The Flames near the 20-game mark in a position nobody could have anticipated heading into the season – firmly ensconced in the playoff picture near the top of the Western Conference. The Flames have scored a conference high 59 goals in 19 games and are ahead of heavy hitters like Los Angeles, San Jose and Chicago in the standings.
Will it last? And, if not, should the Flames results so far be completely dismissed as good fortune? No to both, I’d say.
– Those familiar with PDO are no doubt already aware that the Flames are riding a tidal wave of good luck to start the season. They have the third highest combined save percentage and shooting percentage in the league behind Pittsburgh and Nashville (102.8).
It should go without saying that this won’t continue.
It’s not a comment on the Flames hard work nor a wet blanket designed to cynically dismiss their abilities. It’s just a statement of fact: teams don’t maintain those sorts of percentages long-term in this league. Especially not teams who don’t boast a Sidney Crosby up front or Henrik Lundqvist in net. Sometimes everything just clicks for a club. Right now is Calgary’s time.
– The only reason to make note of their PDO driven success is to ensure you don’t fall into false narratives about the club’s results. It’s important to stay grounded about the Calgary’s actual talent base and to keep things straight once the percentages regress.
An object lesson is the Colorado Avalanche. Last season, they rode incredibly good percentages to an unexpectedly high finish, leading their decision makers to conclude their club had turned the corner. As a result, the Avs made all the wrong decisions during the off-season: a lousy possession team, they let two of their better possession players go in PA Parenteau and Paul Stastny and replaced them with lesser two-way players in Jarome Iginla and Danny Briere. They also didn’t do much with their underwhelming, lead-footed blueline.
Despite their bevy of young talent, Colorado has put up even worse possession rates this season than they did last year. Their goaltending and finishing has come back down to earth and more or less napalmed their playoff hopes in the first quarter of the season. It’s nice to walk the garden path, just make sure you don’t get lost. That thing they say about players becoming overconfident by “reading their press clippings”? That can happen with management too.
– I’d say the only narrative Flames fans and management should be on guard for (beyond the regular stuff like “the team got complacent” or “the coach has lost the room”) is if the results regress in concert with the return of one or all of Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan, Joe Colborne and Mason Raymond. If that happens, the two things will likely be unrelated, but it will be tempting to conclude that “the Flames are better without player(s) X,Y, Z”
– All that said, there are lots of reasons to be excited about the Flames start, even if you understand their place in the standings probably aren’t indicative of their true talent. The organization has seen a lot of progression from key assets, with a few pleasant surprises along the way.
– Let’s start with Sean Monahan, who seems to have taken a very real step forward. Monahan is second amongst regular forwards in terms of possession and he’s playing much tougher circumstances than last year. He’s also continuing to finish at a double digit pace, which, while not definitive, is a good sign that he might be an above average scorer.
– The best Flames player in terms of driving play this year? The unlikely Paul Byron, who has been a revelation thus far. Re-signed to a one-year, “prove it” deal this summer, Paul Byron doesn’t just look like a legit NHLer so far this season, he looks like a very, very good one. He’s playing in different circumstances in all game states and driving play. For my money, he’s been Calgary’s most consistent forward up front this year.
This isn’t to say Byron is going to become a scoring leader or Selke candidate or some point – just that it looks like he’s going to be a quality depth option for Calgary as they rebuild. As the Edmonton Oilers have ably demonstrated, it takes more than just collecting high draft picks to dig yourself out of the conference basement.
– Speaking of quality depth guys, Josh Jooris and Lance Bouma seem to be establishing themselves as high utility bottom rotation forwards. Both guys can skate, play the middle and wing and kill penalties. Another step towards establishing functional toughness.
– Of course, there’s also TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano. While their performance last year was obviously stellar, there was a question whether one or both would be able to replicate it again this season. Obviously there’s no question any longer – they have indisputably been one of the best pairings in the league through the early going. The points are nice, but their true value is their ability to control play in the very toughest of circumstances. One doesn’t need advanced stats to see the “Brodano” effect on the ice – things visibly shift for the better whenever they’re on together.
If the Flames turn this ship around in the next year or two, it will be because of their elite first pairing.
– Johnny Gaudreau has already proven that he can play at this level, which was the last, lingering issue surrounding the mighty mite. There’s still some distance for Gaudreau to travel before he’s anywhere near his peak, but he’s already generating 10-bell chances at a relatively high clip. Right now he’s mostly doing that for others through crafty passes from the perimeter. You’ll know Johnny has taken the next step when he starts putting more pucks on net from dangerous areas of the ice himself.
– Sven Baertschi had a bumpy ride back into the big league, but he’s started to look a lot more comfortable over the last week or so. The pass he made to spring Byron for his break-away goal against the Senators, for example, was a rare thing of beauty.
The underlying numbers are also complimentary of Baertschi’s play – he’s a plus relative possession player (third best on the team) despite some pretty tough zone starts so far (40%). We’re only talking about 6 games here, so caveat emptor, but after a first few underwhelming contests, Beartschi is starting to look legit.
It goes without saying that it would be a huge boon to the Flames rebuilding efforts if Baertschi can get on back on track as a prospect. Here’s hoping he can stick around and continue build on his recent good performances.
– Finally, although the Flames team-wide possession is hardly inspiring so far (45.9%, 4th worst in the NHL), keep in mind the club struggled out of the gate (39% fenwick, ahead of only Buffalo) and has actually been slowly improving ever since. This is despite one of the cheapest forward rosters in the league being decimated by injuries. That things haven’t totally collapsed given the 7 rookies and sophomores Calgary is dressing every night is actually a point in the team’s favour. It will be interesting to see how much Calgary can tilt the ice and if they get healthy.