The Calgary Flames should be poised for a better start to their 2017-18 season – and with just a couple of wins and a handful of loser points keeping them from having home ice advantage in the playoffs, that better start could end up making a pretty big difference in the long run. Games in October are worth just as much as games in March, after all.
I addressed a specific reason for optimism in the linked piece above: the Flames won’t have to adjust to Glen Gulutzan as the season starts. This time, the majority of roster players will enter the year knowing exactly what’s expected of them and exactly what their roles are.
There’s a specific subject that wasn’t addressed above, though, and it was one that contributed a fair bit to the Flames’ early season miseries: special teams.
At the quarter mark of the 2016-17 season, the Flames were fifth in their division and near the bottom of the Western Conference. (The Colorado Avalanche were actually ahead of them in the standings then, and we all know how that turned out.) It was a very bad start, and extremely poor special teams played a part in that.
Back then, I determined the Flames had suffered about eight losses due to abhorrent special teams, particularly their powerplay. (Remember when it had a below 10% success rate?) It’s theoretical whether they could have won any of those games even with improved special teams, but even cutting their failures in half results in eight additional points, which would have left them one point shy of home ice advantage in the playoffs.
So yeah – that bad powerplay the Flames started with might have ended up really costing them.
In the end, Calgary resurrected its powerplay, finishing the season with a 20.2% success rate – tied for the 10th best in the NHL. Their penalty kill, which suffered a below 80% clip for some time, too, jumped up to 81.6% – 12th in the NHL. The special teams revitalization ended up playing a big part in the Flames’ turnaround from among the NHL’s worst to the playoffs.
But just as the Flames should expect to get off to a better start this upcoming season because they already know their coach, their special teams shouldn’t struggle nearly as much out of the gate, either.
Here’s just how bad things were to start 2016-17, compared to how good they got:
|First 21 games||8.5||72.7|
|Last 61 games||24.7||85.0|
Those are dramatic improvements in both areas, but especially on the man advantage. And while it’s true 61 games is a much greater sample size than 21, we are focusing on the particularly dismal start the Flames had, and the herculean effort it took to climb out of that (something most teams in the same position were unable to do).
And it’s not as though the final 61 games were all sunshine and roses. There was that dismal stretch in January, there were extended periods of time again in which the Flames couldn’t score a powerplay goal to save their lives – and they still clocked in much improved percentages.
This isn’t to say to expect the Flames to score on 24.7% of their powerplay attempts next season. That number, last season, would be first in the NHL. Ditto for an 85.0% penalty kill, which would be the third best penalty kill over the entire 2016-17 season. Their special teams probably aren’t going to be among the absolute best in the NHL over the course of a full 82 games, and there will almost certainly be duds and games in which poor special teams cost them.
But there’s very little reason to think they’ll put in a performance as bad as they did to start the previous season. Not at even strength, and not when it comes to special teams. Quite simply, they should have, by any reasonable account, grown beyond a disaster period that extensive. The bad stretch to start the 2016-17 season was very bad, but we know why it happened: and after the Flames adapted to their new coaching staff, they got very good. It’s just that in a professional league, you can’t expect to waste away one-fourth of the year and have it not hurt you in some way.
So when the Flames lost maybe an estimated eight points solely due to poor special teams to start the season? Those might be eight points they get in their 2017-18.
By season’s end, it all adds up, and this is just another area to take into account: one in which the Flames should take an overall step forward, and one which should result in a better overall record.