Are The Flames Becoming A Good Team?

Four seasons ago, the Calgary Flames were in trouble.

They had an aging core, the majority of which had seen their best seasons already. Their key assets were depreciating in value rapidly, notably Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester. Miikka Kiprusoff had seen his best years and was readying for retirement. The bottom was about to fall out on the team’s dreams of playoff contention.

Flames management finally threw in the towel and began their rebuild. Here we are, roughly 185 games into the rebuild, and Calgary’s struggles (at times) this season have led to questions regarding the team’s progression since hitting the magical reset button.

So where are the Flames relative to where they started in the rebuild, and relative to last season’s season of wild bounces and magical comebacks and playoff games?

A LOOK BACK

The 2012-13 season was notable for many reasons. First, we had a lockout that (a) coincided with me joining the FlamesNation writing staff (sorry, guys) and (b) wiped out the 2012 portion of the hockey calendar. Second, it was the first season for Bob Hartley as Flames head coach, inheriting a veteran-laden team that had habitually under-performed versus expectations.

The 2012-13 Flames were many things. They were unlucky, with a 97.3 PDO – driven by the last gasp of Miikka Kiprusoff, with the club posting an 89.4% even-strength save percentage. They spent a ton of time in their own end, with just 44.8% offensive zone-starts. They were a tremendously mediocre possession team, with a 47.4% Corsi For, combined with playing a rather low-event, plodding style.

In short: they weren’t a very good team, and ownership was spending a lot of money on that team. For hockey reasons, economic reasons and just out of a sheer love of chaos, it made sense to blow it up.

Now that we’re into the third season of the rebuild, have they improved? Yes, but not immensely.

POSSESSION STATS

Corsi For Percentage:

This acts as a proxy for puck possession, comparing what percentage of the shot attempts in each game are toward which team’s net. The Flames have been a sub-50% team for awhile, even preceding the rebuild. However, they immediately dropped like a stone during the first few years of the rebuild and have recovered a bit this season. This is nice progress, and the stat dropping like a stone as the team transitioned towards untested youngsters is as expected. But they’re not “good” yet.

2012-13: 47.4%

2013-14: 46.3%

2014-15: 44.4%

2015-16: 48.3%

High-Danger Scoring Chance Percentage:

highdanger

While Corsi acts, somewhat, as a proxy for how much a team has the puck, High-Danger Chances look at what they do with it. Focusing exclusively on shots immediately in front of the net – the area most likely to have chances result in goals – it can showcase offensive prowess or defensive awfulness. (Or both.) The Flames have improved a ton in this respect, likely due to moving towards younger players with high-end offensive talent such as Gaudreau, Monahan and Bennett. In short: they now get more “good” chances than their opponents.

This is arguably the only area where the Flames have progressed into being a “good” team.

2012-13: 49.0%

2013-14: 45.7%

2014-15: 45.4%

2015-16: 51.1%

Zone Starts:

zones

Zone starts look at what percentage of face-offs are in the offensive zone. Like the other stats, this can be used to paint a picture of what zone a team plays in. Many offensive zone face-offs likely means that a team spends time there and forces whistles in that end. Many defensive zone starts likely is an indicator that a team spends a lot of time hemmed into their own end. The Flames are noticeably better in this respect, both compared to the Iginla years and compared to last season. They’re not “good” yet – that would require them to start more than half of their shifts in the offensive end – but they’re getting there.

2012-13: 44.8%

2013-14: 48.3%

2014-15: 45.3%

2015-16: 48.9%

FACE-OFFS

faceoffs

Face-offs are important for puck possession, generally, but mostly in key situations – tremendous success at face-offs doesn’t definitively mean a team gets more goals or wins. The Flames are about as good as they were last season, and a fair bit better than they were when the rebuild began.

2012-13: 47.4%

2013-14: 46.6%

2014-15: 47.9%

2015-16: 47.9%

PDO

pdo

Overall:

PDO is used as a proxy for puck luck, and has two components: even-strength save percentage and even-strength shooting percentage. Presuming talent and luck are both perfectly distributed, over an infinite number of games all teams should have PDOs around 100. They don’t, obviously, but that’s the theory behind it. The Flames have been an “unlucky” team every season except for last season, where their PDO crept just north of 100.

2012-13: 97.3

2013-14: 98.8

2014-15: 101.1

2015-16: 96.5

Even-Strength Save Percentage:

High save percentage at even-strength means a team has good goaltending (or defends well to the point where a goalie doesn’t have a ton of dangerous chances to fight off). Either way, the Flames goaltending is now as bad statistically as it was when Miikka Kiprusoff was sharing goaltending duties with Joey MacDonald.

So they have regressed there in a pretty significant area.

2012-13: 89.4%

2013-14: 90.9%

2014-15: 92.2%

2015-16: 89.5%

Even-Strength Shooting Percentage:

High shooting percentage means a team is getting off good shots, is getting to the “high percentage” areas, or are just getting the bounces. Often, many of those factors weigh in on it. As you can see, the Flames are appreciably worse than they were (a) back when Iginla was around and (b) last season. Their shooting percentage was really high last season, but it probably shouldn’t have dropped by nearly two percent either.

2012-13: 8%

2013-14: 7.9%

2014-15: 8.9%

2015-16: 7%

ARE THE FLAMES GOOD?

By these general measures, they’re better than they were before the rebuild. That’s good, as they’re making progress in a lot of important areas. High-danger scoring chances are the only percentage-based metric that they’re over 50% on, which means they’re decently good at it, but they’ve also gotten worse at save and shooting percentages at even-strength both compared to before the rebuild and last season.

In short: they’re better than they were, but they’re worse in a few key areas that detract from our ability to say that they’re a good hockey club as of yet.

  • Derbyherb

    Begs the question of whether the systems the Flames employ are holding them back. I.e., with the same players in a different system, would this team be better (or worse)?

  • RKD

    Let’s see how the rest of the season plays out. We have a lot of nice pieces in Brodie, Gaudreau, Monahan and Bennett. However, we are still far away from being a contender let alone a juggernaut. The problems with this team such as consistency i.e. giving up leads, not playing 60 minutes, getting torched(pardon the pun) in a single period, missed assignments, soft defensive play or complete lack of defending continue to plague this team. They struggle to possess the puck, other teams can hang on to the puck for what seems to be like ages. After they traded Jay-Bo and Iggy they went on .750 run and missed the playoffs. Last season, they carried that play over, had a high sh%, solid goaltending and numerous comebacks. The brand of hockey was more entertaining last season, the kids brought a lot to the table and still do. Now this season, everyone expected some regression but not like the kind of start they had in October. They have been .500 in November. The real question is are they a .500 team or better? The team looks very good on paper yet struggle to translate that on the ice. The expectations have gotten much higher especially after winning a round. Some of that magic has since faded and the hunger seems to have dried up and some veterans have really struggled out of the gate. I keep coming back to what is this team? Are they playing to their identity? What is their identity? Is the coaching staff teaching possession? If not, why aren’t they teaching possession? They should be chasing, they should be the team being chased and I don’t see that on a lot of nights. We have so many young forwards, why are we not seeing young defenders more often in the lineup especially given the challenges on the back end. If we are really building from the back end, that should mean we can insert some kids in and let them show their stuff. Instead, we continue to put in retreads on the back end and in goal. Gone are the days of Iginla, Tanguay, Camalleri, Jokinen and Glencross. Why the organization doesn’t take this stand on the back end is beyond me. Maybe there is a lack of dependable young defenders but Kulak looks more than ready to me. Sorry for then novel, had to get that out there.

    • RealMcHockeyReturns

      All good stuff. Try using the 3 characters arrow left (above comma on computer keyboard), letter p, arrow right (above period on computer keyboard) which automatically starts a new paragraph, then much easier for MORE people to read you.

  • Greg

    Someone needs to find a way to correct PDO so goaltender “luck” is decoupled from “talent”. It’s not a big issue with shooters – 1 player can’t move the needle much and even the whole team can only swing maybe 1% on luck (7.9 to 8.9 above), so shooting talent can’t really skew PDO enough to not be able to attribute it to luck.

    But your 2 goalies can swing SV% by almost 3% between years (89.5 to 92.2), so 1 player can totally skew your entire PDO. A team with Carey Price could easily have a “normal” PDO of 101 just based on his expected save percentage, whereas a team with a crappy goalie could have an expected PDO of 98. That’s “goalie talent” obscures whether a 1-2 point PDO swing really indicates a team’s results are just “bounces” or should be expected. And a 1-2% swing can translate into a lot of spots in the standings.

    To my eye, this was a poor team last year that got exceptionally lucky on both shooting percent and sv%, and this year is much improved, but getting absolutely sunk by goaltending and bad luck. Without being able to separate goaltending talent and luck though, hard to say how much is goaltending issues, how much is luck, and how much is just “nope, this is still no where near a good team”

    • MattyFranchise

      PDO isn’t meant to describe specific players though. PDO is pretty much the catch all stat as far as I’m concerned. The league average will always be 100%, that’s just how it works.

      Goaltender talent is better reflected in the newer scoring chance metrics (think high danger vs low danger).

      PDO for me is a way to look at a list of teams, see who is doing well and see who doesn’t. The new NHL website stats thankfully list league averages among a variety of categories so specifically speaking to PDO, right now league average goaltending is sitting at 91.5%

      Now when I look at the PDO of different teams I can see that if 91.5% is the league average in terms of goaltending I can further refine that search to see which team with a high PDO is being carried by high SV% and why (saves against levels of scoring chance difficulties for example) or maybe a high PDO team is being floated by a high SH%. I can them look at the teams to see which players are outliers, which players have a high career SH% and so on.

      The Flames had a high PDO last season with league average SV% but were bolstered by a number of players with high SH% (Hudler) some players having career years (Wideman) and some players who were question marks due to lack of data (Monahan.)

      Long story short, PDO provides an excellent starting point to direct a person in the right direction to ask and explain the answers for whatever whatever question the person would have.

      • Greg

        That’s why I’d like to see some type of goalie-adjusted PDO. Its not “supposed” to describe single players, yet a single goalie can swing it 1-2 percentage points himself. That makes it tough to decipher whether a team is under/over performing relative to the standings, or just getting bad/good luck that will average out eventually. Across the league it will, by definition, be at 100, but any given team will only regress toward some non-100 number that reflects how good/bad the goaltending is.

        You can probably still decipher the “luck” factor with additional analysis like what you suggest. If just like to see a stathead crunch the numbers and determine a good correction standard for my own lazy 4ss. Think of it like RelPDO, similar to how RelCorsi corrects a player’s possession stats relative to his team, but one that corrects a teams PDO relative to their goalie.

        And for all the non-stats fans who might think that’s not important, getting your “luck” stat correct is hugely so. It’s what lets your GM determine if your team that got to the 2nd round was a bit of a mirage, and adding pieces like Frolik and Hamilton are necessary. Or conversely, whether your bottom 3 team is equally a mirage, and you just need to be patient, or is way off course and needs to be blown up. Or just has bad goaltending and you need to address that.

        Getting it wrong can have huge consequences.

        • piscera.infada

          And for all the non-stats fans who might think that’s not important, getting your “luck” stat correct is hugely so. It’s what lets your GM determine if your team that got to the 2nd round was a bit of a mirage, and adding pieces like Frolik and Hamilton are necessary. Or conversely, whether your bottom 3 team is equally a mirage, and you just need to be patient, or is way off course and needs to be blown up. Or just has bad goaltending and you need to address that.

          Getting it wrong can have huge consequences.

          So much this.

          It’s important people don’t conflate the Frolik and Hamilton acquisitions with “moves that signal the end of a ‘rebuild'”. These were moves that teams who are “rebuilding” correctly make–address deficiencies in your roster when they are available. Sure, the fruits of those efforts haven’t been cemented in the standings off the heels of last year’s unsustainable run, but this article actually articulates quite well that there is still progression towards the end goal.

          Much of what went right for the Flames last season has gone 180 degrees the opposite way this season. Call is regression, or whatever you’d like, but it’s crucial management doesn’t panic and drastically divert course. Their approach needs to be similar to what they did last year: address roster deficiencies if or when they come available, and decide who still fits their long-term vision.

  • MattyFranchise

    Also wanted to point out, completely off topic, that 178 games in Monahan’s career he is shooting at 15.9% so I think at this point it’s safe to say that he is simply a high percentage shooter.

  • Joe Flames

    Biggest thing for me when comparing the current iteration to pre-rebuild is potential. Having a bunch of post-apex vets leaves little in the way of future improvement. At least now we have a wealth of top end developmental potential, and that’s exciting. Now, the question is how much of that potential is realized.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    Nice article Pike. This pretty much jives with what I see with the team this year. Strangely they probably are marginally better than last year, yet their PDO has sunk them in goal differential and thus, the standings.

    Maybe in a few years time we will look at this season as the best thing that could’ve happened to the team. This being because we clearly knew we needed to sell some vets at the deadline (Hudler, Russell) and ended up getting a high draft pick that compliments our top 6 perfectly (Tkachuk?)

    And while pondering this thought we then realize that the next best thing that happened to this team was the fluke season last year. This being because we convinced one to the top possession UFA’s (Frolik) and stud, young, RFA defenseman (Hamilton) to come here as we appeared to the outside world to be better than we actually were at the time.

    • MattyFranchise

      Just wanted to confirm that Frolik is a player that you can slot anywhere in the lineup and he will help your team win. Winning teams need a player like Frolik.

      I also wanted to point out that while, yes, Hamilton is one player that I talk a lot of s*** about in game threads when I’m frustrated, he is also one that has been a stud defenseman on a winning team during his first 3 seasons in the league.

      With Hamilton specifically I think that he would be a different player with different coaching but I must also accept the fact that he is only 22.

      He’ll get it together, maybe not this year, but if he turns into a giant Brodie when he hits 25? Well, I’ll be eating crow with egg on my face.

      • Franko J

        Coaching maybe, but I think the fact he was partnered with better defensive partners in Boston. Sorry to say this but the Flames defense is lousy with exception to Brodie this year. Despite Hamilton’s size he is very soft and the only asset he has confidence in his skating.
        He might be better with a different coach, the only way to find out is next year when Hartley will be replaced.

  • RealMcHockeyReturns

    Read the first word, one in the middle and one in the end. The Flames will oby become a good team once Jonah Bollig is thrown overboard and swallowed by a big whale

  • Greg

    Imagine if last season’s luck happened this season?

    Hudler 6m, Russell 4.5m, Gio 7m (happened anyway), Johnny and Mony 6m each. The fact that their luck and confidence is drying up in these pivotal contract years is really good for the progression of the team. 2017 we will be rid of all of the worst contracts on the team.

    I think the team is learning how to play a possession game a little more strategically. Though the collapse-and-counterstrike tactics are still employed some of the time. They will outgrow those tendencies and some of the vets who use them most will move on. (Russell and Wideman)

    The biggest thing I want to see this year is Gio regain his confidence and his form. I don’t think it is a physical thing I think it is totally mental. He seems to double clutch on every play. But he’s the leader of this team and when he’s not confident no one is.

    However a confident Gio, even if he declines from his peak years can be an amazing leader for this youth movement. There have been some amazing 35+ leaders to Stanley Cup teams. (Andreychuk, Brind’Amour, Lanny McDonald, Neidermayer, etc.)