How much have special teams cost the Calgary Flames?

Roughly a quarter into the season, the Calgary Flames have the worst special teams in the NHL. With a success rate of 8.4%, their powerplay is the indisputably the worst; their penalty kill, a 72.7% affair, is ranked 29th. 

The two teams near them in ineptitude? The Ottawa Senators have the NHL’s second worst powerplay, but the third best penalty kill; the Chicago Blackhawks, meanwhile, have the worst penalty kill in the league, but rank 14th on the powerplay.

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No – the Flames are truly in a league of their own when it comes to terrible special teams, on both sides of the puck. And it’s reasonable to presume this has cost the 8-12-1 club its fair share of wins.

But how many? This we can’t measure for certain, obviously; we don’t know if that one extra powerplay goal or one extra successful penalty kill truly would have gotten them a win. But we can, at the very least, see how many times a complete failure on special teams has cost them – and how much better off they might have been if their special teams were even just average.

For the record, that means a powerplay success rate of 17.5% (the Edmonton Oilers, 15th in the NHL, more than double the Flames’) and a penalty kill success rate of 83.3% (more than 10% than the Flames currently).

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Games lost due to bad special teams: 8

By my quick count, there are eight games the Flames have lost this season that can be blamed on really poor special teams efforts.

Here, I’ve broken them down in terms of what kind of goals the Flames’ opponent scored (even strength, powerplay, shorthanded), what kind of goals the Flames scored, and how successful both teams were on the powerplay.

Game OPP goals CGY goals OPP pp CGY pp
EDM 5 – CGY 3 2 ES, 2 PP, 1 SH 3 ES 2/4 0/5
CAR 4 – CGY 2 2 ES, 2 PP 2 ES 2/8 0/6
STL 6 – CGY 4 4 ES, 2 PP 4 ES 2/4 0/3
WSH 3 – CGY 1 2 ES, 1 PP 1 ES 1/2 0/2
ANA 4 – CGY 1 2 ES, 2 PP 1 ES 2/3 0/2
DAL 4 – CGY 2 3 ES, 1 PP 2 ES 1/3 0/2
CHI 3 – CGY 2 2 ES, 1 PP 2 ES 1/1 0/5
BUF 4 – CGY 2 3 PP, 1 ES 2 ES 3/6 0/2

Through these eight games, the Flames have had 27 powerplay opportunities. They have scored on zero of their attempts. The first four of these games took place in October, while the latter four have been in November, so this has been an ongoing problem.

When we discount empty netters, five of these were one-goal games – Edmonton, St. Louis, Washington, Dallas, and Chicago – indicating that just one successful conversion on the powerplay would have gotten the Flames at least a point, and the chance to battle for two.

That’s asking for a powerplay success rate of five out of 17, or 29% – a little high for just about any team. Three out of 17, however, would be about 17.6% – or average. That would be entirely reasonable to expect, especially considering in two of these games the Flames had five powerplay chances each.

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Those extra three points would see the Flames with 20, or just about in a playoff spot. And that’s assuming three overtime losses – if they had gone on to win those three games, they would have 23 points, which would be good to be tied for the top of the Pacific Division.

Conversely, in those same five games, if the Flames had stopped just one extra powerplay goal, they would have been tie games anyway, so the penalty kill takes some of the blame, too. This stretch sees them surrender 14 powerplay goals on 31 kills, or a successful kill rate of 55%; with five extra goals stopped, we’d be looking at a success rate of 71% – still not good, because that’s roughly where the Flames are now as a whole, but again, that’s a lot of points left on the table.

And those are just the games when a single goal could have made the difference – to say nothing of the particularly special disaster the most recent Sabres game was. The Anaheim game was another particularly poor showing for the penalty kill.

We’re a quarter of the way through the season, so there is still a ton of games to be played. But as things stand right now, it’s entirely reasonable to point fingers at both special teams. Right now, they’re the difference between being a bottom of the barrel team, or a top team in the division.

Games won due to good special teams: 3

It isn’t fair to just cherrypick the games in which special teams have cost the Flames. Let’s take a look at the games where they’ve actually won because of them, too.

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Game CGY goals OPP goals CGY pp OPP pp
CGY 3 – CHI 2 (SO) 2 PP 2 ES 2/5 0/2
CGY 3 – SJS 2 3 ES 1 ES, 1 PP 0/2 1/5
CGY 1 – MIN 0 1 PP 0 1/6 0/2

The Flames have their powerplay and penalty kill to thank for their win against Chicago. They have their penalty kill to thank for their win against San Jose, particularly as they got into penalty trouble early that game and managed to hold off the attack.

I’m hesitant to include a game in which the Flames went one-for-six on the powerplay as a “this was a good game for special teams”; however, it was a 1-0 game in which the Flames were a +1 in the special teams battle, so they kind of did win them that game – even it was more tense an outcome than it really had any right to be.

These are three games in which the Flames won the special teams battle. That’s 14% of their season so far, compared to the 38% of it that has been ruined by poor special teams.

Games won in spite of bad special teams: 2

There have been a couple of games this season in which the Flames put up a pretty bad special teams effort, but went on to win the game anyway.

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Game CGY goals OPP goals CGY pp OPP pp
CGY 4 – BUF 3 (OT) 4 ES 2 ES, 1 PP 0/6 1/5
CGY 5 – OTT 2 5 ES 2 PP 0/2 2/4

Neither Buffalo nor Calgary displayed great special teams in their first game against each other, but the Sabres’ one powerplay goal – on one fewer attempt – was enough to get them a point as the game went into overtime, something the Flames would have only been so lucky to have in their eight losses detailed above.

As for the Ottawa game, the Flames were losing until the Senators had to switch out for a rookie goaltender. And they couldn’t even score a powerplay goal on him. That’s not exactly a sign of prowess.

Games lost in spite of good special teams: 2

The Flames have also occasionally had very good special teams, and still fallen.

Game OPP goals CGY goals OPP pp CGY pp
EDM 7 – CGY 4 6 ES, 1 PP 2 SH, 1 ES, 1 PP 1/6 1/3
VAN 2 – CGY 1 (SO) 1 ES VAN 6-on-5 own goal 0/4 0/2

Remember the season opener? What good times we had back then, when the powerplay got off to a decent start and the penalty kill was rocking. The Flames got killed at even strength, but man, we had hope. What a world.

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Meanwhile, the Flames’ penalty kill outperformed the Canucks’ – and hey, it got them a pity point. Again, looking at the list of eight losses above, any pity points from those today could have made a big difference.

Special teams irrelevant: 6

And then sometimes, special teams have been completely irrelevant. One team has been so dominant at even strength – in three cases the opponent, in three the Flames – that the game was well out of hand enough that better or worse special teams wouldn’t have really made much of a difference either way. That, or neither team was really able to do much with them.

Game OPP goals CGY goals OPP pp CGY pp
CGY 4 – STL 1 1 PP 3 ES, 1 PP 1/4 1/3
CHI 5 – CGY 1 4 ES, 1 PP 1 SH 1/4 0/4
LAK 5 – CGY 0 5 ES 0 0/3 0/3
NYR 4 – CGY 1 4 ES 1 PP 0/2 1/3
CGY 2 – ARI 1 (OT) 1 ES 2 ES 0/3 0/3
CGY 3 – DET 2 2 ES 3 ES 0/2 0/2

  • Craig

    This is all great information, and maybe I missed it, but what’s the conclusion?

    If the Flames had league average special teams, where would they be in the standings?

      • Ari Yanover

        Yeah sorry, this got lost in the extra game analysis – at the end of the eight game bit I note that I think if the Flames had just average special teams they’d be contending for the Pacific crown right now. That’s my ultimate conclusion.

      • jakethesnail

        ..and even with the minimum of 5 points they would be in second place, one point behind the oilers!

        Cameron’s power play in Ottawa was a disaster too. Yet GG sticks by his choice for PP coach, like he was doing with Chiasson on the first line.

    • FeyWest

      Except now there are different variables…. last year you could tell the goalies couldn’t stop a beachball, this year players are expecting the goalies to stop grade A chances off of odd man rushes, lost coverage plays and poor special teams execution. Although special teams wise hasn’t seemed to change but it had better soon.

  • Captain Ron

    This leads me to believe I was right all along. My solution to the problem is this:

    Fire the special teams coaches immediately.

    Send all special teams players to a hypnotist that can erase any memory of what those coaches told them.

    Hire a chimpanzee who can hold up a monitor big enough for 5 guys to watch it. Then have them watch a successful teams PP and PK over and over again daily for two weeks. Repeat at least weekly for the rest of the season.

    Now go out and play like the teams you just watched.

    End of lesson.

    • Kevin R

      A flare for the Sports Psychology I see! Well done :-}

      Ironically, the star players are just as lost on the power play as they are 5V5, yet people trash what Im saying in the other thread where I said GG system to get Possession hockey out of this team is at the cost of creativity of our talented players. Hartley played fire wagon brand of hockey because I remember his interview after Feaster just hired him as coach. “We are going to bring entertaining hockey back to Calgary” Well I think he did. Is it a coincidence that players like Gaudreau, Monahan, Gio & Brodie flourished under Hartley’s band wagon hockey & Mr Russell was the premier shot blocker in the league. Hamilton was getting there in the 2nd half last year when Treliving & injuries finally forced Hartley to give Hammy the ice & PP time.

      I whole heartedly agree with you that they need to cut Cameron loose immediately & bring in someone who can work within GG’s parameters, but get these star players & their talents back into the system & identity of this team. Maybe some experienced coach can be brought in to help as an Associate coach.

      • Captain Ron

        Hey Kevin! You know I could easily fall into a category of people who doesn’t really care all that much about who the coach is. I liked Hartley for the entertainment value that he brought to the game. I know what he was doing was probably not going to bet us to the finals but he made the team fun to watch at least for a little while. When your paying to watch you want to be entertained. The transition to GG has been painful to watch at times but I think this style of play is going to bring more success in the long run. As you said though the problem for guys like Gaudreau and Monahan is that they played a lot of hockey under Hartley and the new system doesn’t allow them to play that way any more. I hope they figure it out soon because Monahan looks like a poor AHL player right now.

  • snotss

    it’s obvious no special teams make the flames season just about done………..they are not a good team…a few power plays or pk kill here or there will not put us in the playoffs..

    • Southboy

      I second this, our special teams areot that special. Aside from Gaudreau, we dont really have a whole lot of PP talent like alot of other teams. Hamilton maybe but yet to be proven. So we could have the best ever PP coach and we will still suck

  • Juan Valdez

    The PP sucks because the players are indecisive with the puck and any shot that gets through is usually from around the blue line (i.e. low-percentage scoring chance area).

    Additionally, If you watch a team with a good power play you’ll notice that they don’t usually have any player holding onto the puck for more than 3 seconds.

  • RKD

    BT needs to fire Dave Cameron nothing he is doing is working at all and I doubt he has made any adjustments. He strikes me as a we’ve always done it this way type of guy. The Flames pp is predictable, too many passes, no bodies in front, shots going way wide of the net. As soon as the other team is aggressive in the shooting lane we bobble the puck and turn it over. Our entry is no good either.

  • wot96

    The article may understate the impact of poor special teams. With a lethal powerplay, other teams have to play more disciplined and maybe Johnny doesn’t take 21 slashes to the hands against the Wild.

    With a better penalty kill, the Flames can play harder on the body and take a few liberties.

    That’s all hypothetical, not stats based, but there are non-statistical impacts when the special teams are special for the wrong reasons.