Calgary’s special teams are covering up some uninspired even strength play

Back in mid-November, the Calgary Flames went back to basics. They began to play a tight-checking, road style of hockey even before Johnny Gaudreau was injured (but ironically really started to embrace that grinding style in the same game he broke a finger in on Nov. 15). That simplistic “box ’em out” style of play really helped them survive Gaudreau’s absence.

When I looked at Calgary’s underlying numbers since Nov. 15, two things jumped out at me:

  • Man, their special teams are a lot better than they were (in terms of on-ice results).
  • Holy cow, they’re lucky their special teams are a lot better because they’re not generating very much at all at even strength.

    The Right Kind of Special Teams

    Since Nov. 15, the Flames have scored 16 power play goals in 60 man advantages. They’re second in goals scored and seventh in power play opportunities, both of which are pretty solid things to lead the league in. A lot of opportunities means that your players are outworking the other team’s in a few key high-leverage areas – necessitating the opponents to take penalties to negate scoring opportunities – and a lot of goals means that your power play is outworking the other team’s killers.

    In the same span, the Flames have given their opponents 68 power plays, second-most in the NHL, and allowed nine goals against, 14th in the NHL. Given the sheer amount of PPs they’ve given the other side, their goals against numbers are pretty respectable.

    In a pure percentages sense, their PP is second and their PK is seventh in the NHL. That’s a massive turnaround from back when they were dirt-worst at both. Kudos.

    So what about their even strength play?

    Even Strength Struggles

    Here’s a chart. Each line represents the team’s score-adjusted even strength Corsi, Scoring Chances or High-Danger Scoring Chances for and against on a five-game rolling average.

    The Flames embraced their grinding style in the 17th game of the season, about midway through the chart.

    Screen Shot 2016-12-22 at 3.36.26 PM

    Here’s a troubling realization: when you adjust for score effects, the Flames are routinely being out-Corsied, out-chanced and out-high-danger-chanced by their opposition. That’s not good, especially when you consider the underlyings of their special teams units.

    POWER PLAY:

    Screen Shot 2016-12-22 at 4.13.39 PM

    As you can see, the Flames’ power play is white-hot right now (aside from the San Jose game) but it’s not like they’re generating a ton of shot attempts (Corsi For, in blue). They are more effective since Nov. 17 at generating scoring chances, in red (including high-danger chances, in yellow), but that’s been trending downward in recent games – suggesting that their insane production is at least partially driven by high shooting percentages.

    PENALTY KILL:

    Screen Shot 2016-12-22 at 4.19.00 PM

    Again: the Flames have made some improvements since Nov. 15. That said, you might notice that the high-danger scoring chance line (yellow) has been frequently higher than it was at Game 17, and that the blue and red lines (Corsi Against and Scoring Chances Against) bounce all over the damn place. In other words: the performance of Calgary’s penalty kill has been pretty darn good, but it hasn’t been consistent in terms of minimizing offensive opportunities for the opposing power plays.

    Quoteable

    From the players’ perspectives, what’s been different about their special teams?

    “I think for sure we’re entering the zone way better and bottom line is we’re feeling better, controlling the puck more and making better plays. I don’t think it’s any secret: it’s confidence, especially on the power play. You get one or two in a row and then it starts snowballing, we’ve been really good.” – Mark Giordano (he noted that Dave Cameron showed the power play personnel clips of different entries, which helped).

    “Our units, the way they’re set up, they gel. Our first unit’s more of a really high-end skill, puck-moving unit. And then our unit, the second unit’s more of a shooting, getting pucks to the net and simplified. I think that works because as a power play goes on, if your first unit doesn’t score and you get out there as a second unit you’ve got to find ways to generate momentum at the very least.” – Giordano on the two complementing power play units.

    “Confidence. We were able to find our way a bit. When Johnny [Gaudreau] came back, when Steeger [Versteeg] came back, we put that PP unit together. It’s been working well. The other unit I feel with Backs, Chucky and Benny, they move the puck real well, so we have two complementing units. You can roll them out, continue to get momentum off of it on the PP, and obviously we’ve had a couple goals go in. It helps us. It makes us feel better. We’re doing a lot better sharing pucks, moving pucks around, not trying to make tough plays, [and making] easy plays.
    “On the PK, we’ve talked about ‘community clears,’ that’s our big thing. I think where we really got ourselves in trouble early on in the season is we weren’t able to clear pucks when we needed to. Now, we got two, three guys helping the puck out of the zone and as a result we get more kills.” – Troy Brouwer on the special teams improvements.

    “For the PK, after 10 games we had a big meeting in here and we went through structure again. Camp was a little spread out this year with guys being at World Cup, being injured and stuff like that, guys didn’t get to play together much. We had a really good meeting after 10 games or so, where Gully and Paulie pointed out the big things we were doing wrong, what we could get better at, and what they were looking for. After that, we just knew our roles better. After 10 games, we figured out who was going to play with who, and since then it’s just been chemistry, better habits.” – Mikael Backlund on the penalty kill improvements.

    In Other Words

    The Flames are overcoming some rough even strength underlying numbers by way of some impressive results from their special teams groups. That’s great. But the trends displayed – showing the Flames are bleeding chances at even strength and enjoying some shooting percentage-driven success on their power play – suggest that these good times won’t last forever, unless the Flames can tighten up their defensive game at even strength.

    • Greatsave

      Over an 82-game season, I’d say that teams rarely have it firing on all cylinders for too long of a stretch. It’s all about having different aspects going well at a time. Sometimes you need to ride a hot goalie, sometimes you need to ride a hot PP, and sometimes you just hope that when they cool off, even strength play is good enough to carry you through.

      I only skimmed through the article, but what I didn’t understand was this:

      The Flames embraced their grinding style in the 17th game of the season, about midway through the chart.

      So, Ryan, are you implying that they’re now playing a grinding style that has actually resulted in worse EV corsi?