A Flames Saving Grace: The Powerplay

The Flames currently find themselves in dire straits.  While starting the season off with a bang with 17 wins in their first 26 games, they’ve now come crashing back to earth and lost eight straight.  Was the hot string at the start of the season all luck?  Smokes and mirrors that have all evaporated into nothing?  Probably. But there is a consistent trend that has persisted for the majority of the season that might give a fan a little hope that they won’t Oilers themselves off a cliff.  That being the powerplay.

Let me explain…

Special teams are generally removed from the advanced stats conversation.  Possession and the like are all talked about at the 5 on 5 level and for good reason.  Even strength provides the best apples to apples comparison of how teams and players perform over the same situation.  However, if we assume the average team gets about 3-4 powerplays a game that means roughly 20-30% of the game is not played at evens. That’s a huge part of the game and should make up more of the conversation.

Where there has been focus on special teams is looking for under-valued players that have the ability to put their team on the powerplay much more than the penalty kill (their penalties drawn/taken differential).  Dustin Brown and TJ Galiardi are good examples of this.  However, this feat is also important at a team level.  If a team has many of these penalty sandbaggers, they are able to tip the scale and play with an extra player much more than other teams which can make for a large and perhaps unnoticed advantage. The Flames, as it turns out, are one of the better teams at doing this.

THE NUMBERS

The below table gives an indication of their special teams prowess but to sum up Calgary has taken the fewest penalties in the league and has the 2nd highest penalties drawn/taken differential in the entire league, behind only the “Does Everything Amazing” Chicago Blackhawks.  Why is this important?

Rank 

Team             

GP 

Total PP 

Total PK 

Differential 

PP %

1

Chicago

29

116

82

34

17.2

2

Calgary

30

101

73

28

21.8

3

NYI

29

107

87

20

19.6

4

Carolina

28

91

75

16

18.7

5

St. Louis

29

103

88

15

23.3

6

Nashville

28

89

74

15

11.2

7

Detroit

29

114

105

9

21.1

8

San Jose

31

94

89

5

24.5

9

Minnesota

27

89

84

5

11.2

10

Tampa Bay

30

102

98

4

22.5

11

Toronto

28

103

100

3

20.4

First, to this point, Calgary has been a very good power play team (scoring on 21% of their PP chances). By taking few penalties and having a huge penalty drawn/penalty taken differential they are positioning themselves to score much more special team goals than their opposition.  An extra goal here and there on the PP throughout the season will add up.

Second, Calgary is, or least was to begin the season, a horrible possession team (this has improved dramatically in the past 2 weeks or so).  They were second last in CF% in the entire league at evens.  Conversely, on the powerplay generally the advantaged team has the puck about 80-90% of the time.  Calgary’s differential is massive, about a 40% difference between penalties drawn and taken.  That’s roughly one more powerplay than their opponents every game.  Being able to handle the puck 80% of the time 2 minutes or 4 minutes more than your opponents a game can be a huge boost. How much of a boost can this be?

If we look at the CF% at evens compared to CF% in all situations, the Flames jump up by 2.5% (from 44.5% to approximately 47%). That still represents a less than favorable possession number.  But it is the highest difference between CF% All and CF% Evens of any team and by a lot.  The next closest team (Ottawa) sees only a 1.45% boost while the average boost for all teams is essentially zero (0.02% difference) as they take enough penalties to balance it out.

Finally, we at FN (mostly Ryan) track every Flames’ game scoring chances for and against.  When I was looking over the scoring chance data something stood out to me … over an entire game, the Flames often out chance their opponents or are even (+/- 2 chances) with their opponent. Additionally, as expected, the Flames often won the games that they out chanced opponents. However, if we add up only 5 on 5 scoring chances, the Flames are under water nearly every game.  Their 5v5 scoring chance %  (SC%) over the first 29 games sits at 47% (407F/462A), which is pretty inline with their CF% and FF% at evens.  But when we include all situations, the Flames SC% shoots up to 50.7% (530F/516A), which I imagine, from a scoring chance perspective (the aggregated data doesn’t exist yet), would put them right in the middle of the pack.  

What this suggests is the Flames generate a significant number of quality scoring chances on the PP.  Better than other teams?  I’m not sure.  But when you combine this with the fact that they are very good at drawing penalties and take very few themselves this may be something that could be at least partially sustainable and help them win a few more games than the underlying numbers would suggest.  

Interestingly, in the eight game losing stream, the Flames have kept up the differential.  They had more PP opportunities in 5 of the 8 games while having an even number of PP opportunities in the other 2 games and only losing the penalties battle once (against Vancouver). In fact, over the entire 34 games set so far, the Flames have out drawn their opponent 19 times (56%) and have been tied on this regard numerous times as well.  They rarely lose the penalty battle.

CONCLUSION


As the story goes, when the Flames out chance their opponents they outscore them. With a slightly improved possession rate at evens (as we’ve seen at times over the past seven game losing streak) and a continued dominance in generating powerplay opportunities with ample scoring chances on those powerplays it just might be enough to get them a few more wins than we’d expect and keep them in the playoff conversation.  

      • FlamesRule

        Speed has created luck for the Flames…Prime example was the game tying goal by Johnny..he used his speed to pick up a great stretch pass by Hudler to split the defence and put one off an LA defenders skate!

        Flames lead the league with 8 goals scored with their net empty! Anybody have an idea what the league record is for totals and also the number of games where a team scored 2 empty net goals in comebck tries?

  • RedMan

    So you’re saying “there’s a chance”?????

    Nice to read an article with analytics to paint a rosier picture. I guess the next question is… Is it sustainable? Can they continue to be on the positive side of the penalty battle? Sorry, I couldn’t resist the is it sustainable question.

    • RedMan

      I’ve noticed the flames drawing lots of penalties by using speed and Johnny Hockey draws lots due to his shiftiness. Other players can’t check him so they hook or hold him.

      I believe this is sustainable. If it were mostly roughing, or boarding, or delay of game calls, I’d say it’s not likely sustainable. But hooks and holds due to speed and shiftiness seem at least a little more likely to continue. At least in my opinion.

    • Byron Bader

      I think it’s at least partially sustainable. I’m pretty sure the team is very aware of this differential. Chris Snow has mentioned the penalty drawn/penalty taken differential a few times. They had a better differential last year as well (not as good as this year mind you).

      I’m curious if they can keep it up all year. They seem to only be getting better at increasing the differential. Gaudreau is drawing a penalty or two a game and is yet to take one. He appears to be a massive driving force on this.

  • RedMan

    This all makes sense to me. So what you’re saying is that even though the flames have been getting out shot they are still out chancing or at least at evens with most teams… doesn’t this suggest that shot quality does in fact matter?

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Great article, great read!

    So basically… when you factor in the powerplay… the Flames have ok advanced stats… The results – a middle of the road team just outside or inside the playoff bubble (or where they now currently sit).

  • Byron Bader

    Nice read Byron … good thinking. I was frankly surprised that “analytics” is close to strictly a 5v5 process.

    Your article makes real sense. Curious in that if you want to have this sort of differential continue, one would think that maintaining the same sort of style-of-play and player size is a must. Note that DCherry critiqued the Alberta teams for being too soft … that tells me that he wants more hitting and more size and (ahhhemm) truculence!?

    That would lead to more penalties-fore would it not? Thus if the assumption is correct, then that truculence must produce along with it better 5v5 scoring chances.

    Chicago and St. Louis are 2 teams that in my opinion can hit with the best of ’em … the others down to Nashville not so much. others might know much better in this regard.

    So a question / outgrowth: can we add that truculence without adding significantly to penalties fore? In essence becoming more Black Hawk-like … tall order in my opinion … but players like Ferland and Poirier and Arnold can probably pull this off where a Wolf-type maybe not.

    Just wonderin’ .. thanks for the article Byron!

    Happy holidays everyone!

    • Byron Bader

      It’s an interesting thought. I agree … you add a few men of truculence and suddenly your powerplay advantage evaporates.

      Bennett, Poirier and Ferland are all regarded as skilled guys but play with an edge. They would probably help draw their fair share of penalties but also take a lot too. Is this better or worse?

      Chicago, unlike St.Louis and LA, is built almost entirely on skill and speed while being in the bottom 3rd in terms of size. Hence why they draw so many penalties. The Flames definitely need to keep a lot of that to keep this up over the season or even the next number of seasons.

      • Greg

        Always a pleasure reading your posts, Byron. I hadn’t considered how there’s probably a lot more analysis that could be done on special teams still.

        That said, I doubt this has a huge swing one way or the other. If a team does average 1 extra PP per game (which seems rare from your stats), and converts ~22% (as have our flames), that should be roughly a gain of 18 goals for an entire season. I’ve always heard 6 goals is roughly equal to an extra win, so that ends up only being 6 extra points in total. Not insignificant – could be the difference between being a bubble team or making the playoffs – but not enough to, say, fix the oilers.

  • Toofun

    Great article thanks.

    Has anyone looked at Corsi vs. face off wins across the league and over time? It looks like the Flames push possession as well as anyone once they gain control of the play but since they lose so many face offs they start off chasing the play a lot.

  • prendrefeu

    Thank you Byron, your articles have an excellent PDO, Corsi, Shooting Percentage, Powerplay Differential, and have shown no signs of regression. Keep up the great work and Happy Holidays!

    Edit/Side note regarding Poirier, Ferland, Bennett: it should be interesting. I believe they carry more skill than their grit, while it is clear that both Poirier and Ferland are also willing to give a hard check once in a while or back up a teammate quickly. Poirier reminds me of a slightly taller Theo Fleury in his balance of skill/speed/grit. Gaudreau is like Fleury minus the aggression, plus the finesse of Ovechkin and puck control of Jagr… with a size advantage. (I believe shorter players, despite the usual trend, have a significant advantage in sport such as ice hockey and football/soccer due to a lower center of gravity)

    • Byron Bader

      This year I’m not sure. I don’t think that database exists anywhere. Gaudreau is probably certainly getting in the conversation. He would probably have one of the highest differentials given he hasn’t taken any and appears to have drawn 1 or 2 nearly every game for the past month. That’s for sure.

  • prendrefeu

    @Byron Bader
    Thanks so much for posting an article about stats that take more than just Corsi into account. I have in the past argued for a greater emphasis on special teams in team success, as well as developing a set of stats in addition to Corsi, Fenewick and the like to get a clearer and more well developed picture of long(season), mid(10-30games), and short(3-5games) term team success.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Byron, thanks for the great post. Insightful and interesting. This kind of writing has brought me back to FN for the past several years.

    Merry Christmas

    • Byron Bader

      Probably a little bit of a hybrid I would say. I think you can go to the players that are very good at drawing penalties (especially ones that take few) and provide insights on how they draw penalties that are repeatable and ingrain it in his behavior to keep doing that. At a team level, perhaps you can provide some insights into how to not take a repeatable penalty and as a team they they get better at not falling into the same traps that gets them flagged.

  • mattyc

    The Oilers lost to Arizona 5-1 on Dec.,23.
    It is always tough for the Oilers to get up for a game on FESTIVUS. This FESTIVUS SLUMP may carry on in Calgary on Saturday?

  • Byron Bader

    Thanks for all the kudos, dudes. It’s a pleasure analyzing and writing for you insightful folks.

    Merry Christmas everybody. Needless to say, like every Christmas season, I’ll be dying for some Flames hockey by the time Saturday rolls around.