It can be easy to get caught up in the moment, especially with something like sports. Teams are built over the course of years and years, and there’s never any point in which case you can ever say they’re solidly “complete”. There will always be some future matter to attend to.
But the present is pretty important, too. Sports are a series of increments, and we get to watch every single moment as it unfolds in real time. So when, say, we see a team that should be exiting the rebuild stage in the midst of the playoff chase, that’s progress. But when we see, in the midst of that, them lose 5-0 to a team at the bottom of the standings… well, that really doesn’t look like it.
So. Are the Flames actually making progress?
First off, there are a couple of extremely rudimentary ways to measure this. For one thing, four of the Flames’ top five scorers are under the age of 25. This isn’t a team relying on over the hill players to #goforit, this is a team being led primarily by its youth. At absolute minimum, that points to a brighter future.
For another thing, the Flames are currently one point out of a playoff spot. Sure, they have some games in hand to thank for that, but a point out of the playoffs is a point out of the playoffs – especially when you’re contrasting it with this time a year ago, when they were eight points out. The Flames would have had to jump over four teams to get into the playoffs; this year, they need to jump over one.
This gets rather tricky with games in hand for teams on either side of the playoff chase, but the point is, this season we’re talking about who the Flames may be able to acquire at the deadline, as opposed to last season when it was all about selling. The standings this season do encourage a different frame of mind.
There are other ways to measure progress, though, that aren’t always reflected on the scoreboard. Via Corsica, here’s the Flames’ 25-game rolling average for 5v5 CF%, dating back to the 2014-15 season:
The first segment is the back half of their 2014-15 season. The Flames were winning that year, but the collapse was imminent; out of 240 teams – each team over the course of eight years – they were the only ones to perform so poorly and go as far into the postseason as they did. You take the evidence from 239 teams over the evidence of one every single time.
The second segment is their 2015-16. They were showing some steady improvement – remember, that’s the season they added both Michael Frolik and Dougie Hamilton – but were still struggling to enter positive corsi numbers (the dotted black line is 50%).
This season – the third segment – they’ve breached it multiple times, and are currently on one of their best stretches to date. “They lost their last game 5-0” sounds bad; that they’re 3-2 this month and are even in goal differential, less so. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect or there aren’t still significant problems to address, just that the overall picture paints one of hope, not despair. And we could see this coming, even as Calgary processed through a bleak stretch.
But who cares about corsi, right? Goals matter. So here’s the Flames’ 25-game rolling average for 5v5 GF%.
Note just how much it appears the Flames were overachieving in 2014-15, and how it looks like they’re underachieving now. The Flames’ shooting percentage in 2014-15 was 10.52%, the second highest in the NHL; in 2015-16, it was 9.55%, sixth in the NHL; this season it’s 8.65%, 20th in the NHL.
Did they suddenly forget how to shoot when switching from Bob Hartley to Glen Gulutzan, even though they’re getting more shots on net now (and allowing fewer, for that matter)? Or at they going through a poor stretch – the opposite of their 2014-15, in which absolutely everything went in? Remember how in the first period against the Coyotes the Flames were undeniably the better team, but nothing they tried went in; Arizona got the bounces (and then a dismayed team) to work with.
This brings us to the Flames’ 25-game rolling average for 5v5 PDO, and this season, it’s not pretty.
In 2014-15, they were rolling, perhaps undeservedly. This season, they’ve been consistently kicked in the teeth, also undeservedly. The general overall play has improved – there’s more structure and less reliance on shot-blocking, for instance – but the output doesn’t match the input.
And even then they are, at least on the scoreboard, still ahead of where they were last season.
Next season remains the one to really watch for, but there is reason to think they’re getting better. In the meantime, they have the fifth worst PDO in the NHL, better than just Colorado (who are also objectively terrible; their CF% is the fourth worst), Boston (who just enacted a pretty major change, which the Flames should probably steer clear of for the time being), Philadelphia and Carolina (two teams that are actually in very similar situations to the Flames right now).
That’s not all on them – sometimes, that’s just what happens. The 2014-15 season was the exact opposite. Dennis Wideman scored 56 points that year and Lance Bouma 34, and cap hits aside it’s good neither are leading the Flames anymore, because they have much better options now.
So yeah, that’s progress.