The Calgary Flames have had one of their worst starts to a season in franchise history. They’re 6-12-1. They have two regulation wins through 19 games. They haven’t just reminded everyone they’re a rebuilding team; they’ve loudly declared it while turning towards the path that leads to Auston Matthews.
And yet, somehow, despite all of this, they’re just six points out of a playoff spot. This is thanks to the fact that the Pacific Division is, to put it kindly, godawful; but three teams from it will be in the playoffs regardless.
It’s how they got in the playoffs last year, actually.
Owning the Pacific in 2014-15
Last season, the Flames held a 22-6-1 record over their divisional opponents. Forty-five of the team’s 97 points throughout the season came in-division, directly taking points away from those they were competing with for playoff spots.
That’s nearly half of their points, come from six other teams. A .76 winning percentage, a .78 points percentage.
Against the rest of the league, they were 23-24-6. That’s a .43 winning percentage, .50 points percentage. The loser point allowed them to be a .500 team against the rest of the league, but in reality, they weren’t.
Luck was definitely on the Flames’ side throughout 2014-15, but an ability to own their division got them through. No Pacific team won against the division as much as the Flames did; the Anaheim Ducks, with 41 points against the Pacific (and, of course, the only division rival to win the season series against the Flames) were the next closest.
Playing the Pacific in 2015-16
So far this season, the Flames have played just four divisional games. They have a .500 record against them, having both won and lost against the Canucks and Oilers.
They still have 25 games to go. That’s a potential 50 points on the table. But because they’re divisional games, they’re worth more than that: they’re four point games, games they can use to bury their direct competition for a playoff spot, just as they did the season before.
In 2014-15, the Flames took 10 points away from Arizona and nine from Edmonton. More pressing, they took seven away from San Jose, who were just eight points out of a playoff spot; and six from Los Angeles, who were two points out. The Flames’ series victories over the two California teams were imperative to keeping them out, and putting Calgary in.
Next week, the Flames will embark on a Pacific Division road trip, getting in three games against the Ducks, Coyotes, and Sharks: two teams they have fared well against very recently (and the general plague that is the Honda Centre). They’ll play four point games once again: games that could have a bigger impact on their potential to make the playoffs than any other.
What does all this mean?
It means there’s hope, because the division is terrible, and the Flames aren’t far removed from dominating it. Calgary only has a .500 record in the four divisional games they’ve played thus far, but hey, you take what you can get. And there’s still a lot more to go.
On the other hand, we have to take into account that the Flames have a .26 winning percentage over non-divisional opponents this season, and a .30 points percentage. That’s still well below the levels they were at in 2014-15, and well below the levels they’ll need in order to have success this season.
There’s also the issue that not playing against division rivals doesn’t fix the current problems with the Flames. It doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, when playing other teams, they don’t even look like they belong in the same league. It doesn’t stop the Flames from going extremely long stretches, sometimes nearly a period in length, without a single shot attempt. It doesn’t make the Flames even remotely close to being contenders.
It doesn’t stop the fact that the Flames remain a rebuilding team with far more problems than can be solved by simply playing well against the division. Even if the Flames start inching towards a playoff spot as they play more divisional games, we have to remember: there’s a chance the playoffs remain in the cards this season, but making them is not a reflection of where the Flames actually stand.