Where You’re Going By Where You’ve Been

index

Well that was one heck of a season. Goals, come-from-behind wins, Hiller standing on his head, a rookie-filled team shooting the lights out, Norris-calibre season from O Captain, My Captain!

Too bad it’ll never happen again for as long as the Sun shines down on the this fair Earth.

Or will it?

The Flames went from the bottom to the, um, middle like a rocket this season. Other fans might use metaphors to illustrate a sense of alacrity based on geese and their fecal excretory systems, but we’ll stick with the rocket comparison today.

In 2013 the Flames finished 25th in the league with 42 pts in a 48 game season for a .395 win%. The following season they finished 27th with 77 pts in a full season and a .427 win%.

Things were looking down for the gang back then.

Summer of 2014-2015 involves much discussion of how bad the Flames can be. Worst in the Western Conference? Many seemed to think so. But worse than Buffalo? That could be tough. All the same, the clouds were rolling in, the barometer was low and fans were braced for a long losing season.

But the team didn’t lose. They won. More often than not, and many would say more often than they deserved. But nevertheless, they won.

Talk turned to regression and statistical anomalies, but the regression didn’t happen within the season, at least not to the extent that many, myself included, thought it would.

And before you know it, Dean Lombardi is planning his exit meetings with Darryl Sutter over tee times while the Flames are putting away their razors in favour of moustache wax and ice packs for the spring.

Well now how in the heck did this happen? Did the Flames just pull off one of the biggest rebound seasons in NHL history?

Going back to 1979, I had a look at teams that finished in the bottom four of the league and compared it to where they finished the following season.

Keeping in mind that this means comparing the league through the expansion eras from 21 teams to 30, the evidence suggests that since the 2005-2006 lockout, the ability of a team to tank a single season and then rebound to something close to relevancy has become more common.

Take a look at the images below and you’ll see what I mean.

1st era

This is the 1st era, the old 21-team NHL. Among other things you may notice that the Toronto Maple Leafs essentially spent a decade in the bottom of the league and came out of it with bupkus. Gotta love the Leafs, they put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

Now, a few teams were able to pull out of the nosedive they were in, but we also see a lot of familiar faces in this list, year-over-year and none of the teams who made the massive improvement went on to win Stanley Cups immediately after their meteoric rise.

Ignore the extra columns to the right, but you can see the teams that improved in the standings by 10 places or more have a highlighted square next to them. I’ve also added an asterisk to the 1988-1989 Kings because they made a bit of a splash on the trade market that summer that contributed to their improvement the following season. 

2nd era

The numbers in the far right represent the number of teams in the league at each time, which is also denoted by the colour changes. The asterisks here represent teams that spent extended time at the bottom of the league, thereby collecting several high draft picks and as a result, at least in most cases, high-end talent.

Not much difference in terms of the number of teams making a significant jump in the standings nor the frequency with which it is done. That is to say, it isn’t a regular occurrence, but neither is it so rare as to be considered truly astonishing.

3rd era A

Here we have the modern NHL, 30 teams and the beginning of the draft lottery. You’ll notice that on the right hand side I’ve added a note “low” and “high”. This is, for the entire exercise, the lowest a team adjusted (in this case, they fell back) and the highest.

Only one asterisk here, the Penguins following the addition of Sidney Crosby in 2005-2006. They would wait another three years before winning a Stanley Cup and haven’t gotten a real chance since.

What stands out most of all is the frequency that we’re seeing teams make a leap following a down year. This could be explained a number of ways: improved drafting, better talent available through the draft or improved parity of the league through the salary cap.

The first two I’d wave off. It typically takes three to five years for all but the absolute best prospects to make a real difference to the fortunes of their team, and while drafting likely has improved during that time, we’re still talking about teenagers and development curves.

However, the instituting of a salary cap coincides directly with the increased frequency of a team’s ability to bounce back after a bad season.

The only real gap in the list is the…wait for it…2009-2010 season featuring the Oilers, Leafs, Panthers and Blue Jackets. Four poster franchises for dysfunction and ineptitude for much of the NHL’s recent history.

I left off the 2013-2014 season but it featured two teams specifically showing marked improvement, the Flames with an improvement of 11 places in the standings and the Florida Panthers who improved 9 places. The other two teams, the Sabres and Oilers, did not budge.

So what conclusions can we draw from this exercise?

The Flames’ season was likely one for the ages…for Flames fans. This sort of improvement is, in general, becoming more prevalent throughout the league.

The average improvement of a team finishing in the bottom four of the league to the following season is 4.6 spots in the standings, with an improvement of 2 places being the most common occurrence. The teams that shared similar experiences to the Flames in recent history are the 2012-2013 Islanders, the 2011-2012 Avalanche, and the 2012-2013 Blue Jackets.

The Flames may well have experienced a brief dip down into the basement of the league to restock the cupboard with elite-level prospects, however it remains to be seen whether they will continue to improve and grow or have merely rushed back to a state of relative mediocrity.

All standings information courtesy of nhl.com.

  • beloch

    It’s pretty amazing how context can change how we perceive things. In the 80’s, a season like the Flames just had would have been a failure. This year, it put huge grins on our faces.

    Expectations will inevitably be higher next season, so it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate a season where fans got so much more than they bargained for.

  • everton fc

    Always enjoy learning a new word.Rex and Kent seem to provide them regularly. I have never heard “alacrity” being used or it’s meaning.

    To put the Flames season in perspective has to include the playoff run at the end IMO.Playoff hockey is so much different than the regular season. That experience has to have an effect in a positive way moving forward.

    A lot of things would have to line up for them to repeat this year’s results,but playoff hockey has made our player.s better.

    • RexLibris

      Alacrity.

      Possible antonyms include: Penner, Dustin; Tambellini, Steve – decision making; Professional hockey, Arizona, legal standing of publicly-held leases.

  • everton fc

    Rex:

    You are a level-headed member of the Nation. Always have been. I appreciate your insights and observations.

    I think the Flames did more than expected, but with young goalie depth, strong/young/potentially elite-level depth down the middle, all we need is to sure up the wings, have a 4th line that was as good as Nystrom/Moss/Prust of yesteryear (one of the best 4th lines we’ve ever had) and sure up our backend long-term, and we may be on the cusp of greatness once again. I really hope we draft Chabot at #15, but if he’s available, I’m leaning towards scooping Svechnikov. “You never know”…

    Note I am a pessimist by nature, a cynical man who tends to be “glass half empty” most days. But not these days.

    Then again… As you may remember from a few season ago, I thought Guillaume Desbiens would “stick” with the team long term. He now racks up penalty minutes, and a few goals, in the Austrian League.

    • RexLibris

      Thank you for the kind words.

      As an aside, I work very hard to maintain an objective opinion on the Flames against my own seething hatred of the team. True story: I shut the gas feed off to my house and during the colder months sit in a brick-walled room in my basement every other night and think of Theoren Fleury sliding on the ice. Keeps the whole house warm for the next 48 hours.

      Re: Desbiens

      Prospects will break your heart. I watched Martin Gernat play for the Oil Kings, say behind his family at a game, saw him develop and was thrilled when they drafted him. I loved his game in junior and it kills me to see him just fading away into obscurity in the AHL now.

      The ridiculous part is that, as an Oilers fan, I’ve had very little to cheer for the last ten years except prospects, so you’d think you’d learn to insulate yourself. Nope, damned kids find a way to my heart every year.

      • everton fc

        Yep. You never know how a prospect will turn out. even first rounders turn sour.

        It happens.

        By the way, never hated the Oilers. Was living in Sherwood Park during the run vs. the Canes. Pulled for the Oilers. It was a pit stop from Calgary. We’re back now. I think the fans take an unnecessary beating here sometimes. And I wish they’d given Nelson a shot. Look at what Cooper’s done in Tampa – he was one name (Troy Ward was another) I was hoping would get a look at here, in Calgary. Glad Feaster poached Hartley, though. Always likes Hartley.

        • RexLibris

          I cheered for the Flames in 2004 right up until they made the finals.

          The Flames had spent a decade in the cellar and fans had been beaten down. They, like the Oilers, were the victims of the big-market plundering that had ruined a lot of good hockey during the 90s and early 2000s.

          But once they had a real chance at a Stanley Cup, well, I could go that far and no further. Loved the effect it had on the city, though.

          I’m hoping Nelson comes back as an Assistant/Associate coach. He’s interviewed with Wilkes/Barre (Penguins) apparently. Wish him the best of luck if he leaves. Good young coach.

  • Franko J

    Last season expectations were lower and most Flame’s fans including the media didn’t give the team any chance of making the playoffs. All they did was prove everyone wrong for counting them down and out. Inside the locker room was a different story altogether. The leadership provided by Giordano, Stajan, and for the most part Hartley gave the team a sense of confidence. When Gio went down with season ending injury who knew Hudler, Russell, and Wideman would be able to carry on and grab hold of a playoff spot.

    The playoffs provided in some respect what was good about this team, but also showed that there is still plenty of work to be done to prepare the team for long term future post season entry and success. Like most fans I can only hope last season was not a mirage, that the team will continue to grow and develop prospects. Both Dallas and Colorado are just two examples of teams in which looked good in 2013-2014, but struggled with new found success and had a difficult time repeating in 2014 – 2015 season.

    I truly believe the organization has just begun rebuilding the foundation and identity of this team. Even though the team was successful in accomplishing a playoff spot last season the upcoming season will not be any easier. I think they have the work ethic, commitment and skill to fight and scrape for a playoff spot next year, but there are so many good teams in the Western Conference let alone the NHL the players will have to work and prepare that much harder in the off season to prevent a massive letdown.

    Improvement will be evident when training camp starts next season. If the players show up fit and focused to compete for a roster spot I feel much more confident in their prospects of fighting for another playoff spot.

  • RexLibris

    “The Flames may well have experienced a brief dip down into the basement of the league to restock the cupboard with elite-level prospects….”

    The Flames brief dip “down into the basement” as you stated has only netted them a 6th draft choice in Sean Monahan and a 4th pick in Sam Bennett….this isn’t really down in the basement – I would expect that to be in the bottom 1 to 3 of the NHL… And so far only Monahan has been proven in the NHL, no doubt Bennett will find his way next season.

    What really separates the Flames from the down and out Oilers is the gems they got in later rounds, while the Oilers kept picking the BPA and wound up with a bunch of undersized forwards, and couldn’t really find a prospect beyond their number 1 pick.

    What bodes well for the Flames is that the cupboard has been well stocked with youthful prospects while the NHL Flames have a healthy balance of youth, mid-term and veteran players.

    Having said that making the playoffs next year is again touch and go…Another 45 win season may still find the Flames on the outside looking in.

    I am confident that the Flames will be giving fans another entertaining season and will still be in the hunt for a playoff spot at end of March.

    • RexLibris

      The Flames were fortunate to draft 6th overall in a year deep enough to get them a potential 1st line center at that spot.

      Many other draft years do not present that kind of luxury.

      Similarly, last season they drafted 4th overall when it was widely believed that there were four top prospects followed by separate tier.

      The Flames have also done reasonably well by a few of their later draft picks most notably in Brodie and Gaudreau.

      And finishing 13th in the Western Conference in consecutive seasons is, by my estimation, the basement. That the Oilers and Sabres took up residence in the attached root cellar is neither here nor there.

      • The GREAT Walter White

        Let’s hear a prediction of where your beloved Oilers end up next year sexy Rexy…….

        Lottery pick again?

        McDavid disappoint the huge expectations of the Oilers fans?

        You are not thinking playoffs, are you Rex???!

        WW

        • RexLibris

          No predictions on any team until we’re well into the summer and free-agency.

          I think McDavid and Eichel could challenge back and forth for Calder consideration, but if Ehlers makes the Jets it could easily be a three-way race and I’ve long since given up on the Oilers ever winning a rookie trophy.

          Playoffs? No. They’d have to make so many moves to create a roster that even on paper looked like it had a chance that I think any post-season aspirations are premature right now.

          • RexLibris

            Dobber Hockey site has Drouin #1 & Bennett #2 of top prospects. I agree, I wouldn’t discount Bennett being in that Calder mix just because of the confidence that kid will be taking into next year from the playoffs. Just like I knew there was no AHL in Gaudreaus destiny, I feel the same way about Bennett. Going to be another fun year to watch.

          • The GREAT Walter White

            LOL…I am sure that if Coach Hartley was comfortable using Bennett in the playoffs he will likely also be playing him in the regular season drag…I agree his playoff experience will help him big time next season…and McDavid had his problems with a Junior defense and couldn’t make it to the Mem Cup!

          • RexLibris

            I’d forgotten about Bennett’s Calder eligibility.

            With he, Ehlers (potentially), McDavid and Eichel it could be a pretty cool season to watch.

            There’s always a dark horse player in there somewhere too. It’d be nice if the Calder race was a four or five way race down the stretch.

          • DoubleDIon

            I don’t think Bennett will figure prominently in the Calder race. He plays a very mature two way game, more so than McDavid or Ehlers do, but those guys will score at a higher rate. McDavid will get it easily if McLelland doesn’t demand defensive accountability. He might have a tougher time if he does.

            For the first time in a decade better things are ahead for the Oilers. They have assets and now they have a competent GM. Everything was always blamed on coaches and role players in Edmonton before. Chiarelli will see past that mirage and move out the 90 foot players that help you lose like Eberle and Yakupov.

          • The GREAT Walter White

            Certainly next year’s Calder will be very entertaining. I’m not sure McDavid will be leading the pack, as I believe the Oilers adjustments and his to the NHL will take some time. I expect Eichel to lead the way, Bennett to be right there plus a couple others. In any case lots of teams with high expectations this summer….

  • Now this article has the air of an Oiler’s fan writing it 🙂 (I know you are one Rex but usually you are very neutral).

    The tone of the write up seems to be “you Flames got both lucky in winning as many as you did last season and the picks you ended up with the last few years”. Those opinions are fair enough I suppose but coming from an Oiler’s fan? Not sure how you can write any sort of article about a team getting lucky with a straight face.

    • RexLibris

      The main point of the article is that since the salary cap era went into effect this kind of season has become more common.

      Did the Flames get lucky? Of course they did. But good fortune isn’t necessarily something to be ashamed of, but rather appreciated and used as a tool for better understanding the trials of others.

      While there is an extent to which one makes their luck, I don’t understand why many of the same people who say that the lack of regression this season disproves the reliability of advanced analytics also bristle at the mention of luck playing a role in the Flames’ success.

      Possession metrics are known to show a very high correlation to success. Having poor possession metrics and finding success in spite of it is a pretty effective example of luck. Kent often uses poker metaphors to illustrate this point and he is completely correct. There are any number of strategies that recommend playing the odds and angling for high-percentage hands based on the likelihoods of drawing certain cards against an opponent’s hand and their relative strength to the rest of the deck. Yet every once in awhile a player pulls out a winning hand that defies the odds. His playing acumen may factor into the result but it cannot be said to be the deciding factor in receiving the hand, merely one of a number of circumstances that have played into the end result.

      Hockey isn’t much different. Luck is going to decide a share of the game, but having good players who are well coached and take good chances both with and without the puck will greatly improve the likelihood of capitalizing on what good fortune comes your way.

      This article wasn’t really meant to be about luck, but yes, I do recognize that the Oilers have been both, almost simultaneously, exceedingly lucky and unlucky over the past decade.

      • Robs

        You know Rex, your post really leads up to the next debate & true split amongst posters & readers on this site. It’s kinda like the song Stairway to Heaven & there are two paths you can go by.

        So basically what you have illustrated & a lot of the regression talk & Florida & Colorado comparisons is there is a strong likelihood Flames will be hard pressed to duplicate the results we were treated to this year.
        So how do you proceed:

        Path 1: Knowing full well if we don’t improve our possession numbers next year, this years results will be next to impossible to duplicate. So we now have a plethora of well skilled prospects, especially a lot of 6-9 forward depth & some decent young Goalie prospects developing. A healthy Gio would have been huge during these playoffs, but the possession numbers were still what they were when we had Gio/Brodie steam rolling. If Im Hartley & BT, that pairing will give you 20+ minutes of elite top pairing work. Russell made huge steps & what he needs is a bonafide #3 to help him progress & improve his stats. I believe he can do it. Move Wideman down to #5 & PP & that top 6 defenders gives the Flames instant improvement in Possession.
        A bonafide #3 is going to cost a lot. I know who I would love to see us go after but the point is, this one piece is the key to improvement of the horrible possession numbers. Do we do this? Are Flames going to regress to a bottom 5 finish next year? Have we replaced enough young future core pieces to go after such a big piece of the puzzle? Are the Flames improved to a bonafide 9th/10th team in the conference & destined to some 10 to 14th picks in future drafts in the next few years if we just stay the course? Will that get us any more elite young future core players?

        Path 2: We acknowledge this was a true bonafide cinderella season where the stars aligned for the Flames & next year its back to reality & back to expectations we had going into last year? So now what? Do we use Hudler, or Backlund & our #15, maybe some of our 2nd rounders & move up into a top8 draft position to get one more elite piece? Do we trade some 2nd rounders & roster players to get 1 or 2 more later 1st round picks?

        Which path to take? At some point we have to take one, is this the time in light of the strong draft this year? If we stay the course & do nothing but make solid choices with the picks we have, resign the likes of Schlemko, hope Wideman doesn’t regress too much playing 2nd pairing minutes again, I will expect a year of entertaining regression next year.

  • For those interested in the draft prospects you should take a look at NHLNumbers as they are currently running a series on the prospects starting #45. Some kids there worth getting to know as that is where the Flames pick, some of these kids could fall to 52/53.

    • RexLibris

      Emphasis on “try”. I try and stay neutral.

      Heh, yeah, funny how this year marks the third straight draft where the Oilers and Flames have consecutive 1st round picks. Thank heavens the Penguins were so cooperative and kept the streak alive.

  • Robs

    Always love your articles Rex. Even go to Oilers Nation to read them there.

    Would love to see more articles here, although I know that may lead to bottled up emotions and hefty professional help bills.