[ed. You may recognize Christian Tiberi, or “ctibs”, from M&G – please welcome him to FlamesNation!]
In the 11 years since the dreadful 2004-05 lockout, NHL hockey has changed dramatically. Thanks to cap-consciousness, the rise of analytics, declining scoring, or what have you, “checking” and “energy” lines have nearly disappeared from the game. There are no longer two tiers of players on forward corps; every forward must be able to drive play and score. If teams want to stay behind the times and check, let them. They’re only allowing you offensive zone time.
The ability to roll four effective lines night-in, night-out is an absolute game changer. Teams shouldn’t just own the game when their top six is on and sit back when they’re off, they should try to own it at all times. A good bottom six won’t save an overall bad team, but they’ll boost a good team immensely.
To an extent, this sounds like the 2014-15 Flames. With regards to the bottom six, a few players stepped up and helped carry a formidable top six into a surprise playoff appearance.
So how did that carry over into 2015-16? Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…
The 2014-15 Bottom Six
Let’s start off by taking a look at last year’s bottom six before we dive into this year’s. This is going to be a relatively simple deal. We’re going to look at goals, assists, points, points/60, and average points/60 for this analysis. Data is sorted from least time on ice per game to most.
Notes for all data in this article:
- All stats are 5v5, regular season only.
- Bottom six is a fluid term. Considering that no one is ever
permanently attached to one particular line and that coaches have
different ideas about distributing ice time, I tried to use best judgement
when determining which players are bottom six and which aren’t.
Generally, players who played less than 12:30 per game at EV were used
in a bottom six role for the majority of the season.
- Players with fewer than 10 GP were not used in average p/60 calculations.
- The full data I used is here for your perusing.
The Flames’ bottom six found success in 2014-15 because of some surprising performances: namely Josh Jooris, Lance Bouma and Markus Granlund. Not a lot of people expected them to be impact players over the course of the season, and their presence in the lineup was a boost to the overall performance of the bottom six. I was hesitant to include Bouma in this list, as most of his points where from his stint as Top Six Forward Lance Bouma, but he still scored a fair amount (14) without Mikael Backlund on the ice.
As for the rest on this list, many of these guys played at around the same level you’d expect them to. Mason Raymond and Matt Stajan had slightly below average seasons, while Paul Byron had a slightly above average season. Brandon Bollig was still Brandon Bollig.
The 2015-16 Bottom Six
Yikes. The previous years’ Flames had almost as many assists as this sorry bunch had points. What happened?
- Well there’s a huge drop across the board in pretty much every category. As much as we love to blame Raymond for falling off the face of the Earth this season, plenty of other players did, too. This was probably PDO-based, seeing as four members of this list (Bouma 16.13%, Stajan 15.56%, Granlund 12.28%, Raymond 12%) were in the top five with regards to personal SH% in 2014-15. This year, all of those numbers fell into the single digits.
- Though we can’t all pin this on bad puck luck. There was also a massive decline in some players’ performances. Bouma received substantially easier zone starts in 2015-16 (-14.2 OZSrel% to -1.9%) but didn’t improve much in terms of possession (-4.1 CFrel% to -3.3%). Stajan was given similar responsibilities as in the previous season (-14.7% to -16.9%) but fell dramatically in corsi (-0.4% to -5.4). Granlund and Raymond were still both huge possession anchors despite sheltered zone starts. At the very least, there needed to be stagnancy in the bottom six. They got worse.
- Not helping the cause was the absence of Byron. He is a very capable player for a bottom six role, certainly more so in the game’s current form than Bollig. He scored three times as much as him in 5v5 points and doubled him in P/60 in 2014-15. He’s also useful on the penalty kill, which Bollig is not. All things considered, needlessly letting Byron go (for free!) was a huge mistake. I’m not going to say that keeping him would be a season-saving move, but it would certainly improve the Flames’ chances.
- However, let’s not continue to dwell on the negatives and give the kids some credit. Micheal Ferland got way better in terms of possession (0.5% to 1.4%), despite worse zone starts (-4.3% to -6.8%). Jooris had the same deal, but to an extreme extent. He dropped a bit in corsi rel (1.3 to -1.0), but considering his zone starts (6.4% to -8.3%), perhaps we should go a little bit easy on him. You can’t succeed if you were never put in a position to.
The 2015-16 NHL
I’ve summarized all the data in the table above for you in this handy chart. It’s basically average p/60 vs. bottom six scoring. Upper right is good, lower left is bad.
The Flames unfortunately stand out in that bottom left, dangerously close to the Edmonton Oilers. They were tied for 28th in goals, finished 26th in points, and had the second worst average p/60. None of that is good.
This chart isn’t here just to rub it in even further (it is here to do that, but that’s not the only reason). Instead, it gives the Flames a list of teams to emulate (read: steal from) in order to improve for next season.
For example, let’s look at a player like Colton Sceviour from the Stars, a righty who scored more EV points than any other member of the Flames’ bottom six with Jooris-level ice time (and worse zone starts). He’s 26 years old, and a UFA who hasn’t made over $700K in his career. He’ll come cheap, and he could make an immediate impact.
What about Jonathan Drouin? In limited appearances, he has nearly hit 2.00 p/60. If you think the price might be too steep, you could look to teammate J.T. Brown, another righty RFA who is quietly putting up numbers. There are tons of effective bottom sixers who can come cheaply (go through the Google doc to find your own favourite!), but that begs the question…
What’s up for 2016-17?
What this (I hope) has proven is just how impactful a good bottom six is. This season, the Flames’ bottom six scored 19.7% of goals at 5v5. That was third worst in the league, ahead of Florida and Arizona and far behind the average of 29.9%. For perspective, that number was 36.8% in 2014-15. You can’t simply fly by on a
pretty good top six and hope for the best from your bottom six. That’s
not how modern hockey works. While not the most major problem for the Flames this year, it is certainly still a big reason for their failure this year.
The Flames need to boost that bottom six scoring back up, but here’s the complex part: that isn’t going to be easy to fix. There’s a lot of dead weight back there, and that’s going to take some effort to clean out. Regardless of whether the Flames want to look internally or externally for a solution, they’re going to have to ship folks out. The offseason is interesting enough already, and it hasn’t even begun yet. It’s about to get more interesting.