It has been two years since the Flames made the playoffs, and a lot has changed since then.
The 2014-15 team was fun, but it wasn’t actually going to win anything. As luck would have it, they drew another paper tiger – the Vancouver Canucks – in the first round, but were immediately and handily disposed of in the second by a vastly superior Anaheim Ducks team. Just to not get swept by them was a victory for that group.
Two years ago the Flames were a flash in the pan, driven by an unreasonably high shooting percentage, good enough goaltending, and a comical penchant for always coming back in the third period, no matter how bad they were actually playing. That meme died with the season, though.
But here’s the important part: since then, the Flames have made active steps to improve their roster. The result is getting back into the playoffs this season – and looking like a team nobody can automatically write off, with the very real possibility of being even more threatening next season. The 2014-15 team can’t lay claim to that. The 2016-17 team is well on its way.
Who stayed, who’s gone, who was added?
There’s been a lot of roster turnover for the Flames since the rebuild began, but they did have quite a few of their key pieces already in place by the time they ended their playoff drought.
The players who have stayed include all four centres, five defencemen (two top guys, two less-than-top guys, and Tyler Wotherspoon, technically), one high end winger, one winger with solid potential, and one fourth liner. (Technically Brandon Bollig has stayed, but he also hasn’t played a single NHL game this season, so…)
Gone are a bunch of players of little consequence, nine of whom aren’t even in the NHL anymore. Of those who remain, Jiri Hudler was the biggest loss to the Flames – or he would have been, had 2014-15 Hudler been the same as 2015-16 Hudler. Markus Granlund, with 32 points this season, is the highest scorer of this group.
Brought in has been a starting goalie, a top pairing defenceman, two second line wingers (arguably first at times), and a handful of depth ranging from solid third line players to pressbox fodder, plus one rather unfortunate contract.
Or, to put it another way: arguably the Flames’ biggest loss was Granlund, who simply wasn’t showing much of anything during his time in Calgary. Their biggest gains were one of the best starting goalies in the entire NHL over recent years, a young top pairing defenceman with elite offensive talent, and the Flames’ own actually lovable, teenaged version of Corey Perry. They lost on a prospect and more than made up for it.
How has the team changed?
Roster improvement is one thing. After all, the 2015-16 season was Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik’s first as Flames. They were easily upgrades, but the Flames still missed the playoffs. The results were not there.
The numbers indicate that the Flames have experienced a lot of growth since they last made the playoffs. All numbers are 5v5, via Corsica (aside from, of course, special team-specific numbers):
The only area in which the Flames have actively taken a step backwards is in penalty differential. Everywhere else, they’ve improved – and in most cases, it’s been a linear progression. Their shot attempts have gone up from year to year, as have their actual shots and scoring chances. They aren’t quite there yet – they’re still under 50% in scoring chances for – but there’s clear evidence to indicate they’re getting there.
Where the 2015-16 season really took a dip is in their other percentages deserting them. Their goals dropped as their PDO fell, and both special teams suffered greatly – particularly the penalty kill. All of these numbers have rebounded this season which, combined with a team that’s actually creating and earning their chances now, makes for a team that can pose a legitimate threat. Probably not a consistent one, but in all likelihood not a team an opponent the caliber of, say, Anaheim will be able to walk all over.
The Flames are doing well now, and their numbers are mostly in line with one another. If they can add a few more pieces to their lineup and fix their penalty differential, this team will probably make the playoffs next season – and the season after, and so forth.
They jumped up over 6% in shot attempts in between playoff berths while their goals for percentage is roughly the same. They aren’t flukes anymore. Without a doubt, they deserve to be in the dance this season.