Photo Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams units still face some big challenges

Through the first half of the season, the Calgary Flames have been a weirdly inconsistent team.

For an illustration of what we mean by “inconsistent,” we dug into the team’s special teams progress and processes this season. The aim of power plays is to score goals and of penalty kills is to prevent them – those are the results, but the processes are just as important. So we dug into the scoring chances that the Flames’ special teams units are producing or preventing.

The numbers are fairly mixed.

Season at a glance

Scoring chances per 60, rolling five-game average:

The above graphic depicts Scoring Chances Generated Per 60 Minutes by the power play (blue line) and Scoring Chances Allowed Per 60 Minutes by the penalty kill (orange line). If everything’s going well, the blue line should be above the orange line.

The power play started off slowly, had a nice spike in mid-November – ironically, after the 8-2 shellacking from Detroit – and has had another hot streak more recently, starting around mid-December.

The penalty kill started off well, but basically fell off the rails after the first couple weeks. It’s only recently, again around mid-December, started to rein in the scoring chances it’s been allowing all season.

Compared to the rest of the league, the power play is ninth in chance generation while the penalty kill is 26th in chance suppression.

Power play units

The Flames have generally relied upon two main power play groups this season, though they made some significant changes to those units around the time that Kris Versteeg went out with his injury and then a few more tweaks when Michael Frolik was injured. Though Frolik wasn’t a steady PP body, he was one of several options that Dave Cameron and Glen Gulutzan have rotated in from time to time.

Unit 1: Sean Monahan – Johnny Gaudreau – Kris Versteeg – Micheal Ferland/Troy Brouwer – T.J. Brodie [92.5 SCF60 with Ferland, 81.5 SCF60 with Brouwer]
Unit 2: Mikael Backlund – Matthew Tkachuk – Sam Bennett/Michael Frolik – Mark Giordano – Dougie Hamilton [48.8 SCF60 with Bennett, 30.8 SCF60 with Frolik]

The first unit was better with Ferland, but Brouwer was used for net-front presence and to have a second right shot on the ice. Bennett was usually used as the net-front presence on the second unit.

Jaromir Jagr occasionally subbed into both units (jumping in usually for Ferland/Brouwer or Bennett/Frolik), but he didn’t play a ton of consistent minutes on either unit.

The injuries to Versteeg and Frolik removed a couple options from the power play mix, but they also basically forced Gulutzan and Cameron to think a bit outside the box.

New Unit 1: Sean Monahan – Johnny Gaudreau – Mikael Backlund – Matthew Tkachuk – Mark Giordano [69.8 SCF60]
New Unit 2: Mark Jankowski – Sam Bennett – Micheal Ferland – T.J. Brodie – Dougie Hamilton [38.4 SCF60]

The Flames’ power play is definitely better with Versteeg, but given the remaining players available it seems that the coaching staff is doing a decent job throwing together two units that can generate some chances.

Penalty kill units

The penalty kill has been a bit wonky because the units have varied a lot despite being more or less set in stone. Prior to Michael Frolik’s injury, the Flames operated with two main units (each with the same general variation) and a rolling third pair of forwards.

Unit 1: Mikael Backlund – Michael Frolik – Mark Giordano – Travis Hamonic/Michael Stone [69.0 SCA60 with Hamonic, 70.8 SCA60 with Stone]
Unit 2: Matt Stajan – Troy Brouwer – T.J. Brodie – Michael Stone/Travis Hamonic [83.0 SCA60 with Stone, 52.5 SCA60 with Hamonic]

Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett served as a third forward pairing, as well. The placement of Stone and Hamonic has varied throughout the year. Primarily, it seems that whichever of them was next up in the rotation at the time the penalty was taken was put out with Giordano. That said, sometimes either player was double-shifted, so it seems that their usage is very context-dependent. The results of each player isn’t context-dependent: both units are better with Hamonic on the ice.

Frolik’s injury caused only minor variations, but the big impact seems to be – like with the power play – incorporating new faces into the groupings.

New Unit 1: Mikael Backlund – Troy Brouwer – Mark Giordano – Travis Hamonic [50.7 SCA60]
New Unit 2: Mark Jankowski – Garnet Hathaway – T.J. Brodie – Michael Stone [39.8 SCA60]

So far, the variation in defensemen seems to have ended and both units are used fairly consistently. If you’re looking at the numbers, you’ll notice one interesting thing: it’s a small sample size, but both units are an improvement on the previous penalty kill groupings in terms of suppressing scoring chances.

A thought on player usage

Four players are used on both sides of special teams lately: Backlund, Giordano, Brodie and Jankowski. That’s kind of remarkable considering that Jankowski began the season in the minors.

Presuming the “usual” lineup, three regulars don’t play on either side of special teams: Curtis Lazar, Brett Kulak and Andrew Mangiapane. Everybody else plays in the top two units of either the power play or penalty kill.

Working around some big absences

It’ll be very interesting to see what adjustments the Flames make in February when Frolik returns, given the results we’ve seen from the penalty kill in his absence – my guess is Brouwer and Stajan settle in as the third pairing and Frolik returns to his old spot with Backlund.

On the power play side, the team’s plodding along without Versteeg but the numbers – whether scoring chances or goals – and the vaunted eye test both suggest that their man advantage play is way better with him in the lineup. With Versteeg’s injury decidedly more long-term than Frolik’s, the challenge will be for the coaching staff and players to figure out a way to get more out of the power play on a consistent basis.

  • freethe flames

    Once Frolik is back in the grove of things there can be some interesting developments on the PK; for example he and Backs with Gio/Hamonic can play one type of system while a Janko/Bennett with Stone and Brodie could play a more aggressive system. Then factor in Hathaway as an option; I could see he and Lazar being a PK pairing because of there speed.

    On the PP I still think they need to rethink the units; I would personally go with the first line and the Hamilton Gio pairing as a unit and then go with Tkachuk, Janko, Bennett as my forward group and have TJ and Stone with his heavy shot as the second unit; yup no Backs on my PP. As for Mangiapane I think in time he will play on the PP and could also be on the PK like Byron used to be but first he needs to earn GG’s trust. Also you see no Stajan or Brouwer on either units; quite frankly when the Flames get healthy I only see on of them playing at a time and maybe some evenings them both being healthy scratches.

    I would love to see a plan where either Lazar or Hrivik be given an extended look as the 4th line center; we need to know what we have there before the TDL. This is not a knock on Stajan’s recent play as he seems to have been better playing with the kids. We need to be clear that there is no one on the Heat who is even an NHL tweener at the center ice position.

    • freethe flames

      I struggled with whether or not to keep him there instead of Ferland and would be okay with that as a switch on my idea but I just see how the first line has so much chemistry; also it would prevent GG from to much line juggling. So say we start with unit 1 and it doesn’t score and unit 2 doesn’t score depending on where the next face off is you can bang put the Monny line back on the ice you may catch the other team tired. If it’s a defensive draw you have both Backs and Frolik to be in that zone with like Hathaway who is defensively dependable for one shift. To often after a pp I see GG juggling dog breakfasts lines.

  • Jumping Jack Flash

    It think Tkachuk shows better hands in tight. He has more versatility as a net front presence. He can take the puck and drive from the side of the net, he can deflect pucks as well as any, and he will try the through the legs pass across the crease to an open player.

    • freethe flames

      So let’s say we go with Johnny/Monny/Tkachuk/Gio/Hamilton and then Bennett/Janko/Ferland/Stone/TJ. That leaves a now rested Tkachuk to go on the ice with Backs and Frolik(with a rested Gio/Hamilton) no matter where on the ice followed by a now rested first unit(with a rested TJ/Hamonic or Kulak/Stone unit) and then back to rolling the lines.

    • BringtheFire 2.0

      I think he’s more of a behind-the-net presence. He sets up like it’s his office back there and it’s incredibly hard to get the puck from him. Really produces offense.

  • Trevy

    Part of the problem with our PP is we don’t have that one defenseman on the point that can unleash a shot, aside from maybe Gio. Brodie always looks for the pass and Hamilton always with the wrister. It’s become too predictable. You watch some other top teams PP’s and they always have that dman blasting from the point and the forwards going in for rebounds. Maybe start playing Stone at the point more, it may just work and what do you got to lose. It might actually increase his trade value

  • BendingCorners

    If it was my decision I’d experiment with using Ferland instead of Brouwer on the PK1 unit but I wouldn’t put Frolik back on the PK – the TOI isn’t provided in the article and neither is the configuration (3F2D vs. 4F1D) of the opposing PP, but Frolik has not looked good on special teams this year.
    The PP is till struggling, some of that is likely the system they play; more movement and fewer drop-to-Johnny zone entries would probably help. In terms of personnel, mixing and matching between the first two lines hasn’t helped. It might be more productive to put the top line out with Brodie and Hamilton (who seem to work well together), and then put the second line out on PP2 along with Bennett and Gio. A 4F1D unit could give more trouble to the opposing PK. I’d experiment with replacing Brouwer on PP2 – with Frolik when he’s back or with almost anybody else until then. Brouwer hasn’t looked great but I’m not sure Jankowski has either; this could be a case of being one quality forward short, and once again, Frolik has not looked great on the PP this year. It may be that with Versteeg and Jagr both gone the PP will suffer until BT finds a RHS replacement.