How much better should the Flames be?

deep-thoughts

The first two months of this season for the Calgary Flames have been absolutely dreadful. No one, not even the Edmonton Oilers, has a worse record than Calgary’s 8-14-2 mark (both teams share the exact same record, in fact). After the excitement of last season, this year has been a disappointment at best, and one that has caught many Flames fans off guard. Most believe this team is capable of more than they’ve shown, but is that accurate?

I was among those expecting some marked regression from the Flames this season. Some of what happened last season was bound to come back to the pack. But I also thought progression from certain individuals, and the addition of others, would help counteract that plummet. Doing some thinking out loud, and attempting to use rudimentary math, I’ve tried to determine how much better this group should be doing. Please discuss and ridicule amongst yourselves.

Shooting percentage

We all know the Flames were the benefactors of sky high percentages last year. Whether we thought they were legit for being a playoff team or not, no one could deny they received a great deal of good fortune along the way. Some/most of that luck has dried up on them so far this year, which has made the pendulum swing feel a whole lot more dramatic.

So last season Calgary benefitted greatly from having the league’s second best shooting percentage. At 8.9%, only Tampa Bay (9.1%) converted on more of their shots on goal over 82 games. Now, we all thought that number was going to drop back to the pack during the season itself, and it didn’t really. But it has this year.

The Flames are tied for the league’s 17th highest shooting percentage so far this season at 7.1%. Not only are they now in the bottom half of the league, they’ve also seen a significant drop in their conversion rate from a year ago. But their efficiency rate this year is far more representative of what we saw last year.

Right now, the league average even strength shooting percentage is 7.3%. That means Calgary is right in the ballpark of where they likely should be. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they should be a couple of ticks higher.

In 24 games, the Flames have managed 562 shots at five-on-five. At a league averaging shooting percentage, we’d be talking about them at 41 even strength goals as opposed to 40. That’s not much of a difference and wouldn’t account for even one more win. Just for fun, if they were at 8.9% like last year, they’d have 50 goals with even man power which would make a solid impact in terms of wins and losses. That sure does make last year a whole lot easier to understand!

Goaltending

Ah yes, everyone’s favourite subject. Just how much better could Calgary be if they had, like, NHL caliber goaltending this year? This has been one of Calgary’s most glaring issues, and their league worst 0.879 team save percentage is proof of that.

The really frustrating part is they actually were a league average team in net last season. The Flames finished tied for 15th with a team save percentage (in all situations) of 0.911 last year. Funny enough, through the first two months of the season, 0.911 is exactly what the league average save percentage is.

Let’s just say that Calgary was able to be decent, not spectacular, but decent in net like they were last season. If so, we’re talking about a massive drop in goals against from 86 to 63 (calculated from 709 total shots against). Now, this does not take into account low danger shots vs. high danger shots and stuff of that nature, but it’s still a startling number.

It’s just as staggering at even strength. Once again, the Flames boast (boast?) the league’s worst even strength save percentage at 0.896 in comparison to the league average of 0.927. In that case, Calgary’s goals against at even power goes 60 to 41 (calculated from 562 shots against). Yikes. I think it’s fair to say we’re talking about a slightly rosier picture with an improved goaltending picture.

Special teams

Another area of ineptitude this year has been in odd man situations. Calgary currently sits 29th on the powerplay, converting on 13.4% of their opportunities. Their penalty kill is worse, sitting 30th at 70.8%. Again, this is slightly frustrating as the Flames had the league’s 13th best powerplay last year and the league’s 20th best penalty kill. As with the goaltending, we know it can be capable of better because, well, we’ve seen it.

The league average powerplay rate right now is 19.5%. Calculated on 67 total opportunities with the man advantage, Calgary would have 13 powerplay goals as opposed to nine if they were in and around what they were last year.

Similarly with the penalty kill, the Flames would go from 19 goals against to 13 if their penalty kill was what we saw it last season. This year’s league average PK so far is 80.3% while Calgary finished at 80.6% in last year’s campaign.

So right there there’s a potential for four more goals for on special teams and six fewer goals against. Not a perfect science, of course, because there are systematic reasons why this team has been brutal in odd man situations. But they had league average special teams last year, so there’s no reason to expect they shouldn’t at least be in and around that range this year.

Comebacks

One of the truly memorable things about the 2014-2015 season was the numerous third period comeback wins we all witnessed, and enjoyed. Calgary finished last year with a record of 10-20-4 when trailing after the second period. That means they won 29.4% of the time when they found themselves in that situation; they got points 41.2% of the time.

As expected, it’s a different story this year. The Flames are 2-10-1 in that same situation through the first two months. First off, that’s bad because it means they’re in a hole after two periods more often than not. But the puck ain’t bouncing the way it was last year, either, meaning opposing third period leads are being converted to wins far more often.

Quite honestly, I would expect this trend to continue. Doing what they did last year is not something you see on a yearly basis. The most worrying part here is that they are continually finding themselves in this low percentage spot. Funny enough, that’s leading to losses at the rate it probably should, as opposed to the magic of last year.

Conclusion

The Flames are a better team than their dreadful record would suggest. How much better is still hard to tell, even with all of what I just laid out. First off, this team has taken some decent strides in their possession game. From 29th at a rate of 44.4% to 24th at 48.0% isn’t incredible, but it’s also a positive step. They’re generating more shots and spending more time at the right end of the ice.

At the same time, though, they’ve been just awful defensively. As bad as their goaltending has been, they’ve also been asked to do way too much. That’s something these numbers don’t tell you, and it’s why all of the (basic) math above has to be taken with a grain of salt.

That said, I think you can safely say Calgary could have in the neighbourhood of three more wins this season. That’s just a guesstimate (heavy on the guess), but it would put them at 11-11-2 through 24 games as opposed to the muck they’re at right now.

To sum it up, we are definitely not looking at an elite team failing to play to their potential here. We’re talking about an average team that has been very below average. With better goaltending and special teams, I think this is a team flirting with .500. However, knowing the Flames have yet to have more wins on their record this season than losses, flirting with .500 might as well be full on dating it. Instead, this team has been the single dude at a wedding that everybody wants to like, but doesn’t quite understand.

  • First off, this team has taken some decent strides in their possession game. From 29th at a rate of 44.4% to 24th at 48.0% isn’t incredible

    This rate is actually skewed by the degree the Flames have played from behind this year.

    Their score corrected corsi so far is just 46.8%. Last year it was 44.3%. So, some improvement, but it’s fairly marginal and still puts them bottom-3 in the league.

    • piscera.infada

      I’ve been paying attention to their score-adjusted possession metrics throughout the season. It seems to me that they have been better for the most part, but they have been tanked in aggregate by some really, really horrible games where they’ve been around (or below) 30% (Anaheim, Chicago part 1, Washington). I’m not sure if that’s something that you can draw from.

      I took their score-adjusted corsi at evens for every game this season, dropped the three lowest (which were all incredibly low–it also leaves two ~40% games), and their three highest corsi-for (~58%) percentage games and ended with a 48.2% percent corsi-for percentage. I’m not sure this tells us much, but after removing the outliers, it does appear that there’s a bit more improvement in the numbers.

      • There’s danger in removing outliers to “rationalize” data, unless you suspect they are outliers for non-representative reasons. i.e.; half the starters were injured, the coaching staff was different, everyone had the flu, the opposition was overly injured, etc.

        Otherwise I think the aggregate is probably more valuable intact.

        • piscera.infada

          Don’t disagree. I just found the large variance in a few games interesting (especially on the negative side of the ledger–some of those games were just “that” horrible). For the most part, it seems the general “trend” (if we can use that word), is that the majority of games hover within 2 percentage points of 50%, but I would agree that’s not overly representative. I am willing to concede that this might, in fact, be what separates the bad possession teams from the mediocre. Although, by the eyes test, it does seem that the team has controlled play for more stretches in more games than they did last year.

          I also do think that their breakout and neutral zone play artificially lowers their possession. I argued last year that were definitely structural issues that lower their ability to consistently possess the puck. Unfortunately it would be a difficult (and often arbitrary) exercise.

          Thanks for your response.

          • SmellOfVictory

            Full disclosure: I realize I’m applying a potentially false narrative to this situation, as I haven’t performed in-depth analysis.

            I don’t think the breakout and neutral zone play “artificially” lowers their possession; I think there’s a good chance it fundamentally and legitimately lowers their possession. Last season the Flames did seem to get a lot of rushes and good chances based off those rushes, which began with stretch passes. That would lead to fewer shots per possession than cycling/continuous o-zone possession would, but potentially higher percentage shots.

            This season, the Flames have continuously attempted (and primarily failed) at the stretch pass. Therefore their time of possession is not greatly improved, and (partially) due to the failures their percentages have dropped.

            But that’s a lot of conjecture. I watch the games mostly for entertainment, so it’s not like I was keeping good track of the scoring chances or neutral zone play. But it would fit what I saw if Hartley had essentially managed to boost the team sh% with a relatively unique offensive scheme that teams have now fully adapted to. On the other hand, it also wouldn’t surprise me if what I think I saw had very little to do with the team sh%.

          • piscera.infada

            I meant “artificially” lowers in the sense that the strategy the Flames currently employ (by choice) does not maximize puck possession. I’ll try to explain, but this is something I’ve been trying to point-out since early last season (the game against the Ducks at home, where they came back and won in the SO).

            I think the “stretch pass” takes a very solid beating around these parts and in local media (and for good reason). I’d argue however, that the “stretch pass” in and of itself is not the issue, but rather what the stretch pass is designed to achieve that is the issue–I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve seen a lot of Flames games live over the last year, and I’ve been trying very hard to pick up on their systems as much as I can, because I find that aspect of hockey extremely interesting.

            We know the image the Flames have tried to cultivate under Hartley: hard work and speed. The problem is, the Flames tend to falsely equate (at least in my opinion) that their team speed must be manifest in the rush. The “rush” is the problem here. The Flames seem to want to create the vast majority of their offense off the rush, so they rely on stretching the opposing team vertically. As a function of this, you get the “stretch pass”, but you also get what I feel is a bigger hindrance to their success: you get weaker zone coverage by the wingers in the defensive zone, and you get much less puck support in neutral zone.

            If we watch the Flames breakout closely, we’ll notice they almost always have their weak-side winger between the red-line and the opponents blue-line, and the strong-side winger is usually vacating the defensive zone the second the puck is retrieved by defenseman. The problem with this, is that the entire defensive team can just pressure the strong side and slow down the entire zone entry, unless Gaudreau (or whomever) goes full blown Gaudreau and undresses multiple players on one play. If they don’t get that individual play, possession is ceded rather easily–either by a dump, a bad pass at the blueline leading to a turnover, or a bad pass leading to an offsides.

            When you watch the successful “fast teams” play, they break out and through the neutral zone fast, but they usually do it with maximum puck support. The strong-side winger will be a mere short-pass from the defenseman and as he breaks up the ice, the strong-side defenseman and the centre are generally close with puck support. It makes it tougher to defend, because the options greater, than simply making a one-on-one, or two, or three move to gain zone entry.

            My other concern is that once the Flames enter the zone, they don’t play in the corners or behind the net. They tend to kick the puck back to a trailer or defenseman, and it results in a blocked shot or easy save. People will say “the Flames are too small to cycle effectively”, but watch the next game. Players like Gaudreau, Hudler, Frolik, and Bennett, are extremely effective when they get the puck deep in the zone along the boards. Working the puck behind the net actually gives these players more time and space. When I’ve watched the Flames this year and they get into those positions they generate multiple chances and a great deal of zone-time, yet they seem as though they’re reluctant to do it. I’m not sure why they don’t do it more often, but it makes me want to rip my hair out.

            Be mindful though, that these are generalities. Yes, the “stretch pass” has a time and a place. Likewise, creating offense off the rush is the correct call sometimes. The point is that the heavy reliance on what (in my opinion) should be situational plays is baffling to me.

          • SmellOfVictory

            Oh, sounds like we agree. Haha. The Flames are a one-trick pony in terms of their overall transition game (or were; it looks like Hartley has started to adjust), and it’s been killing them this year.

    • ngthagg

      I wonder how much our elevated sh% hurt our corsi last season? After all, you lose possession after scoring a goal.

      It’s probably not measurable, but I’d be curious if a bored stats guy has some free time.

  • Got to just love the guys with corsi numbers and adjusted metrics. So sick of all that BS the bottom line is the Flames are in last place. Hartley keeps giving Russell number 1 minutes when he is too small to defend and the only reason he blocks so many shots is he’s always chasing. The defense should be the strength of this team and none of the top 4 are doing well. If Russell is not producing points then he is not an NHL defenseman. Goaltending has been brutal but a big part of it is this team is not defending in its own end worth a damn. Oh well hopefully a draft lottery win but you have to remember that to win a draft lottery you have to go against the team that has written the book on lottery wins.

  • piscera.infada

    I hope Intellectual honesty (gotta love some of those Feaster-isms) has kicked in with management. The rest of the year needs to be spent on two things:

    – Maximizing tradable assets
    – Assessing prospects close to being ready for the big team

    As a fan, I’m wanting to see guys like Granlund, Poirier etc. up with the big team as possible, but I understand Calgary has to try and get players like Wideman, Russell etc. playing their best.

    In any case, the rest of the year is going to be somewhat tormenting; wanting them to win and knowing they have to win some to get the most value out of these tradable players, but also knowing that losing gives them the best chance at another high end player.

  • The Last Big Bear

    It is so sad to watch the Flames this year. Out of 24 games about 3 have been great entertainment value; the rest have been painful and frustrating to watch.

    If they lose 4 of the next 6 they are effectively out of the playoffs. Assuming this happens (~75% chance) My quick moves would be:

    1) youth movement: bring in more young blood, mistakes and all. Determine who you’ll move forward with next year, and trade the rest along with expiring contracts you’re not intending on renewing. Bring up 6-8 players for 5 game stints. On this note, Hartley’s handling of rookies has always been heavily criticized and would have continued last year had things not gone stellar last year to paper over this deficiency.

    2) goaltending: start Ortio to determine what we have in him. He was great last year…but now he’s poop? Trade Hiller or Ramo …perhaps the better of the two who may have some bare trade value and eat some $$ to make it happen.

    3) re-set expectations: publicly signal this is another learning and development year, lower fan/team expectations, loosen the grip on the stick, have fun again, bring back the humour and keep things looser.

    And…..let’s start focusing on the Top 5 draft prospects again (unfortunately). Would be interested to start seeing some analysis of the top prospects and seeing how they could fit in with our young core.

    Merry Christmas

  • piscera.infada

    This is all semi-encouraging stuff and it kind of makes sense. I mean, the team plays like a playoff team on some nights and like a dumpster fire on others but they lose more of the games in the former category than they win in the latter. That sucks but, really, should one expect anything else?

    However, I am still unclear whether the other-worldly bad goaltending is as a result of a collective brain freeze amongst the goalies or whether it is the Hartley system that is sucking the life out of this team. If the former, easy fix. If the latter, oh wait, that’s an easy fix too. I guess it could be both.

    Good article, Pat. But what the article doesn’t note is not stats related and possibly the most depressing thing of all: this team does not look like it is truly trying. Wins are nice, especially against Edmonton, but when I see a group of professionals going through the motions, I simply lose interest. That’s where I think they are right now.

  • Derzie

    Shooting % down: not getting to the net. Too much perimeter shooting. Good for corsi, bad for winning.

    Goaltending: Not keeping the shots to the outside. 3 headed goalie monster.

    Special Teams: Lost Byron & Bouma. Hartley playing the wrong players.

    Comebacks: Bad goals after working your butt off kills confidence. Without it, comebacks don’t happen.

    Conclusion: The problems are on the coach & GM.

    • Shooting % down: not getting to the net. Too much perimeter shooting. Good for corsi, bad for winning

      Flames scoring chance numbers:

      High danger scoring chances / 60 – This year: 10.6. Last year: 9.8

      General scoring chances / 60 – This year: 26.1. Last year: 24.3

      • Derzie

        What’s not measured is on those scoring chances, how many have a body blocking the goalie’s vision. If he can see the shot, he’ll likely stop it. That’s part of what I meant by ‘getting to the net’

  • Parallex

    Yeah… not much to do at this point except ride out the season and get a new coach in the offseason. I said in the offseason that Treliving passed a test in showing that he could smartly add but that next he’d have to prove he could smartly subtract… thus far he hasn’t passed that test. Let’s hope he learned some lessons this season.

  • Howie Meeker

    Last year was an indication of what is to come, this year is where we actually are as a team in year 3 of a rebuild. A lot of great piece but we need a very high pick, some more good trades and to continue to work on the possession game.

  • KACaribou

    Spreadsheet, your theory is good here. But I think because your stats constitute the whole season it doesn’t really represent what is going on in the here and now. Overall yes, though.

    In the past 1/2 season, our goaltending hasn’t really been as repulsive as it certainly was earlier in the season. We have to quit blaming the goalies entirely.

    I won’t blame our defense either, but rather our team defense.

    I would like to know how many quality scoring chances we give up per game this year compared to last, only because it seems to me that we are not keeping the opponent to the perimeter this season. Last year we gave up a lot of shots but not quality shots. This year we give up both.

    Our PK is simply horrifying. It is more of a full-team-downer than the netminders letting in a bad goal.

    Our PP is so bad that all it seems to do is disrupt the line flows. Why not decline the penalty rather than dick around with the puck for two minutes and then have it affect players’ minutes who deserve to play more.

    This is just based on watching the games, and many years of hockey knowledge. I can’t back this up with any possession numbers or advanced stats. But I would appreciate it if anyone had statistical data to back these theories.

    • piscera.infada

      I think with regard to goaltending, this piece of the article really sums it up, quite well:

      Let’s just say that Calgary was able to be decent, not spectacular, but decent in net like they were last season. If so, we’re talking about a massive drop in goals against from 86 to 63 (calculated from 709 total shots against). Now, this does not take into account low danger shots vs. high danger shots and stuff of that nature, but it’s still a startling number.

      That’s 23 fewer goals against. And while it’s a little revisionist to say that would have meant more wins, it would definitely make most things seem less dire. For example, the goal differential would have dropped from a league-worst -31 to -8 (23rd in the league–still not good).

      I mean, the porous nature of the goaltending position is a huge factor as to why this team looks so bad on paper. The fact is though, they’re still not a very good team.

      The PK and PP have been atrocious, so I’ll very much agree with you there. The problem with the PK was that it was bad last year–the Flames just didn’t take many penalties, so the actual number of pwoerplay goals against was minuscule. That fact alone, leads me to believe that the PK is a systemic and deployment issue–that’s on coaching , although losing Bouma and Byron doesn’t help that.

      The PP on the other hand is far worse than it was last season (although only ~5% worse). I’ve written about my issues with the powerplay ad nauseum, so I won’t take any more time with that here, but that comes down to the players, but I think it’s high time for the coaches to try something else.

  • Skuehler

    Cant score goals and skilled guys like Poirier, Arnold, Granlund not given much opportunity. And all we have to show for Camalleri, Baertschi and Byron is a second round pick.

    With all this adversity on the big club, the Flames should really turn the rest of the season into a land of opportunity for younger playera to step up.

  • Skuehler

    This season could actually be a blessing.

    If we werent where we are there would likely be talk of multi year deals for Hudler and Russell. Both of these guys are at an age where a rebuilding team cant afford to give out big multi year deals to players who wont be in their prime when the team is finally competetive.

    This season should force management into doing all the things they should do regardless… move out most of the UFAs etc.. continue on with plan…

    • Skuehler

      The very last thing we should be doing is having multi-year discussions with either Hudler or Russell, especially Russell.

      The only way to give Johnny and Mony the money they deserve (much less ask for) is to start moving the lower priced help from the farm up to the bigs. We have too much money tied up in Wideman, Engelland and Smid. Between them, that is about $12m that could be replaced by about $3m in current contract value of guys playing in Stockton, or available around the league (Kulak, Nakladal and pick a name).

    • Franko J

      I agree.

      This season is a blessing because it just shows how much more of a undertaking this rebuild is going to be for Treliving and Burke. That as much as the playoff experience helped Gaudreau, Bennett, Monahan, and the rest of the core, is good to see how much they learn from adversity and the challenge when things don’t come so easy.

      I look at the team that they are playing against tomorrow night in the Stars, who faced the same thing last season and have responded this year. Their “star players” were challenged by the coaches and management and look where they are this season.

      I think the reason the Flames are where they are this season comes down to the fact that collectively player by player on this team have taken too many “nights off” and they aren’t playing “smart” in all three zones. The goaltending can be blamed, but I see a team that lacks energy and confidence.

    • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

      Like how we should have capitalized on Gio when he would have brought back a Kings ransom this summer before signing a guy who will be post apex as we are ascending.

  • ngthagg

    Main driver is the pitiful goaltending.

    This season is a lost cause. What really sucks though is that the team is playing really hard-to-watch hockey. Just so many idiotic decisions happening at all levels.

    • Parallex

      Can you imagine..the Coilers will have another very good opportunity to win another lottery…McDavid and Matthews on the same team…. I’m having a nightmare……help!

      • Franko J

        @ Stu Cazz

        I don’t want to imagine such a scenario. In reality I think the draft actually rewards mediocrity and not parity.

        It appears that there will be at least 3 Canadian teams vying for the first overall pick in the draft this year.

        Too bad the NHL couldn’t implement a new rule to drafting first overall. For example let us say team A drafted first overall last season and they finish last again this season. Instead of rewarding them with the opportunity of drafting first because they were so inept and futile, team A automatically is slotted at 10th overall and excluded from the lottery. Same goes if team A or B has been in the top three for the past three draft lottery. I just don’t think it is fair when teams who cannot improve, display poor or mismanaged teams and continually wallow in the basement of the standings are provided with a greater “talented player” when they don’t actually strive to get better.

      • The Last Big Bear

        Being perfectly honest, I think that getting Auston Matthews just might actually be the final piece that the Oilers need to vault up the standings into the 20th-25th place range.

        Maybe not right away, but within a few years.