Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

League’s best goaltending among many positives for the Flames at the break

Mike Smith and David Rittich are the NHL’s best goaltending tandem, the Flames are generating offence like a top end team, and most importantly, they’ve won seven straight games. Things are generally trending positively for Calgary as they hit their five-day break, but a few areas still need to be cleaned up with less than half the season remaining.

Promising trends

Goaltending leads the way, as I was stunned to see just how strong the Flames have been relative to the rest of the league. I knew Smith and Rittich were having strong seasons, but perhaps not to this level. When you factor in only their work, and subtract Eddie Lack and Jon Gillies, you get a pretty impressive looking picture.

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Rank Team SV% Rank Team EVSV%
1 Calgary 0.925 1 Tampa Bay 0.938
2 Los Angeles 0.924 2 Philadelphia 0.936
3 Anaheim 0.921 3 Los Angeles 0.934
4 Tampa Bay 0.921 4 Nashville 0.933
5 Nashville 0.919 5 Calgary 0.931

I omitted Lack and Gillies because we’re projecting trends going forward, and neither goalie factors in for the rest of this season. Even with their games accounted for, though, Calgary still ranks seventh overall and fifth at even strength.

Any way you look at it, the Flames have received elite-level goaltending so far this season, and the duo of Smith and Rittich is showing no signs of falling off a cliff. Even if things do drop off a little, Calgary’s goaltending alone should give them a solid chance of securing a playoff berth for a second straight season. Fortunately, things are also trending well in other important areas, too.

The Flames are a top end team at the other end of the ice and have spent more time than not on the attack this season. Calgary ranks as a top five team in both raw shot attempts and attempts per 60 minutes, which bodes well the rest of the way.

Rank Team CF Rank Team CF60
1 Edmonton 2331 1 Chicago 67.4
2 Carolina 2294 2 Calgary 64.2
3 Chicago 2280 3 Carolina 63.8
4 Columbus 2249 4 San Jose 63.7
5 Calgary 2223 5 Edmonton 63.3

Of course, shot attempts and possession are just part of the equation. The other top teams above aren’t what you’d call juggernaut squads, so there’s definitely more to the conversation. Spending time in the offensive zone is great, but if that time isn’t productive, it carries a lot less weight.

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It just so happens the Flames are also one of the NHL’s top teams in generating quality scoring chances. Per Natural Stat Trick, Calgary’s top end zone time correlates nicely with high danger chances, where they also rank near the top.

Rank Team HDCF/60
1 New York Rangers 13.1
2 Edmonton 12.3
3 Montreal 12.2
4 Carolina 12.2
5 Dallas 11.9
6 Toronto 11.9
7 Calgary 11.8
8 Tampa Bay 11.7

The totality of the package here is impressive. The Flames are getting outstanding goaltending while also generating offence at a topflight level. If this was 20 games in I’d be preaching caution with a small sample size, but we’re talking about a team with 45 games under their belt. That’s enough of a body of work to deem these trends likely to continue, barring things like injury and crazy bad luck.

In need of improvement

For Calgary to truly ascend to the NHL’s upper echelon, they’ve got a couple areas to focus on as we approach the stretch drive. As good as their goaltending has been thus far, the Flames probably rely on their duo a little too much, as they probably allow more rubber towards the net than desired.

CA Rank CA/60 Rank HDCA/60 Rank
2032 21st 58.7 16th 10.1 9th

It’s important to point out Calgary certainly hasn’t been bad defensively. Instead, they’re just not as strong as in other areas, as the Flames are a middle of the pack team suppressing shots and shot attempts. Crucially, though, they’ve done a good job in limiting quality chances against, which shows Calgary has defended effectively when in their own zone.

Then there’s the powerplay, which has been a hot mess for the better part of two months. On the bright side, the Flames were able to notch a few powerplay goals heading into the break, so perhaps they’re starting to turn things around. Overall, though, the results have been mediocre at best since late November.

Split GP PP% Rank
Overall 45 18.4 19th
Oct. 4 – Nov. 24 22 22.1 11th
Nov. 25 – Jan. 15 23 14.7 22nd

The splits above correspond to the loss of Kris Versteeg, who went down with a hip injury in the team’s Nov. 24 loss in Dallas. For whatever reason, Versteeg’s absence threw Calgary into disarray on the man advantage, specifically the top unit. Even with high end play at five-on-five, the Flames will continue to be held back from all they can be if the powerplay isn’t permanently rectified.

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Early verdict

I’m feeling mostly positive about this team as we move towards February, because things are looking up. Calgary goes into their break in a Pacific Division playoff spot and riding a well deserved seven-game win streak. As such, the mood around the team is more positive than it has been all season.

Even if they don’t improve in their weaker areas, the Flames should be a playoff team come April. As Pike surmised a couple days ago, 20-16-1 or something similar should get Calgary to 95 points and a playoff spot. The way things are trending, that is very much attainable, if not better, barring a rash of injuries or bad luck.

I’m confident in saying the Flames are a good team through 45 games. Let’s see how good they can be after 82.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    Loving the way the team is coming together. Patience is the watchword with the Flames. No rash, stupid decisions like firings or trades at the first sign of trouble. Just trust and faith that the coaches and players can get it done. Now we’re reaping the benefits of a complete buy-in to what the coaches are selling and it’s working.

    Here’s to a roaring second half.

    Don’t change a thing, Flames.

    • everton fc

      Funny how the calls for GG’s head have quieted down a bit. I’ll admit, I was one of them, though not as aggressive as many here. I always tried to bring up the “Devil’s Advocate” point that last January, we went on quite a roll, which we are doing yet again, and w/better depth, and better goaltending.

      So maybe GG is the right coach for this team? Time will tell…

      • Off the wall

        It’s hard to call for a coaching change after what we enjoyed prior to this break.

        I haven’t changed my mind about GG, he’s not of elite coaching. He’s adequate, like a pair of slippers. Glass slippers like Cinderella.

        Eventually one will fall off and won’t be replaced.

        • HAL MacInnis

          Yup. I hope Brad is looking for a new coach right now. Wheels in motion, kind of stuff. Glen can still fight for his job, but he’s on strike 2, in my books.

        • buts

          This turn around is the leadership in the dressing room and call ups from the farm due to injuries and bad performance from some (jagr). it has nothing to do with GG and his staff

      • Stajanforadirtyboot

        I will stand by what I have said all along. The flames or any team for that matter will never hoist LORD Stanley’s Cup with Glen Gulutzan behind the bench. He will be out coached in the playoffs. I don’t care if if we go 20-0. I personally do not think he is a winner. No bandwagon here.

    • Mickey O

      There are a few of us on here that would argue the exact opposite. They’ve been playing great in the past 15+ games because the team has completely NOT bought in to what the coaches have been selling. They have rebelled against it, just like they did last year when they went on a run.

      The 3rd line especially have been playing more dump and chase; the defenceman are making simple moves of clearing the puck out of the zone when in trouble; the d-men are also jumping up into the play far more often; and there have been more longer stretch passes recently.

      All of the above is the “anti-possession” system. The player’s are back to playing hockey instead of worrying about GG’s beloved possession-at-all-costs system. The PK has been sorted, and the PP might be getting back on track. Goaltending has been excellent. This is a very good team, but recent success has little to do with Gulutzan.

      • cjc

        I don’t think anyone would argue that Gulutzan is a perfect coach. Also, D-men jumping into the play is a very pro-possession strategy.

        The team lived and died by the stretch pass in the Hartley days, and the end result was one playoff year on the strength of high shooting percentage, then a big let down the following year when it didn’t work.

        The fact remains that possession and points % are highly correlated over the long run (i.e. a full 82 games). The top team in the league right now (TB) is also the top possession team. Boston is #2 – hasn’t lost in regulation in 10 straight, and their last OTL came against Dallas, #4 in possession. Of the top 16 possession teams, 11 are in a playoff spot. San Jose will be too, displacing Minnesota once they make up games in hand. The other 4 teams (Carolina, Chicago, Montreal, Edmonton) are all having big goalie issues. Darling didn’t come as billed in Carolina (.895), but despite that they are just 2 points out. Crawford is injured and his replacements have struggled – but Chicago is still on the cusp (3 points out); Price has either been injured or well below career average (.908). Talbot has been even worse in Edmonton (.902).

        Calgary is winning some games where they are outplayed right now, but it was the opposite earlier in the season. That is the way it often works out, and it’s not because anything changed or the players are doing radically different things. However, I’d argue that if the flames go to a dump & chase, stretch pass system, their luck will eventually run out.

        That’s not to say there aren’t things that should be fixed, and Gulutzan does seem to be slow to make adjustments. But he is nowhere near the bottom 5 coaches in this league, and if you fire him the question is who replaces him? Cameron? Huska? Tippett (please no)? Bylsma? Part of the problem is that all coaches have blind spots. Mike Babcock plays Roman Polak on the second pairing for crying out loud!

        • Mickey O

          I’ll actually give props to Gulutzan for improving this year in a couple of departments. One, he’s showing way more emotion on the bench recently (as well as his well orchestrated stick flinging incident) and that rubs off on the players in a positive way.

          Two, he’s finally gone with a more optimal line-up with the players at his disposal. Bart is sitting, Glass gone, Lack gone, and Jagr isn’t expected to be a first line saviour. Brodie has been replaced as the lone d-man on the powerplay, and apart from last game where Gio wasn’t on the ice, the BrouwerPlay is over and done with.

          But how many times did we see players make unwise passes at the start of the year? Many times a defenceman would make a short pass up the boards to a forward when he was still in the zone with traffic all around — because he had it drilled into him to keep possession at all costs. The defenceman throws it into the players skates, it gets turned over, and chaos ensues. That’s the biggest change I see, now the players dump the puck out and actually give it back to the opposition when they get into trouble.

      • Jobu

        Cmon Mickey. You think that if the players decided to ingore their coach that he wouldn’t discipline them? Jobu would rather attribute the win streak to a stronger work ethic, a better lineup, and the new guys finally figuring out the system – all of which you can very likely thank the coach for more than anyone else. There game is still a possession at all costs game. They’re just better at it.

        • wot96

          And better player usage and an injection of youth (speed) because of injury. The only injury that has arguably hurt is frolik, and given recent outcomes perhaps not.

      • cberg

        Although a strong argument can be made in support of most of your points regarding changing style, what we do not know, and likely never will is whether it is all due to player “mutiny” as you suggest, or coaching adaptations? I suspect there is an element of both. In any case I am glad it has happened and the team is playing much better overall than previously. Because it seems obvious that both improvements over the past two seasons happened right after major coach “blow-ups” where the players were publicly challenged (presser/train & stick-throwing), you would assume that its the players fully committing to what the coach was preaching that was the big difference. Regardless, over this season we also have seen clear growth on the part of GG, i.e. line-ups, emotion, line-matching and etc so I would say in the end both sides have adjusted and both are due some credit.

        • Mickey O

          Here’s a couple of other things to ponder. Recently (about 10 games ago), Gulutzan made the comment that, “sometimes it’s okay to punt.” Like to get the puck out of the zone if you are in trouble, even ice it if you have to. Well, that was sort of convenient because the players had visibly been doing that for 5 games prior, so he said it after the fact.

          In the stick throwing incident, he said early on, “who’s f’n in charge here?” You could read that as challenging the vets to set the tone for the call ups (as GG explained later in an interview), or you could take it as face value and wonder if Gulutzan was saying, “who’s in charge here – the players or the coach?”

          • Schmenkley

            But again, and not to defend GG because none of us really know the sequence of events and are instead relegated to pure speculation, but how do we know GG’s “safe to punt” comments weren’t actually communicated internally five games previously, when they actually started?
            Bias is an incredibly powerful influence, and without being there, we have no way to know.

    • Cheeky

      I’m not a fan of GG and don’t have the same faith that a small minority around here do of his coaching. However it appears he has finally decided to adjust and simplify his system and has the right players playing (for the most part). Had he done this from the get go or shown emotion earlier then I may have waved the pom poms for him. Yes it’s a 7 game win streak, but just like when we were losing, let’s see how this all plays out in the end…

    • The Fall

      My favourite, is Smith in a shootout. He shows ZERO respect for the kids. And does that big ‘puff-up’ maneuver when the skater gets to the blue line.

  • The Doctor

    To get shot attempts against down, one thing we need to work on more is defensive zone exits. At certain times, the team does go a bit brain dead on that front, gets inexplicably sloppy and stupid, and we inevitably spend time bogged down in our own end and giving up shots and scoring chances.

  • Cheeky

    If Versteeg is the only reason our PP sucks, then we have real problems. I’m thinking it has more tondo that Cameron can’t adjust and has certain players in the wrong positions (Brouwer on it any time) and teams s have figured out easily how to stop us. Thinking now that we have put Hammy and Gio out on #1 we may get better…

  • BendingCorners

    When the offence is clicking and the goaltender is hot, Corsi doesn’t matter. When the offence goes cold and the goaltending sags a bit, then possession stats matter because only strong defensive play will rescue the game. They’re hot right now so I’m not going to worry about the possession stats until they come back from the break. The next 4 or 5 games will give a good picture of where their heads are at.

    Regarding GG, it’s good to see him showing some emotion behind the bench. He’s playing the 4th line less but that might be a function of his reluctance to give the new guy a lot of minutes. Look for 4th line ice time to increase when Brouwer is back on it. GG adjusts slowly and is overly loyal to the veterans.

    As for changes to the system or players ignoring the system, right now they’re playing with more emotion and looking to move the puck quickly with or without control. The style suits them since that is how the team is built, but it might be a byproduct of playing teams that apply lots of pressure on the forecheck, not a system change. They would still be better off moving the puck with control as long as they can maintain their composure and their intensity. Carrying the puck under pressure is not easy but should be safer than making a bad pass as long as they hang onto the puck. Failing that, dumping it out of the zone is a good enough option, if they keep playing the way they have been.

  • Chiz

    I would suggest that if there were an award for most improved coach, it would go to gg. Not necessarily with regards to systems or tactics, but just in terms of being engaged and passionate. He is not the same robot he used to be. I was absolutely calling for his job earlier on, but he seems like a different dude of late.

    • JusAFlamer

      I think it safe to say that there was a management meeting and GG was warned he was on the hot seat and his job was on the line. Otherwise there no-way you go from zero emotion and engagement for 1.5 years
      to actually getting involved and showing interest (line matching and trying to win NOT just get overtime, etc) in a 2-game span (at start of streak)

      • Jobu

        Jobu was wondering the same. Something lit a fire in him for sure… or… maybe… just maybe… it was his plan all along. Save up the emotion until its was absolutely needed, and get some emotion from his team in the process. If it was, then thats some locker room genius. We’ll never really know though 🙂

        • Danomitee

          To wait 1.5 years to show some emotion is absolutely ridiculous. He did it last year on that train ride to Montreal or whatever, but he didn’t have much come playoff time. Let’s wait and see.

  • Arminius

    Where is the Fire GG crowd and the Janko was a waste crowd? Stand up and be counted…
    There is a reason certain people hold jobs at the NHL level and we do not

    • cjc

      Some people come on these boards to be proven “right”, others come to have a good debate about the sport they love. Nobody needs to do the walk of shame or eat crow if their opinions don’t match up with results, and I’d hate coming to this place if everyone thought the same way. Besides, the season is barely half over, and we hopefully have playoffs to look forward to after that.

    • Chucky

      Still in the fire GG crowd, there has been no acknowledgement that his system is not designed for the team and he continues to overuse Brouwer (18:07 against Carolina).
      The recent success is directly connected to GG’s outburst, the team decided that if he was going to yell at them they would play their own game so now all he is doing is changing lines.
      Anyone that can’t see that the team changed the way they play and forgot about GG’s system is just not paying attention.
      Not using Janko has been a waste for the last year and a half but some people just could not support a Feaster move.

      • Jobu

        Looks like the same system to me. Guess Jobu isn’t paying attention.

        System adjustments and more effort from the players does not equate to a rebellion, and you’d be pretty ignorant if you thought coaches don’t make adjustments over the course of a season. We’re talking about professional athletes, not spoiled children.

        • Chucky

          This is not minor adjustments to the system. Gulutzan’s system is based on puck possession. That eliminates stretch passes and dump and chase. The Flames have pretty much abandoned the “short, sharp passes” coming out of their own end in favour of long passes to forwards in the neutral zone. They have implemented an aggressive forecheck with a very active pinching defense rather than carry in and cycle. Certainly they cycle but the entry is different.
          The higher risk game they are now playing has resulted in giving up more shots and a lot more excitement, certainly more like Hartley than Gulutzan.

    • Burnward

      The team was sucking. It’s obvious that the talent is better than what they were. They were inconsistent. Special teams sucked and they were about two games away from throwing away the season. You can’t trade the team.

      GG was on the block. Now he’s not.

      Sanctimony is fun though.

  • Derzie

    We are at game 45 and just now have a team iced that resembles what we all expected out of training camp. How quick we forget the GG buddies that have taken this long to discard. How it took to game 30-something for him to not be a robot. How long it took to get an injection from Stockton. How long it took to end the Jagr experiment. When evaluating a coach, you need to look at the body of work as a whole. We are winning now but not without extreme growing pains. And this streak will end and then what. Think about that moronic statement that the orange buffoon made about global warming because NYC had a cold snap. Big picture/little picture. Climate/weather. Seasons/streaks. The good news is that change is evident. How we got here, only the team knows that. Someone/something lit a fire under the coach.