There are a few films that really cut to the heart of what sports is all about. For me, there are two that really get it and both are baseball films: Bull Durham and Moneyball. Both come at baseball from completely different directions and the perspectives of both can provide a bit of insight into just what’s happening with the Calgary Flames lately. Specifically, these two films can provide some perspective in terms of narratives, their limitations, and when those limitations don’t seem to matter.
On trade deadline day, Flames general manager Brad Treliving had his regular interview segment on Sportsnet 960 The Fan. During that segment, Treliving had a line that tipped his hand when he was speaking about the improved play of his goaltenders: “When I really analyze the team, and say if we can strengthen the group in front of them, deepen our defense and give up less chances, it’s amazing how your goaltending becomes a little bit better.”
Treliving is a savvy guy. He gets advanced stats. He’s probably read Moneyball and at the very least saw the trailer for the movie. He might not cite specific numbers or concepts like head coach Glen Gulutzan does from time to time – regularly talking about uncontested zone entries, zone starts or other such things – but he has a very good handle on analytics. Based on Treliving’s assessment, you’d expect that the moves that the Flames made prior to the trade deadline – bringing in Michael Stone and Matt Bartkowski and swapping out Dennis Wideman (to the press box) and Jyrki Jokipakka (to Ottawa) – would result in improved defensive underlying numbers for the team. You’d be wrong, though.
Since arriving in Calgary, Bartkowski has been worse than Jokipakka defensively by every possession metric. Stone is worse than Wideman defensively by every metric except for Scoring Chances and High Danger Scoring Chances Against (Per 60). The Flames replaced their deficient players with guys who are technically downgrades. Team-wide, looking at the past seven games with the current lineup configuration and comparing them with the seven games prior to Bartkowski’s arrival, a similar pattern emerges.
- Corsi For Against Per 60: 55.56 (now) vs. 54.09 (then), an increase
- Fenwick Against Per 60: 40.07 (now) vs. 39.40 (then), an increase
- Shots Against Per 60: 29.91 (now) vs. 29.47 (then), an increase
- Scoring Chances Against Per 60: 23.84 (now) vs. 25.36 (then), a decrease
- High Danger Scoring Chances Per 60: 8.53 (now) vs. 10.60 (then), a decrease
The “replacing the defensemen fixed the Flames’ defensive game” narrative doesn’t really pass the smell test.
There’s also been a lot of talk around the rink about the Flames’ turnaround not beginning when the defensemen were swapped out, but back when Gulutzan tore into the team following their “pathetic” performance against Montreal on Jan. 24. The Flames must be markedly better over the last 15 games than they were in their previous 51 based on their torrid 12-2-1 record since then. Again, the numbers don’t really support that argument. Comparing their most recent 15 games with the 15 games prior, the Flames’ offensive underlying numbers are slightly better (an increase of two scoring chances per game) but their defensive underlyings are all flat or worse than they were before. The only thing that was significantly improved was their PDO, which jumped from .949 to 1.031 as the puck stopped going into their net and started pouring into the opposition’s. Once again, the narrative doesn’t pass the smell test.
Maybe it’s about the team’s players finally snapping into place and slotting into the roles many have expected them to play? Particularly on the right side, guys like Micheal Ferland, Troy Brouwer and Alex Chiasson seem to have finally settled into places in the lineup that many of us expected them to based on their performances earlier this season. The general manager mentioned this possibility at the trade deadline.
“This is starting to look like the team that we had hoped it would look like several months ago,” said Treliving during his appearance on Sportsnet 960 The Fan. “Now it’s taken some time, but where people have fallen into roles, it’s starting to look like some of the projection to have in terms of where people slot.”
After the Flames’ 5-2 win over the Islanders on Sunday, Gulutzan had an assessment of his team’s recent performance and how the club’s been all-hands-on-deck lately: “We use guys, we give guys roles, penalty killing, power play, five on five assignments, and maybe put guys in some awkward positions at times and hoping that they succeed. You’re trying to build up your group at all points. We just didn’t want to be a one-line team. You need 20 guys to win, you really do.”
If you’ve been following our post-game recaps or post-game embers, you’ve probably noticed that the stats tables look awfully similar to how they’ve looked much of the season. The Flames are still primarily seeing their possession driven by the same players that have been doing it all season, though their lesser lights are getting lit up a bit less than they were before. If players are snapping into their proper roles, it’s not reflecting itself in the underlying numbers on a game-to-game basis.
That said, if you watch the team on the ice over the last while there seems to be a difference. They don’t collapse when they give up an early goal or a bad goal. They don’t wilt with frustration when they take a penalty. They play largely the same style of game in all three periods of most games, rather than altering course depending on what the scoreboard says. Off the ice, the group seems extremely loose – something made most evident by the recent string of Dougie Hamilton photobombs during post-game television interviews.
For whatever reason, the Flames are winning games and feeling confident right now. It isn’t like the 2014-15 season, either; steps in a positive direction have been evident, even if they aren’t fully there yet. Gulutzan has thrown out terms like “belief”, “commitment” and “playing the game the right way.” They’re playing some of their best hockey of the season right now, regardless of whether that’s being reflected in their underlying numbers. Fans of Moneyball will be naturally suspicious of what, precisely, is happening and why (and it’s a pretty natural reaction). But that approach may risk missing the forest for the trees. For those who’d rather not get bogged down in the numbers, Bull Durham‘s Crash Davis offers a more stout assessment of the roll the Flames are on:
“A player on a streak has to respect the streak… If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you are.”
The Flames are playing well. They’re winning games. They’re probably going to make the playoffs. The numbers don’t support any of the narratives about why these things are happening. Does it really matter right now?