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!

  • redricardo

    Everyone needs to stop thinking of the advanced stats crowd as being smug, or know it alls, or meaning that if you know advanced stats it means you ignore the eye test.

    I’m a huge proponent of advanced stats, I found when I was getting into it that the way Kent explained them made sense, and they added to the way I watch hockey. Note, I said added… Not replaced.

    If you’re tremendously opposed to advanced stats, then in your head stop thinking of them as stats. Call it “information”. It’s something else to think about in addition to what your eyes are seeing. It isn’t one or the other, and if either side (stats v eye test crowds) claims that, then you’re ignoring a huge chunk of hockey.

    • Burnward

      Not sure if you’re referring to me, but I think there’s a chance. I don’t see them as know it alls. I just think the stats should be used as data, not as weapons to prove ones knowledge about the game. Sometimes I think that line gets crossed.

      • redricardo

        Absolutely not referring to you buddy. I find your comments mostly insightful. Lol.

        Just trying to steer the conversation a bit. I’ve noticed an influx of “us vs them” recently. If I come on here and point out stats, I’m told to just enjoy the ride, trust my eyes. Like… It has to be one or the other, mutually exclusive. As soon as one is pro-stats they’re automatically con-common sense.

        Like I said, just trying to steer the conversation a bit. Too much negativity recently.

    • ssamze

      Completely agree. The problem many of us have is the assumption that good corsi numbers always equals good team. Again not all advance stats advocate hold this stance, but many like Lambert do. They act as if they found the magic formula and perceives anyone not 100% sold on stats as inferior being. They don’t realize advanced stat is one of the many tools to evaluate a team.

      Edmonton has a good corsi number, but they are not necessarily better than Calgary. And that is not just because Calgary had more luck.

  • Reidja

    The point of this article was essentially, “I told you so.” Fair enough, lots of folks either keeping quiet or subtly changing their stance rather than admit wrong.

    That said, Derzie raises an interesting point in that the team is now losing despite better possession numbers, in contrast to when they we’re winning.

    Stats are really only predictive over a large sample size (fair enough) and do not explain the anomalies. Still, when used in conjunction with the eye test, they are invaluable. Again, it reminds me of Burke’s famous quote regarding support vs illumination.

    It’d be interesting to know stats-wise, outside of the ‘luck’ explanation, why Calgary has lost six in a row with superior possession numbers to when they were winning.

    • Burnward

      Not sure if this gets any traction here, but a splice out of a comment I made on the NYR Post-game thread… speaking about these very things.

      ….Rather than say its the “Hockey Gods” or some karmic correction, or “Regression to the Mean”, however, I’ve got to disagree and would go with Derbies’ comment that the “Vets”(current team w/injured players back) are playing a different game than the “Kids”(previously with injured guys out) in combination with a change-up for the better from the opposing teams. Its something that’s been gnawing at me since the Toronto game and came together after last night during a play in the 2nd period.

      The play in question was a desperate, defensive lunging poke check of the puck along the boards to push it out over the line. Great play which relieved the pressure and showed just that little bit of ‘extra’ effort. The thing that twigged in my mind, however, was that this was pretty much the first time I’d seen it all game to that point (saw it a couple more later), which was remarkable because I immediately thought back to when they were winning and I remembered that happening like a dozen times EVERY PERIOD? Hmmm, that’s different…. In the Chicago game I recalled saying to myself “How many times did you have the puck at or near their own Blueline and failed to get it out?” Which of course just reinforced Chicago’s already strong play and pressure.

      Then I set to wondering what other differences have developed that might be affecting things? I then remembered back to the Toronto and Buffalo games. Versus Toronto I was struck by how well Toronto played defensively, or at least how well they seemed to collapse to around the net and shut off the middle. That game was hard because we seemed to be getting some pretty good shots, and the rebounds were laying there, but the Flames either weren’t in position, in front of the net, to get them, or they were getting tied up just enough that they couldn’t get their sticks on them.

      Then after last night, I was remembering us against Buffalo and another shoe dropped. There we saw us get killed by Buffalo’s cross-ice, cross-crease back door tap-ins. Again we seemed to dominate but several key plays against led to “easy” goals against and another loss. The reason it came to mind is seeing us fail to connect so many times on the “spin at the sideboards, pass to the trailer in the high slot and shoot” play, time after time until Glencross finally connected on his one-timer at the end.

      The reason it connected was that I can’t remember the last time we scored on, or even attempted a back door play like the ones Buffalo killed us with, that I can still recall many of during ‘the winning’. Now we’re often dominating on shots (Corsi & fancy stats) but losing anyways. But most of our plays seem to be going across only 1/3-1/2 the ice(to the high slot) versus 1/2-3/4 or more(cross-crease or trap door plays. We’re getting the shots, but since they don’t shift as much are easier for goalies to defend and since we aren’t getting as many rebounds (not getting to the net, better D positioning against) we are winning the Corsi wars but losing the games.

      The final thought really came to the fore against SJ Sharks and pretty much ever since. Against SJ I thought Brodie played poorly with multiple long stretch passes gobled up as turnovers as well as getting rattled by very strong 2-man forechecking against. And again, after last night I can’t recall only once or twice in the last several games that play working.

      • Burnward

        I hear what you are saying. Stats basically assume that at the end of the day everything like that just comes out of the wash even. Basically, that’s true. Which is why the evolution of stats still has a ways to go, so that it can be used to analyze those events that fall outside of the norm.

  • DoubleDIon

    We have a much better real record in the games where we lose in corsi. It’s a weird thing.

    That said, I mostly believe in advanced stats. However, certain players and goaltenders can skew possession numbers. A hot goalie makes up for a lot of possession.

    There are also corsi busters who routinely shoot high percentages. If I remember right Tanguay routinely shot above 15%. Glencross usually shoots a high percentage too.

    I would think based on shot location Monahan will shoot a high percentage too.

    Advanced stats are like other stats. They need to be taken in context. Ie. 5 unobstructed point shots aren’t as good as a breakaway or 2 on 1. The Flames also block a lot of shots which skews some advanced metrics that only account for shots taken toward the net.

      • DoubleDIon

        It’s called chase effect and it makes my point. Advanced stats are like other stats. If you don’t factor in chase effect and players who consistently shoot a high percentage you don’t get the full story. Same is true of consistently high save percentages. Ie. You can survive crappy possession totals with Carey Price, you can’t with Joey Mac.

        Stamkos, Ribeiro and Tanguay all consistently post 15-20% shooting percentages. For the Flames, Glencross is consistently high and though it’s a smaller sample size, I’d argue Monahan will be because of where his shots come from and the quality of them.

      • DoubleDIon

        Not sure why you wouldn’t think that. Corsi is entirely determined by shots… Nothing else is measured. If I shoot 20% on 150 shots in the year I’m a 30 goal scorer which directly impacts the score. If I shoot 5% I have 7 or 8 goals.