Troy Brouwer’s first season as a member of the Calgary Flames has largely been a disappointing one after signing a four-year, $18 million contract on July 1. One refrain we’ve heard in some quarters, though, has been how much Brouwer raises his game come the postseason. But is that claim legitimate? With the Flames very likely playoff bound, and with Brouwer struggling the way he has, I thought I’d attempt to answer that question.
It is tough to dispute how much Brouwer has struggled in his first year as a member of the Flames. His counting numbers (12 goals, 23 points in 67 games) are mediocre and his underlying numbers are telling very much the same story. Note: Numbers compiled in this article are through Thursday, March 23.
With the sixth highest zone start on the team, Brouwer has managed some of the worst possession numbers. His shot rate is third worst on the Flames and second worst amongst forwards; only Garnet Hathaway and Matt Bartkowski have lower CF% ratings, both with much lower zone start ratios. It’s not like Brouwer can chalk it up to bad luck, either, as his PDO is right about where it should be. Unfortunately, Brouwer has been one of the least effective players on the team this season.
Furthermore, Brouwer has had a negative impact on those he’s played with, compounding the problem even more. Below are Brouwer’s three most frequent linemates this season and what they’ve done with and without Brouwer, using data from stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
On the bright side, this is one of the worst seasons for Brouwer in recent memory and he has had some decent games sprinkled in. In saying that, though, nothing he’s done in almost his first full season in Calgary seems to suggest a big bump is coming in the postseason. But before we make a conclusion, let’s analyze what he’s done in past postseason appearances.
Starting with his first full season in 2008-09, Brouwer has only been on a team that failed to make the playoffs on one occasion (the 2013-14 Capitals). In looking at his history in the postseason, we’ll go back to the 2011-12 season, his first year after leaving Chicago, and go from there.
Clearly last year’s postseason was Brouwer’s best, both from a counting and underlying perspective. He was productive on the ice and wasn’t getting a huge benefit from luck or percentages. Brouwer was decently effective in the two prior playoff years, too. So how do these numbers compare to the regular season, then? Does Brouwer’s play historically take a turn for the better?
Actually, other than Brouwer’s first year with Washington, his outputs are better in the playoffs than they are in the regular season. There could be any number of reasons as to why, but Brouwer’s last three postseason appearances would lend some credence to the “he’s better in the playoffs” conversation.
It’s tough to deny how disappointing Brouwer’s first season with the Flames has been. As noted, he’s been one of the team’s least effective players for the balance of the season and many are cringing at the thought of three more years at $4.5 million. If there is a way to salvage this campaign, though, it would definitely be through an effective postseason.
While nothing I’ve seen this season, either analytically or with my own eye, would suggest a playoff jump, I can’t ignore the last number of seasons, either. In his last two seasons specifically, Brouwer has gone from being an average player in the regular season to a fairly effective one come the postseason. So what conditions will help Brouwer keep that trend going?
First and foremost, he has to be put with the right centre. In his two most recent playoff appearances, Brouwer has played primarily on a line with an effective, play-driving pivot. In 2014-15, his centre was Jay Beagle while last year saw Brouwer on Paul Stastny’s flank for the vast majority of the postseason. During the two seasons in question here, Beagle and Stastny were effective two-way centres all year long, both in the regular season and playoffs.
As we project the playoffs this season in Calgary, I think Matt Stajan makes the most sense to pair with Brouwer. Stajan has been extremely effective in a depth role this season (50.3 CF%, 34.1 OZS%) and has helped elevate players like Lance Bouma, Micheal Ferland, and Garnet Hathaway at different stages. While the initial returns on Stajan and Brouwer playing together haven’t been great, I think that duo with Kris Versteeg has the opportunity to be moderately successful come the postseason.
Projecting a player into the postseason is very much an imperfect science, so all we can really do is look at past results and go from there. Luckily for the Flames, Brouwer has a somewhat proven track record of being better in the playoffs than in the regular season. In a largely negative first year in Calgary, a repeat performance come mid-April would be a welcome bright spot for Brouwer.