1. What are we talking about?
People do not like when I refer to the Flames as a “bad team.” They tell me to look at the standings, because in sports, all people really care about is results. If a team could get away with being outshot every single night all season long — and by a margin that, say, as wide as what the Flames face on any given night — and still win all 82, then that would have been a good team. The process of how those wins are arrived-at matters not.
We know that this isn’t how things work, of course, and we know that outshooting your opponent more often than not is a pretty good way of likewise ensuring that you win more often than not. The numbers back all of this up, and even those who for some unfathomable reason remain skeptical of the efficacy of evaluating hockey teams using things as simple as their corsi percentage over the course of 20, 40, 60, even 82 games would have to agree that the best teams have the puck more than the worst ones. It’s a sliding scale, sure, and things don’t always match up 1-for-1, but it’s obvious that a good corsi share is key to a good record in far more cases than those for which the bad leads to a good record. We can all agree on this.
But the Flames are a team with a bad corsi share — a very bad one, in fact — and yet they continue to win most nights out. Often, they do it in improbable fashion. Much like other teams before them, who have forged playoff but not possession credibility over the bulk of the season, the Flames attribute this success not to fortunate bounces, but to hard work.
Hard work, we’re told, is not something you can quantify. But the thing is that if hard work shows up in the wins column, it necessarily has to show up in the goals column. And if it shows up in the goals column, it will show up somewhere in the “advanced” stats, whether it’s through corsi or PDO or Hextally. These “clutch” goals that have proven so crucial to the Flames’ success do not appear out of nowhere. If it’s as simple as working hard, there’s going to be a process behind it that generates the crucial scoring chances they’re converting and prevents them at the other end.
At this point I’m really and actually trying to understand the thought process for people who think this is a thing the Flames can do in perpetuity.
Okay, the Flames are a bad possession team. How bad? They’ve been third-worst in the league basically all year, ahead of only Buffalo (the worst possession team since people started tracking these stats by a mile) and Colorado (one of the other really really bad ones). Calgary is not historically bad, but it’s probably going to be in the bottom 10 for the salary cap era at the end of the season. So, yeah, bad.
(Please note that none of the following stats include last night’s game — and the four goals on seven shots over the last 40 minutes — and all of it is from War on Ice.)
But what’s interesting is that if you look at things on a period-by-period basis, the Flames get progressively better at holding onto the puck throughout the game. In the first period, they are a 44.6 percent possession team, which is third-worst in the league and about what you’d expect. In the second, that number actually drops somewhat to 43.5 percent, and is second-bottom in the NHL. In the third, it’s up to 45.1 percent, which is a little better but still pretty miserable. (Elite NHL teams usually post a CF% of about 55 percent, maybe a little higher, so in a best-case scenario, every team the Flames play all season long holds the puck like the Los Angeles Kings, on average.)
But this might not be what “hard work” means to people. The fact is the Flames typically end up trailing pretty early on in games. You don’t necessarily have to work hard when you’re trying to hold onto a win, but you have to do so when you’re trailing late. The Flames, not surprisingly, trail late rather a lot. But perhaps not as much as you’d expect. (Though the numbers have been getting worse as the season goes on, which is really something to think about.)
In terms of the number of minutes at 5-on-5 the Flames are actually behind in the third period, their 399.7 is “only” the sixth-largest total in the league, and actually a pretty large ways back of the cluster of worse-off teams like Arizona, Toronto, Columbus, and of course Buffalo and Edmonton. From a trailing position, they draw more penalties (plus-5) and start more shifts in the offensive zone (plus-30). Over the course of a season, this is a negligible amount; one extra zone start every two or so games, and one extra penalty every 12 or 13. It’s not nothing but it’s close.
And when they’re trailing in the third period, they do actually outpossess their opponents, with a CF% of 51.9 percent. That is, however, still third from the bottom in the entire National Hockey League. I’m very dubious indeed, then, that the hard work we’re looking for is in these numbers.
But perhaps all of that stuff about corsi not being related to hard work is correct, so we need to look elsewhere.
In terms of the number of goals scored during the entire game, the Flames are tied for eighth in the league at 2.8 per. That’s the same as Nashville, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Vancouver, Ottawa, and San Jose. The point in listing all those teams is to show that they’re very firmly grouped in the upper middle of the league.
But we once again have to look at the breakdown. The Flames’ goals-for total in the first period is just 36, tied for 28th in the league. In the second period, it explodes to 58, which bumps the club up to 20th. In the third, it’s 84, and that’s second-best behind the offensive juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning. In overtime, they have another nine, which is tops in the NHL.
So we’re looking at 93 goals in the third period or overtime, versus 94 in the first two periods. Which is significant because, at most, you’re looking at 25 minutes in the former versus 40 in the latter.
What about the goals they’re allowing? Well, the 59 they’ve conceded in the first period is the seventh-largest total in the league. The 60 in the second period is only 19th-biggest. In the third, it drops to just 48, which is the smallest in the NHL. In overtime, they’ve allowed just three goals, tied for 14th-most.
Let’s break that down by differential in the first-plus-second and third-plus-OT: They’re minus-25 in the opening 40 minutes, and plus-42 in the final 20-to-25.
At 5-on-5, which is when it’s easiest to judge team performance (but we’ll still cover special teams in a bit), the Flames are minus-17 in the first two periods and plus-11 in the third.
This incredible ability to “flip a switch” and outscore their opponents so dramatically is starting to show us something about the hard work, I suspect. If the people who are “on the fence” about analytics, or just outright reject them, are to be believed, that’s something they can replicate all season long despite obvious talent and possession deficiencies.
4. Shooting and saving
As you might imagine, when there’s a pretty stark improvement in the team’s ability to score goals at any point in the season — sustainable or not, that’s reflected in their percentages. No surprise here, but the Flames’ PDO (shooting percentage plus save percentage) is a third-in-the-league 103.6 in the third period. When they trail, it’s basically unchanged at 103.5, but that number is actually first in the league.
And here’s the difference as far as that goes: Teams that trail tend to shoot more often, but that generally leads to a lower shooting percentage because they are typically taking lower-quality shots. For the Flames, their trailing-in-the-third shooting percentage is 10.3 percentage, down a little from the 10.9 percent in all score situations. Which suggests that even the Flames aren’t immune to this portion of hockey math.
Calgary continues to generate some of the fewest shot attempts in the league in these trailing situations (27th in corsi for per 60) and continue to allow a bunch as well (29th in corsi against per 60).
So it stands to reason that they’re generating more scoring chances at this time, right? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, the number of attempts they make that actually wind up on net are at some of the lowest levels in the league (47 percent is second-worst, actually) but it’s because they’re still getting a large percentage of their shot attempts blocked. The number of unblocked shot attempts that get on net is actually 71.6 percent, and that’s much more middle of the pack.
The Flames are actually pretty decent at generating shots on goal in these situations, but they still get outshot (174 for, 176 against) when they trail.
A lot of this has ignored how they’ve done in their own zone, though. At least in terms of keeping the puck out of their own net. Their 5-on-5 save percentage when they’re trailing in the third is seventh in the league (.932) which compares favorably with their far more middling overall ESsv% of .922 (18th).
Here, there’s a lot more of what a coach would call “attention to detail.” While the Flames have blocked 1,074 shot attempts the Flames have at 5-on-5 this season, only 85 have been when they’re down a man (6.7 percent of the season’s total). That’s the second-largest total in the league. They block nearly 1 in 4 shot attempts they face at this time, but that’s actually down from 1 in 3 in all score situations.
Unfortunately War on Ice doesn’t have the ability to show save percentages by period, but we can look at the Flames’ netminders overall versus when the team is trailing. What’s pertinent here is the quality of chances they’re giving up, and how well the goaltenders are stopping them. So when it comes to shots that have a high probability of going in, Jonas Hiller and Kari Ramo stop .843 and .837, respectively. These numbers aren’t bad, but they’re not good either. That’s on a combined 350 high-quality shots all season long. But when the Flames are trailing, they’ve faced 150 such shots, and in these situations their save percentages explode to .880 and .873, respectively.
Teams actually tend to take higher-quality shots when they’re ahead, because while they’re being conservative, they’re not going to pass up a free lunch. The Flames give out lots of free lunches and, for some reason or another, Ramo and Hiller are much better at keeping the Flames in relatively small arrears than in the black.
5. Special teams
Special teams, of course, were not included in the above data, except in the overall goal totals. As you can see, a pretty significant portion of the Flames’ scoring this season has come on the power play. In fact, 35 goals on the power play makes up a little less than 1 in every 5 they score.
But what’s interesting is that the Flames shoot only a little bit better on the power play (11.8 percent) than they do at 5-on-5, and this is something that just doesn’t happen very often. Typically, you shoot substantially better, by a few points, than you do at 5-on-5. They don’t generate a particularly large number of shots (12th in the league, so not a bad number either) but a lot of them sure do go in. They also don’t draw a ton of penalties relative to anyone else in the league.
The Flames aren’t a great penalty killing team, either. Their save percentage is among the worst in the league. But what they do well is not-take penalties in the first place (they’ve been shorthanded the lowest number of times in the league) and suppress shot attempts pretty well when that happens, as their corsi against per 60 when they’re shorthanded is fifth in the NHL. These two things don’t usually follow for a team that gets badly outpossessed every single night, but it’s certainly happened for the Flames this year and last year.
And here’s what’s really, really, really interesting, and isn’t usually included in “special teams” consideration: The Flames are having an incredible season when they pull the goalie. The Flames have scored nine extra-attacker goals this season on just 50 shots. The shot generation is middling, but the success rate is third-best in the league. And the other thing is, they don’t give up a ton of empty net goals. They’ve conceded nine of them, but that’s a pretty small number for a team that’s spent 48.5 minutes with their own crease unoccupied.
So the question is this: Is any of this repeatable? History suggests that this much shooting success doesn’t happen over long periods, including if you’re Alex Ovechkin. As a team, the Flames have shot like Alex Ovechkin, and you can’t have that continued success, whether it’s at 5-on-5 or in special teams situations.
In their own end, they’re still giving up a ton of shots but they’re saving a decent enough amount. I’d think that can keep happening for Hiller because of his long track record, and maybe Ramo.
If there’s one thing that can keep this going — and I doubt that it can, but they have to hope — it’s that they’re very stingy in giving up power plays. For a club with a lot of guys who aren’t very good, one skill they do seem to have is the ability to avoid the penalty box. I’m not sure if that qualifies as “hard work,” but so far it’s the only thing I’ve found that they do well and reliably.