Usually I tackle number of topics with these pieces, but this time around I’m going to look at just one: the Flames terrible start.
It’s a stiff shock to the system to see Calgary struggle out of the gate. While there were a few (okay, more than a few) red flags about the club’s Cinderella turn last year, Brad Treliving’s impressive off-season gave hope that the team could avoid a crash back down to earth. Unfortunately, that seems rather inevitable now.
So what the hell is going on here?
1.) The Percentages Crashed
The Flames made the post-season despite lousy underlying numbers last year for a handful of reasons. One of them was a better than average PDO of 101.0 (5on5 SH% and SV%), which was mostly driven by the second highest even strength shooting percentage in the league (8.6%).
The problem is the reverse is true so far this year. Calgary is suffering from both terrible puck stopping (87.8%) and shooting (5.2%) efficiency, resulting in a PDO of just 93.0.
Flames fans can take solace in the fact that there’s no way the club is actually this bad. PDO’s for NHL teams usually settle between 98-101 by the end of the year. Nobody is really 93.0 bad. This is a remarkably dry stretch which is enervating their lacklustre play even further.
2.) The Penalty Differential Has Gone Away
The Flames were the most disciplined team in the NHL last year. That meant they got to spend almost 2 more hours on the PP and than on the PK, an advantage that further propped up their results.
In 9 games this year, Calgary has actually taken four more penalties than they’ve drawn. At this rate, they’ll have a penalty differential of -36 by the end of year.
3.) 3rd Period Scoring Has Evaporated
Few teams could match Calgary’s potency in the final frame in 2014-15. Their 99 3rd period goals were tied for best in the NHL and was a big reason the Flames were able to stick around in so many games last year.
So far this season? Just 5 third period tallies in 9 games, which makes it a lot harder to so frequently stage comebacks. Although to be fair, the fact of the matter is Calgary isn’t scoring a lot in any period so far.
4.) Hartley Still Doesn’t Have a Hard Minutes Option
For many years now, the Flames have struggled to put together a forward line capable of playing against the other stars in the league. The Monahan line scored enough to paper over the fact that they didn’t drive play last season, but that hasn’t carried over to this year (see the note about SH% above).
There were hopes that the kids would take enough of step forward this year that they would be able to hang with the big boys (without a giant SH% bump or zone start push from the coach), but that hasn’t materialized.
In fact, quite the opposite. Sean Monahan’s underlying numbers have fallen back down to rates comparable to his rookie season, despite Hartley still giving his line the easiest relative starting position amongst any forward group. Monahan’s relative corsi rate of -2.68/60 is the fourth worst amongst regular forwards on the team. What’s interesting is that Johnny Gaudreau’s numbers are superior (he’s in the positives relatively speaking) even though they have played together for most of the season.
That matches the eye test as well. Johnny seems to be the kid who has taken a step forward, but Monahan looks to be running in mud (or going backwards). Since the latter is the centre on the line, he’s going to have a big drag on the unit’s two-way play.
That leaves the Flames coaching staff with difficult choices. Either they try to continue manage Monahan’s ice usage to try to give him the high ground and favourable match-ups. That obviously makes it really difficult to give the kids a lot of ice time and it presents issues on the road then the club doesn’t have last change. In addition, this means the other forward units will have be completely buried to continue to give Monahan an advantage. That will, of course, sink the club’s shaky secondary scoring, and is problematic now that the Flames are trying to bring another kid along as well in Sam Bennett.
The other thing they can do is try to elevate Mikael Backlund to the top line and go PvP, which will free up Monahan to face much easier ice time further down the depth chart. Unfortunately, while Backlund is definitely a more accomplished player at driving play north (he leads the forwards in possession again this season), he’s a mediocre offensive player at best. Ideally, he should be playing a complementary role where he’s not relied upon to be a club’s primary attack.
None of this would be an issue if the Monahan line was dominating (or at least breaking even) in their current circumstances. They’re underwater, unfortunately, leaving Hartley with a head scratcher from a match-up perspective. Unless they start scoring on more than 10% of their shots at 5on5, the Monahan line will be more liability than asset at even strength.
5.) The Blueline is Ragged
Who knew the loss of TJ Brodie would be so dire? It certainly wasn’t supposed to be with a healthy Mark Giordano and freshly signed Dougie Hamilton in the fold.
Unfortunately, the captain started the season covered in rust and the 22-year old erstwhile Bruin has looked he has never played in the league before. With the two big guns struggling to keep their heads above water early, far too much pressure has fallen on the rest of the D corps. And as we’ve mentioned around here extensively, Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid and Deryk Engelland are all 3rd pairing options on a contender (at best).
The team’s inability to find a hard minutes match-up option up front has no doubt been exacerbated by the hiccups on the back-end. Things might get a lot easier once Gio finds his legs (seems to be almost there already), Brodie returns and Hamilton acclimates to his new environment.
6.) The Systems Need Fixing
The Flames transition game has been dreadful to watch most nights this season. It’s incredibly difficult to establish any sort of consistent pressure in this league if you can’t exit your zone with efficiency. Far too often the Flames find themselves stopped at the opposition blueline, turning back at the redline or icing the puck.
Beyond players simply not executing on plays (which is definitely a problem all by itself), Calgary’s scheme seems to be too focused on the rope-a-dope. By which I mean a lot of collapsing around the net when pressed and a reliance on 80-foot stretch passes when breaking out.
The stretch pass has been especially problematic. It’s a very difficult play to execute consistently with speed – if the passer is hesitant, the exiting forwards find themselves stationary and easily stuffed when the puck arrives. If the pass isn’t directly on the stick, it results in a give away with the forwards skating the wrong way or, of course, an icing call.
In addition, As Elliott Friedman notes here, the Flames have become known for the stretch pass and teams are learning how to clog the neutral zone in order in response:
“If the opponent can stay above them in the neutral zone, the effectiveness of the long pass is neutralized. Teams who stay patient can counter-punch. Worst case is, you are back to retrieve a tipped puck first.”
Stretch passes are bit like long bombs in football. When they connect, they look spectacular and can result in huge gains. Unfortunately, they are also relatively high risk and therefore should only be attempted opportunistically (or when desperate).
To stretch this analogy a bit further, the Flames need to develop a run game. Having your forwards flee the zone and hang around the opposition blueline almost every time you try to exit is resulting in the Flames defensemen struggling to make meaningful transition plays. Calgary gives the puck away far too often between the blue lines and it’s sewering their attack at 5on5.
The enduring hope was the Flames would begin to improve their possession rate this year, meaning they wouldn’t have to rely on uncanny shooting rates or third period comebacks this time around. Unfortunately, everything that drove their unlikely success last year has collapsed, while other factors we assumed would improve organically have stalled, which means they still boast some of the worst outshooting ratios in the league (47.2%, 26th overall).
At some point the Flames percentages are going to rebound because, as mentioned, no one is as bad as they seem right now. However, the team also needs to find ways to improve the various other issues raised here. That sort of improvement will lie with both the players (better execution, more development from the kids) and the coaches (adjustment in match-ups and strategies).
Otherwise, the club might just have the sort of the season we all were expecting last year.