Photo Credit: Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports
The Calgary Flames’ season is off to a putrid start.
After being carried by an elite young core of players and advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, the Flames seemed to have improved significantly this past offseason. The core of a successful team remained intact, and the club added a 22-year-old top-of-the-roster quality defenseman in Dougie Hamilton and a very good middle-six play driver in Michael Frolik. This was supposed to be the year the Flames took a serious step forward.
Needless to say that hasn’t come to pass so far. The Flames have now lost back-to-back contests in New York City, dropping their record to 2-7-0. We’re about three weeks into the season now, and the Flames have yet to win a game in regulation.
Let’s recap what’s gone wrong in the early going for a Flames team from whom much more was expected.
1. They Can’t Score
The Flames, so exciting to watch a year ago, have been inept offensively through the first 10 percent of the 2015-16 campaign. Among the NHL’s 30 member clubs, only three teams have scored fewer goals per game than Calgary has, which is kind of amazing. It’s even more amazing when you remember that one of those teams is the Pittsburgh Penguins, a helpful reminder that yes, it’s still very early.
Early or not, what has to be particularly concerning is that the Flames’ inability to find the back of the net has occurred even though Johnny Gaudreau – their best offensive player – has seemed to take a step. Though he hasn’t scored an even-strength goal yet and his personal shot rate is down a tick, Gaudreau has been all over the ice and consistently dangerous in my viewings of him this season. And the 3-on-3 overtime seems tailor made for his skill set.
It’s not easy to identify where the Flames are losing offense from. The team relied heavily on their defense to score goals a year ago, but they have four goals from defensemen through their first nine games. Rate-wise that’s not too far off from the 45 goals in 82 games rate that the Flames received from their defenders a year ago.
The power play has been a problem, certainly. The Flames are converting on just 12.5 percent of their opportunities with the man advantage so far, but what’s more troubling is that they’ve managed just 27 shots in over 40 5-on-4 minutes in their first nine games. That’s an anemic shot rate, and a sign that the power play may have some structural issues in need of being addressed.
Ultimately though what’s going on here is the most expected part of the Flames’ struggles. The words “puck luck” and “regression” often cause hockey fans’ eyes to glaze over, but when a career second-line scorer like Jiri Hudler leads the entire NHL in even-strength goal scoring by a wide margin, as he did last year, you’ve probably benefitted from some favourable bounces.
The Flames shot a sky-high shooting percentage throughout last season, which probably made their offense look significantly more dangerous than it was. Now that the bounces have gone against them – unsustainably against them, actually, but we’ll get to that later – the Flames, who are still generating shots on goal at a very low rate, don’t have shot volume or sustained offensive pressure to fall back on.
It’s good to be opportunistic in hockey and the Flames have any number of players whom I suspect will prove to be shooting percentage drivers over the long-term (think Gaudreau with his ridiculous arsenal of skills, or Sean Monahan and his insanely efficient work at the net front). In a marathon 82-game season though, things aren’t always going to go your way. True contenders can scrape by during these sorts of nine-game stretches though, because they can fall back on controlling play. If they shoot five percent as a team for a couple of weeks, they’ll still eek out a few points.
So far it would seem that the Flames haven’t improved enough to enjoy that luxury. They’re only generating 5-on-5 shots per 60 minutes at a mid-20s rate, which doesn’t leave much margin for error. It’s evident that the club’s inability to generate shots in all situations – at evens, and on the power play – has cost them so far.
2. Woeful puck stopping
Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports
Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo combined to provide the Flames with average goaltending a year ago. They weren’t great, but they were sturdy enough, which was a huge part of the club’s success.
This season the Flames’ goaltending has been permissive in the extreme. The Flames’ team save percentage sits at .875 through nine games, the fourth worst mark in the league, according to war-on-ice.com.
Jonas Hiller, their most frequent starter so far, is carrying a woeful .872 save percentage. Ramo, who has already been re-assigned to the American League, was similarly unserviceable as he stopped fewer than 88 percent of the shots he faced in three starts this season. Joni Ortio, who has only started one contest, has been Calgary’s best netminder. His save percentage stands at exactly .900…
Even if we were talking about hockey in the mid-90s, those save percentages wouldn’t be good enough to get it done. And when we’re talking about the ‘average starter’s save percentage is at .916 and rising’ era of NHL hockey that we’re in now, well, getting sub-.900 goaltending for a prolonged stretch might be enough to sink your entire season.
The Flames’ goaltenders are better than this, Hiller especially.
I personally thought that the Flames’ goaltending tandem performed a bit over their heads a year ago though, and I don’t think a tandem of Hiller and Ortio are a particularly good bet to provide a club with average goaltending over an 82-game season.
Positive regression in the Flames net should be expected, but I doubt Hiller and Ortio can replicate the .911 save percentage that the Hiller/Ramo tandem gave the Flames in 2014-15. Especially not after this flaming garbage dumpster of a start to the campaign…
3. Injuries/maybe T.J. Brodie is really good
— Man-Games Lost NHL (@ManGamesLostNHL) October 27, 2015
Is T.J. Brodie the most under-rated defenseman in hockey? I wouldn’t have thought so last month, but Brodie’s Flames teammates are making a pretty compelling argument for him.
Brodie’s partnership with Mark Giordano was so important for the Flames in the second half of 2013-14 and throughout the 2014-15 season. The two stalwart defenders have now shared the ice for over 3300 minutes since the 2012-13 season, and in those minutes the Flames have outscored their opponents by a wide margin while controlling 52 percent of shot attempts. When they’re together, Brodie and Giordano are the single best hybrid matchup pair in hockey.
Without Brodie, Giordano has still been a dangerous offensive player, but he hasn’t been the same Norris-caliber two-way force in my opinion. It hasn’t helped that he’s struggled enormously in his partnership with Dougie Hamilton.
The Hamilton-Giordano pair hasn’t had a lot of time to adjust, but they’ve been outscored by a nearly four-to-one ratio in the early going, while controlling a measly 42.6 percent of shot attempts in over 90 minutes together. Giordano’s been much, much better away from Hamilton and has fared particularly well with Dennis Wideman over a tiny sample, but Brodie seems to provide his old wheels with an additional boost of nitrous.
This Flames team needs all hands on deck, and perhaps no single player is as crucial to their chances as Brodie is.
Even beyond Brodie though, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the flurry of other injuries that have bit the Flames so far. From Joe Colborne, to Michael Ferland, to Lance Bouma – the Flames have had to scramble to ice a full roster. It’s probably fair to say that at no point this season has Bob Hartley been able to use his ideal lineup.
4. Atrocious Special Teams
The Flames’ power play has been really ugly. The team isn’t converting on their opportunities with the man advantage, and they’re not even testing the opposition’s goaltenders all that often. A team with this much offensive skill and this much speed shouldn’t have these issues, but here we are.
Calgary’s penalty kill has similarly struggled, with the Flames’ kill rate hovering below 80 percent. Some of that is a result of porous goaltending and the Flames’ .838 4-on-5 save percentage isn’t particularly strong, but there’s more going on here too.
While the Flames are doing well to get in shooting lanes and limit the shot rate against – that’s sort of their bread and butter, you’l recall – they’re still a bottom-10 team in terms of permitting shot attempts against when shorthanded. More concerning is that they’re a bottom-five team in terms of permitting high-danger scoring chances against, according to data found at war-on-ice.com.
The club is making some baffling personnel decisions when shorthanded, which may be compounding these issues. It has seemed to me that they’re under-utilizing Mikael Backlund in shorthanded situations, and over-using Matt Stajan. I’d similarly like to see them give Hamilton a longer look shorthanded, and do what they can to limit the amount of time Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell spend battling the opposition’s best when down a man.
Finally, one under-appreciated aspect of Calgary’s ability to overachieve a year ago, was their team-level discipline.
No team took fewer penalties and gave their opponents fewer power-play opportunities, which considering the club’s physical style and how often they spent time playing without the puck, was enormously impressive. It’s not as if the Flames have swung the other way – they didn’t take a wrong turn and head directly to goon town, or whatever – but they’re a middle of the road team in terms of taking penalties and surrendering power-play opportunities. It’s just another reason they don’t quite look like last season’s miracle Flames.
5. Bad Luck
It took about 10 months longer than I expected, but it does seem as if the Flames’ luck has turned a little bit in the early going here.
That’s not to say that they’ll continue to be unlucky though. The roulette table has no memory of the previous 50 spins, remember, so it’s not as if the Flames are paying for the bounces they received a year ago this season. As tempting as it might be to frame what’s gone on in this way, that’s a fallacy. It’s not how this works.
Calgary leaned heavily on opportunistic shooting a year ago, but even though they were always unlikely to repeat the nine percent even-strength shooting clip they managed last season, it seems similarly unlikely that they’ll continue to cash on only five percent of the shots they take at 5-on-5 over the balance of this campaign.
The Flames probably aren’t as dynamic an offensive team as they appeared to be a year ago, and we shouldn’t expect the likes of Wideman and Hudler to replicate the magical offensive seasons they had in 2014-15. That said, the Flames are also probably better than the 27th best offensive team in hockey, which is what they’ve looked like this year.
At some point, the Flames’ luck in the offensive end will change.
It’s a similar story in net. Hiller is a decent bet to give his club average goaltending, but he’s been brutal so far. It’s more likely than not, in my estimation, that he’ll begin to figure it out.
As bad and hard to watch and uninspired as the Flames have been in the early going this season, they’ve also probably looked worse than they are. Calgary’s combined on-ice shooting and on-ice save percentage sits at 93 at the moment, and as their PDO number regresses towards 100, and it will, the Flames will probably start to look like somewhat less of a garbage fire.