Well, folks, for the first time in six years, the Flames are in the playoffs and ready to take a swing at Lord Stanley. Very exciting times indeed. The odds would suggest that Flames might be an early exit from the post-season, given they are in year two of a rebuild and their advanced fancy stats are mostly in the toilet. In fact, they have the worst 5 vs. 5 corsi percentage of any team to make the playoffs in the corsi tracking era (the last eight years or so). Concerning? Certainly. But the playoffs is a small sample set of random amazingness where anything can happen. Case in point, the 2003-04 Calgary Flames. A loveable group of characters that probably had no business going past the 1st round. Let’s see how they compare to your 2014-15 Calgary Flames.
Both are the extreme underdog that refuses to give up, despite the odds being stacked against them like a Jenga game that’s gone on far too long. They’re both the kind of team that wins over fans the more you see them play. They also had identical ROW records (40), nearly identical home and away records (both teams won on the road just as much as they did at home) and the same make-up in age (26.6 average age for 2014-15 vs. 26.8 for 2003-04). Let’s have a look at some other relevant stats …
The line combinations for 2003-04 are my best guess based on ice-time, point totals and what I remember.
What is evident is these teams are nothing alike. The 2003-04 Flames were a group of mostly unknown commodities that relied on superb goaltending, shot suppression, team defense and off the glass and out. They benefited from average but not great scoring which was incredibly reliant on one player. Incredibly this team, coached by Darryl Sutter, was a positive corsi team. Their playoff run, 26 games in total, followed a similar trend to the regular season. 9 of their 15 wins were won by one goal and a few more were sealed with an empty netter. Kiprusoff, for his part, had five shutouts and allowed a ludicrous 1.85 goals per game. Jarome Iginla recorded 22 points in 26 games and was in on nearly 40% of all of the Flames goals.
The 2014-15 Flames, on the other hand, do not generate a lot of shots but do have league average shot suppression and goaltending. Despite their lack of possession, the current Flames are something of an offensive juggernaut, that is incredibly disciplined and capitalizes on their chances. Currently they sit 5th in the league in goals for per game, behind only Tampa Bay, Dallas, NYR and NYI, who we can all agree have some serious fire power and scoring depth. The Flames are right there. Probably the most potent 1st line in the league right now, decent scoring depth that’s only going to get stronger going forward as well as heavy production from the back end, which would be even more potent if Gio wasn’t injured – drastically so. The last time the Flames finished top 5 in league scoring was 20 years ago (1994-95). They didn’t have that in 2004 or 2006 or 2007 through 2009 when they iced a line-up including Iginla, Cammalleri, Tanguay, Langkow and/or Jokinen in and around their prime.
No this team doesn’t have a 26 year old Jarome Iginla or a goalie that can keep any team in any game like Kiprusoff was able to. But the sum of their parts this time around is much greater than that wonderful group of no names cult heroes from 11 years ago (look at those lines!). Sure they’re a huge outlier based on their possession stats but the 2003-04 Flames were incredible outliers as well, if not more so.
Here’s some research I’ve done on the number of impact players (top 150 in scoring) a team has and their playoff appearance frequency (1998-2012; cup winners includes 2013 and 2014 winners).
What comes out is most teams have between four and six offensive impact players any given year. Teams that have seven or more are essentially a lock to make the playoffs and teams with five or more have a better than not chance to be a playoff team. The 2014-15 Flames have six (Hudler, Gaudreau, Monahan, Wideman, Giordano, Brodie), which suggests that, however you get there, there’s a 72% chance you’ll be in the big dance. Nothing outlier about that. Conversely, the 2003-04 Calgary Flames had three (Iginla, Conroy, Donovan). 19% of teams with that type of scoring depth, regardless of defensive prowess and ability to possess the puck, makes the playoffs. What’s more is that the majority of the teams that have made the playoffs with only three impact players since 1998 were out in the 1st round. Only two made it to the cup finals – the 1998 Washington Capitals and the 2004 Calgary Flames. Huge outliers.
SUM IT UP
Will the Flames make it far in the playoffs? The odds and the experts will say no and they might be right but anything can happen in the playoffs. If those 2003-04 Flames could make miracles happen, the 2014-15 Flames may surprise us as well, especially because they appear to be better positioned to surprise with their scoring depth and high offensive talent this time around.
Regardless, this year’s already a massive, huge, enormous success. The Flames were projected to finish bottom 5, so, conservatively, they ended up with 24% more points than expected or the equivalent of 9.5 wins. So enjoy the bonus ride … however long she lasts.