How the Flames became the NHL’s best 3-on-3 team

Remember 3-on-3 overtime? It feels like it’s been a while, hasn’t it? The last time the Flames went to an extra frame was just six games ago, in that horrid shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers back on Jan. 16. Before then, the last time the Flames went to overtime was on Dec. 15, against the Nashville Predators – a game they won.

In fact, it used to basically be the only time the Flames could win was when it went to 3-on-3.

Well, this weekend we’re seeing 3-on-3 featured at the All-Star game. The Flames have two entrants to the cause for Pacific Division glory: Mark Giordano and, probably the greatest 3-on-3 player in all of hockey, Johnny Gaudreau.

This is as good a time as any to look back on the Flames’ overtime record, isn’t it? They’ve gone to the extra frame 12 times this season, resulting in eight wins, one loss, and three shootouts. Their 8-1 record in the extra frame is the very best in the NHL, and there’s one guy in particular they can thank for that: Gaudreau.

The best 3-on-3 player

When the Flames win in overtime, there’s a very, very good chance Gaudreau had something to do with it. He’s scored three of the Flames’ winners himself, and assisted on four others: three primary assists, and just one secondary. One of those primary assists was the result of his own shot bouncing in the net off of his teammate; the other two were smooth passes opposing defenders couldn’t stop en route to the puck going in.

Seven points is the most any player has scored in overtime this season. Eleven shots is the most recorded – another record held by Gaudreau.

It’s like the entire format was made specifically for him. Gaudreau’s size hasn’t exactly inhibited his abilities to be an effective player – if it had, he wouldn’t be leading the Flames in scoring, let alone being top 10 throughout the entire NHL – but the extra space afforded to him via 3-on-3 plays into his strengths perfectly. 

He’s a finesse player. He makes skillful passes, dodges other players, and steals the puck from them when he doesn’t have it. He already know how to create space for himself when it’s 5-on-5, but when all that extra space is there for him at 3-on-3, he’s practically unstoppable.

He already leads the NHL with his seven overtime points, but he could very well have even more than that with the chances he’s created.

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There’s a lot of noise in this chart – there isn’t a ton of 3-on-3 data to go off of – but what’s important here are the few standouts. The x-axis measures a player’s on-ice scoring chance differential at 3-on-3; that is, when he’s out there, are chances going for or against him? The y-axis measures the number of high danger scoring chances an individual generates. The bigger one’s bubble, the more ice time he’s had; the bluer one’s bubble, the better his corsi is.

Gaudreau’s name is one of the few that sticks out: because nobody creates more dangerous chances than he does. He isn’t as impressive a possession player as others; scoring chances will go against him, too. The Flames play a high-event style that’s worked out for overtime, but could just as easily go against them if they didn’t have the personnel they do.

But for the most part, Gaudreau is the most dangerous player at three-on-three, and it reflects in his point totals.

A very mobile defence

One other thing the Flames have working out for them is just who, exactly, is on their defence. They don’t have the most prolific scorers from the blueline this year – Giordano leads the way, and his 31 points are tied for 10th in league-wide defencemen scoring – but they have a lot of them.

Five of the Flames’ defencemen have overtime points this season: Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, Dennis Wideman, and Kris Russell. Between the five, they have three goals and seven assists for a total of 10 overtime points. The same five defenders have combined for 108 points through 48 games so far this season: 2.25 points per game from all regulars on the backend. 

The Nashville Predators are the only other team to have four defenders in the top 50 for defencemen scoring. The wealth of offence the Flames provide on the backend has resulted in Bob Hartley frequently deploying two defenders and one forward as his three-men units. 

Most teams put out two forwards and a defenceman. After all, forwards are much more likely to put the puck in the net, right? But the Flames don’t really have that firepower up front. It’s similar to how they’re reluctant to play four forwards and one defenceman on the powerplay. Why do that when you have just as great a chance as your defenders contributing to a goal for: especially in a format that allows for things to go wrong instantaneously? 

Only two of the Flames’ eight overtime winners has had two forwards involved in the play (Gaudreau and Monahan on Giordano’s winner against Detroit; Gaudreau assisting on Backlund’s goal); otherwise, it’s been an unassisted goal, one or two defencemen, and one time, Karri Ramo picking up an assist.

It makes sense, really. Hamilton is offensively-inclined but still has tremendous skating ability to get back should things sour; Brodie is a little less offensively inclined, but it takes even less effort for him to immediately get back into position if the puck goes the wrong way. Three-on-three is so chaotic that something as simple as a missed shot can ultimately result in the puck going in your own net, so it helps to have a strong defensive presence out there. When your defensive presence can also put the puck in the net, too, you’ve got a pretty good shot at winning.

This reflects in the team’s deployment. There are seven players you see out there the most when the Flames go to the extra frame: the five aforementioned defencemen, plus Sean Monahan (who, with Giordano and Brodie, always starts off overtime for the Flames) and, of course, Gaudreau. Occasionally someone else – usually Jiri Hudler or Mikael Backlund – will pop up, but for the most part, it’s those seven guys.

If only Gaudreau took faceoffs – imagine how much more opportunities he could have had. And he’s already right at the top of the NHL.

  • Ari Yanover

    A really clear and straight forward discussion of why 3 on 3 works for the Flames. My question is if the coaching staff can get this so right, why can’t they get the PP right? Part of the answer is simply we don’t have enough talent up front or we don’t use the more talented guys enough(how long we most of screaming to see Bennett on the PP).

    Personally I think it’s time to experiment and allow some of the Heat players a true NHL look, I’m tired of watching the same old veterans be ineffective. BT needs to make some moves even if the return is not as great as we had once hoped for.

    All things being equal I would be happy with:

    Hudler for a 2nd and a RW prospect.
    Russell for a 2nd and 3rd.
    Jones for a 3rd.
    Hiller for 5/6 or a back up
    Bollig/Raymond/Colborne/Wideman/Smid/ England for whatever you can get.

    I don’t expect him to move all these guys but if he moved all 4 UFA’s and 2 of these other guys I would not be unhappy.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    The 3 on 3 format has been the most exciting improvement to the game that I can recall. Gaudreau’s timing in becoming a Flame is perfect with 3 on 3 being introduced to end games faster this season. He is already one of the league’s most entertaining players, 3 on 3 just increases his real and perceived value to the team.
    For me the mark of elite talent is the ability to make other players better. In only his second year, Johnny Gaudreau is elite regardless of format, but an absolute killer in 3 on 3.

    As for 2 D and 1F, it’s a strength the Flames need to continue exploiting, as I expect many teams will attempt to copy soon. Think of the players coming up that will also help from a puck moving defenseman standpoint: Kylington, Andersson, Kulak and Hickey. If you love the Flames, it’s gonna be hard to dislike 3 on 3.

    As an aside, the last time I watched the NHL Allstar game was in 1988, I actually might watch today because of 3 on 3. Well maybe?

  • joey joe joe jr shabadoo

    This is bit of a damning statistic/circumstance. kind of like being the best at a writer who could kick ass at spelling bees, but couldn’t coherently string together a paragraph or two.

    The flames are great at a skills competition, but not so much at real hockey.

    That said, I trust Treliving & co are well aware of this and will make adjustments accordingly.

  • joey joe joe jr shabadoo

    “Only one of the Flames’ eight overtime winners has had two forwards involved in the play (Gaudreau and Monahan on Giordano’s winner against Detroit)”

    Backlund’s goal vs Philadelphia in November was another.