We heard (and said) it all last season: this can’t last. The Flames can’t stay in the playoff race, can’t make the playoffs, can’t do anything meaningful this season. They’re going to miss out on a high pick, and they’re going to Colorado Avalanche it up: bet on the wrong horses, go all-in on an unsustainable situation, and go back to the bottom of the standings.
There’s only one problem: somebody forgot to tell Brad Treliving this.
Definitely not the Colorado Avalanche
The 2013-14 Avalanche and 2014-15 Flames had one major narrative in common: they shouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing, but they are. They saw it through to varying degrees of success: the Avs won the Central Division, but the Flames actually won a playoff round. Colorado got there on the back of a high save percentage, while Calgary, a high shooting percentage.
While some heralded the Avs as a new contender, the stats community was quick to predict their regression. Sure enough, Semyon Varlamov did not repeat his performance, but Colorado made it even worse for themselves. Over the first days of the off-season, they:
- Traded P.A. Parenteau (49.79% CF, +3.52% CF rel) for Daniel Briere (44.08% CF, -3.03% CF rel)
- Traded for Brad Stuart (51.33% CF, -2.75% CF rel)
- Let go of Paul Stastny (46.00% CF, +4.10% CF rel)
- Signed Jarome Iginla (53.57% CF, -0.44% CF rel)
- Re-signed Nick Holden (48.00% CF, +1.47% CF rel)
- Signed Zach Redmond (51.36% CF, -1.19% CF rel)
In short, the Avs lost two of their better possession players, and replaced them all with worse guys. The Parenteau-Briere trade was particularly bad, as Parenteau actually had a relatively good season for Colorado, whereas Briere was terrible for Montreal. They also lost Stastny, which sometimes can’t be avoided; however, they replaced him with Iginla who, sadly, was a negative relative possession player for the Boston Bruins, and continued this with the Avalanche.
Colorado ignored the statistics, spit in its face, and went on to fall out of the playoffs. It remains to be seen if they can get back into the race for 2015-16, but the Western Conference is ever-improving, and they aren’t going at the same rate.
What a week
To recap the Flames: one week ago, they still had the same team that saw them eliminated in early May. Without many expiring contracts, they were expected to lose just a couple of bottom pairing defencemen, as well as their 1B goalie, and that was it.
They were still lacking depth in several areas, though: primarily the right side and the defence beyond the top pairing. And with the magical season finally at an end and historical evidence stacked up against them to repeat, the idea of making the playoffs again didn’t seem likely.
To change that, so far, they:
- Re-signed Mikael Backlund (45.87% CF, +2.07% CF rel)
- Traded for and signed Dougie Hamilton (54.91% CF, +4.72% CF rel)
- Re-signed Karri Ramo (91.85 SV%, 92.93 AdSV%)
- Signed Michael Frolik (55.15% CF, +3.74% CF rel)
The Flames retained one of their better possession players in Backlund, kept around a decent goalie they were familiar with, and added two very positive possession players.
In short, they did exactly what the Avalanche did not do: paid attention to the numbers, the kind of players they were after, and got them. It remains to be seen how well it works out, but the early returns are looking good, and Hamilton and Frolik both address positions of weakness the Flames had one week ago.
Over the course of the past week, the reaction from outsider fans seems to have gone from mocking the Flames to outright fear.
Brad Treliving: One of us
Treliving used some interesting language in his presser. In describing Frolik, he used phrases often used to describe Backlund, a player who has faced hardships from Calgary media due to lack of scoring, and ignoring everything else he brings to the table.
An “unheralded guy who does a lot of heavy lifting and doesn’t necessarily seem to get the accolades” is exactly the sort of language that has been used to describe guys who post good underlying numbers. Even though Treliving has not used the word “corsi”, it’s pretty clear that’s exactly what he’s talking about. The Flames watched Frolik and knew to target him, and a big part of that was his possession stats: part of a numerical representation of all those little things he does right.
Improving the Flames’ possession has been a stated goal of Treliving’s, and he targeted players who would help him reach that goal.
The 2014-15 season, while fun, was not satisfactory for the long term. The Minnesota Wild, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Colorado Avalanche have shown us that kind of performance is unsustainable year-to-year. By targeting the players he did, Treliving has upped his bets for the 2015-16 to go just as well, if not maybe even better.
No guarantees, but
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and contending hockey teams don’t pop up out of thin air. Although, with the Flames entering the third year of their rebuild, it isn’t necessarily out of nowhere.
The Flames aren’t contenders yet, but they have the pieces in place to be. Treliving said it himself: most of their good players are very young (as young as a 19-year-old Sam Bennett, in fact). There are no guarantees they turn out elite, but right now, things are looking very, very good.
By adding pieces through trades and free agency – Hamilton was a game changer, and Frolik an excellent depth acquisition – the Flames have just advanced their rebuild that much further. And while a year ago size was added for the sake of size, it has also been a year since that was the case.
There’s still a chance none of this pans out. There’s a chance there are unforeseen setbacks. The Pacific Division remains tough, after all, as does the Western Conference, and there are never any guarantees. Even with the Flames’ improved (and still cap-friendly) lineup, they could fall out of the playoff race next season.
But this is a better team than it was a week ago, so an entertaining 2015-16 can be expected – and with it, real growth in the right direction.