prior to the two games this week, the Flames have been involved in nine one-goal games of their eleven played, with two more being close games that were finished with an extra goal against in the dying minutes. In close games they have a break-even record. Nobody thought that this roster would be able to hang in with some of the teams they have played this early in the season. They have been blown out twice this season (three times now – ed.), by Dallas and San Jose and arguably the San Jose game was something of an aberration.
In several of the losses this season goaltending was clearly the culprit and the argument again becomes, if the team could receive even league-average performances in net they might have an even stronger record. The recent waiving of Joey MacDonald would seem to imply that management feels the same way.
In fact, one could argue that the Flames find themselves in very familiar territory in that, if provided with more scoring prowess, they could be only one or two players away from being in a very tight playoff race as the season wears on.
Perhaps that isn’t entirely what some of you wanted to hear.
Go Where the Math Tells You
The Cumulative 5v5 close Fenwick numbers are hovering near 50% with small wavering slightly above and below that line. That is a good thing.
They have played an even split of Eastern and Western teams and have fared well against the best (and perhaps more importantly, the some of the weaker) that those conferences have to offer.
Some of these numbers may regress and fluctuate throughout the course of the season, however there is at least evidence to support a case that the Flames could be a playoff bubble team by early 2014. If they can avoid significant slumps, they should be able to weather the injuries that have come up as the team is less reliant on any single individual this season than in years past and at this point in the season, consistent play and any potential collapse of one of the teams ahead of them in the division could result in their being discussed as a playoff possibility.
Ranked by Corsi For %, the number of shots directed against versus the number of shots directed for, the Flames rank 25th in the league at 46.5%, almost deadlocked Winnipeg and separated by half a percentage point from the Capitals and Hurricanes. To give you some perspective on the narrow margins we’re dealing with here, though, a jump of 2% would take them from 25th overall to 20th, 0.1% behind the Rangers and tied with Tampa Bay.
Now Corsi numbers aren’t a hard and fast correlative stat for wins and losses, but virtually every coach in professional hockey is going to game plan around getting more pucks to the net rather than fewer. Shots equal possession, and possession is good. In this case, the numbers essentially mean that, on most nights overall the Flames have the puck in the offensive about 46% of the time. To give you some perspective on that, the top and bottom of the entire range is separated by roughly 20% with Buffalo at the bottom (38.5%) and Chicago at the top (58.4%). Corsi is a proxy for possession and possession, over the long term, dictates wins.
The problems with putting too much faith in Corsi is that it is only representative of strength over a long term, and hockey is episodic by nature. That is why the Flyers and Sabres occupy 22nd and 30th respectively on the CF% chart while the supposedly surging Leafs and Capitals are 29th and 27th on the same scale. Enter the favourite mantra of “stats guys” on those fancystat blogs: sample size.
Those who study the game from the perspective of statistics tend to look at percentages, averages, the mean, and things that usually equal out over time. Separating the incidental noise from the larger opera of what the numbers suggest is something anyone involved in statistical analysis is trained to do. And it all runs contrary to the serial nature of hockey games and its traditional presentation in the mass media. One can almost hear Glen Healy saying "wins and losses are the only stats I count".
I See London, I See France, I Can See Your FancyStats!
So let’s look at some of those Healy-lytics and see where the Flames rank. In the overall standings the Flames are right in the middle of the pack, at 18th at the time of this writing, fourteen games played, 6-6-2. Ahead of favoured teams like Washington, Dallas, Ottawa, Philadelphia and yes, Edmonton. They are two points removed from Boston and Los Angeles.
In Goals For they sat 12th at 3.0 goals per game, though 29th in Goals Against with 3.43 (just ahead of the Oilers who average eighteen bajillion) as of Sunday. They are 25th overall in save % at 90.5 and have a below-average shooting percentage of only 7.8, so if their goaltending were to improve even moderately, and the shooting % to remain or even improve, the Flames could actually get improve.
So the areas of strength are that the Flames are playing close games against more skilled opponents, hanging in against virtually any opponent on most nights. If we build on the assumption that they are a less-skilled roster than most that they face then we must assume that they are making up the difference with work ethic and systems adherence, an assumption that is borne out by watching the games. There are no roster lynchpins whose performance fluctuations would result in significant swings in team performance and as such the team is more balanced, albeit with a lower overall ceiling, than it would otherwise be meaning that they are insulated somewhat from wild fluctuations.
At the start of the season I repeatedly refused to declare definitive standings projections because of a number of factors, among them being the new divisional format, perennial variations in performance, and the higher-than-usual reshuffling of rosters that occurred during the off-season.
One thing of which I will boast though, amongst my Oilers friends I warned them not to assume that the Flames would be cellar dwellers by sheer virtue of the off-season rhetoric. This team has routinely zigged when everyone forecast a zag, and the players on the team, while absent a recognizable superstar, have enough talent in the parity-focused NHL to at least put up a fight most nights.
Do I think they make the playoffs? No. Do I think they make it interesting? I’ll put it this way, I think Flames fans will have more to cheer for this season as their team becomes a feared underdog than in the last few years when they were supposedly due to challenge for the division title.