Why the 2014-15 Calgary Flames are not the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche

The comparisons are fair. This year’s Flames is a garbage possession team, with an extremely poor 44.3% CF to go off of: third worst in the league. Last year’s Avalanche wasn’t so hot, either: 46.9% CF, sixth worst. With both teams spitting in the faces of corsi and possession metrics as a whole, the 2013-14 Avalanche ended up winning their division, while the 2014-15 Flames remain in a playoff spot with 15 games to go. Neither team was expected to do so well.

The Avs ended up losing in game seven overtime; really, a coin flip, but a first round loss nevertheless. This season, they’re outside the playoffs, trying to look in. They’re probably going to fail. Their statistics have dropped, leaving them at 43.5% CF, worse than the Flames.

This year’s Flames fate has yet to be determined. They’re right on the bubble. Next year’s Flames fate is yet to be seen.

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Does Treliving believe in analytics? His trade deadline performance showed he knows his team isn’t a contender yet. Does he make off-season moves to improve Calgary’s possession stats? Do those moves improve the team? Or will they end up falling, like the Avs?

I’d be willing to bet on the former. The comparisons are fair, but the 2014-15 Calgary Flames are not the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche.

The deception of all-world goaltending

That’s what made the Avs last season. 

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Semyon Varlamov – who should be remembered first and foremost for his domestic abuse arrest, so please don’t forget it – was a pretty okay goalie with some decent numbers as occasional starter in Washington. 

His first season as official starter came when he was traded to the Avs. Varlamov put up a .913 save percentage over 53 games with Colorado, perfectly reasonable numbers. The Avs finished the season 11th in the Western Conference, seven points back from the playoffs. He fell to .903 over 35 starts in the lockout year, as the Avs were the second worst team in the league, and gifted one Nathan MacKinnon. 

Then, 2013-14 struck. Varlamov went nuts. He played the most games he’d ever had (63), saw the most shots he’d ever faced (2,013), and posted the best save percentage he’d ever recorded (.927), carrying the Avalanche to a Central Division title. 

The problem? While Varlamov was playing great, the rest of the Avalanche seemed content to let him carry them. They gave up 32.7 shots against per game, sixth worst in the league. They have been more than content to let that trend continue, as this season, they surrender 33.1 shots against per game: second worst in the NHL. And Varlamov’s .921 save percentage – good, not great – can’t keep up with it. Hence, the Avs’ drop in the standings.

The Flames do not have all-world goaltending this season. 

They’ve improved by leaps and bounds since last season, but that’s only to be expected when you replace Reto Berra with Jonas Hiller, not to mention Karri Ramo with a more experienced Karri Ramo. Last season, the Flames had a team save percentage of .899, disgustingly bad and yet somehow only third worst in the league. This season, they’ve improved to .911, entirely respectable and tied for 11th with Detroit.

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It’s not elite. Hiller and Ramo have each had nights where they’ve looked all-world, and then nights when they need the hook more than anything else. But for the most part, they’ve been steady in net, capable of stealing a game for the Flames, but not necessarily being relied on to do so.

The Flames also give up 29.1 shots against per game, again tied for 11th in the NHL, this time with Anaheim.

Calgary is seeing consistent, realistic numbers when it comes to shot suppression and save percentage. It’s nothing like the Avalanche’s terrible shot suppression but elite goaltending. If the Flames’ goaltending caves in – and with Hiller posting pretty much his career average, there’s no reason to expect it – they won’t be in nearly as much trouble as the Avs were.

So then what’s the Flames’ problem?

They don’t generate shots.

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This year’s Flames average 27.4 shots per game, third worst in the league. They don’t give up a lot of shots, but they create fewer, hence, their frequent negative possession statistics. Despite lack of defensive depth, they’re honestly not too bad defensively. It’s offence that’s the problem.

Last season’s Flames gave up 28.6 shots per game: eighth in the NHL, and better than this season’s. Last season’s Flames also only generated 26.8 shots per game: third worst in the league, and also worse than this season.

So over the course from year one of the rebuild to year two, the Flames have marginally improved offensively, and marginally declined defensively. The biggest reasons for their increase in the standings this season has been the addition of competent goaltending, and the sudden jump of team shooting percentage from 9.2% (12th in the league) to 10.5% (second). 

Bob Hartley is in his third season as Flames head coach, and with his extension signed earlier in the season, will probably still be here a few years yet. All three of his Flames teams have been at the bottom of the league for shot generation. If the Flames are going to improve and become contenders, that’s going to have to change.

League shooting average is typically around 9.0%. If the Flames fall next season, it’s likely going to be because they stop scoring at their current rate. After all, the Flames currently have 197 goals; if they were shooting at 9.0%, they’d have 165 goals. The +22 goal differential they’re currently sporting – best in the Pacific – would drop to -10. Teams with negative goal differentials typically aren’t playoff teams.

If anything does the Flames in next season, it’ll be a lack of offence thanks to regression.

What about the future?

I think the Flames project better than the Avs. They may not perform well next season, but they shouldn’t fall as hard as the Avs did. There’s hope in sight.

Goaltending is a singular position. Colorado’s hopes rested on one player, and when that one player failed to produce, everything came tumbling down. The Flames’ problems, however, don’t stem from one player: they stem from an entire team outside of him. 

Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are only going to get better. TJ Brodie is having a career year offensively, and will likely have more. Sam Bennett will probably be joining the team, and adding some offence at that. And this isn’t counting any potential adds to the team via surprise signings, trades, or prospects.

The Flames’ key on-ice personnel are all still growing, and as they grow, their offence should with them. As their offence grows, the team’s grows; all the while Hartley has proven he can help the team limit shots against, especially with the help of arguably the NHL’s best defence pairing, as well as competent goaltending.

That part is taken care of. The part that isn’t is on the way. No careers years are required, just steady progression. It’s entirely realistic to expect that in the near future. The Flames may not have to fall at all.

They just need to shoot more.

  • prendrefeu

    I appreciate how this article immediately followed the weekly “5 Things” by Ryan Lambert.

    It would be good, however, to focus on what they are doing instead of what they are not. Do you think an article like that can be written? Why do people, especially writers of late both here and, well, many places across the internet/media, focus on the easily-found negatives instead of digging for the positives? Is it that much more difficult to find positives, really? Or is it an unnatural disposition for many to look at positives, and instead it is much easier to go by their normal operating narrative prevalent in other aspects of their lives: the negatives and what is “wrong.”

    What are they doing in regards to shooting? Shooting from better positions and at better opportunities. It is not how often they shoot, but from where and when. There are different ways to get to a high shooting percentage (shots to goals), only one of them involves shooting at a high frequency.

    Thank you for pointing out that the Flames need to improve, many – myself included – can all agree on that. The Flames and Hartley, whom you have an implied hatred for, would also agree that they need to improve. Shooting more can be one method of approach, or perhaps it’s shooting a little more in better locations instead of just shooting from anywhere (and, shooting from anywhere often results in a loss of possession).

    • Toofun

      What are the Flames doing to win games? Last night was a good example.

      They have more power plays than penalty kills

      They capitalize on takeaways (Johnny’s goal) and giveaways (Johnny’s other goal)and they don’t usually make a lot of bad giveaways.

      They block shots and keep the opposition to the outside a lot. (who cares if they have the puck if they aren’t in a scoring position)

      They transition from defense to offensive in a flash.

      They never give up and when they get behind they forget that they aren’t supposed to be as good as the other guys and they push harder.

      Arii, if you can find any empirical data to support any of these suppositions/observations, it would be nice to show how Calgary ranks relative to other teams against these metrics.

      • RedMan

        what your describing sounds like “skill” and “hockey IQ” and “speed” kinda like what Feaster publicly acknowledged as his priorities targeted in drafting and trades not?

    • jdthor

      I couldn’t agree more! The team is winning games when they’re in season two of their rebuild. Isn’t that something is Flames fans should be happy about? I understand the negative articles last season when they were loosing games but I’m getting really tired of being told I shouldn’t be happy about what they’re doing just because their CORSI is bad! We all know they’re playing over their heads but that’s part of sports. The best team doesn’t always win or there’d be no point in watching. If this team was full of vets and at the cap I’d be pretty worried but we all know that’s not the case either. Let’s just relax and enjoy the fact that our team is moving in the right direction!

      • Parallex

        Cry me a river. Nobody forces you to read… you’re “really tired”? Tough, I have to live with the endless b itching about folk not hanging up a “homers’r’us” sign so you can do the same

    • SmellOfVictory

      “digging for positives” because it’s implied you’re digging then.

      The Flames are not shooting from better positions or taking less shows but more quality ones. This is not a thing. There’s shot charts, there’s articles written on this, it’s just no true.

      And shooting from anywhere often results in a loss of possession? What are you talking about? Good lord.

    • Parallex

      Hmmm, I dunno… while they subtracted Stastny they added in other areas. Without much data scraping the Aves average about a shot less per game and give up about half a shot more per game. So I’m not sure how much they have suffered as a direct result of losing Stastny… my guess would be that the answer is likely “Some, but probably not as much as you think”.