The 8-game Losing Streak Doesn’t Matter

If not for some late game heroics from Johnny Hockey and Captain Gio against the Kings, the Flames would have entered the holiday break on a 9-game losing streak. The unlikely victory over the Stanley Cup champs managed to quell a tide of concern and anxiety rising amongst the general Flames faithful, where rumblings of how to “fix” the suddenly powerless Flames had begun to gain volume. 

The reality of this season for Calgary, though, is that the overall results are incidental. While winning the cup is ostensibly the lone objective of every team in every season, the truth is the Flames are in the embryonic stages of an organizational rebuild and therefore not really at the “true contender” stage of their evolution. While wins and losses will always be felt viscerally by the players and fans, the focus of 2014-15 is progress, assessment and experimentation more than anything else. 

With that objective in mind, there’s a lot to like about Calgary’s play so far. Here’s some key reasons Flames fans should be excited about the club and not so concerned about W’s and L’s.

1.) Giordano and Brodie

 The Flames have a legitimately elite top defense pairing. There were clues this was true last season, but there was always the chance their incredible second half of 2012-13 was a flash in the pan. 

Nope.

Let’s be clear that the offensive outburst from both this season is a bonus, not the core of their value to the team. That is clearly illustrated in this player usage graphic from War on Ice:

Brodano

The bottom axis shows zone start ratio – the further right, the more often a player starts in the offensive zone. The further left, the more often he starts in the defensive zone. Quality of competition is captured on the vertical axis – the higher up, the better the competition a guy plays. 

Overall, that means the toughest assignments can be found in the upper left hand corner of the graph (more defensive zone starts, better quality of competition) and the easiest assignments are in the bottom right. 

Finally, the colour of the associated player circle indicates his relative possession rate. Blue means a club’s possession improves with the player on the ice; red means it gets worse. 

The graph shows NHL defenders this year with over 600 even strength minutes so far. There are big names on the list: PK Subban, Shea Weber, Erik Karlsson, Ryan Suter, Alex Pietrangelo and Drew Doughty. As is clear, pretty much no one plays tougher minutes than the Flames duo. The amazing thing is, almost no one shifts play as well as Giordano and Brodie, despite their circumstances. 

The usage chart gives some idea of how incredibly rare and beneficial these results are. It’s difficult to draft for this level of influence from the back-end and it’s almost impossible to find it in free agency. Just ask the Oilers. 

Giordano and Brodie are pillar talents. In most rebuilds, it takes more than a few bottom-five finishes and several more years to develop these types of guys (if it happens at all). 

2.) Gaudreau is legit

We’ve been tracking the diminutive 4th rounder round these parts for years, so his success as an NHL rookie so far isn’t wholly unexpected. That said, there was always the fear Gaudreau’s game wouldn’t translate at the NHL level. 

We’re only 30-or so games into his career, but it’s becoming clearer with each highlight reel filled contest that Johnny Gaudreau is a future NHL star. He’s already 3rd on the team in scoring, 2nd in NHL rookie scoring and becoming incrementally more central to the Flames attack with each and every shift. In addition, he’s already pushing the play north, with the best relative possession rate on the Flames. For some kids, it takes half a season, a season, maybe even two or three to become comfortable at the NHL level, assuming they take the leap at all. 

It took Gaudreau about 12 games.

The kid’s tiny, but he’s a hockey super computer on skates with the ability to process the game at an elite level and, what’s more, execute with limited time and space. I think it’s reasonable to expect him to lead the club in scoring as early as next year (if not this year). 

3.) Sean Monahan takes a step

The former 6th overall pick scored over 20-goals as a teenager last year, but he was severely sheltered by his coach and mostly outplayed in aggregate. There was a chance his success was percentage and circumstance based more than anything. 

This year, though, Monahan is playing with the big boys. Absent the injured Mikael Backlund, Bob Hartley has moved Monahan to the front of the rotation and the 20-year old is hanging tough. Despite the vastly more difficult assignment, many of Monahan’s underlying numbers have improved over last year: a positive relative possession rate and an improved per game shot rate (from 1.87 to 2.69) which is currently the best on the club. His face-off win rate is also a respectable 49.5%, which is only marginally behind Matt Stajan (52.4%) for the team lead.  

Monahan has less dazzle to his game than Gaudreau and he doesn’t exert the true game changing influence of a Mark Giordano, but his performance for a player his age is well ahead of the curve. If he can continue to improve at this pace over the year or two, he’ll be a heavy hitter by the time his next contract starts. 

4.) The kids are alright

Bob Hartley and the Flames deserve a lot of credit for their willingness to give at-bats to many of the supporting cast hopefuls that are bubbling just under the surface. It wasn’t too long ago that this organization would stubbornly cling to tough guys and veterans in lieu of youngsters on the parent roster. That hasn’t been true this year: Josh Jooris, Markus Granlund, Michael Ferland and Sven Baertschi have had extended cups of coffee in the show, even at the expense of more established guys like Brian McGrattan, Devin Setoguchi, Brandon Bollig and even Matt Stajan. 

The club has made a concerted effort to establish a positive developmental environment. Decision makers are always going to prefer veterans to kids to one degree or another, but the Flames are letting some of their better prospects find their legs, get a taste and maybe prove they deserve to stick around full time. 

As a result, we’ve seen glimpses from guys like Jooris, Granlund and Ferland. Even Baertschi, who is still viewed with significant ambivalence by the club, seems to at least have made strides in terms of playing a complete game. 

Conclusion

It’s not wrong to cheer for wins and hope the Flames somehow make the post-season this year, but let’s face it – this is still an organization that has a lot of work to do before they’re a legitimate contender. The good news is the club has a lot of arrows pointing in the right direction and are apparently well ahead of where they would seemed to be at the onset of this project. 

The cupboards aren’t empty anymore. There’s established, pillar talent already on the roster. And there’s real competition amongst future NHLers in the depths of the organization. For the first time in perhaps a decade, there’s opportunity for the Flames to evolve and take real strides forward.

 

    • Derzie

      Let’s do a troll response version of Kent’s article: “Why the Oilers x Game Losing Streak Does Matter”

      1. Guys who played with Gretzky think they at good at everything (they’re not)populate every management role.
      2. Rich guy who loves Gretzky extends love to said delusional ex-Oilers
      3.Turn terrible management and losing into a positive by collecting draft picks.
      4. Ruin said draft picks
      5. Have fans that are blindly loyal based on THEIR love for all things Gretzky.
      6. Watch the organization crumble and be a laughing stock of the league.

      #Gooilers indeed.

      • BurningSensation

        YOU GUYS PRONOUNCE CALGARY STUPID

        ITS NOT “CAL-gree” ya dummies.

        ITS “cal-GAR-y”

        ALSO PETERS DRIVE THROUGH IS OVERRATED.

        #BOOOOOOFLAMES

        #GOOOOOOOILERS

        • RKD

          Only the idiots from Edmonton pronounce it that way. Talk smack all you want. How many wins do you guys have in the month of December? What’s your record these last 20 games? How many NHL starts did your goalie have coming into this season? Oh, well, to make you feel better, how many games combined did your goalies have? Ference as captain? Who’s your second line center? I could go on but I’ll take it easy on you.

          Oh, one more. The league changed the draft format because the Oilers suck so bad and no one wants to see any more careers ruined. Knowing that the Oilers are any will continue to be terrible, how can we change the draft so no more first overalls go there? Calling it now, you losers up North will never draft first overall again. McDavid is a pipe dream to your delusional fans. Maybe if you guys had self-respect you’d stop paying for a crappy product and force management to change. How many coaches have you gone through in the last 4 years?

          Did I pass the eye test?

  • BurningSensation

    I don’t remember being this excited by ‘The Young Guns’ outside of Iggy. Valeri Bure, Robyn Regehr and Craig Conroy were the other ‘pillars’ until Kipprusoff was hijacked out of San Jose. It was not exactly an exciting new core of future superstars to hang one’s hat on.

    Except for Iggy.

    This iteration is different. Much deeper prospect pipeline than any time since Nieuwendyk was on the farm. We have 5 first rounders developing off the main roster. 5. We also have a half dozen guys drafted in the 2nd round or later at various stages of development off the main roster. That is a sick amount of depth.

    It looks like we have three pieces of our new core in Brodie, Gaudreau, and Monahan, with a likely 4th piece in Bennett.

    We need just one or two of the other prospects to be gold, and this team could be stacked for a decade.

    Excited isn’t a big enough word.

  • BurningSensation

    Is that all of the d-men in the league with over 600 minutes at even strength? If so, having four Flames on there says a lot about our third pairing.

  • Excellent use of the player usage chart. Interestingly I invented those right before you brought me on as a staff writer for the 2011-12 season. I posted one every week as part of the Black box series that ran that season. At the time Bouwmeester was playing that tough role, if memory serves.

  • jeremywilhelm

    A very good summary of the season to date. For those who have been recently stating Flamesnation is an analytics heavy site ( I disagree) I would say that Kent’s articles which thoughtfully use analytics as part of a broader analysis is what attracted so many of us to the site in the first place. It would be great to see more frequent articles from you in 2015!

  • BurningSensation

    McDavid is not really looking like a generational player to me so far.
    He had a couple of decent shifts in the third, but being held off the score board in a 8-0 win is mind boggling.
    Maybe he will turn it on today….

    It does present an awful choice for the Oilers with their first overall, they are not going to make the wrong choice AGAIN are they???!

    WW

  • BurningSensation

    Great post Kent. I am sure it is not lost on BB/BT that the Flames are way ahead of schedule of this rebuild. The eye test of watching a new core develop on this team & growing together is truly amazing.

    What’s next? I think is a very legit question. If we put things in perspective, as great as we all feel about that win & how we did it in LA, reality was, when LA played their “heavy” game that has won them some Cups recently, they were dominant. It showed how much further we have to go. In a 7 game playoff, we are going to get ground down to dust by these type of teams. So what do we do? This whole article is also about the reason why we are no where near the McEichel sweeps & won’t get a whiff. Feaster had brought in/drafted some very skilled players but we don’t have the skilled “heavy” players yet. Agree Ferlund is intriguing & Bennett & Poirier are exciting pieces to watch in the 2015-16 season. As our core starts to get filled, what do we do with the glut of very talented young players that are ready but are just not going to get a chance.

    I would love to see more dialogue as we enter the 2nd half of the season, the TDL, the circumstances of other teams & potential moves that can be made. How big is an actual “core” on your typical contending team? Do we get back in the McEichel sweeps by selling off vets (& not the ones that we all want to see gone & we’ll be lucky to get a 2nd or 3rd round pick) ones that have helped us win up to now. Hiller or Ramo? Do we move one of them, Hiller obviously has the value of 1 more year after this & an established 1A net minder & Wideman, who is actually having a decent season or Hudler who has 1 more year & is obviously that top 6 forward some teams would give up a 1st rounder for? Obviously these decisions are based on whether we think we have enough to change directions at this point of the rebuild that we appear to be way a head of schedule. I feel this team is at a crossroads where some big decisions need to be made. Personally, I didn’t think I would have been bringing this up until this time next year.

    Looking forward to the debates that are coming in 2015.

  • supra steve

    Tonight is a big night for the Flames. The powerful
    Oilers are flying in. Why all the doom and gloom? The Flames will send the Oilers back on the BUS!
    Flames by 3 goals. Harvey the Hound retains his Tongue!

    • BurningSensation

      Hold your horses big fella, we have at least one, and probably two more years of building the new core to go through first.

      As it stands the one obvious ingredient missing in our rebuild is a future top 4 d-man to compliment Brodano.

      If we could trade for a youngster like Jonas Brodin, Hampus Lindholm, Dougie Hamilton, or Darnell Nurse (without giving up any of JG, Mono, Bennett, or Brodie), we will actually be ready to aquire necessary veteran gap filler.

      We’d also need to be rid of; Engelland, Smid, and Bollig, but that is just a matter of time.

  • BurningSensation

    With all of the prospects we have in our system, I think that this season is the time to make some moves to speed up the rebuild. I am also thinking that Wideman may have some trade value with all of the goals he has been poppin.

    Specifically this summer is the time when I think we could land the biggest fish.

    For a few years now we have been talking about taking advantage of a cap strapped team but nothing has materialized. I think CHI is a nice target.

    I propose: Wideman (2m Salary retained) + Cal 1st round 2016 + Jankowski + Reinhart

    Rationale: Chicago’s salary problems are somewhat fixed and they get a right handed Dman that can play the powerplay at a bargain: 3.25m. (no way you get a Wideman at 3.25 in FA) They get essentially two first rounders. They get a guy in Reinhart who can fill out their bottom 6 a little. Jankowski could be a good 3rd line center for them in the future.

    We get a stud Dman. Brodie, Gio, and Seabrook would be a nice top 3. We could add a veteran #5 guy via FA. Culkin, Wotherspoon and Sieloff could all get looks at the #6 spot while Engelland and Smid are insurance. Russell looks a lot better in the #4 spot playing with Seabrook.

    Some of the names could be interchangeable but I think I got the valuation kind of close. I think this is the year that we need to make these moves – Id like to hear your guys thoughts on possible targets and on players we should move.

    Baertshi is kind of an obvious one here, but his value is lower than his potential. I would consider moving him to a team that is rich in D prospects though.

    • RKD

      Maybe I’m in a fog but I can’t figure out your trade. You have Wideman, a 2016 #1 pick, Janko and Reinhart for I’m not sure who. You mention Seabrook later in your post so is it all four pieces for Seabrook? If so, no. And some of the pieces you are speaking of have very little value like Janko, Reinhart and Sven. Just because a player was a first round pick, it doesn’t mean the league views them as still at that elite level. Many a first rounder has been dealt for 2nd or 3rd round picks after several years of floundering and like it or not, that’s likely where Janko and Sven are at this point.

  • RKD

    Very good to read the Flames are heading in the right direction. It is quite rare to have such an elite d-pairing but we will need it in order to become true contenders. Johnny Hockey is legit for sure, his skill is higher than we have seen in many years. He is a game-changer. Monahan is becoming a great center, he’s really taken his play to another level. When Backlund comes back, I can see Sean starting to flex his offensive muscle once again. I’m excited to see how Bennett and Poirier can make the Flames an even better team. I hope we see Wotherspoon at some point. Lots of young forwards are getting their chances but I want to see some new young d-men up and coming instead of being fed with Diaz, Smid and Engelland.

  • redhot1

    I think what intrigues me the most is going to be the return of Backlund. If he returns and picks up where he left off (hoping so), we’d have a very interesting situation and possibly four lines you could roll through the night. Being able to bump Monahan to the ‘second’ line, and Granlund down to the third or fourth could really give Hartley some mismatch options.