The Calgary Flames were supposed to be strong Connor McDavid contenders this year. They entered 2014-15 with the cheapest roster in the NHL. Their opening night line-up featured youngsters, hopefuls, support veterans and fringe players (and Mark Giordano). The new regime opted for a prudent wait-and-see approach in the summer of 2014, acquiring marginal beef to bulk up the line up and dollars to reach the cap floor.
Instead, Calgary’s season was perhaps the most incredibly unlikely success story of the modern era.
What this means to followers of the team varies. To some, it indicates the organization has jumped the rebuild queue and re-entered the contender fray ahead of schedule. The truth, however, is that there is still a lot of work left to be done.
– It’s tempting, in the wake of extreme or unexpected success, to grow overly romantic about a hockey team. Suddenly, every move by the GM en route to the Cinderella season makes sense. Every player seems essential. Every coaching decision is genius.
In the NHL, this kind of mania tends to afflict two kinds of fan bases and GM’s: club’s that overcome all reasonable expectations and Stanley Cup winners.
For example, Colorado journalist Adrian Dater eagerly penned a paean to neophyte NHL coach (and unofficial GM) Patrick Roy after the Avs unlikely move from basement dwellers to conference champs in 2013-14, only to see the Avs fall back down to earth this year.
– Dater’s eagerness to declare the Avs a Phoenix reborn is particularly noteworthy, because he had done something similar just four years earlier. Thanks to some sublime goaltending from Craig Anderson, Colorado jumped into the playoff picture unexpectedly with 95 points, despite the third worst underlying numbers in the league. The very next season, they dropped 27 standings points (95 to 68) and finished second last in the league.
I note this not to pick on Dater, but to show how seductive sudden success can be, and how easy it is to extrapolate on-going success continuing indefinitely in your head.
– Ideally, GM’s are always critically evaluating their club by the same, consistent principles regardless of the club’s peaks and valleys. In truth, it’s entirely human to become hyper critical when a is team falling below expectations and unreasonably optimistic when things are going well. The best course of action is to suppress these tendencies as much as possible to ensure you aren’t seduced by transient performance dips or spikes.
– As noted, the Flames season was arguably the most unlikely since we started keeping track of possession stats. Their possession rate of 44.3% was the third lowest in the league this year and the lowest of any playoff team in the modern era. To put that in perspective, the second lowest possession rate was Montreal at 48.6% and the Flames were one of only three teams with a possession level below 50% to make the post-season this season.
If we look at a much longer timeline, the Flames are only one of four teams to make the dance with a possession rate around 45% since 2005-06. That comes out to about a 2.5% chance of making it past the regular season for teams with these results.
This can be interpreted as the Flames displaying something special and unaccounted for in the stats (a popular sentiment I think). To me, it means you take the season as a gift and try to improve because it is incredibly unlikely to be repeated.
Of those four teams I mentioned that achieved a similar feat previously? They dropped an average of 20 standings points and none of them made the playoffs the next season. Sometimes you win a pot with an off-suit 7-2, but that doesn’t mean 7-2 is suddenly a good hand.
– The encouraging news in all of this is that Brad Treliving has been very sensible in his post-season interviews. One can only take so much from what a hockey man says to the media, but his answers have been consistently even-keeled, sensible and self-aware, which is something that can’t be said of his predecessor. Of course, only his actions during this off-season will matter, but if they at all match his stated convictions, the Flames are in good hands.
– None of this is meant to deride the very good nucleus of assets the Flames have. The team must continue to improve at even strength in order to really take the next step, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some quality pieces in play.
For my money, the club has one of the best first defense pairings in the league with Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett are legitimate young pillars to build around. Mikael Backlund is a strong, two-way centre who can lend structure to the club’s roster as the kids develop. Then there’s the collection of hopefuls bubbling underneath who may eventually become useful support pieces ranging from Michael Ferland to Emile Poirier.
– So what should be the club’s goal as they rebuild? To develop into a consistent 52% possession club or better. That’s the rate at which an NHL team becomes a perennial playoff contender. Since 2005-06, 71 of 81 teams with a possession rate of 52%+ have made the post season (88%).
That goal gives an indication of how far the Flames are from completing their rebuild. The journey hasn’t ended. In fact, they’ve only just taken the first few steps.
If the Flames front office realizes this and takes meaningful steps in accordance to this knowledge, maybe we can start talking about the Flames as legit contenders in a year or two*.
*(It’s exceedingly rare for clubs to improve their possession rate to that degree over just a few seasons, but it’s definitely possible. The Chicago Blackhawks went from a 47.7% team in 2006-07 to a 56.2% club in 2008-09 and have been dominant ever since. This is the Flames ideal scenario)