Random Thoughts – The Rebuild isn’t over

random thoughts

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)

  • DoubleDIon

    I put stock in corsi numbers, but the stat needs to evolve a bit to weigh shooting areas and blocked shots differently. A team like the Flames who block a lot of shots and shoot from high percentage areas will always override corsi to some degree.

    I like the Xdiff stat a lot better. It shows us as a 47.1 good for 23rd in the league. No one can convince me we’re worse than the Oilers and were lucky to beat them. My eyes see a team that did indeed get a bit lucky, just not the third worst team in the league getting extremely lucky.

    • DoubleDIon

      But don’t forget the fact that without the Oilers beating the kings at the end of the year, the Flames would have been in the lottery draft with us. They worked their a$$es off to win that game so the Flames had a chance to make the playoffs. Oiler’s knew what was at stake that game and so do Flames fans….Your welcome and when the “Shoes on the other foot” next year we expect the same effort.

          • Rockmorton65

            And who beat the Kings two weeks before that? The Hawks. Should we send them a thank you letter too? A lot of teams influenced the Kings missing the playoffs.

          • The Real Slim Brodie

            I think the kings had the biggest impact on missing the playoffs..calgary played their game all year and earned their way into the playoffs..also thank you for the guaranteed 8 points oilers..see ya next year its always a pleasure knowing they are in the bank to begin the season.

      • Greg

        That.. Isn’t true. If the Oilers lose to the Kings, like the day they got completely destroyed and annihilated by LA in Staples, the Kings finish the season with 97 points and Flames finish the season with 97 points + Tiebreaker. What that might however mean, is that the Kings have more hope that the Flames beat the Jets in game 82, because Kings had tiebreaker over Jets.

        If I must give credit to anybody, it’s the Canucks who forced a shootout with the Kings the night before, because if they lose that game, then the Kings are probably way more fired up to destroy EDM the night after / CGY in game 81 / SJS in game 82 / VAN in the first round / ANA in the second / CHI in the WCF / and TBL. That and an injury to Sekera that pretty much buries them.

      • Rockmorton65

        Nice to see that McJesus got some valuable experience in the OHL playoffs – something he will need playing for the Oilers…that is, losing 4 games in 5!

      • jonahgo

        Let’s give credit where credit is due. The Oilers did help us make the playoffs this year by losing to us in every regular season game we played. Cheers guys!

      • al rain

        Dude, the Flames had success this season in large measure because they worked hard EVERY night – they were the epitome of never quit. I’m not a reflexive Oilers basher but I feel compelled to point out that your team’s effort over the past, I dunno, decade?, would be described in slightly different terms.

        You think it’s noteworthy, but it shouldn’t be seen as something special for a team to “work their a$$es off” – they should do it 82 times a season.

    • al rain

      The quality of shots doesn’t matter. They didn’t have the puck when the shot attempts against were recorded.
      The Flames won a lot of one goal gamchky.t they flames were lues this year, and their goaltending exceeded expectations.
      The Oilers had a team save percentage below 900. The Oilers lost a lot of one goal games. I am not saying the Oilers are as good, but the Flames had a lot of luck, including guys like Bouma overachieving. He never scored more than 15 goals in junior, and he got 18 in the bigs? How can they replicate all that went their way this year?

  • SSB1963

    More than the forwards, the biggest fools gold of the season is probably the Russell/Wideman pairing. The sooner we can split them up, the sooner we can take advantage of Wideman’s strengths from a bottom pairing and compensate Russell’s weaknesses on a middle pairing. Bring in a guy like Sekera or Petry, keep a guy like Schlemko. If your D-core can push possession, it means more offensive zone starts, which means even better possession numbers for the Gio/Brodie pairing.

    My greatest fear with management is their love of “”truculent”” stiffs like Engelland and Smid. Who on the Blackhawks roster or Lightning roster fills those roles? No one, because you don’t need players like that in today’s NHL. Unless a guy can really play, like a Bickell, Bouma, or Ferland, you can’t keep gifting minutes to these guys who can’t even clear the zone.

  • piscera.infada

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Flames drop a bit this year but at the same time see some strong development from the young players. We still need 2-3 top 6 forwards and 2 top 4 defensemen as well as some size with skill. Perhaps Bennett develops as quickly as Monahan and we cross one of the top 6 needs off. A couple good free agent signings could meet multiple needs too. Personally, if we could sign one of Soderberg/Frolik or Stewart up front and one of Franson/Petry or Reilly and trade Wideman/Backlund and Raymond for picks, I would be happy. That probably isn’t realistic but as long as there is an 11.5% chance of that happening, there is hope.

  • Burnward

    Who thinks the rebuild is over?

    They should be in the playoff mix again next season, if the last 120 games or so they’ve played is any indication.

    I don’t think you’ll find too many people saying they’re a finished product yet though.

    The biggest argument this season is that they aren’t as bad as the almighty Corsi stats say, not that they are Cup contenders.

    • piscera.infada

      I am with you in regards to not believing that we have arrived, there is still a lot of work to be done and a lot of growth to be had. Monahan and Johnny will even be better next year; finding a physical and talented rw to play with them would help. Finding at least 1 more top 4 defender would help as well. Bennett will be a solid player next year and will help the offensive depth. Hopefully Poirier will also be able to make the next step and add to the offence.

  • RKD

    I agree the rebuild is far from over, however I don’t think Treliving is going to fall into the trap of where the Flames are really at. He was a seller at the deadline and I think he’s going to be cautious going forward. Next season will be very telling, we will have a solid top 4. One of Ramo or Hiller I expect will be gone, but if both come back that will help us. I expect Monahan to continue to grow as a #1C, but will his production grow or could he have a set back season and not hit 30 goals? Gaudreau put up 64 points, could have a sophomore jinx? How much offence will the Flames get from the back end? If their sh% is down or the third period comebacks drop off they will need to find other methods of winning games.

  • RKD

    I agree the rebuild is far from over, however I don’t think Treliving is going to fall into the trap of where the Flames are really at. He was a seller at the deadline and I think he’s going to be cautious going forward. Next season will be very telling, we will have a solid top 4. One of Ramo or Hiller I expect will be gone, but if both come back that will help us. I expect Monahan to continue to grow as a #1C, but will his production grow or could he have a set back season and not hit 30 goals? Gaudreau put up 64 points, could have a sophomore jinx? How much offence will the Flames get from the back end? If their sh% is down or the third period comebacks drop off they will need to find other methods of winning games.

  • JumpJet

    One thing that really interests me, and you mentioned briefly in the article, is how teams go from being poor possession teams to good ones. What makes the biggest difference? Is it coaching style, the players’ style, a combination of both, something else entirely?

    I would also really enjoy an investigation into how some of the top possession players, like Kopitar, Bergeron, and Getzlaf, got to be that way. Surely they weren’t always possession dynamos. What would it take for Monahan and/or Bennett to develop into one of those caliber of players?

    • piscera.infada

      It’s interesting to think about. I heard the interview with Rob Vollman on the Fan on Wednesday, and he reinforced a lot of what I was clinging to throughout this season.

      He basically said that he sees bettering possession as a three-pronged approach: first, good coaching; second, core-talent (generally drafted); third, augmenting that core with a supporting cast through trade and free agency. He believes that the Flames actually show a lot of promise in terms of advancing their possession game over the next few seasons because they have the first two (coaching and core-players) figured out for (what appears to be) the forseeable future. Once this team shows that they can begin to possess the puck more on a game-to-game basis, it will be incumbent on management to reinforce that style of play by adding bodies who can do likewise.

      The thing is, this will not happen over night. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the young core needs time to develop these skills together. There is no cure-all for developing Monahan and/or Bennett into a “possession monster”–it will simply take time and coaching. That said, I think we’ve begun to see very promising signs in Monahan.

      I look at this rebuild as beginning in earnest now. The foundation has been laid, but now needs to be smoothed out so it’s not uneven. Then, something can actually be built on top of it. It’s extremely exciting, but it will take time and effort.

  • Greg

    “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.”

    I don’t think that’s an unreasonable way to set expectations for next season, which would put us at 77 points. I see it as being up to BT to improve the roster enough from that point to be able to reasonably expect another playoff appearance.

    Question is though, how do you make enough improvements to actually expect that? Adding a Franson/Green/Petry on the backend helps. Adding a Justin Williams up front and adding Bennett for a full season helps also. But I doubt all of that together would off set a 20 point decline.

    Unfortunately for BT he could do all the right things, but end up with a high-80s/low-90s club, and get blamed for “messing with the chemistry” even if it really was the correct next steps to becoming a legitimate contender.

    Great season, but going to be tough to replicate the success.

  • RKD

    I agree the rebuild is far from over, however I don’t think Treliving is going to fall into the trap of where the Flames are really at. He was a seller at the deadline and I think he’s going to be cautious going forward. Next season will be very telling, we will have a solid top 4. One of Ramo or Hiller I expect will be gone, but if both come back that will help us. I expect Monahan to continue to grow as a #1C, but will his production grow or could he have a set back season and not hit 30 goals? Gaudreau put up 64 points, could have a sophomore jinx? How much offence will the Flames get from the back end? If their sh% is down or the third period comebacks drop off they will need to find other methods of winning games.

  • RKD

    I agree the rebuild is far from over, however I don’t think Treliving is going to fall into the trap of where the Flames are really at. He was a seller at the deadline and I think he’s going to be cautious going forward. Next season will be very telling, we will have a solid top 4. One of Ramo or Hiller I expect will be gone, but if both come back that will help us. I expect Monahan to continue to grow as a #1C, but will his production grow or could he have a set back season and not hit 30 goals? Gaudreau put up 64 points, could have a sophomore jinx? How much offence will the Flames get from the back end? If their sh% is down or the third period comebacks drop off they will need to find other methods of winning games.

  • RKD

    I agree the rebuild is far from over, however I don’t think Treliving is going to fall into the trap of where the Flames are really at. He was a seller at the deadline and I think he’s going to be cautious going forward. Next season will be very telling, we will have a solid top 4. One of Ramo or Hiller I expect will be gone, but if both come back that will help us. I expect Monahan to continue to grow as a #1C, but will his production grow or could he have a set back season and not hit 30 goals? Gaudreau put up 64 points, could have a sophomore jinx? How much offence will the Flames get from the back end? If their sh% is down or the third period comebacks drop off they will need to find other methods of winning games.

  • jonahgo

    i don’t think the flames are too far off from being a middle tier possession team–a full season of monahan, backlund, bennett, stajan at centre would make a big positive difference, not to mention a full year of gio.

    as has been pointed out ad nauseam here, a decent second pairing defenceman would make a big positive difference too…

  • beloch

    An interesting thing about this year’s Flames’ team was that it wasn’t stellar goal-tending that propped them up. The Flames sv% was 16th in the league, which is pretty average. It was the Flames shooting percentage that was an extraordinary #2 in the league, behind only that of Tampa Bay.

    The Flames’ sh% was primarily goosed by the Monahan, Gaudreau, and Hudler. They all had high shooting percentages and registered a lot of shots. If you take away those three, the Flames sh% was below league average. Hudler has a high career sh%, but this was the second highest season he’s had. It’s too soon to know where the sh% of Gaudreau and Monahan will settle.

    Monahan, Gaudreau, and Hudler scored 38% of the team’s goals and were the only forwards (aside from Glencross) that drove possession above a CF% of 50%. Given that this line wasn’t formed until late in the season and also given the young age of Monahan and Gaudreau, it’s reasonably safe to assume that this line will be the Flames’ main source of offence next season.

    So is this season repeatable? Call me an optimist, but I think we’re going to see Monahan, Gaudreau, and Hudler carve up the league next season. They’re going to be something special. Maybe their sh% will regress, but I also expect their possession play to improve (they are still very young). If the Flames win fewer games, it’ll be because of more one-goal games (OT or otherwise) going against them and fewer miraculous come from behind wins. Never giving up served this team well, but chance favoured them a lot of nights too.

    The rest of the team though… There is work to be done. The Flames need more quality possession forwards in their bottom 9 and their second pair needs a possession driving #3D.

    • SoCalFlamesFan

      You said it better than I could. The poor possession could be helped in significant way with continued depth and a solid second defensive line.

      Bennet is still very young and prone to some lapses but he could still win some games next year too.

      Don’t underestimate the addition of rookies and the addition of not “famous yet players”. Who saw the development of Jooris? Could Ferland be a factor like Jooris next year? Just looking at not winning the “comeback games” next year will not necessarily lead to a 20 point regression.

    • piscera.infada

      We really gotta get Backlund a possession driving / scoring winger. Last year, especially the second half, I think he was on a line with Hudler/Camalleri and he was a possession monster, this year he was on lines with Bouma, Jones, and Colborne which is like giving the guy a handicap and a half.

  • RKD

    I agree the rebuild is far from over, however I don’t think Treliving is going to fall into the trap of where the Flames are really at. He was a seller at the deadline and I think he’s going to be cautious going forward. Next season will be very telling, we will have a solid top 4. One of Ramo or Hiller I expect will be gone, but if both come back that will help us. I expect Monahan to continue to grow as a #1C, but will his production grow or could he have a set back season and not hit 30 goals? Gaudreau put up 64 points, could have a sophomore jinx? How much offence will the Flames get from the back end? If their sh% is down or the third period comebacks drop off they will need to find other methods of winning games.

  • Franko J

    With success comes higher expectations. This past season the team over achieved as was under estimated by the media, fans and other opponents alike. I can see there will be some drop off in points because the Flames will not surprise teams and the competition that much stronger. However if the team can continue out working, hustle and pressure the opposition like they did this year I can see the team again fighting, scraping and clawing their way into another opportunity into the playoffs.

  • RexLibris

    Excellent article, Kent.

    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.

    This is the sentiment I have been trying to hammer home as well.

    Enjoy the season, ignore the stats while the game is one, but don’t discount their value and keep a level head once the season ends.

    A silver lining for the Flames this year is that the draft is so incredibly deep they can pick at #15 and get a very good prospect all the same.

  • SSB1963

    Kent you give a pretty good idea of generally what the Flames need to do but no real specifics. To get to the possession numbers 52%+ would mean BT doing what?

    From my perspective the following would need to happen; develop, sign or trade for a physical but skilled RW to play with Monny&Johnny. The same but on the LW to go along with Bennett&Hudler(This could be Ferland), a RW to go along with Bouma&Backlund who is both offensive and defensively responsible(Poirier might be that guy). Add a big physical center who can win defensive zone faceoffs(is this Arnold?) to play along with the other role players.

    On the back end we need to add at least on R handed shot who can be a 3/4 who has size and preferable an edge to him. A backend with Wides and Russell playing as 3rd pairing could look pretty good.

    If you can build from within great but the real test will be what can BT do for the present without selling off the future.

  • Excellent article. Personally, I expect the team to fall well out of the playoff chase next season, but I have no issue with that. As long as the young guys are improving and the talent base is expanded, then the team is headed in the right direction. There will be many who jump off the Cinderella bandwagon, but not me. Treliving is saying all the right things and I’ve no problem with a 5-7 year rebuild. Doing it right isn’t easy, but if the team achieves perennial contender status eventually, I have no trouble with the wait.

    The big thing is to improve the back end next year. Also, it’ll be interesting to see how guys like Granlund and Ferland do in camp next year and what the team does with Shore. Perfect linear progression is impossible and the Flames are at a bit of a crossroads with having to make room for more young talent and the growing pains that will come with that.

    Part of me thinks those three plus Poirier and Agostino are all ready now and part of me thinks every single one of them could benefit with another season in the A. Granlund, who I view as a poor man’s a Backlund may end up finding himself squeezed out. The rookie situation will definitely be interesting to watch.

    • piscera.infada

      I’m glad someone else sees something in Agostino. Love that kid as a prospect. Obviously he’s no Iginla 2.0 (must really suck to have to live up to that trade, eh?), but I think he has the game to be a very effective middle six’er who can move up and down the lineup if needed.

      I agree with Granlund though. I like him, but I’m unsure if there’s a spot for him. Personally, I like what both Shore and Arnold can bring to the table more than him, and while I believe Shore could make a hell of a winger in the NHL, I think you want to keep Arnold at centre.

  • I agree with Kent. We can’t deny the reality of the situation but it’s okay to be happy with what we achieved this year. Many have pointed out the realities of this years situation: high sh%, midling sv%, bad offensive possession, etc.

    The reality though is we now have a group of core former draftees who have learned important lessons.
    You have an 18 year old centre that was taught to stick to the program and keep workng hard and he would get his just rewards. Out of that he gained a nice payday and more importantly 11 games of pro experience in the playoffs.

    You have a kid turning 20 years old who had a 30 goal sophomore season who learned just how much tighter NHL playoffs is and that guys are gonna play you tighter and not give you as much space.

    You hvae a 21 year old kid who was told his whole life he’s too small to play in the NHL. Put up rookie calibre numbers and was nominated for the Calder trophy. He larned that despite being told no, despite struggles at certain points in the season if you stick with it and persevere you will be all the better off for it.

    Even Backlund showed me that he has the confidence and the drive to be a winner and the skill to back it up. As he was arguably our best player in the playoffs despite a lack of points. Next season wil be backlunds career point year. I just hope it’s with us.

    There’s work to be done no one can deny that. But this season was valuable in terms of call them moral and cognitive lessons for our core guys. Three of which are under 21 and a whole whack more are 25 and under. That experience is invaluable and the fact that they were raised in an environment where winning and doing your best to win nightly and not throwing in the towel despite being young, being less offensively gifted in terms of posession is something you can’t pay for, can’t draft, and can’t trade for.

  • I see a team that got really lucky with hot goaltending early in the season and hot shooting percentages later.

    I also see a team that fell behind early far too often and had score effects drastically help the appearance of their hard work.

    I will be blown away if this roster makes the playoffs next year, just as I was this year. But.. I still think they are better than the Oilers.