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.

  • Parallex

    So the Avs can score, but suck defensively. No wonder Iginla chose to sign there.

    The Flames can’t score, but are good defensively.

    It still equates to the same thing IMO. Lots of work to do, lots of growth required, more talent needed.

    Also, Calgary’s goaltending numbers may balance out, but the team has at least 4 serious hot streaks in the net to help them win and other crazy circumstances when it hasn’t been.

    Everything seems to be rolling the right way for Calgary. I fear, however, it won’t last and fans, or worse, the management(though I don’t thinks so), will start to point fingers and look for the easy narrative when in reality the team is in year 2 of a rebuild and proceeding along quite nicely.

    We are the Avs. We are the Leafs. Just for different reasons. I’m enjoying it while it lasts, but won’t be put out when it doesn’t.

    • piscera.infada

      Exactly. But that’s the crux of it though, it should be fine as long as Treliving doesn’t go out and blow it with long-term high-dollar deals (Ie. Iginla or Clarkson). The problem is not unsustainable winning in and of itself, it’s what that can do to management.

      So I say again, everything I’ve heard from Treliving, and now what we saw him do at the trade-deadline (I assume there were very bad “quick-fix” deals coming his way from everywhere), leads me to believe he’s very much in lock-step with what people have been saying about Toronto and Colorado. This is a very young team, they seem to be building something awesome, don’t divert course.

        • piscera.infada

          Fair enough, but you’re kind of missing my point. I was simply talking about moves by a team thinking they’re further ahead then they are (Ie. Colorado’s money may have been put to better use on, I don’t know, signing some NHL-level defensemen…).

          • piscera.infada

            I agree with you that Iginla was a bad signing for the Avs, but he wouldn’t be a bad signing for the Flames.

            Not that we need him. We’ve got Emile Poirier and Sam Bennett to “add” to this team’s forwards roster.

      • Parallex

        It’s not so much Treliving that I’m worried about… it’s the guys above him that concern me.

        Also he talks a good game but his player acquisitions give me pause. Bollig and Engellend particularily (Hiller has been Hiller, and while I don’t love Raymond I think he gets a worse rap then deserved).

        • piscera.infada

          Don’t disagree regarding Engelland and Bollig, but GMs make mistakes. I’m not too concerned about those two signings, but if it becomes more of a norm, I’ll be right there with you. I mean, even Ken Holland signed Stephen Weiss for 5 years at 4.9 million per.

      • Toofun

        I agree on Treliving and certainly the trade deadline backs that up. I was very happy with his performance.

        But it amazes me how many fans thought the team should add pieces and that the Flames essentially blew the 2nd coming of 2004.

        • RedMan

          there were fans that wanted to add pieces? are you talking rental pieces, or pieces that can upgrade the team now and for the next 7 years???

          I assume the team plans on sandbagging their cap space until they are ready for the push… by the looks of the contracts handed out over the last couple years, it appears that the Flames planned to peak and break out after about 2 more seasons… then, when ready to break out, wham! spending spree!

          is the team ahead of schedule on the rebuild? maaaaaaaaaybe… just a bit. therefore, if they could have added a bonafide solid #2/3 defender in the 22-25 range by trading an older vet and redundant prospects and possibly taking on a bad contract, w/o touching 1st & 2nd round picks… I would have thought ya, go for it!

          but I don’t remember many, if any, people advocating they go after rental players with 1st round picks and bluechip prospects as trade bait.

    • Rockmorton65

      I think we’re a bit different than the Avs & Leafs. Unless we do something stupid like trade Gio, Hudler, etc for picks, we should take another step forward next year.

  • SickFloBro

    As always, arii, beautiful article. Except for…

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

    I have a problem with this. First of all, this is a forum about hockey, so let’s stay on topic-ish. Secondly, don’t tell me how to perceive someone. **I’m not saying he’s innocent**, but it’s not for us to judge.

    It’s easy to trash on someone who’s made a mistake and hurt someone, but a lot of people do a lot of stupid, selfish, destructive things. Having an attitude of unrelenting animosity or hatred towards them for it doesn’t do anything to make the situation any better for the individual committing the crime, for the victims of it, or for the innocent bystanders. It accomplishes nothing of value.

    He should be remembered first and foremost as a human being. Please don’t forget it.

    Trash away.

    • Ari Yanover

      And I have a problem with Varlamov playing in the NHL. I have a problem with him playing the very next game upon his initial release. I have a problem with commentators referring to Slava Voynov’s “incident” rather than outright calling it what it is: domestic abuse. I have a problem with the garbage way women are treated throughout the landscape of professional sports and hockey as a whole.

      You talk about making a mistake. Repeatedly hitting a woman on multiple occasions to the point of physical injury and hospitalization is not a mistake. It is abuse and assault and should not be swept under the rug because the person doing it is halfway decent at putting his body in front of a piece of vulcanized rubber. So I will not let it continue to be swept under the rug, and if I have to mention him, I’m damn well going to mention this, too, because it’s far more important than hockey ever will be.

      Letting it go is what accomplishes nothing of value. The nice thing about my little statement there is it will have literally zero impact on him and his career. He’s immune. He’s a rich white man. He’s totally immune in ways I will never be.

      He is a human being with an insane amount of privilege who does not need the defence of anybody but his own legal counsel. He is a human being who repeatedly hurt someone else who does not have access to his resources. He is a human being who is an oppressor. That is what I will not forget.

        • RedMan

          Being a white man, especially one with money, is an abomination these days… there’s hardly anything worse as all of societies woes are linked to white man. OJ was lucky he was a rich black man cause that’s OK.


      • SickFloBro

        I’m with you 100% on every point.

        My comment about “making a mistake and hurting someone” wasn’t meant to sweep the problem under the rug or to excuse what happened…it was meant to be a broader statement about injustices that take place.

        And I’m not saying anyone should “let it go”. Absolutely not. I’ve seen first hand how these disgusting crimes impact the victims and their children.

        However, what I do think is that if our focus is solely set upon how awful the crime is and not on how to fix the problem at its core or repair the damage done, we’re not doing anything to really help. That’s all I’m saying. I’m not convinced that making that comment is “raising awareness”.

        That’s why I don’t think a little comment about him being a domestic abuser is accomplishing anything. **EDIT: And that’s also exactly why I think it’s more destructive than anything else – it encourages people to focus on the problem and not on a solution.**

        But hey, there’s always a chance that someone reading this feels convicted about something in their past and it leads them down a path of recovery.

  • SmellOfVictory

    “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. ”

    Doesn’t it make sense that with more variables, there are more things can go wrong? Expecting an entire group of young players to improve all at the same time in linear fashion (and for Sam Bennett to have a positive impact in his first year in the NHL) does not sound realistic, it sounds like absolute best case scenario. Look at the Oilers, a team that has planned for best case scenario annually: it never goes that way. Especially when you’re banking on a bunch of kids’ development to boost a CF that’s at 44.3%. That’s not a “we’re almost there” %. That’s cellar dweller territory.