Five things: They just keep winning

1. At the quarter pole

This is beginning to defy explanation, really. That’s all you can say about it.

We’re almost all the way through November and the Flames sit SIXTH in the National Hockey League, with 26 points from 20 games. They’re only three points back of the league-leading Canadiens, who have played the same number of games against a much tougher schedule.

I am incredulous. Plus-10 goal differential, only six regulation losses, nearly unbeatable both home and away. They’ve taken points from eight of their last 10 games. It defies explanation.

They’re doing it with incredibly balanced scoring; seven different guys have a double-digit point total (about a 40-point pace), six have five goals (roughly a 20-goal pace for the season). That’s what you want out of your team in an ideal world, apart from the fact that maybe you want someone other than a defenseman being the one who’s looking like an 80-point player. Lots of guys have been impressive at times, and a few have been impressive throughout. You don’t need to name names here, really, because everyone knows exactly who I’m talking about.

Meanwhile, Jonas Hiller continues to be very impressive in net, boasting a .920 save percentage through 14 appearances, and papering over that dismal .903 from Karri Ramo quite nicely.

And it’s cool for fans because while the team undoubtedly improved in some areas (namely goal with the Hiller acquisition this summer) no one could have really thought this was a team that would be anywhere near this good. Which is why I’ve gotten ripped so hard in the comments, I guess. I thought they’d be bottom-three terrible and advocated for more tear-down, but they keep winning and in doing so proving me and all other doubters wrong.

2. But…

I like to think the FN readership is smart enough to know this will never ever ever last, and that every win is actually only serving to mask the deep and indelible problems this team has. Even if it stretches for 82 games and this team miraculously makes the playoffs, you have to acknowledge that the underpinnings of this insane 20-game run of success is essentially 20 games worth of smoke and mirrors.

The Flames, as a team, are shooting at 11.7 percent. A total of 13 guys have shooting percentages in double digits right now, and the only two who have scored who are anywhere below that number are Curtis Glencross and Mikael Backlund, both of whom are at 5.6 percent. That says the Flames have been extraordinarily lucky in shooting the puck. There’s no other way to view a team with 61 goals (3.05 per night) on just 523 shots (26.15 per night).

This is a site that really made its bones by being analytical about the team, examining the many problems with the roster we all saw coming long before management did and saying, “These numbers don’t hold up.” So why is now different? Because they’re rebuilding and this so-called success is being driven by young guys and not old ones? That doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it’s not like Josh Jooris, no matter how hard he goes to the net, is ever going to shoot north of 20 percent over an extended period of time. Jooris is, in fact, not all that good. But he’s succeeding right now, and the vibe I get out of Flames fans these days is that they think it’s going to last forever.

Likewise, one must acknowledge once again that Hiller has been great, but if you believe a goaltender whose numbers since 2011 have gone .910, .913, .911 is all of a sudden a .920 goaltender again at age 32, I don’t even know what to say to you.

3. Tuesday night’s game

The game against the Ducks was a perfect example. Flames fans’ reaction: “What a comeback! They really earned it with that late push!”

That late push, though, was rooted in Calgary’s unsustainable luck and nothing else. Final corsi events at even strength over 65 minutes were 46-28 for Anaheim, giving the Flames a CF% of 37.8 percent. Which as you know full well is beyond pathetic.

And in that fateful third period, in which the Flames scored three goals to mount their comeback before relinquishing the lead? Even-strength attempts were 14-10 for Anaheim, which you’ll recall was a road team that entered the period with a lead, and had to kill two power plays during that time.

A total of six Flames didn’t finish in negative possession Tuesday night: Giordano-Brodie (obviously), McGrattan, Bollig, Monahan, and Glencross. The rest of the team predictably got buried.

But they work so hard, I guess. That’s how they quote-unquote earned the W by getting to the shootout. 

4. It’s a pattern

Know why they look like they’re working so hard? Because other teams make outpossessing them look so easy.

Obviously let’s not pretend like this is a team with good possession numbers — which some people have actually argued to me is the case, somehow. By any measure, they’ve gotten killed this season. Ahead of Wednesday night’s games, Calgary had the third-worst corsi in the league at 43.4 percent, ahead of only Colorado (in the neighborhood at 43.2) and Buffalo (35.6, no one’s catching them). Even Toronto and Philadelphia were pretty comfortably ahead of them, despite also being downright pathetic.

And I figured you’d want to argue that maybe the big outlier games, like when Calgary conceded 70-something even-strength shot attempts to Chicago, are the reason that number is so low. And sure, obviously those don’t help. But I went back and looked, and the number of games in which Calgary has actually out-attempted its opponents at 5-on-5 is shockingly low.

It’s four.

Just four times in 20 games have the Flames had the puck more often than their opponents: The shootout loss to Montreal (40-33), the five-goal win over Carolina (41-38), the shootout win over Nashville (50-37), and the win over the Senators (43-35).

You have to ask yourself whether out-attempting one’s opponents in just 20 percent of one’s games is the hallmark of a good team that works hard, or a team that’s just gotten super-lucky. If you’re willing to argue the former, and I know so many of you are, then please keep in mind that “Hard Work” is a lot like “Shot Quality” was for Colorado, or “The System” was for Toronto. Buzzwords used to explain something so statistically improbable that they defy rational explanation.

5. Why do people get enticed?

You know this rationally, in your head. You know the Flames are bad. You look at any numbers but the goal differential and the win total and you see this is a team that’s doomed to drop off. There’s no way to say when that drop-off is going to come, but you and I and everyone else who’s being intellectually honest know it will.

Is it fun to see Your Team win? Sure it is. Of course. You prefer it to losing. But so much talk in hockey over the last few years has been about paying attention to “the process” of winning, rather than the results themselves. Fans choose to ignore that when “the process” stinks, as it does in Calgary, but the results keep tumbling out of a tough schedule like coins out of a slot machine that hit jackpot.

It’s fantasy, though. That’s all it is. I read a story on ESPN.com the other day about whether the Carolina Hurricanes should trade Eric Staal and Cam Ward and just go into full-on tank mode for the season, and Craig Button (a man who should know a thing or three about managing awful teams), had an interesting and familiar theory:

“[It’s like] approaching a different tax threshold. Why make an extra $10 if it means you’re going to be taxed an extra 10 percent on your whole salary? Why move yourself into a higher tax bracket if it means you’re moving yourself further from assets such as Eichel and McDavid.

‘It’s a straight economic choice: Why would you do that?'”

Why indeed. Obviously the Flames aren’t choosing to get just about every bounce to go their way their season. That’s just the bounces doing what the bounces do. But that (and the Hiller signing this summer which ensured better goaltending than what they’ve received the last few years) is moving them further away from what should have been their goal all along: Being as bad as possible.

Fans like winning, yeah, but it comes at a price, especially if it continues long enough for management to start believing in it. One need look no further than those aforementioned Leafs to see what hell can await bad teams that win despite themselves.

  • Parallex

    Everyone knows that the Ducks are better then the Flames. Everyone knows that the Flames are over-achieving.

    But so far, no one has been able to convincingly explain why… lucky bounces and shot location?? Please.

    But it can’t be as simple as determination and team work! Or is it?

    I’ve seen countless times over the years where the Flames heavily out-shot, out-played, and dominate possession but still loose. Why? Because if a team can keep a game close, all they need to do is capitalize on there chances if given, and steal the game. Chicago do it to many times, and that’s exactly what Calgary did to Anaheim.

    Work smarter, not harder, right? The Flames players are working hard, or performing well, yes… but they are focused on cashing in on any inch that a team will give them, and it’s working.

    Think David and Goliath, or Ali and Foreman.. they aren’t trying to dominate, just outlast the opponent and cash in on there chances.

  • supra steve

    So, if the Flames make the playoffs in a year 2 of a rebuild, is that a bad thing? I understand the whole “regression” proposition. But, if they make the playoffs, despite an unrealistic PDO, is that really a bad thing for a year 2 of rebuild? Doesn’t the “Process of Winning” first include making the playoffs?

    That’s IF the Flames make the playoffs, of course.

    • Parallex

      “But, if they make the playoffs, despite an unrealistic PDO, is that really a bad thing for a year 2 of rebuild?”

      Potentially yes.

      If they get in based on unsustainable variance then all it does long term is cost us draft position and create unrealistic consumer expectations, and effectively extend the rebuild at best.

      At worst it creates a situation where the above happens and management does counter-productive things (Not sell upcoming UFA’s at the deadline, trade futures for nows, make ill-timed UFA signings) and we find ourselves forced back into the purgatory of “not good enough to make the playoffs but too good to get a elite player draft pick” that we were in during the late-Sutter/early-Feaster years while burning through the cost-controlled years of our young assets with nothing to show for it.

      I want the teams results to match their play no more, no less.

      • piscera.infada

        If they get in based on unsustainable variance then all it does long term is cost us draft position and create unrealistic consumer expectations, and effectively extend the rebuild at best.

        I agree with you the sense that unsustainable variance can lead to an extended rebuild if management assumes the team is not experiencing unsustainable variance. I would argue on the flip-side though, that there are far more examples of an organization’s rebuild being extended by constantly worrying more about draft position then it does about winning.

        In reality, we need to hope that Flames don’t think they’re better then the numbers show that they are. Yet, I would argue that this is a different argument all together. Is there anything inherently negative about making the playoffs? No, but there surely is in finishing last. I have faith from what I’ve heard Treliving say, that this team will not be pushing “all-in” this year regardless of if they are first in the league, just on the outside looking in, or way out of it come the trade deadline. Of course, that’s just how I see it, and I’ve been wrong before.

      • Dayzz

        I get what you’re saying about management making counterproductive moves (in the long term) and hurting the rebuild in “going for it now”. But I don’t think its fair to say that making the playoffs this season will hurt the rebuild as a whole. What about the valuable playoff experience gained for our young, and even some of our veteran players? That experience and growth alone, to me at least, is far more valuable than another high pick, especially since we are out of McDavid/Eichel contention. Winning is key to building success, something our fellow Albertans to the north don’t quite seem to understand. My two cents, GFG!!

  • KiLLKiND

    During the Summer I loved reading the “5 Things” but lately it has just been 1 thing and that is the Flames are lucky it’s not going to continue blah blah blah. We know that already and everybody knows your standpoint on the matter. Please no matter how the next week progresses write about something else, you’re beating a dead horse and just saying the same thing 5 different ways.

  • piscera.infada

    I would agree with the article, but as other posters say, it’s been rehashed several times. Some fans, just won’t buy into the “advanced” stats, some will, don’t think you are going to convert anyone with a single article.

    The worry is that management does something silly like the Avs, or Leafs have done, giving big contracts to middling guys, that don’t help the team but actually drive it worse.

    For a new 5 things, I’d like to see an article showing what you would do, to make sure that doesn’t happen. How do you improve the team, if you end up like the Avs and making the playoffs this year, so you don’t have a top 10 draft pick, can you move some of the extra young talent in one area to improve in other areas (depth on defense, etc). How do you develop or become a team that improves possession stats, so we don’t become the one and done team, and back to perpetual 9-12th place team.

  • smith

    Lambert does a nice job writing but this subject is beaten to death. Yes the flames will probably come falling down at some point.

    How about an article on: 5 ways to make this team worse than buffalo, 5 ways to improve the teams possession stats, 5 players that would help the flames (long and short term), 5 things the flames should do or even some more college kid details.

    • Canrock 78

      I would like to take this one step farther I challenge lambert to list his detailed plan for Calgary to tank. 5 steps to Calgary getting Mcdavid. Its one thing to hide behind a keyboard. If you had the guts. I would like to be in the room when you tell Gio he should Try to loose. Didn’t BT. Say anyone trying to tank should get a punch in the mouth. The first part of the article was ok. Either the young players will grow into the system improving the fancy states or we will slip a bit either way there are 24 teams lookin up at us that’s pretty cool.

  • beloch

    Most people here know the Flames are likely to regress, but to what “norm” will they regress? Yes, they’re still not on the right side of 50% CF% or FF%, but their last 10 games are a huge improvement over the first 10 games, and the dividing line is the two games in which they lost Raymond, Stajan, Colborne, and Backlund.

    This team should have tanked hard with those injuries. That’s two of the team’s best possession forwards and the Squid replacement (you know, the guy who was supposed to lead in scoring). Instead, their underlying numbers actually got better while they continued to win.

    It’s starting to become apparent why Hockey’s Future rated the Flames prospect system as #2 in the league. The rookies knocking at the door are clear upgrades.

    Are the Flames going to make the playoffs this year? Well, sportsclubstats currently estimates a winning percentage of 54% over the remaining season has reasonable (but not guaranteed) odds of doing just that. The Flames are off to a good enough start that they need to crash hard to be out of the bubble, and with the underlying numbers firming up that might not happen.

    One thing is certain though, the Flames are out of the running for a high draft pick barring a big win at the lottery. Those who have been cheering for the team to tank for picks might as well drink their sorrows into a coma and join the rest of us cheering for a shot at the playoffs.

  • Mezzo

    Just to start, you obviously don’t understand how taxes work because only that extra $10.00 get taxed in the higher bracket. Alas that’s not the point, but dumb examples are dumb.

    Anyways, I guess this is as good of a place as any to start my rant entitled…

    Why I like Advanced Stats But Hate People Who Use Them

    1. Statistics and what do they mean?

    In my first stats class in university my professor said there are two fatal errors when analysing statistics; first, there are those that discount all statistics (and the relevant information they produce), and second those who believe they account for all truth.

    The benefits of statistics are easy to see. They are quantifiable and measurable, and often serve to separate facts from opinion and limits strong personalities from forcing their beliefs on others. In this regard statistics can be seen as evidence to support a claim, beyond that of simply “this is what I think because I experienced X”. Mostly, it is helpful for those who don’t have time to watch all the games, and thereby shed light on how the game occurred, objectively. In addition, I believe statistics are a good way to initially assess both players and teams, and shed light on how they play the game.

    However, statistics are still numbers. Numbers do not provide a complete picture of anything. They are a means to an end, and not an end in itself. When we forget this fact, and begin to equate the abstract with reality, we erect a potential barrier to the reality being studied. ie. we forget about intangibles, about human interaction, and what has become known as “luck”.

    I hate the term luck as we use it here because even the statistics we use lack a margin of error and attribute this to luck. If a guy has a high shooting percentage he is lucky, if he has a low shooting percentage he is unlucky, or if his name is McGrattan we will finally admit he just isn’t good at shooting the puck. Unlike numbers people are not consistent. They do not always regress to the mean.

    2. Corsi

    Corsi makes me sad. In honest admittance, I watched Flames games quite sparingly until last year, and as such I relied heavily on hockey blogs to gain an understanding into what happened during games. After not missing a game this year, forming my own opinions, then listening to the numbers breakdowns, I always found myself discontented with the results.

    Corsi measures shots. Not where, not how hard, and certainly not their potential for finding the back of the net. While it does have its merit I do not find it particularly indicative of the events during the game.

    For example, in the Flames comeback with the ducks, as Lambert has pointed out the Corsi events were 14-10 for the ducks. However, few of those “events” amounted to a near scoring chance, while the Flames had many odd-man opportunities and high(er?) percentage plays (atleast that is how I viewed it). Then again we did score a ridiculous goal (or two) at the end to tie it.

    On the other side, Corsi does help to illuminate which team drove the play, and coincide with possession numbers. Having a good corsi can definitely contribute to winning games. It also can not (see New Jersey 2013-14 season). But the reality is, that having a good corsi, fenwick, etc, means you are trending in the right direction towards being a good team. It has also proven that without this you can still be a good team, but not for an extended period of time (see: Colorado Avalanche 2013-14)

    I like corsi, but I do believe it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

    3. Small Sample-Sizes

    Some statistics, in small doses can be misleading or ineffective as a tool of assessment. Even with the Flames and the constant PDO and regression talks, having games against Carolina (the first one) and Montreal (the second one), can change the numbers quite drastically. The Flames have yet to lose by a large margin and as a result it drives their PDO up. Realistically, while the numbers are still unsustainable, I am unsure of how much (short-term) regression we should really be expecting. And in regards to expectations that leads me to…

    4. Most people who use advanced stats are A-holes

    mchockey and Lambert are two guys that jump to my mind when I think about this. Even Corey Pronman has a bit of it in him, and it makes me upset. We get it, you like stats, but discrediting others opinions because they don’t coincide with numbers comes off as bullish (the same can be said for the opposing argument). The only thing I will credit Lambert for is his vigilance in maintaining his view and not wavering to the temptation of being ambiguous – a trap many writers often fall into.

    In essence what I’m saying is that those who follow the advanced stats mantra often fall prey to looking to the future and not assessing the now. And in the case of FN, that future is continually either pessimism, or blind optimism (Sven for 50-60pt in rookie campaign based off of NHLE).

    To give a better example it reminds me of playing Roulette based on statistics and odds. The odds of 6 red occurring in a row are 1/2^6 = 1/64. Realistically, if there are 5 reds we should be betting black, hell after 2 reds you should bet black. Yet, we all seem to lose our money because when you follow this assumption eventually 7, 8, 9…etc reds in a row arise and bankrupt you. When we are right and go all-in on that 6th red, you declare yourself a statistical genius, when you are wrong you claim that you can’t predict the odds every time, yet when you talk to the dealer they usually tell you to ride the hot hand/number/colour. What I’m saying is that statistics don’t always mimic life, even if we want them to. We so often focus on what’s next that we miss the now, and don’t appreciate (and are often pissed off by) the guy who just won it big rooting on his favourite colour, not the statistically right choice.

    Which leads to me the final remark of…

    5. I can’t believe I’m saying this but…

    I actually like Lambert. I may disagree with his opinions but he has the moxy to make assertive decisions. All to often writers tend to point out the statistics but remain ambiguous in assessment in order to either a) appease or b) maintain the illusion of correctness all the time. I miss the days of blogs devoid of stats but ones (like lambert) that contain strong convictions towards their own opinions.

    Now please note this isn’t a shot at the writers here at FN. Ryan does a great job at giving us data and allowing us to make our own assumptions and sparks debate, and I truly look forward to when Kent writes. I do however, yearn for more opinion blogs being posted. Something that doesn’t seem to happen often enough.

    tl;dr I like stats but don’t like how invested some people are in them. Opinions outside of statistics aren’t the worst thing in the world to occur (if developed properly). Also sorry this was really long.

  • BurningSensation

    This is a classic case of ‘small sample size’, sure, 20 games gives us a picture, but the fluidity of the stats you are examining is, to be blunt, ridonkulous at this point of the season.

    Yes, the are not a good possession team.

    Yes, they have been lucky both in shooting % and evSv%

    Yes, this probably means they will ‘fall back to earth’ at some point

    But….

    – They are currently missing two of their better possession players in Backlund and Colborne (the RW guy, not the Colborne at C).

    – Hiller’s sv% is slowly returning to norm, but he is still managing to win games. Hunh.

    – Monahan appears to be visibly a better player this year than last. Like, obviously better to even the untrained, non-Lambertian eye. Can he continue to improve? Given he is barely 19, I’m going to go with ‘Yes’.

    – Are there some loudmouths who are problaiming a playoff berth after just 20 games? Yep. Are they wrong? Not so far they aren’t.

    – Last, but not least, I’ve said this before, but THERE IS NO WAY THE FLAMES COULD FINISH IN THE MCDAVID DERBY. It just wasn’t going to happen with Gio-Brodie and the emerging talent on the roster.Not just because we aren’t bad enough to finish last, but also because every team with even half a question mark (other than Toronto) about it’s team has gotten in on the ‘tanking’ derby. Buffalo, Philly, Columbus, Florida, Carolina, Edmonton, etc., etc. There are as many, if not more teams in the hunt for last, than in the hunt for first.

    Might as well just win.

  • Reidja

    1) I don’t believe the Flames were ever bottom-3 bad. More like bottom 6-8.

    2) To me, stats need to be used in conjunction with the eye test. It doesn’t matter which one comes first, as long as one is used to confirm the other. If they don’t match, you know you have a problem and need to re-evaluate.

    That said, most fans are fan-boys. Plain and simple.

    Gaudreau before the season – Calder front-runner!

    Gaudreau after his first 5 games – send him down!

    Gaudreau now – he can do no wrong!

    Baertschi a couple of years ago vs. Baerstchi now.

    The majority of fans are all about what have you done for me lately?

    The majority of Flames fans didn’t believe the numbers during the last few years of the Iginla era. Only, “Iggy is awesome” idol worship.

    Flames fans had no problem believing in the stats last year in regards to the Avs or in regards to the Wild.

    Flames fans delighted gleefully in the numbers when it came to the hated Maple Leafs, repeating the synopsis of them ad-nauseum.

    But, it happens to their own team and suddenly all of these fans who come to FN because they’re “intellectually honest,” disregard the numbers for any excuse they can come up with.

    I love watching Calgary win, but I also loved watching them last year when they were losing. It’s their identity and culture and youth, energy and enthusiasm that I really love though. That and the hope for the future, of what might come to be.

    That said, I’ve yet to read one comment stating that the Flames’ success is legit based on anything other than the same tired old narratives that Ryan outlines in his article.

    Yes, you have to show up for 60 minutes to beat the Flames, but Darryl had the Flames like that for a period of time during his tenure as well. It doesn’t matter, the success won’t last without the talent and even Cinderella teams that make it to the finals never win and don’t go back.

    My worry is that when Calgary does come back down, that fans will then turn on the rebuild process. I hope not. Because I believe in the rebuild and the youth in their system.

    I also believe that tanking isn’t the way to go (though it worked for Pittsburgh twice for 3 Cups), that a winning culture needs to be instilled. All of that stuff. The Flames are on the right path and it’s exciting, but will there be patience when they fall of? I wonder. Because some of the comments from posters on here who have previously been ‘all about the numbers,’ blow me away.

    Or things like this, from Mezzo, “Corsi measures shots. Not where, not how hard, and certainly not their potential for finding the back of the net. While it does have its merit I do not find it particularly indicative of the events during the game.”

    Because it doesn’t have to. Over the course of games, that stuff all evens out and thinking that your team is constantly outshot, but, “that’s just because my team takes wicked, awesome, super-high quality shots while other teams are just lobbing them in from enter ice,” is absurd.

    I’m enjoying the winning as much as anyone, but those fans who think Calgary is somehow magically different than every other example of lucky recent teams simply because Calgary is ‘their team,’ are merely fooling themselves.

    Great article Ryan. Here’s hoping Calgary stays the course when the inevitable happens.

    • piscera.infada

      My worry is that when Calgary does come back down, that fans will then turn on the rebuild process. I hope not. Because I believe in the rebuild and the youth in their system.

      I also believe that tanking isn’t the way to go (though it worked for Pittsburgh twice for 3 Cups), that a winning culture needs to be instilled. All of that stuff. The Flames are on the right path and it’s exciting, but will there be patience when they fall of? I wonder. Because some of the comments from posters on here who have previously been ‘all about the numbers,’ blow me away.

      I agree with you on this as well. However, as I wrote on the gameday post, hearing Treliving on the Fan this afternoon put me at ease. He seemed to acknowledge exactly what we’ve been echoing on her for the past weeks (about sustainability), but most optimistically, he spoke at length about the long-term, and not making moves for short-term success when it hurts the long-term. That’s exactly what we need to hear.

    • Mezzo

      I agree with your analysis, and I never said corsi did, rather, I am simply saying that corsi doesn’t necessarily equate with winning. I am not saying that the Flames take “super awesome amazing shots” what I am saying is that using corsi to explain a small sample-size (time frame in this instance) such as the third period in the Anahiem-Flames game is as irresponsible as disregarding statistics all together. The events were 14-10 in favour of the Ducks? Cool, that explains nothing.

      I also did not state that the Flames would not regress – all the data suggests it – but rather, certain people seem more content with anticipating the aforementioned regression than enjoying the game.

      • Jeremy

        That’s because stat geeks will never enjoy the game when the stats prove them wrong. And I have also come to the conclusion most stats geeks don’t really “watch” the game.

        Stats are all well and good. But to try and explain why the Flames are “wrong” and the stats are “right” day in and day out just becomes an exercise in futility.

        You stats guys aren’t always right, and a little bit of humility would go a long way.

      • Jeremy

        I agree that it can be a fine line between seeing your team succeed and being told that that success is not sustainable and agreeing with it.

        Rereading your post, I understand your view on Corsi better.

        My point is that so many people who have previously used stats to support their arguments suddenly seem to reject the entire notion of them simply because the stats are not supporting their favourite teams’s current run of success.

        • Mezzo

          I totally agree and I admit I am guilty of it too. Interestingly we both see the fine line and find ourselves on slightly opposite sides. I enjoy informed debate and would like to reiterate that I agree with your posts to a tee. I just find a bit of optimism a tad more fun haha.