FN Mailbag – October 24, 2016

Mailbag

Halloween is still a week away but things have already gotten scary in Calgary.

The Flames entered the year with a lot of optimism, but instead the team has kicked off 2016-17 with an almost historically bad start. They have the worst combined special teams in the league, have given up the most goals and have surrendered the most high danger scoring chances against. They look like a middling AHL club that awoke to find themselves inexplicably inserted into the NHL and they have no idea how to compete.

The bad news is, the Flames’ schedule was incredibly soft to start they year, with lots of home games and lesser opponents. Things get much more difficult over the next few weeks, which means there’s a chance this grim spectacle isn’t the nadir of the season.

Now that’s scary.

It’s everything. The execution is bad, with players losing puck battles, passing pucks into skates and skating headlong into traffic. But the systems look awful too, particularly when it comes to zone entry. The club only seems to have a couple of entry schemes, both of which are easily stifled by standing four guys across the blueline.

Calgary needs to get better strategies than “bump back to Gaudreau” and “soft dump in” to gain the zone. And when they finally do have possession, they can’t merely play a game of “rim the puck around the perimeter and get it back for a point shot.” That’s how fourth lines tend to manage offensive zone time, not special teams featuring the most talented guys on the squad. 

At even strength, things start in the defensive zone with the defensemen transitioning from offense to defense. Right now, the Flames still seem stuck in the bad habit of the wingers (if not all three forwards) flying the zone and hanging around the center line or opposition blueline for a zone exit pass. This makes the Flames’ defenders lives very difficult and can often lead to icings, passes off skates or interceptions. 

Jack Han of Hockey Graphs recently illustrated the Flames zone transition difficulties with this video:

On the PP, we’ve talked about the club’s limited repertoire of zone entry schemes. Arik Parnass, who was hired by the Colorado Avalanche this offseason, illustrated some of the more effective and creative zone entry strategies at his blog Special Team Project.

In this article, he talks about the effectiveness of the Capitals’ “single swing” zone entry tactic on the PP. In this one, he looks at the Islanders’ “drop pass loop”. He also talked about the importance of zone entries to the PP here, in his introduction to ZEFR (a new PP evaluation metric).

Evaluating these tactics is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but the point is – there are other options. I encourage anyone interested to check out the linked posts.

Hard to say, but I don’t think so. Several the guys struggling a lot have played under numerous coaches, including Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Dennis Wideman. Whatever this contagion is, it has infected the entire team, young and veteran players alike. 

It’s usually a bad idea to make a panic move from a position weakness. Remember the Dion Phaneuf trade?

That said, if this continues much longer the team will not only be out of the playoff running by mid-November, they’ll be solidly positioned as the worst club in the league. In a season where considerable improvement was expected, that is a huge disappointment and may inevitably lead to some kind of move. 

The problem for the Flames is the entire team is underperforming, especially the most expensive players on the roster. That makes it especially difficult to do anything of note in the trade department, unless you want to get pennies to the dollar in return for one of your supposed difference makers.

I assume Glen Gulutzan is safe for this season given he just signed a three-year deal (and the team is still paying Bob Hartley), but… an entire club can’t play this poorly for an extended period of time without someone on the coaching staff paying the consequences.

I’m guessing Wideman will jump in and out of the lineup, at least while everyone is healthy. He will probably get 60+ games this year. And no, he won’t have any real value at the trade deadline. He’s older, slowing down considerably and has a scarlet letter attached to his name after running over a ref last year. 

I mentioned more than once leading up to the season that the period of lowered expectations was over for the Brad Treliving regime. With a new coaching staff, expensive young stars and a roster mostly of his making, the expectations have (rightly) been raised.

Beyond that, though, it’s jarring to see the club come out of the gate so poorly. It would be one thing if an element or two was bad, but the entire club from top to bottom has been abysmal through six games. The club’s stars are mostly gross liabilities right now. The special teams are spent in a dazed stupor or blind panic. The transition game is slow, disjointed and prone to surrendering giveaways and odd-man rushes against.

As a result, not only have the games been disappointing and unentertaining, it’s very difficult to point to any kind of positive factor or reason for optimism. The failures have been so comprehensive and so global thus far, it’s almost impossible to not be looking for the panic button.

There’s really no filling that role this year given the team’s internal options and cap problems. All they can do is settle on a “good enough” solution for now.

That said, the issue is moot if Gaudreau and Monahan can’t figure things out. The pair of them can likely carry almost anyone on the RW if they are playing well, but right now anyone stuck on that line is going to suffer. Calgary’s putative “first line” has been dreadful through six games, constantly being outshot, out-chanced and outscored. It won’t matter who the winger is if Monahan and Gaudreau can’t find their games.

Both goalies have struggled to some degree, but I think we can to cut them slack for now. The skaters in front of them are lost and routinely surrendering high quality, grade-A chances. 

According to Corsica Hockey, the Flames have given up the most scoring chances against in the league so far (56) and have the second worst scoring chance ratio at 34.88% (!!). And that’s just at 5on5.

Here’s the problem: literally nothing is working well for the Flames right now. Aside from a few individual performances here and there (and the lone, first period against the Oilers where they fired 24 shots), the club has been abysmal across the board. They are being outplayed everywhere, and they are inept at everything.

The only solace is this level of play can’t possibly continue. We know guys like Gaudreau, Monahan, Giordano, Brodie, and Hamilton are much, much better players than what they’ve shown thus far. Even if the coaching is legitimately bad (which is difficult to assess right now), the Flames’ top players have to eventually start executing at a much higher level than they have so far.

The question now is: can they do that before it’s too late?

  • Jakethesnail

    I think what you wrote about the cap being a problem is the biggest thing . Treleving has the snug against the cap with no room to move.
    They are going to have to ride this out barring a trade. To me the defense looks flawed , and the goalies can’t bail them out. The pieces that are the high priced talent on this team have not produced at all. They have been the biggest disappointment so far for Calgary.
    It’s almost been the perfect storm for Calgary in a bad way.

  • Arminius

    Lol. Seriously dude? Mr. “I have 6 kids” is the last one to post at night on FN and the first one in the morning?

    My God you have some issues don’t you. I mean there’s a forum for fans of the brown Coil right? Lol But nah here you are can’t get enough. Pathetic little Train lol. What a piece

    That made my day truly. Lol.

    FN MODERATOR: this is an open forum for everyone. When Ghost or any other commenter crosses the line, they will be dealt with. Stop with the personal attacks. Rest assured, when trolls go too far the mods will step in.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    KW: “literally nothing is working well for the Flames right now.” I agree, which is why I asked. I was looking for another perspective beyond my personal disappointment.

    Rhett Warner had an interesting perspective this morning that is even more concerning. He basically, said he was worried because a new coach often has a positive effect on a team. Players see it as a new start and want to impress early. There hasn’t been a single player that has consistently played well through all the games. I’m worried, because I don’t see signs of this ending.

    Warner went on to say that Hartley was finished here and would not have been the solution, but really expected a much better effort from everyone.

    Let’s hope tonight is the start of righting the ship.

  • Parallex

    Yeah it’s really hard to parse out what’s wrong here. Gulutzan wasn’t this bad when he was last a NHL head coach, Cameron’s PP wasn’t this bad in Ottawa, the players weren’t this bad under any other head coach.

    For now all I can think is that we ride it out and hope that this particular group still doesn’t have the new systems installed as part of their muscle memory yet and that once it does it’ll all click. We’re stuck with all the important players and we’re stuck with Gulutzan for the time being. Cameron may (should?) be the sacrificial lamb.

    Kent, is scoring chance sv% tracked anywhere? I ask because there has been a lot of excusing of the goaltending… but that excusing seems “pundit-y”, a lot of opinions without the right corresponding facts to back it up. It’d be nice to see if Elliot and Johnson are performing statistically how we would should expect them to perform under the circumstances. We all know they’re playing under poor conditions but I don’t think we do know that they’re performing well/average relative to those self same conditions.

    • I’m not sure if there is active (per game) expected SV% tracked anywhere right now, but in the end I don’t think it matters too much.

      Both goalies have a long track record of being very good at their respective roles, so we can be sure they’ll come around. They haven’t been great, but the only thing all world goaltending would be doing right now is papering over the grave, grave failures up front.

    • re: Gulutzan — You’re also trying to measure past success/failures as a rookie head coach vs where he has grown and developed now with limited data on both ends. Deciphering actual impact of coaching is being done though. Hockey-Graphs recently has had some work done trying to determine offensive/defensive impacts.

      I’m inclined to lean that Cameron’s on-ice impact on the Senators’ PP was terrible. Reaching out to a few systems/stats folks in the Senators community does tend to see this theory backed up. I’m in the middle of breaking down things still on the existing Flames power play but for the sake of commenting here it’s important to remember the following:

      Under Cameron last season (5v4):
      23rd in CF60 (Corsi For per 60) – 80.54. The 30th ranked team: New Jersey at 73.20. 27th in FF60 (Fenwick For per 60) – 57.33. The 30th ranked team: St. Louis at 55.24. 30th in SF60 (Shots For per 60) – 39.85.

      The Senators scored a league-worst 4.89 goals per 60 minutes of 5v4 time.

  • Derzie

    Kent wrote:

    “Beyond that, though, it’s jarring to see the club come out of the gate so poorly. It would be one thing if an element or two was bad, but the entire club from top to bottom has been abysmal through six games. The club’s stars are mostly gross liabilities right now. The special teams are spent in a dazed stupor or blind panic. The transition game is slow, disjointed and prone to surrendering giveaways and odd-man rushes against.

    As a result, not only have the games been disappointing and unentertaining, it’s very difficult to point to any kind of positive factor or reason for optimism. The failures have been so comprehensive and so global thus far, it’s almost impossible to not be looking for the panic button.”

    This all day long. BT needs to face his public and explain how we are going to get through this. It’s clear the players are not with the coaches. They barely talk to each other. That’s atmosphere and coaching. And not just systems and x’s & o’s. Something deeper.

  • The GREAT WW

    I don’t know why everyone is so surprised; I told you before this season started that the Flames would be bottom 5 with this group of coaches…..

    WW

    • Scary Gary

      It’s a little early for I told you so; we’re only 6 games (7%) into the season (literally less than two weeks).

      The Stockton heat are 2-0, does this mean you approve of Huska now?

      • wot96

        He has to be massively impressed with himself – no one else is impressed.

        It is far too early for I told you so’s. It is also unbelievable that the real “talent” on the team is incompetent all at the same time. I can only attribute this to systems and the fact that the team is taking a lot longer to learn what needs doing offensively and defensively that anyone hoped, and probably longer than it should have.

        They’re now gripping the stick. Frankly, they probably need a BS win to relax a bit.

    • Randaman

      Hey Walter, it’s not just the coaches!

      Goaltending is what I thought it would be (overrated at best), defence has sucked(Gio 6.75 for 6 more loooooong years) and Shawn & Johnny getting used to being rich!

      • FOS

        Why is it that every goalie that is/was here has sucked. Surely it can’t be them, Elliot had a league leading save percentage last season, now he can’t stop a puck. Their game has to change

  • RedMan

    I am starting to believe in the Wideman effect… look how quick they are to penalize any stick infraction on the flames, yet they allow extreme hacking on JG, and the last game JG was tripped twice no call and hooked once in a manner that caused a turnover and no call.
    I am not blaming the refs for where the team is at… like the article says this team has been bad in every possible way, but there is some evidence to suggest this team is paying for Wideman on the penalty front.
    It’s time to put Ferland on the top line and start sending a message by demolishing anyone who takes such gross liberties with the teams star forward. How do the teammates justify letting JG get hacked so brutally?

    • jupiter

      The league didn’t fire the arbitrator and appeal his decision over a few games. Hard to believe there’s no bias with what’s at stake for the officials. Marginal offences will not go Calgary’s way with Wideman in the line-up.

      • Randaman

        Can you blame them? The NHLPA really dropped the ball on this. They should’ve never backed Wideman but they are now down that rabbit hole and he will suffer for the rest of his career. Shouldn’t be much longer based on how he’s playing.

        • Backburner

          Wideman had no prior history with the refs, not even a 5 min major.

          After the concussion on the play, the NHLPA had the responsibility to protect Wideman.

          There is still little known about the side effects of concussions.. not saying it is an excuse, but the Flames and NHLPA had every right to appeal the leagues decision as per NHL rules.

          This is just about a power struggle.

          • Avalain

            It doesn’t even matter if he’s guilty or not at this point. He’s done his time. That season is over. At some point the refs need to get back to being professional.

          • jupiter

            It does matter the way I see it.If the league wins the appeal, than Wideman is guilty of intentionally injuring a official.That brings all kinds of nastiness into the situation.

            A war between the NHL/NHLPA/Officials and the possibility of Wideman being personally sued.

    • Johnny Goooooooaldreau

      Gaudreau Bennet Tkachuk

      Ferland Monahan Brouwer

      Shinkaruk Backlund Frolik

      Ferland Hamilton Chiasson

      Brodie Hamilton

      Giordano kulak

      Witherspoon jokipakka

  • As an Oiler fan, it was not easy for me to pick Brodie for my hockey pool this year. And now I see I should never have gone back on my golden rule: Never pick Flames.

    Seriously though if anything should be going right for this team it’s the defense. But Gio, Brodie, Hamilton, and yes even Wideman should be doing better than this.

  • everton fc

    No matter the players, or the coach, this seems like a recurring theme here in Calgary. Hartley at least got this rag-tag bunch to the second round of the playoffs.

    Bennett, Gaudreau, Monahan – our core youth – all playing with either obvious frustration (Bennett for certain, playing overly chippy, not focused on what he needs to be focused on, Gaudreau trying to do it all himself, not passing at times, whining to the refs occasionally, Monahan maybe playing injured). The whole team has no zing. Gio looks slow. Hamilton looks more like a 5/6 defender than a 3/4, and I don’t see him ever being a 1/2. But that’s just me.

    The guys who are working hard – Stajan, Ferland, Frolik, Backlund, Brouwer, Versteeg (of late), Kulak, and I’ve liked Jokipaaka in does thus far. Even Engelland has been steady and “stable”. All are playing well, but none are superstars. None will score 30 goals. Some are at the tail-end of their careers.

    Our goaltending is hurt by our defence. I still say the goaltending coach may be a factor, as well. Overall, this team doesn’t look even close to turning the cliche “corner”. Facts are facts. GG looks confused behind the bench. I seldom see fire behind the bench.

    We need a Darryl Sutter here. Behind the bench. And I think the days of giving mulligans to Treliving are over. He assembled this crew. He assembled the current staff. If it bombs, he’s responsible, as well as Burke. Period. That’s they way this business works.

    In a bad economy w/no light at the end of the tunnel, if they continue to put a poor product on the ice, people who are already financially cautious will stop spending money on this team. Attendance will drop. Not good. Never good. To me, this is what will determine a lot of people’s fates – the ownership group seeing revenues dip, seats empty, and so on. How long is this rebuild suppose to take anyway?

  • PrairieStew

    There have been, and will continue to be, stretches where the Flames are 1-4-1. I would venture to say that even in seasons where the team has qualified for the playoffs, they have had 1-4-1 runs. The start of the season certainly shines a bright light on it, but I don’t think all is lost. As they learn to work with each other I expect things will improve. I’d rather struggle in October than in March.

    • RexLibris

      I tend to agree with one caveat.

      A 1-4-1 start isn’t good, but a 3-game winning streak can make that largely disappear, and most teams in the league are capable of that at various points in the season.

      The caveat here being, as Kent has mentioned repeatedly, the systems on display here are very concerning. I can’t really discern what Gulutzan is trying to implement here aside from “get pucks on net”, which has resulted in a misleading boost in their base possession numbers (Corsi) but in the context of the rest of the numbers (zone entries, high-danger scoring chances for and against, etc) is shown to be somewhat inflated.

      Consider: the Canucks right now are riding a rainbow of lucky horseshoes to their current record. It won’t last because they are winning despite rarely, if ever, leading. The roster isn’t strong enough and the systems are barely functional at the NHL level.

      The Flames are on the opposite end of the spectrum where they are riding a wagon filled with horse-bleep based on some bad luck, bad goaltending, and systems which are barely functional at the NHL level.

      The bright side is that the Flames will have some moments of improvement (but another ten games like the first five will almost certainly end the season) and the Canucks will inevitably come crashing down to earth enveloped in flames of indignant self-delusion.

  • Danoilerfanincalgary

    @Arminius

    I thought you said you were done and not going to post anymore because of all the horrible Oiler trolls? Not a person of your word I guess.

    The Flames are still going to be a decent team they just had a poor start. Snap judgement are not fair the fans should wait until 20 games have passed before jumping off bridges. I would have Johnny Hockey Monahan and Bennett on my team anytime. I stated before that it would be great to see both Alberta teams playing well so we can see a BOA that is worth watching again. I am old enough to remember how it used to be in the 80’s. Keep the faith Flames faithful it will get better

  • RexLibris

    The Flames aren’t being unfairly targeted by the refs.

    Late last season I studied the final 7 Flames games of the year and reviewed every infraction, called and uncalled, and assigned values to them to determine if teams were getting away with calls and what might be a range within the league.

    I did this with the Flames, Oilers and a matching group of games that featured neither of those teams.

    The Flames committed, on average, an equal number of uncalled infractions in those 7 games and had an even number, sometimes fewer, of called infractions relative to their opposition.

    This was a period when Wideman was back on the roster.

    I’ve begun the same thing this season, tracking one Flames game thus far, and observed no noticeable bias against the Flames. In fact, the one game I’ve recorded thus far showed that the Flames were called on ~28% of their committed infractions compared to Buffalo being called on 58% of theirs.

    By comparison, last year I didn’t see any games with a rate of calling infractions higher than 30%, if I recall correctly. most were closer to below-20%.

    • Backburner

      It might not be obvious that the refs are making unfair calls against the Flames.

      But it would be naive to think that there wouldn’t be any strategic repercussions set out for anyone that goes against the league.

      The NHL isn’t exactly known for integrity.

      • RexLibris

        Mind your tongue, sir!

        Integrity, honesty, forthrightness and an unerring sense of honour in all things!

        This is the great oath sworn to by all who lead this historic league.