Can the Flames Hang On?


Some NSFW language in the video

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…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?

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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.

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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.

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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".

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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.

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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.

  • MattyFranchise

    We need to bolster our defense.. and when fully healthy we have too many top 9 forwards..

    Other than that I like this team, so long as goaltending improves.

  • MattyFranchise

    Great article Rex!

    I’m not much of a stats guy, but it’s interesting nonetheless..

    For the first time in a long time I’m not concerned about the win/loss column. I’m happy with the roster and how the young guys are developing. I’m not advocating for change, or trades.. yet, I’m not worried if the Flames decide to make any moves either. It’s a great place to be for fan in the midst of a rebuild. Go Flames Go! Life is good.

    P.S. It could have something to do with the fact that the Oilers are doing horrible this year.

  • MattyFranchise

    Awesome article. I think this is exactly the place to be during a rebuild. It’s also important to notice that the last few games Gio and Stemps have been hurt. Arguably two of the flames best players. Especially GIO because of the lack of depth on the blue line

  • CDB

    New fancy stat.

    Hartley Adjusted Flames win totals = TOI(Backlund+Baertschi+Rammo/Berra) – TOI (Jackman+Mcgratton+Macdonald)

    All over variables remain constant.

    In all seriousness great article. Flames have exceeded my expectations in the early going

  • gotommygo

    Yes, very good analysis Rex.

    I am just watching the replay of today’s game and two random thoughts came up about two players:

    1. Tim Jackman – He is catching a lot of flack on Flamesnation, however, I still like him. He skates well and in my mind I’d still rather him patrol right wing and have a skilled foreword as his line-mate on the left wing. Although he doesn’t bring the intimidation factor like McGrattan, I just don’t think you need McGrattan in all the games like against the Red Wings or the Wild. At a 600K salary, Jackman is not wasting Calgary’s cap space. He is also probably still a very tradable asset in my view.

    2. Dennis Wideman – I’m really surprised how well he has played this year, particularly defensively given all the minutes he is logging. He also has not been as high as a risk-taker as I thought he might be (both offensively and defensively). When Feaster signed him I thought this would be a contract he would be regretting by now given his salary.

  • Parallex

    I stand by my pre-season prediction… 25th overall (which I’ll note was actually optimistic amoungst the commenterati at the time).

    We put up the good fight all season long but as the grind of the regular season wears on, the team sheds assets at the deadline, and the work ethic doesn’t so much decrease so much as it stops being enough when the team runs short on gas and doesn’t have the talent to get by on.

  • Graham

    By game ten teams begin to round into form, and games become that much harder to win.
    In a game of inches, stronger teams that make fewer mistakes and have higher end talent begin to statistically dominate.
    It’s tough for a team like Calgary, they can compete for most of the night, but don’t seem to have the ‘second gear’ to break open a game.
    It was clear the other night, the Flames played well for most of the game, but Parise and gang kicked things up a notch and snatched a convincing win.
    I think the Flames begin to drift down the rankings

  • AF

    Yeah, I’m also in favor of removing McGrattan and Jackman from the roster.

    Anyway, I guess we’ve ran into to some injury troubles lately, however this presents an excellent opportunity for the development of our younger players. It will be interesting to see what Max Reinhart will bring to the table.

    Also Hudler’s awesome.

  • gotommygo

    Flames have announced the lines for tomorrow. Looks like Backlund and Baertschi are still in the doghouse and on the fourth line. Jackman has been promoted to 3rd line based on what he brings to the table.

      • gotommygo

        Did anyone notice Backlund was a giveaway machine in the offensive zone last game? There were at least 3 times he totally killed an offensive press by panic-passing tape to tape to a Wild. He’s lucky to be playing at all next game, unjustified mancrushes aside.

  • beloch

    If nothing changes, the Flames are probably going to fall short of the bubble. However, there are a few perils and boons that could move the team either way.

    1. Trading away veterans. The flames have several assets that are better off traded than kept this season, and it’s going to hurt the team when they are traded.

    2. Losing the winning work ethic. This edition of the Flames is really playing with heart most nights. Too many losses could erode that work ethic. Ask the Oilers about that one.
    3. Injuries. They are certainly starting to stack up, aren’t they? Yikes!

    1. Improvement in the rookies. Monahan has come a long way in just 15 NHL games. He’s likely to be a significantly better player by the time he’s faced 82 NHL games. This is going to be a gradual, subtle effect, but it’s reasonable to expect Monahan, Colborne, Baertschi, and a couple others will be able to shoulder tougher minutes by the end of the season.
    2. New rookies. There are some potentially high-impact rookies we might see on the Flames later this season, like Gaudreau. Even if they show up raw and unable to contribute much, they could inject some energy into the late-season, as Baertschi did two seasons ago.

    3. Improvement in net. MacDonald was never going to get better. He was playing exactly as he always has, which is not good. It’s still unclear how good Berra or Ramo are because they just haven’t received enough play yet. It takes time to work out the kinks of moving to North America and getting momentum, which the excessive play of MacBackup so far this season has entirely disrupted. This next stretch of games is a chance for Berra or Ramo to take a step forward and establish themselves. If neither manages to do that, we can only hope Ortio or Brossoit are called up instead of MacBackup.
    4. “Going for it” trades. If the Flames are sitting in the bubble at the trade-deadline, Feaster might choose to add expensive, aging veterans instead of trading them away. He does have a *lot* of cap-space to work with. I hope Feaster and Burke resist this short-sighted temptation, but the Flames are one team that could make a huge late-season push if they decide to do so.

    This season, the biggest impact players for the Flames are sitting in the management box. What they do could have a huge impact, not only on this season, but on many seasons down the road. Here’s hoping the right decisions are made!

    • RexLibris

      Perils –

      Regarding the trading away of veterans, you can’t be certain what is going to happen when some players are removed. Last season’s late surge as an example. While I believe Stajan is a valuable piece on this team as a DZ sacrificial lamb, who knows if by the trade deadline whether someone like Reinhart or Knight is able to take his place.

      Injuries? The Flames aren’t that bad off, trust me. Lose your entire four starting wingers on one side and talk to me about injury woes. 😉

      Boons –

      You can’t bank on rookie improvement. You mentioned the Oilers earlier, they can be applied as a case in point here again. By season’s end they may not need to be sheltered as much, but at the same time he may be feeling the grind of a long season in his first professional year. Baertschi and Colborne are still too far away to know, but assuming anything significantly greater than the status quo is perilous in itself.

      I’ll agree that new rookies could inject some energy and think that suggesting that on-ice impacts may be negligible is a wise approach. However, might it not be wiser to send those rookies to the AHL rather the NHL. Going back to the Oilers for a moment, the most productive and consistent of the young core is Eberle who spent the end of two AHL seasons in the minors.

      Goaltending could very easily average out. I know enough to know that I don’t know enough about goaltending, and that either/or Berra and Ramo might have a decent season yet.

      Hey, it’s Burke and Feaster. Anything could happen by way of trade!

  • RexLibris

    I have to get to it before coachedpotato does: maybe the projected lines are an indication that Hartley is going to “roll four lines”. Bouma on the first. Jackman on the third. Baertschi and Backlund on the fourth.

    • everton fc

      I’m becoming predictable, so here is my rant about the need to roll four lines. Last nights collapse is a symptom of why you need to be able to roll four lines and 3 defensive pairings. Tired players make mental mistakes, players playing above their real talent level make more mental mistakes and as a result the other team capitalizes. We played two roughly even periods but then players who are paying too many minutes and playing above their talent level and boom the other team scores two goals and a game that was within reach is over. So who is playing above their abilities; up front just about everyone is playing above their talent level with the exception of HUdler, Monahan, Cammi and Backs. We don’t have any first line forwards but we expect Staj, DJ and GlenX to play that way (second line at best on most teams), Colborne, cammi ad TJG second line maybe on other teams (middle if the pack to low end) and the Hudler and Monahan are closer to a two line with the right winger. Backs playing on the forth is a 3. MCg and Jackman who played well are not even good regular 4th lines. Opps got to go, the rant will contiune later.

  • loudogYYC

    I love that video of Cuban schooling the sports writer, and that Cyanide and Happiness video had me laughing my arse off. Great choice Rex!

    We’re approaching the 1/4 mark of the season and the Flames are looking better than expected, all things considered. The real test is coming now that they’ll have a mix of tough and winnable games without the minutes Giordano, Stempniak and Glencross log every game.

    One thing I’d really like to see this season is all that cap space being used. Lots of teams are in a cap crunch and there’s probably a total of 2 potential buyers for heavy contracts, NYI and us. Meszaros would make our D corps better, Philadelphia would probably include a pick if we took him, and he can be flipped for something at the deadline.
    Buffalo has arguably more tradable vets than us and they’re already stacking up on assets. This is huge for a rebuilding team, lets hope Burke, Feaster and co. get on this!

    • beloch

      Seconded. Cap space is only an asset if used. Load up on bad contracts that expire soon, pay them out for the rest of the season, and flip them for picks and prospects.

  • schevvy

    Back to my rant. 4 lines , 4 lines 4 lines. We need to be honest about our talent level and how to best use what we have. The perfect example of this is Monahan and Hudler, as long as you put a good skater and has some offensive ability this line should produce. Sitting Sven once in a while won’t hurt him at this point unless he allows it to. I wonder what he learned from his session with Hartley?

    WW is upset that Rhino was called up, if the Flames had lived up to their plan based upon merit it should have been BJones(hottest player) and Knight(best stats), regardless it is Rhino playing the wing and it probably should have been another as well so we don’t see McG or Jackman. We need to see the kids play and the injuries are a great chance but we need to see them in the proper role and for at least 5 games at a time.

    The Backlund debate; what gets me is that he has never been really a point producer but we were led to believe he could be. So what is he? He’s a sound two way defensive center whose offensive expectation should be between 25-45 points tops. He can get your team our of the defensive end, he can kill penalties and create offensive possession opportunities for other lines if he plays with the right players. This might not lead to him getting points but it might help the team to win.

    Hartleys’ speech yesterday about winning drives me nuts. Yes we want a winning attitude but we must be realistic this season, we need to develop players and see what we have. Wins will occur but so will losses.

    I’m all blabbed out, have a good might Flames Fans.

  • I don’t want to beat a dead horse but I think Rhett Warrener pretty much summed an earlier fear of mine. Backlund is pretty much gone.

    I can see him thriving elsewhere in a team with more high-end skill. Maybe we can get 2nd rounder for him, given he still has the ceiling as a number 2 in my view.

    • loudogYYC

      I actually enjoy listening the Warrener’s shenanigans on morning radio, but I really don’t put stock into what he says about hockey players unless it’s stories from the past.

      This is just my opinion, but if Hartley, Feaster and Burke were convinced that Backlund and Baertschi have peaked as NHLers, they would just play them in the bottom 6 or trade them away to make room for someone in the minors. The only reason they’re being tough on them is because they’re convinced these kids are gonna be solid, if not stellar players.

      A team like Detroit is probably crossing their fingers hoping that the Flames fail the Backlund project so they can turn him into a 2C/3C who fits perfectly into their system.

      Give Backlund time, he’ll surprise everybody!

    • loudogYYC

      I don’t doubt he could be part of a big trade but there isn’t a chance in hell they play him on the 4th to drop his value just to gift wrap him for a 2nd rounder. We want to trade him I suggest playing him on the wing with Sven & Monahan. Gee, we may even have a great line & wind up keeping him there.

      Why would we trade a 23 year old centre former 1st rounder, that drives possession for a 2nd at the beginning of a rebuild. Many don’t like Burke but he isn’t known to just give away players.

    • Just throwing it out there, but Warrener was in the “trade Iginla” camp several years ago. That didn’t happen until last season.

      Ergo, I doubt he has much predictive capability regarding who gets traded. And I would hope the Flames could get more than just a 2nd round pick for Backlund. That would be an absolute ripoff and I would expect the Saddledome to be burned to cinders by the fans should that happen.

      Upon further thought, it’s interesting to note that Backlund is one of the last 2 players left that was drafted by the Sutter regime (the other being Ortio). They HAVE cleared out everyone else… so who knows.

    • piscera.infada

      If you listen to what he said it was far more than just “Backlund is traded”.

      He basically said that the organization doesn’t know what Backlund is, and that hell, Backlund doesn’t even know what Backlund is. Basically Warrener doesn’t think Backlund wants to be a third line shutdown centre – which is probably what he is best suited to. He thought that if Backs is going to turn out to be that kind of player, it’s probably both for him and the Flames fan base to move elsewhere, due to high expectations when he was drafted. I definitely understand what he’s saying – I’ve was never really someone who thought Backlund was going to be the big time point producer he was when he was drafted. That said, he’s still been one of my favorite players.

      I guess for me, I would love to see Backlund continue his Flames career and be a key contributor. That said, I don’t think it’s inherently negative if the organization decided to move on. One thing can be said of rebuilds: sometimes you have to make tough decisions regarding player you think have a bright future, but for whatever reason don’t fit in to what you think the future plan (or identity) is. I have no idea (educated guesses, but who knows?) what the future identity the Flames are trying to cultivate is, but I assume someone in Flames management does.

      I mean, it would be a tough day for me having to watch Backlund in another team’s jersey. But we all knew that going into a rebuild there were going to be decisions that needed to be made. I for one, was not happy with remaining status quo, so I don’t think that players should be given the benefit of the doubt based on the past status quo.

        • piscera.infada

          From a fan’s perspective, I can’t justify it.

          From a person in the organization who knows what the plan is, you could justify it if he doesn’t fit into that plan – that’s all I’m saying.

          Look, I’m not saying trade him for a Dome beer, and a bag of peanuts. Obviously, just because you view him as expendable, you’re not going to just give the kid away. So obviously, you’d be looking for something quite substantial in return, or it doesn’t happen.

          To reiterate, I’m not in the “trade Backlund” camp, I don’t believe that that’s anything that even exists at this point. I’m simply saying that a rebuild has to be about the bigger picture, and for us to sit here and assume ‘x’ player is part of that bigger picture based on the fact that we like the guy, we (as fans) like his game, he’s young, and he was a first round pick is selling the whole process short.

          Again, I wasn’t saying we need to trade Backlund (I feel like I need to put that in every paragraph, because I understand it sounds like that’s what I’m saying, but this general thought goes for every player in the organization). I was simply stating that Rhett doubts that Backlund wants to play the third line shutdown role, that he’s probably best suited to. And, if that’s the case, then maybe you need to look at that scenario.

          • piscera.infada

            I agree with all of that, except that I have a lot of doubt that the Flames could get equal value back in a trade. That’s the part that bothers me. I mean, sure, trade anyone, it all depends on what you get back, right?

            However, for all the reasons that are easy for Backlund’s detractors to point to, I don’t see his trade value being at all equal to the value he brings to the team. But, if he’s moved out due to not fitting a certain style or team image, than the risk is run that we lose a valuable player for something lesser. That’s what worries me.

  • everton fc

    So the Alaska Aces are basically having their way with the ECHL so far. In nine games they have five shutouts. That is a sentence I just wrote.

    Brossoit and Ortio have two each, Guggenberger has one. Brossoit, by the way, has not been scored on in the ECHL yet.

  • everton fc

    Backlund, and maybe Baertschi, seem to have found the doghouse since Burke’s arrival. The coincidence is simply to obvious to ignore.

    That said, I never thought backlund would amount to more than a 3rd line centre. So if they move him, they move him. Why keep him as a 4th liner? Doesn’t make sense.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Baertschi in Abby at some point. But that’s just me. Burke is definitely applying his mitts to this team. Again, to me, it appears obvious. Colborne’s ice time seems a reasonable example. And I get it – he [Colborne] needs ice time…

    • Rockmorton65

      This is mostly entirely unrelated to everything, but what is your read on Haydn Fleury? I don’t know a whole lot about him myself, but what I do know makes me think that he may be one of your guys.

  • seve927

    Wow. No Sven again. Back to back healthy scratches. I’ve been going along with most of Hartley’s decisions with the knowledge that he knows more than I do about coaching, but if Sven isn’t playing when I pay $400 to be there on Tuesday, it gets personal.

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