Five things: I guess I knew it was coming

1. Well well well

Since the last publication in this space here, the Flames have gone 0-fer in five straight games, running their losing streak to six.

In reading the comments here on the site and in other Flames-related destinations around the internet, from people who swore up and down that all the winning the team did early on was 100 percent feasible, I’ve been shocked to see that people are more or less fine with this. Well, maybe “fine with this” is not the right term, because no one likes to lose any games — let alone six straight — but it seems to be a grudging acceptance.

This team has quickly plummeted down the Western Conference standings, going from a sterling 17-8-2 to a far less impressive 17-14-2. And all of a sudden everything that they seemed to be doing right, by virtue of what Flames fans considered to be hard work rather than good luck, they are now doing wrong.

2. Any analog?

You could say that in a lot of ways, what’s gone wrong in Edmonton for the whole season has also gone wrong for the Flames these last six games. They’re getting subpar goaltending, and they’re not scoring anywhere near enough. This should ring very, very true in Edmonton, and Flames will also recognize this as the team’s actual talent level.

But what’s more interesting to me than kicking through the wreckage in Edmonton and watching the Flames continue to plummet into the still-smoldering crater they’ve left on the league this year, is to examine what’s happening in Toronto right this second.

The Leafs are 10-1-1. They are winning a ton and they’re doing it in a very Flames-y way (or rather, the Flames were winning earlier this year in a very 2013-Leaf-y way): They’ve scored nearly 4.1 goals per game, because they’re shooting 14.2 percent. And they’re also doing it despite the fact that their possession rate is only 42.7 percent.

Which is to say that this success is unsustainable. Now let’s compare and contrast the reactions of coaches and management to those runs of success. One of these quotes is from Randy Carlyle, and the other is from Brian Burke before the Flames descended into this tailspin:

Option 1: 

“Now I feel that we are slipping. … I don’t think you could say we’re going to bottle that and take that to the bank tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, we felt good about ourselves.’ From an execeution standpoint and a defensive standpoint, we didn’t seem to have any energy in our forecheck. We were receiving, and we stopped skating. But we won.”

Option 2:

“We built a foundation of hard work and tenacity. … I think we’ve overachieved above what anyone would have expected. If [we] can keep winning games, we want to keep winning games. You know, we said it last year: Our goal is to win as many games as we can. That’s never going to change. Every night when they drop the puck your goal has to be to win that game, and if that creates some runaway expectations, then we’ll live with that.”

You of course understand that Option 1 is Carlyle speaking after the Leafs beat the Ducks 6-2 Tuesday night, and Option 2 is Burke speaking ahead of the Leafs’ win over Calgary a little more than a week ago. That’s so interesting to me.

3. What’s the problem?

The first reason that’s interesting is because it shows what a 180 Carlyle and the entire Leafs management has done since Brendan Shanahan brought Kyle Dubas and the team’s analytics department aboard this summer. Where before Carlyle would have attributed every win to Hard Work and Sticking To The Systems, and every loss to Not Executing. Every win was also validation of his coaching genius, and every loss the result of a terrible effort from his players.

And now Randy Carlyle is saying he’s not happy to blow out one of the best teams in the league. What a difference a year and a missed playoff make, eh? All the “fancy stats” mumbo jumbo people only don’t like hearing about when their team is on the wrong side of them really does work over the course of a year, and all it takes is a seemingly-baffling collapse to do it. So about that…

Burke’s reaction to the winning the team did to start the year is vintage boilerplate Leafs positive affirmations that everything you do is right all the time.

I think the thing he says about raised expectations is particularly worrisome, because while in and of themselves, higher expectations among the fanbase is to be expected. Fans generally always think a team is going to be better at everything — drafting, developing, playing, etc. — than it is in reality, and that’s evidenced by just how many Flames fans sat mouths agape at the smoke-and-mirrors trickery Calgary spent the first two months of the season pulling off. WOW THEY CAN DO THIS ALL YEAR BECAUSE THEY WORK HARD and so on.

Burke buys into that to some extent: That results reflect anything in particular that can be attributed to hard work, even in the short term. But we’re seeing now just how wrong that line of thinking is.

4. Will it continue?

So obviously the Flames will win some games, probably even a few of them in a row, here in a little while. Unless you are truly, Oilers-level unlucky, you don’t just go around losing six in a row with regularity. But the thing is, and I’ve said this before, there shouldn’t really be any great surprise here if the Flames win four of their next 20 or something like that.

The thing is that these results actually came as the possession has improved. Kari Ramo and Jonas Hiller have stopped just 86.1 percent of the shots they’ve faced in all situations during this six-game skid, and the Flames have only shot 5.1 percent. This is a shocking low in terms of bad luck, but when you rode good luck for so long, maybe you should come to expect that the tables will turn.

The Flames’ corsi-for in this stretch is 52.9 percent at evens, which is better than anyone should have reasonably expected, and people will point to that as signs of growth, or success, or whatever you’d like to call it. They’ll say the results don’t follow.

But when the score is tied, the Flames are actually still below sea level at 48.5 percent. And when they’re leading (which obviously hasn’t been often) they’re only at 41.7 percent. 

And when they’re trailing, that’s where they pick up the steam: 57.5 percent corsi-for. But what that ignores is that even in pressing as they have for to come from behind in these six games, they actually have a rather middling possession share in comparison with other teams that have also trailed in the same period (they’re just 12th in the league in trailing 5v5 CF% since Dec. 6). Likewise, when the game is within a goal in either direction, the Flames are 10th in possession at 52.4 percent, and here again you have to understand that they’ve trailed by one a lot more often than they’ve either been tied or ahead by one during that stretch.

So even when the puck’s going the right way for them, they’re not really going the right way. They aren’t leaning on teams when they’re ahead, and they’re not pressing effectively enough when they’re behind. I’d bank on more losses coming down the pike relatively soon, though not in the volume seen of late.

Those all-too-common frantic third-period comebacks are almost certainly a thing of the past.

5. Should of worked harder

I’ve been told that hard work is enough to overcome bad possession numbers. So when the team posts good possession numbers (because they’re losing all the time now!) they are working so not-hard that it makes you wonder whether hard work was ever the reason they were winning at all!

  • Captain Ron

    The comparison of the Flames and Oilers rings hollow. The Oilers are a defeated group and major changes are likely coming to senior management and some key players. The Flames are an optimistic bunch who are well coached and seem to have sorted out management issues. The recent losing records of both teams are superficially similar but the organisations are in very different places.

  • RexLibris

    These are valid points however I think they could also apply to any number of fanbases.

    As you mention, the narrative being generated by “some” of the Flames fan base (I think it is important not to say “all”) crediting the results with hard work and the unrecognized talents within the organization echo my own experiences in watching the Oilers go through similar runs in the past.

    There was a time when the fan base in Edmonton believed that they had tremendous center depth with Shawn Horcoff, Sam Gagner, Kyle Brodziak and Gilbert Brule.

    They had convinced themselves that half a season of Ryan Whitney scoring nearly a ppg pace was proof that they had won the Vishnovsky trade and had a bona fide stud defenseman.

    Khabibulin carrying a .940 sv% around for a dozen games or so meant that he had found his form as a late-generation goaltender.

    This isn’t any different that what was being said in Toronto in seasons past where James Reimer was a Vezina-quality goaltender, Dion Phaneuf was the best captain in the league and so on and so forth.

    The possession metrics are interesting, and score-adjusted especially reveals a great deal of information about not only the Flames but also the teams against whom they have lost.

    With regards to a six-game losing streak following the dizzying heights from earlier this season, I don’t think the Calgary Flames are either of these two teams, although likely a little closer to the where they are now rather than where they were a month ago.

    And as for dropping consecutive games? When the Flames hit the double-digits, say eleven games in a row, then we’ll talk about expectations and cratering. 🙂

  • icedawg_42

    The peaks and valleys are enough for me to raise an eyebrow, but at the same time these are the ebbs and flows of an 82 game NHL season. I don’t think anyone expected the Flames to go the entire season without losing 2 games in a row. I would caution that even a devout follower of fancy stats has to admit that 6 games..even 10 games is too small a sample size to grade a team overall.

    To me, more telling is the eye test. Everyone kept saying how well the Flames played in Buffalo, outshooting them 45-19 or whatever – and the underlying numbers seemed to agree..Personally I thought that game was awful. Worrisome. None of those shots (or the play of the Flames for that matter) was from dangerous areas. They weren’t “hard” in the important areas on the ice. Defensively or offensively. Fancy stats aside, the team did not pass the ‘stink test’ to the eye. To me personally that’s my litmus test. Since then I’ve seen the team slowly start to get back into some of those habits. They’re creeping into the ugly areas, starting slowly to create a little havoc. I think things are going to turn around soon – Not to the degree of their winning percentage has been this season, but it wont surprise me in the least to see them start to perform at around a .500 clip. I see no gloom and doom whatsoever, as long as the expectations are in line (again .500)

    • Captain Ron

      I tend to agree with this sentiment. I was actually shocked to see the increase in possession numbers over the last couple of games because I didn’t get that impression from watching them play.

  • Captain Ron

    Your pulse on how Flames fans feel about there team is “out to lunch”.

    Many don’t really care how Toronto and Edmonton are doing things,or how they compare to Calgary.

    The real” Smoke and Mirrors” is in your writing.