The Flames first full value regulation win of the season occurred November 7, a full four weeks into the season. The victory over the Penguins has quieted calls for action and panic to mere murmurs, but only briefly. If Calgary can’t replicate that level of performance with some consistency, the rancour will swell again and will likely claim at least one victim.
So who will be burnt in effigy if the disappointment continues? And what will improvement look like anyways?
– The first guy on the firing line could be Bob Hartley. It seems unconscionable to sack a coach in the wake of a Jack Adams and two year contract renewal, but higher expectations can be a cruel mistress. In a way, Hartley was fortunate to operate in an environment free from hope for his first three years in the organization. His coaching was viewed through the same lens as a conventional 4th line: people were satisfied as long as everyone seemed to be giving an effort. Results were considered a bonus.
Of course, it’s not just the team’s turn as Cinderella that have upped the ante on Hartley. It’s also his GM’s performance during this summer, where he landed two of best players available in Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik. Suddenly Hartley had a roster that not only won a playoff round, but also theoretically improved in the offseason.
– So now a real step forward is in order. As I laid out in the Big Gainers series, Calgary meets many of the factors of previous big gainer teams, with the sole exception of a new coach (for now). And if Hartley can’t fashion a strategy that goes beyond “sit back, counter punch”, then he needs to move on.
– Real improvement doesn’t necessarily mean matching or exceeding last season’s point total. It means a fundamental improvement in the way the team plays. If Calgary controls play to even a middling degree by the end of the year I’ll be satisfied, even if they finish on the outside looking in.
In the big gainer series (see previous link), we saw that it typically took a couple of years for a club to move from basement dweller to contender, sometimes with limited success in the intermediary years. Which is to say, if we see Calgary take that interim but fundamental step towards contenderhood, I’m okay with a bit of delayed gratification when it comes to the playoffs.
– I think we can probably say now that the Flames coaching staff did not find some magical way to influence the percentages, which is always the a guiding theory when it comes to teams who grossly outperform their underlying numbers. Calgary currently has the worst PDO in the NHL (95.5) after finishing with the third best in the league last season (101.0). The Hockey Gods giveth and the Hockey Gods Taketh away.
Which isn’t to say the Flames are going to finish with the worst SH% and SV% in the league, but it just goes to show how capricious the percentages can be. Which is why the decision makers need to find a way to influence shot volumes, rather than hoping for a high SH% and comebacks to get them back to the show.
– Despite the club’s rather awful start to the year, there are some (admittedly small and ambiguous) indications they may be improving. Right now, the Flames have a corsi for (CF%) of 49.0%, which is mediocre but far superior to their second worst 44.0% from last season.
Caveat emptor – it’s still very early and Calgary has spent a lot of time trailing, which can skew things upwards in such a small number of games (playing from behind tends to elevate your possession numbers). Still, given that so many of the team’s big game players stumbled out of the gate, it’s encouraging that they are nevertheless controlling play better than they did last season.
– Up until the Penguins victory, one of those big game players was Sean Monahan. The former sixth overall pick had an abysmal first month by almost any measure. His average shots on goal plummeted to 1.4, which is worse than his rookie season (1.87) despite ample ice time and opportunity every night. He has also been a bottom-5 forward in terms of possession most games, which means Monahan’s line has spent way too much defending rather than attacking this year.
With the exception of his impressive performance against the Pens, everything about Monahan has been pointing to giant step back so far. Here’s how it looks graphically (via War on Ice):
As you can see, Monahan is playing easier competition and starting more often in the offensive zone than last year, but getting outshot a lot more often this season. Those are concerning results for a supposed cornerstone player entering his third season in the league.
Of course, we’re only talking about 15 games and Monahan is a 21-year old with a pristine pedigree. If he is similarly struggling after 70 or 80 games, then we can start getting legitimately worried. For now, it’s wait and see time. The big game against Crosby was encouraging.
– On the other hand, it might be time to get excited about Sam Bennett. Sure, everyone was already excited by Bennett, but the kid is already putting up remarkably good results for a teenager in this league, which is far more important than simply being a high draft pick. He’s scoring at better than 2 ESP/60 at even strength (1.8 is the typical top-sixer) and he has better underlying numbers than Monahan in his rookie season (or this season, for that matter), despite relatively tough circumstances.
Again, we’re only talking about 15 games, but the early returns are stellar.
– If Monahan can find his footing, then the club should have at least two legitimate top-6 forward units, with Bennett either centring the second unit or playing wing with Backlund and Frolik (please let this combination stick). What Hartley needs next is Dougie Hamilton to find his way and club back into the top-4 rotation on the back-end.
In part because his results in Boston suggest he’s the kind of player who can shift play like a Giordano or Brodie. Just as important, however, is that Hamilton’s elevation would restrict the minutes of Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman.
As predicted, the Wideman and Russell pairing has been exposed absent the sky high SH% that floated them last year. For example, Russell is currently the 9th worst regular defender in the entire league in terms of shot differential, even though he starts more often in the offensive zone than the defensive zone. At -7.16% relative corsi/60, Russell is almost twice as bad as the next worst defender on the team (Dennis Wideman at -3.94%).
I think Russell will improve as a matter of course, because he’s not this bad. But still, he’s being asked to play way over his skis by Hartley, who still has a lingering love affair with the player after his percentage fuelled 2014-15. Even with his very clear and evident struggles, Russell is currently second on the team (!!) in terms of average ice time per game (24:06) behind on the sublime TJ Brodie (24:31). Giordano has played exactly as much as Russell this season (seriously) and Wideman is only marginally back of the three leaders (23:52). Hamilton, in contrast, plays five minutes less per game than Russell (19:15).
At some point, the minutes for Brodie, Giordano and Hamilton should climb, while the time for Wideman and Russell should come down. We’re more than three years into the Russell and Wideman era here in Calgary and there’s one thing we can say for certain: they give up a lot of shots while they’re on the ice. The decision makers need to find a way to limit that damage moving forward.