A lot changed for the Calgary Flames this offseason, but there are two things that will determine if they really are a better team this year: goaltending and coaching.
The goaltending side is simple.
The coaching side is a bit more complicated. New bench bosses Glen Gulutzan and Paul Jerrard have very clear areas of the game they need to improve in Bob Hartley’s wake, including some individual tactics that were lacking under the previous regime.
Here are the areas I’ll be grading the new coaching staff on this year.
Even strength shot differentials
Between 2013 and 2016, the Flames had the third worst shot attempt ratio in the entire NHL at 46.23%. Only the Buffalo Sabres (42.66%) and Colorado Avalanche (44.74%) were worse.
Calgary was weak in terms of both shots for and shots against. Over the same period, the Flames allowed 60.05 shot attempts against per 60 minutes of ice, one of only four teams in the league gave up 60+ per hour. In terms of shots for, they were down at 51.63/60, also fourth worst in the league.
This matters because we know a team’s chances of making the playoffs rises significantly as their corsi ratio (even strength shot attempts for/shot attempts against) rises. A team with a corsi ratio of 52% has a better than 70% chance of making the post-season. It drops to about 5% when a team is at 45% or so.
The good news is the Flames made some headway on this front last year. Their shot attempts rate improved to 53.76 and their shots against fell to 58.26. That said, that shot against rate once again placed the team fourth worst in the league, so there’s still room for improvement.
As such, a good goal for the club this year is to improve their shots for and against attempts rates by about three shots per hour both ways. If they can do that, their corsi ratio should rise to about 50%.
Special teams – especially the PK
Calgary’s special teams were mostly abysmal last year, though the PP steadily improved as the season went on. The PK, on the other hand, was awful from start to finish. Not only did the Flames give up the fourth amount of shot attempts/60 against, they suffered through the worst save percentage at 4on5 in the NHL (83.3%).
Some of that is on the bad goaltending, of course, but the skaters also had a hand in the terrible results. According to Corsica Hockey, the club’s expected goals against per 60 on the PK was a league worst 7.05. They also surrendered 27.98 scoring chances per 60, again the worst rate in the NHL.
So the Flames’ goaltending was lousy, but they hung their masked men out to dry as well. If Calgary hadn’t been good at staying out of the box (fifth least penalized team in the league), the damage reaped by the PK would have been far greater.
If the PP maintains where it left off last year, the team is fine. But the new coaching staff absolutely has to figure out better tactics and strategies while down a man.
More specific tactics
More ice time for Dougie Hamilton
Dougie Hamilton got off to a rough start in Flames colours. Because of that he had a hard time regaining the trust of Bob Hartley. When T.J. Brodie came back from injury early in the season, Hamilton was booted down the rotation and stayed there until the exit of Kris Russell (and injury/suspension of Dennis Wideman).
Hamilton ended the year averaging just under 16 minutes a night at even strength, well back of Russell, Brodie and Mark Giordano, who were all up around 20 minutes. Ideally, Hamilton should be pushing 20 minutes with the likes of Brodie and Gio.
Why? Because he’s a premier offensive defensemen. Over the last two years, Hamilton places in top 20 amongst NHL defenders in terms of even strength scoring rate and top 10 in terms of PP scoring rate. Hamilton was also the best defender on the team in terms of driving shot attempts for last year – the Flames managed 57.53 corsi/60 with Hamilton on the ice.
Hamilton’s defensive game isn’t as polished as his offensive game, but on most teams in the league he’s an above average top pairing guy (not to mention a PP quarterback).
Hamilton is already an outstanding player and he has room to grow into a cornerstone talent. The Flames should lean on him a lot more moving forward.
Drop Wideman down the rotation
On the other hand, Dennis Wideman needs to be carefully managed and sheltered if he is to remain a regular contributor on the Flames’ blueline. As noted previously, Wideman’s defensive game has deteriorated so rapidly that he is a gross liability in his own zone.
The 33-year-old’s role steadily declined last year by the time his suspension issues rolled around, but probably not enough. He ended up playing 16:06 a night at even strength (marginally less than Hamilton), when in fact he should probably be down around the 12-13 mark at best. In addition, he should be limited to facing third and fourth liners as much as possible.
At this point in his career, Wideman is, at best, a PP specialist.
Stop playing Brandon Bollig
Calgary’s designated tough guy only appeared in 54 games last year, but that’s still way too many given his abilities. Calgary’s shots for, goals for and scoring chance differentials drop off a cliff with Bollig on the ice, even though he’s mostly limited to facing other fourth lines.
The Flames have a lot of other options pressing for opportunities. On top of newly signed Linden Vey, the club also has Alex Chiasson, Daniel Pribyl, Hunter Shinkaruk, Micheal Ferland, Lance Bouma, Matt Stajan and (maybe) Matthew Tkachuk potentially available for bottom six work.
Improve Monahan’s two-way game
My only complaint with Sean Monahan’s development under Bob Hartley is the kid’s defensive game seemed to stagnate. Monahan arrived fully formed as an effective sniper in the NHL, but his two-way performance has been hit or miss so far (mostly miss).
Monaghan’s shooting, scoring, and shots for rates are obviously above board, but he’s back around the average fourth liner when it comes to denying shots against.
Over the past three seasons, the Flames have surrendered 61 shot attempts against per 60 with Monahan on the ice at even strength. That’s the seventh worst rate amongst regular Flames forwards over that period – and every guy below him is either a tough guy or fourth line grinder, a rookie, or no longer with the team (McGrattan, Raymond, Jones, Bouma, Granlund, Glencross). Some guys with better shots against rates? Matt Stajan, Brandon Bollig and Joe Colborne.
That’s bad company for the club’s number one centre to be keeping, especially since he was one of the more sheltered skaters on the team over that time.
With Monahan moving to a $6.3M player, the team needs him to round out his game and become a true top six center both above the red line and below it. The 22-year-old has the ability and pedigree to improve his two-way play, so the hope is the new coaching staff can work with him to make that happen this season.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of the coaching staff’s priorities and challenges this year, but it hits on many of the big ones. Team-wide, Calgary needs to see better shot differentials at even strength and much better execution on the PP. In terms of individual players and tactics, the club needs to find more ice for Hamilton, less for Wideman and Bollig, and buff up Monahan’s defensive play.
If all (or even some) of these things happen, the Flames should take a solid step forward in 2016-17.