Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The case for firing Glen Gulutzan, Part 3: Defense

The Flames had put together a string of good games while I was putting this series together, and just 10 days ago, were sitting in a playoff position. Picking up just five points in the last six games has left them on the outside looking in. They are in danger of falling out of contention.

The Flames are trending to finish with 94 points, fifth in the Pacific and 11th in the West, three points behind Los Angeles for third in the Pacific, and three points behind St. Louis for the last wildcard spot. Anaheim, and the worst team in the NHL last year, Colorado, are set to finish ahead of the Flames.

We will continue the case for an offseason coaching change by taking a look at some of the underlying statistics and what they can tell us about why the team is struggling to meet expectations. Today, we will focus on defense.

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Dougie Hamilton, Michael Stone, Travis Hamonic, and Mike Smith cost the Flames two first rounders, five seconds, and a fifth when (if) they make the playoffs this season. Brad Treliving has leveraged the future to keep the puck out of the Flames’ net.

The improvements to the defensive core alone in the past 12 months should have made the Flames a better team defensively, and when you add in what Smith has done so far, goals against should be considerably lower than last season.

Why, then, are the Flames on pace to allow 14 more goals against this season compared to last year?

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Evaluating “the process” – Goal differential

I spent half of the last article summarizing the findings of Rob Found’s, “Goal-based Metrics Better Than Shot-based Metrics at Predicting Hockey Success“, explaining why results matter, and statistics are just tools to evaluate what is happening on the ice. Now I will use the tools to evaluate why the Flames are underperforming.

Found determined that the best statistical indicator of team success is goal differential. What does it tell us about this edition of the Flames?

Calgary Flames, goal differential, all strengths (data from Natural Stat Trick)

2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18


Points 97 77 94 94
Rank 16 26 15 17
GF 237 229 222 228
GF Rank 6 10 17 21
GA 213 257 219 232
GA Rank 16 30 14 T14
G Differential 24 -28 3 -4
GD Rank T-8 T-23 15 19
SH% 10.52 9.55 9.29 8.49
SV% .911 .892 .907 .912

Neither of Glen Gulutzan’s two seasons have produced anything near the +24 goal differential of the 2014-15 playoff team. The -4 rating is an indicator of a bubble team that is likely to miss the playoffs, not one that should be looking at home advantage in the first round. At least the Flames are scoring more, so half of the equation has improved.

Last season, the Flames gave up more goals against than the Hartley playoff team, and this season they are on pace to give up more goals against than last year. This is happening despite Smith’s superb play. He is putting up the third best save percentage from a starter in Calgary Flames history. David Rittich was ranking as the best backup in Flames history, until the Boston game last week.

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Calgary Flames, goalie stats, all-time, starters (data from NHL.com)

Rank Season Goalie GP Sv% GAA
1 2003-04 Kiprusoff 38 .933 1.70
2 2005-06 Kiprusoff 74 .923 2.07
3 2017-18 Smith 47 .921 2.53
4 2009-10 Kiprusoff 14 .915 2.68

In the last week, with Smith out of the lineup, the defensive liabilities have been exposed. Not that Rittich has played poorly; he has just not been Smith-like, and the save percentage has suffered, dropping close to the league average of .911.

How bad was the goaltending in 2015-16? Jonas Hiller’s 0.879 is the worst of any goalie in the NHL with more than 25 starts in a season since the 2004 lockout. If the 2015-16 team had the quality of goaltending the Flames have had this season, instead of 257 goals against, the team would have allowed only 210.

Penalty kill

When talking about goal differential, it is just natural to look at special teams. When talking about defense, that means the penalty kill.

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The Flames rank 19th at 79.6%, and in terms of goals given up, are tied for 23rd at 41. They have scored three times shorthanded, tied for 24th. That leaves them at -38 on the penalty kill, 28th. It is scary when the best statistic on a special team is the efficiency and you rank 19th.

As things are not going well, Gulutzan and Paul Jerrard should have taken a good look at what is happening, both tactically, and in deployment. As not much has changed in terms of who kills penalties, and we are now 60 games into the season, maybe the problem with tactics is really just a problem with deployment.

There have been 275 players on the ice for more than 60 minutes killing 4v5 penalties this season in the NHL. In terms of on-ice goals against per 60, Mark Giordano is ranked 229th, Matt Stajan 264th, and. Troy Brouwer 266th.

In goals allowed while on the ice, Stajan ranks 199th, with 15 against, Brouwer 249th with 19 against, and Mark Giordano 273rd, out of 275, with 26 against. In fairness to Giordano, he has played 173:36 on the penalty kill, hence his higher per 60 ranking. Keep in mind that Giordano’s partner, Dougie Hamilton, does not kill penalties on a regular basis, despite the two being considered one of the best pairings in the NHL – but that discussion is for another day.

In terms of the Flames, this is the list of players who have killed at least 10 minutes during the season so far.

Penalty Killer TOI GA/60 GF/60 CA/60
Brouwer 98:36 11.56 0.61 107.10
Stajan 78:30 11.46 0.00 113.89
Giordano 174:52 8.92 1.03 103.62
Bennett 55:15 8.69 0.00 109.68
Hamonic 154:28 7.77 0.78 106.03
Stone 131:46 7.29 0.00 96.53
Hamilton 27:07 6.63 2.21 88.45
Hathaway 39:15 6.11 0.00 79.49
Frolik 108:22 6.09 1.11 104.63
Backlund 138:55 6.05 0.86 104.51
Jankowski 49:51 6.02 0.00 74.62
Brodie 121:48 5.91 0.00 95.57
Monahan 21:24 5.61 0.00 89.72
Lazar 19:15 0.00 0.00 65.45

How Brouwer and Stajan continue to kill penalties is beyond me. They are last on the team, and among the worst in the NHL. They should be on the bench, yet they have the third and fourth most minutes killing penalties among the forwards on the team this season.

There are other options. Curtis Lazar has not been on the ice for a goal against this season on the penalty kill. While 19:15 is a small sample size, so far he has been perfect. And it may not be a fluke: he is best among those on the list with a Corsi Against per 60 of 65.45. Garnet Hathaway and Mark Jankowski, who are starting to be used, have similar GA/60 to Backlund and have better CA/60s. Sean Monahan is more than capable.

Among defensemen, T.J. Brodie is the best based on GA/60, which has to be a surprise to everyone, yet he is only fourth in minutes among the top five defensemen. Hamilton is used even less, but has the best CA/60 and is second in GA/60.

It appears the Flames could improve the penalty kill just by making better decisions in deployment. You can’t even start to look at tactical issues until the right players are on the ice, and that’s on the coaches.

Evaluating “the process” – Shot-based analytics

Calgary Flames, all strengths (data from Natural Stat Trick)

2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18 (proj.)
CF% 46.76 49.07 50.39 51.90
CF% Rank 26 20 12 5
CF 4387 4532 4497 5234
CF Rank 26 17 22 3
CA 4995 4703 4428 4852
CA Rank 26 21 8 20

There is little doubt that CF% has improved under Gulutzan. Bob Hartley’s teams lacked structure and were weak defensively. They also lacked talent.

Two numbers stick out in 2017-18: Corsi For, and Corsi Against. The Flames are on pace to fire 737 more shot attempts at the opposition net. They will also give up 424 more shot attempts.

As goals against seems to be a potential culprit in the Flames’ less than desirable results, the team’s defensive play is a good place to start. We will save the offense for the next article.

Evaluating “the process” – Defence

The projected 425 more shot attempts against will translate into 278 more shots on goal against this season compared to last. Those numbers should raise some eyebrows.

As most of what happens on the ice occurs 5v5, a look at the data is in order. In fairness, we are not comparing apples to apples; shots and goals are up this season. It would unfairly discriminate against Gulutzan and this year’s edition of the Flames if I did not adjust the data to compensate. I will be fair.

To standardize the data, I applied 5v5 league average factors for each category to convert the data to reflect the shot and goal rates in terms of the 2017-18 season. While not perfect, it allows for a more accurate comparison year to year.

Calgary Flames, seasonally adjusted 5v5 defensive rates (data from Natural Stat Trick)

2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18
GA (*proj.) 158 177 149 142*
CA/60 64.88 59.91 54.40 59.25
FA/60 44.40 42.88 40.52 44.89
SA/60 31.02 30.17 28.87 31.63
SCA/60 30.34 28.29 25.89 27.75
HDCA/60 11.24 11.01 9.89 10.38
GA/60 2.40 2.73 2.31 2.25
SCGA/60 1.96 2.42 2.03 1.73
HDGA/60 1.26 1.60 1.33 1.21
SV% .923 .910 .920 .929

Even with adjusting the data to reflect increased shots and goals this season, defensively, the 2017-18 Flames are much worse than last year’s team in every advanced statistic, and worse than the last two Hartley Flames teams in unblocked shots and shots against.

The argument against a weaker defense this season is that goals against are down 5v5, showing an overall improvement. There are two factors that counter this argument: the Flames are on track to play fewer minutes at 5v5 compared to the three previous seasons, and the Flames’ 5v5 goaltending this season has been so good it has hidden the horrendous defense.

The table below compensates for goaltending by standardizing the last three seasons to the level we are getting this year. Time on ice adjusted goals against reflects the goals allowed based on the projected 3785:14 minutes the Flames will play at 5v5 this season.

Calgary Flames, seasonally and goaltending adjusted 5v5 goals against rates (data from Natural Stat Trick)

2014-15 2015-16 2016-17 2017-18
GA 141 135 128 142
GA/60 2.14 2.08 1.99 2.25
SCGA/60 1.84 1.71 1.57 1.73
HDGA/60 1.27 1.26 1.14 1.21
TOI Adjusted GA 135 131 126 142

This table is as close as the numbers can possibly be worked to compare the Flames season-to-season defensively, from the strict view of what the skaters are giving up. Goals against per 60 is the telltale number; scoring chances and high danger chances are just part of the roll up that indicates how goals were scored, not how many. Think of the information this way: this is what the team would be like defensively if the Flames had Smith and Rittich in net during the last four seasons.

The skaters this season are worse defensively than the skaters in the previous three seasons. The 2017-18 Flames would be on track to give up more goals against per 60 than in the last three seasons, and 14 more goals against than last season – except the Flames this year have Smith, and he is the difference. He has provided a season-saving performance to date.

Comparing the first 60 games this season to the last 60 last season

Someone out there is thinking it: maybe Smith and Rittich are putting up great save numbers because of the defence in front of them, not the quantity of the chances? The eye test, shots, scoring chances, and high danger chances per 60 above tell a different story, but let’s be fair here and take a look.

Last article I suggested the minimum expectation for the team should be 104 points, based on the win percentage in the last three-quarters of last season, or the final 61 games. The Flames have now played 60 games this season, so let’s compare this team so far to the last 60 games of last season. I will provide the adjusted 2016-17 numbers to reflect the increase in shots and goals across the league this season.

2016-17 to 2017-18 5v5 defensive comparison (data from Natural Stat Trick)

2016-17 2016-17


Games Last 60 Last 60 First 60
Points 75 75 69
Point % .625 .625 .576
Proj Points 103 103 94
TOI/Game 47:25 47:25 46:03
GA 106 109 104
CA/60 53.31 54.70 59.25
FA/60 39.54 40.64 44.89
SA/60 28.20 29.08 31.63
SCA/60 24.86 25.64 27.75
HDCA/60 9.70 9.80 10.38
GA/60 2.24 2.31 2.25
SCGA/60 1.92 1.96 1.73
HDGA/60 1.18 1.19 1.21
SV% .921 .921 .929

By goal analysis, this season is better, while from a shot perspective, the 2016-17 Flames were superior to the current team. It comes down to whether you believe Smith and Rittich have been more than five goals against better than last season’s tandem of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. As a reference, the difference in save percentage, .929 versus .921, translates into 16 fewer goals against this year.

A second year trend?

As discussed in the first article I posted, Dallas saw a deterioration of all stats in Gulutzan’s second year, with the exception of goals for, despite an improvement in the roster. This appears to be happening here in Calgary. Wins are down, and defensively, the Flames are just plain bad compared to last season, and when compared to the Hartley Flames of 2015-16.

If not for the goaltending…

  • BendingCorners

    Hopefully BT has an analytics staff that sees the same things you do; and his own eyes see the same things the rest of us do.
    The team is playing worse because they are playing a Junior league system; it just doesn’t work in the NHL. In their best games this year the Flames played the way Boston does – with a hard and aggressive forecheck and backcheck, speed, and with nobody standing still. Setting up for “short sure passes” just means setting up for the other team to intercept. If GG won’t learn from his mistakes, then he needs to be replaced.
    Great article SkyDog.

    • Chucky

      Watching the Olympic games next to the NHL it is obvious that there is a deception in perception when it comes to speed. The more space between the players the more reaction time allowed and thus the perception of a slower game.
      This was the take away from the Bruins game on Monday.
      Boston did not need to worry about Calgary stretch passes so they were able to have their defense cheat in the offensive zone. By using a standard setup with their defensemen about 10 feet inside the blueline they effectively reduced the space by 15% (6’ behind the net, 64 feet to blueline, total 70 feet reduced to 60 feet). This reduction of space made the Bruins fore-check appear faster because the distance need to be covered to apply pressure was smaller.
      The Flames play their defence right at the blueline and one forward out near the top of the faceoff circle, the result is that in the 40 to 44 feet between the end boards and the top of the faceoff circle (approx 58%of the offensive zone) the Flames have two men who look slower because they are trying to cover a large area and greater distances.
      You are right that when the Flames play well it looks like they are playing “with a hard and aggressive forecheck and backcheck, speed, and with nobody standing still” but in realitiy a large part of that is because they have abandoned the Gulutzan setup and only look faster. I enjoy being deceived into thinking that he Flames are playing faster because it gets better results.
      Most employers want the workers to accomplish more work with less effort, for some reason this coach wants maximum effort for minimum returns.

  • HAL MacInnis

    Articles like this explain why this season seems to be the most disappointing in a while.

    I can’t imagine Gulutzan having a job after this season, playoffs or not. However, I can imagine the next coach taking this same squad to a higher level next year. I hope we didn’t squander an aging Smith’s best year though.

  • CherryIsSenile

    I think Skylar should write a weekly segment. I have enjoyed your 3 pieces more than any of the regulars on FN as of late. Keep up the great job Skylar.

  • The Doctor

    Deployment of personnel comes up again and again when you look at what’s been lacking this season. I’d be interested to know if that’s entirely on GG’s head or whether others play a part in those decisions.

      • The Doctor

        I didn’t express myself properly there — my point is that, to the extent that BT and others (e.g., Burke) play a part in those personnel deployment decisions, then why are all the guns seemingly being aimed at GG here? To be clear, I have no issues with SD’s analysis. I have my issues with GG too, one of my main ones being Craig Button’s point about a lot of O zone success being won between the dots and the blue paint — and we’re spending too much time around the perimeter.

        • Stu Cazz

          Got it…I think both players and coaches let the organization down this season. Perhaps we assumed the rebuild was over…plenty of player development and changes are still required….