The Calgary Flames started this season with a god awful excuse for a penalty kill. There is no other way to phrase it. Initially after a single game we saw some brief glimpses of systemic changes that new assistant coach Paul Jerrard was hoping to implement throughout the season. After that, like the Flames’ ability to not take penalties, it fell off the rails and eventually hit league bottom.
Then something magical happened – primarily over the winning streak – and everything slowly progressed back to league average in flat PK%. Their penalty kill has become quite effective at suppressing the opposition. Still, there is a long way to go.
The basics: Let’s look at shot and goal metrics
At this point in the season, the Flames’ PK sits a tepid 18th overall in the league (81.2%). It might not seem like much, but it’s a substantial improvement overall. They’re in a position where they can transition above the middle of the pack to a top 10 PK team if they continue to make small adjustments and play to Jerrard’s system changes.
The main sticking point with using this penalty kill percentage as a measure of success is how it factors in all shorthanded situations. For a team like the Calgary Flames, who have spent 10.49 at 3v5 (second to the Penguins at 11.89) and given up three 3v5 goals against, it ignores how defending and suppression are overall in a 3v5 situation versus a 4v5 situation.
When we look at the Flames at 4v5, you get an idea that the trajectory that they’re on is far more impressive than their league ranking:
- The Flames are currently sixth in the league of CA60 (Corsi against per 60), an incredible feat given how they’re the most penalized team in the league. For additional context, the Flames were 27th last year by season’s end in CA60 with 93.68.
- The team is fifth in the league in FA60 (Fenwick against per 60) and is also outperforming last season’s result of 68.37 in which they finished 23rd.
- Last season the Flames finished the season 18th in SA60 (shots against per 60) and like the others (and to be a stuck record) are outperforming that metric as well.
The final point I want to make worth noting is how despite giving up 28 goals at 4v5 (tied for sixth) they’ve managed to improve by dropping their actual GA60 (goals against per 60) down to 5.67 (18th) and their xGA60 (expected goals against per 60) down to 5.22 (third in the league). Last season’s final result saw them finish last with 7.05 xGA60 and 29th in GA60 with 7.86.
With the rough start this season factored in, along with their 3v5 results removed from the discussion, this team is looking pretty strong despite the compounding factors putting them in these situations. All of this brings us to the next question: what have they been doing to get these results?
Zone entry suppression/obstruction
Zone entries against were a major concern last season for the Flames in all situations, but more importantly the Flames played into significantly passive situations when shorthanded. This season on the penalty kill, we’re seeing most – if not all – of the units work to suppress puck carriers, force dump-ins, and try to force offsides.
In the game versus the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 9, we have F1 (Sam Bennett) apply pressure in the offensive zone, causing Tobias Enstrom and Mark Scheifele both to have difficulty exiting their zone, progressing through the neutral zone, and deferring to Nikolaj Ehlers who fares no better. F2 (Alex Chiasson) steps up within the Flames’ passive 1-3 which prevents the zone entry against and gives the Flames possession of the puck.
This little sequence is a fantastic example – again – of why the Bennett – Chiasson tandem can be an effective option over Matt Stajan – Troy Brouwer/Lance Bouma.
Against the San Jose Sharks (Jan. 11), we see a similar approach, however with the Mikael Backlund – Michael Frolik tandem utilizing a retreating box formation. F1 (Frolik) pressures the puck carrier (Mikkel Boedker) exiting their zone who passes off to Joonas Donskoi. Unfortunately for Donskoi, F2 (Backlund) is in position which causes Donskoi to bobble the puck and allow for a quick cleanup and a clearing of the zone.
In this sequence, the Flames get beat on the zone entry against, however recover into formation as Deryk Engelland and F1 (Backlund) funnel the Jets puck carrier (Drew Stafford) to the boards and clear the zone, preventing the Jets’ PP unit from setting up into formation and starting a play.
Working as a complete unit
One of the biggest changes came in the way of how the Flames play in their own zone during 4v5. Previously, the team typically employed a passive small/large box and a diamond formation. Now, more often than not, the team utilizes the triangle +1 in two forms: passive and a more aggressive variant known as the Czech Press.
The triangle functions in a role to cut off the slot and the net while the +1 can switch between mid and high play depending on where the puck carrier is. The +1 can also be utilized to disrupt shooting lanes and passing lanes to disrupt the flow of the opposing power play. If the puck is cycled or moved laterally, the +1 can switch to the other forward while the previous forward (in the role) drops into the triangle.
The Czech Press factor comes in where the +1 is much more aggressive on the puck carrier, applying pressure to force turnovers, disrupt the flow of play further, and funnel the puck carrier into a situation where the plan of attack becomes interrupted.
Following the work by the Backlund – Frolik tandem, Gulutzan deploys Bennett – Chiasson for the second portion of this Canucks power play. As usual, the unit defers to the triangle +1. Chiasson predominately functions for the first part as the +1, switching off with Bennett depending on the flow of the play. Though the Flames play a looser version of the triangle, the formation often achieves its desired outcome.
It’s worth noting that the Flames’ defense is no longer unintentionally screening the goalie which had been a point of contention that plagued them last season and early on this season.
Easily one of the more identifiable traits of the 2016-17 Flames PK is how they transition at times and can seemingly find ways to seamlessly transition up ice to eat time or try to generate offense. The future of the PK should emphasize skilled players, specifically ones who can skate and move the puck well. In the sequence above, the Flames utilize their two best forward units and the Dennis Wideman – T.J. Brodie duo.
Even if it’s as simple as alleviating the Canucks’ forecheck and advancing up ice to eat time it’s still infinitely more valuable than hunkering down and trying safe decisions like banking it off the glass and out all the time.
Creating goals is the future: Utilize an aggressive PK
A common message that I’ve brought up historically and others have too, like Matt Cane and Carolyn Wilke, has been the opportunity to create goals while shorthanded. At the moment, the Flames have the most shorthanded goals in the league with seven through 43 games. They possessed this ability to score goals while down a man under Hartley, but we’ve started to see even more of it this season.
You can get burned while playing aggressively, an area that the Flames have experienced earlier this season, but most of the time it’s worth the risk. Even if you don’t score, you’re still eating time off the clock and likely maintaining possession. Employing skilled talent gives you an additional edge to pursue the desired outcome of outscoring your opposition.
Nov. 27 versus the Philadelphia Flyers wasn’t the best showing by the Flames this season, but fans did get to see what the PK units were capable of. The first portion of the clip capitalizes on a puck battle being won along the boards, springing F1 (Backlund) and Brodie, who jumps up in the rush. The second portion showcases a quick transition, smooth passing, and maintaining possession as Dougie Hamilton’s shot rebounds to Chiasson.
During the Dec. 4 blowout versus the Anaheim Ducks, the Stajan – Brouwer unit played more into a passive triangle +1 with Brouwer and Stajan switching the +1 as the Ducks cycle the puck. Stajan makes a move on the Ducks’ Hampus Lindholm and forces a turnover, springing Giordano and Brouwer on a 2-on-0 which makes it 8-1.
Summing it up
I don’t think for one second the Flames’ PK is anywhere close to where it needs to be. For that to happen – again to be a broken record – there needs to be a further adjustment to the second PK unit with Bennett and Chiasson deployed more. If possible over the coming years, it’s entirely possible to even explore rookie Matthew Tkachuk as an option.
At the end of the day, just because you’re a skilled forward with offensive upside doesn’t mean you can’t kill penalties. Wayne Gretzky did it. Mario Lemieux did it, too. Let’s end the stigma.
A lot of the clips do showcase elements involving Stajan (99.96 CA60), Brouwer (95.87 CA60), and Bouma (90.74 CA60), but over the entire season so far they typically do surrender more shots (blocked, missed, or on net) than the other forwards on the team. Further to that, like the aforementioned others in a similar light, Engelland (93.31 CA60) isn’t the ideal candidate to be on the PK1 pairing.
Engelland is there out of sheer necessity, which is unfortunate. Despite the gaffe versus Edmonton, the Brodie (70.98 CA60) – Wideman (74.34 CA60) pairing seems to actually be a decent on-the-fly pairing. It would be a better solution over the long term to consider Hamilton (66.80 CA60) as an option on the second PK unit.
That said, Jerrard, who was brought in to fix a lot of these problems, has made significant progress so far and we’re just over halfway through the season. Another year of this, with faster and more skilled options playing to his system in these schemes might propel the Calgary Flames into some noteworthy success.
More incremental adjustments might get them there by the end of the season.