Season 1 of the official Calgary Flames rebuild was, by many measures, a success. The club was competitive on most nights but finished low enough to guarantee a high caliber prospect in the upcoming draft. We saw the emergence of potential new core pieces in Mikael Backlund, TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano and Sean Monahan, while many of the organization’s hopefuls (including Johnny Gaudreau, Jon Gillies, Joni Ortio, Markus Granlund, Max Reinhart, Emile Poirier and Morgan Klimchuk) had very strong seasons in their respective leagues.
Despite all the positive indicators, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. The Flames finished second last in the Western Conference, after all. On top of the most obvious and necessary next step – acquire more elite talent – Calgary has other pressing areas of concern that will need to addressed if they want to find a way out of the basement sooner rather than later.
Find Functional Toughness
A lot of the Flames youngsters looking to break into the show over the next few years aren’t big bodies. Granlund, Baertschi, Reinhart, Gaudreau – none of them tip the scales. It’s also true this coaching staff and executive team is interested in upping the grit factor of this roster moving forward as a result.
The challenge is to do so without undermining the “ability to play hockey” factor at the same time. I’ve said before that “toughness” as a skill is the only one in the game that also trumps the typical (and very necessary) threshold of “must be able to play hockey at an NHL level” to get a player in the league. Put another way – the only type of sub-replacement level guy who persists on NHL rosters to this day is the guy who has “grit” as a lone item on his hockey resume.
No other player type gets this sort of pass. Unfortunately, the preference for non-functional tough guys can be a trap, particularly for lousy teams. Observe, for instance, how earnestly the Edmonton Oilers have added sandpaper and goons to their roster each and every off-season during their ever expanding rebuild. Notice as well how that has done exactly nothing to prevent injuries or raise the level of the team’s play.
So if the Flames are going to pursue big bodies with fire in their eyes and malice in their hearts, they should also make it a mandate that their targets can actually play the game to some reasonable degree. Otherwise they might as well slap a pair of skates on some MMA fighters.
The Utility of a Nice Bottom End
Let’s look at the utility of a functional bottom end of the roster with an illustrative comparison: the Calgary Flames vs the Chicago Blackhawks…
We all know the there is a striking difference between each club’s top-end, but there is also a marked advantage for Chicago when it comes to their depth as well. Let’s have a look:
|Player||ES ICE||ZS %||Corsi %||Corsi Rel||QoC %|
|Player||ES ICE||ZS %||Corsi %||Corsi Rel||QoC %|
These tables show the lowest ice time forwards for each team, as well as their average even strength ice time per game, zone start ratio (offensive zone/defensive zone), corsi rate (all shots for/all shots against), relative corsi rate (corsi relative to the rest of the team) and a quality of competition metric (average % of ice time of opponents for each player).
Excluded from the analysis were players who didn’t regularly appear in the NHL – so less than 30 games. The Flames in particular had a large cast of rotating characters who had a cup of coffee in the show, but there is sample size concerns with their results.
The Chicago Blackhawks mixed a couple of relative heavyweights (Brandon Bollig and Bryan Bickell) in with a couple of capable NHLers in Smith and Krueger at the bottom end (plus Handzus…the one area the Hawks could stand to improve the middle rotation). Every player in question finished the year with a corsi above 50%. In addition, no Hawks player averaged less than 10 minutes of ES ice per night and everyone a quality of competition of above 20%.
What’s noteworthy on the Blackhawks side is Quenneville absolutely buried a portion of his bottom end: Krueger, Smith and Bollig had some of the lowest zone start ratios in the league and they still managed not to be hopelessly outshot in aggregate. That left the Hawks the ability to grant players like Kane, Toews and Hossa the high ground most nights – those guys had zone starts of 62% or better (!!). We call this “the Sedin treatment” because it’s what Alain Vigneault did with the twins when they were winning scoring titles in Vancouver.
On the Flames end of the spectrum, Kevin Westgarth and Brian McGrattan are the obvious outliers. They have the worst possession ratings of anyone involved (both absolute and relative) despite playing by far the easiest minutes available. They mostly skated against other 6-7 min/guys, started more often in the offensive zone and still spent way too much time watching pucks get fired at their own net. As a consequence, Bob Hartley could only afford to give them about 6 minutes of work every night.
The effect of playing a couple of sub-replacement enforcers every night ripples throughout the roster: there are less o-zone starts for the top-6 players since some of them have to be sacrificed to the tough guys. And because enforcers can’t defend, score, or play special teams, there is an increased burden on the rest of the guys to get things accomplished, a burden that is magnified when the top is playing through a rough patch or the team is hobbled by injuries.
In addition, non-functional tough guys also drag down the other, potentially useful players who are stuck playing with them. For example, Lance Bouma’s corsi rate was 43.5% for the year, but when he was on the ice with either Westgarth or McGrattan, it cratered to 38.2 and 39.5 respectively. In contrast, when Bouma played with Mikael Backlund or TJ Galiardi, his results were much improved (49.5 and 52.3 respectively). In short, it’s pretty much impossible to make any 4th line saddled with a pure enforcer to be effective…outside of sitting the big guy on the bench for the rest of the game.
The Way Forward
Bouma is a good example of a guy who may be able to fill this niche for the Flames as he matures: a defensively capable NHLer who is tough but can actually play the game. Calgary’s signing of David Wolf may be an indication that the org is starting to look to fill the team’s toughness quotient with a Bryan Bickell type player rather than a Dave Semenko.
I’ve been identified as guy who doesn’t like “toughness”. My position is a bit more nuanced: I think a lot of NHL coaches and GM’s over-emphasize toughness to the degree that it alone is considered a good enough factor to get a player on an NHL roster. In contrast, I consider toughness a tool like any other attribute and not an end unto itself. I’m all for tough guys – as long as they can leverage that toughness to promote good outcomes (like scoring more goals or giving up less goals).
Calgary probably doesn’t have to worry about skating a Krueger-eqsue line next year since they are still at least two seasons away from competing. Still, the goal for the club for when it finally emerges at the bright end of the dark tunnel should be to have functional toughness taking the place of it’s current collection of sub-replacement level ruffians.