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.
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.
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.