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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…

  • 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….

  • 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.

  • Justthateasy

    Your article lays it bare and plain and simple. your penalty-killing stats are incredible and almost unbelievable. This kind of analysis is revolutionary.
    Now we need to be one step ahead in analyzing all potential future coaches. If Glen Gulutzan is repeating exactly what he did in Dallas why are we going through this useless exercise? we have wasted a year and aggravated the fan base.
    That is why we can’t just fire the clown and hope for the best. This next election should be done with extreme care and we need to have knowledge of who will be available. The study must begin in earnest. sSounds like a major full-time job for you Skylar.
    You need to be on somebody’s payroll.
    Maybe we should fire the useless hairy Mr Truc because we will need to save some money now.

  • Joeyhere

    Interesting to see the same downward trends in Calgary under GG as what occurred in Dallas under GG. This disputes the idea that he can grow out of this. After all he has 20 yrs experience almost half of that as an assistant of head coach at the NHL level. Simple truth is Brad T made a mistake in hiring him now Brad has to solve the problem he created

  • 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 GREAT WW

    “Dallas saw a deterioration of all stats in Gulutzan’s second year”

    At least they were smart enough to fire him mid year of his second season…..

    And they may not have given their first round pick away…..


  • rusty_shakleforde

    I think for me the most exciting part of the Hartley days (and previous iterations of the flames) has been our defense. It was a blast watching the tenacity, effort, and pressure that our penalty kill (and defense more generally) had. It would be interesting to see a comparison of our short handed goals by year too. We played a hard forechecking and backchecking game, took it to the other team, and generally out hustled out opponents. This is how Gio plays, and I think it makes sense that he is our captain, as he outworked everyone.

    The look on that man’s face during interviews I think tells a story of a team that is demoralized, feels stuck in a malfunctioning and arthritic system, and sees no recourse for change.

    Hartley had a less talented team, but took them to the playoffs with an excitement about them. I’m not much for basing analysis of sports on math, and don’t think we should count the Hartley playoff run as luck. That’s what good coaching does. It’s the motivation, it’s the effort, it’s the drive and the reason for having that drive. Sounds like Hartley was a dick to players, but I’ve also seen him stand up for players in a way that GG never has.

    GG is getting more and more defensive and shell shocked in interviews, makes the dumbest moves both on ice and off ice, and is simply not a leader, nor can be inspire leadership. If he wants the players to lead the team, fine. But one must stoke the fire before one let’s it take it’s own path. How demoralized does Mony look? Gio? Brodie? Bennett?

    Can we make a petition for some change here or what?

    • Rocket66

      I don’t care if my team wins every night all I ask for is an effort The right coach could have played and pushed the right players to a better spot than we are in now

  • Off the wall

    Loved it Skylar. I appreciate all the effort you put into this.

    The player deployment summary on the PK was very impressive, and certainly fuels the anti- trust sentiments toward GG.

    The way in which you adjusted the metrics to make a standardized ( fair) system was extremely useful and important in forming an unbiased opinion, which makes the data all the more trustworthy. Nice touch.

    It’s great to have a FN member who can simplify all this data, yet provide succinct details to make us aware of the current issues with GG and his ‘process method’. It’s almost overwhelming how much the Flames have regressed this season compared to GG’s first year with the Flames. With better players and goaltending this season, you’d think the data should be favourable. Not the case.

    If this doesn’t make a statement for replacing GG I don’t know what else (should) would convince our management.

    This is top notch stuff. I’m amazed at your abilities. You have a gift, and I’m glad we get the benefit of reading it!

    Thank you so much for these articles, keep up the great work!

  • I should be GM

    Excellent article Skylardog. Good job with the series as it looks like you invested a lot of time and effort.

    You made some excellent points. I really feel like this season is slipping away. At least if the titanic is sinking, wouldn’t a good coach at least try shuffling deck chairs or something to keep it afloat? This coach is terrible at adjusting and changing player deployment. He seems to love Stajan and Brouwer and hopefully these guys cost him his job. Too many players are demoralized and too many points have slipped away. I seriously hope that we somehow end up with Quennville. Then we would see what this team actually is.

  • Honkydonk

    Great article: I don’t want to stop reading and all very good points

    Our coaching staff is evidently terrible at roster adjustments and team assignments.

    I am shocked Stajan is actually playing so many games this season let alone penalty kill and same goes for Brouwer.

    I also cannot understand why on earth Dougie Hamilton has been left on the bench on power play until only a few damn weeks ago.

    A few thoughts myself

    – Mike Smith is a great puck handler but I wonder if this is hurting the team as much as it helps. I would love to see if we can get the numbers behind how many times the opposition enters our zone after Smith bounces the puck off the boards. Other goalies we essentially maintain possession of the puck as we exit the zone whereas with Smith we lose it as he clears the zone and that’s gotta suck for momentum. I feel only time he should move the puck is during a penalty kill.

    – We are losing important face offs especially on both sides of the penalty kill and that again forces you to defend.

    – on the penalty kill our last 30 games weren’t as bad as our first 30 so that does move the numbers a bit. In addition Backlund and Frolik did not start the season well. We lost Engelland this year and he was pretty good at the kill. It has also taken Hamonic a good 45 games to settle in here just by the eye test. It is pretty clear though that positionally we are different and not that aggressive on td kill and it’s hurting us.

    – League wise it has become a faster more mobile game not to mention younger overall and it happened very quickly in the span of a few years. Because the talent is greater as teams are deeper as they are rolling all lines or 3 at least.

    – Our division has become much much better. It even shocked the Oilers this year. Name on truly crappy team beyond Arizona/- in addition the division to our east that includes Dallas has become much better and as these are the two divisions we play most games against it will certainly reflect in the numbers.

    Frankly I’d be surprised if not many teams west and central see similar stats

    • Kevin R

      Good post but not sure I agree with the Smith being a negative. Only time I really see him give the possession is when the our D isn’t in position & they were going to forecheck them into the ice & cough up the puck anyways. I see more times than not a great pass from Smith to one of our D. I think the only negative I would take is they depend a bit too much on Smith moving the puck for them & they don’t get back as hard as they should.

  • AngryMontanaman

    Well written articles with lots of information. Honestly I just can’t stand his face anymore. It angers me muchly so. Man he’s hot great hair though.

  • Kevin R

    Nice job Skylar! Thats a s**t load of work you did. I’m not a big advocate of the stats, I think it is more of a tool for drafting & development but some of these illustrates some pretty amazing shortcomings & has me wondering if the coaches are even tuning into what is happening. Sometimes you can get so deep into the woods you can’t see the trees for the forest. That seems to be whats happening.Sadly, this coach impacted player acquisitions our GM made building that backend. A large price was paid to provide a top 10 blue line to challenge this year. What a kick to the teeth for Treliving if we fall short.

  • Bob's Hockey Stick

    After being blown out in Vegas. There should be enough material for another expose’ on why Coach Gluegun needs shown the door to the unemployment line.

  • ThisBigMouthIsRight

    “The case for firing Glen Gulutzan” = 30-31 After tonight’s Game! Why are the Flames a (-)Bubble Team at this point? Coaching Plain and Simple!

  • With Respect

    Not a GG fan but this is lynch mob mentality when articles have a singular goal to use statistics to make a point to fire somebody. The teams bottom six is putrid, fix that then see what happens. I know I will be skewered for my opinion but coaches seldom get to play a shift.

    • ComeOn

      OK, how about a statistical approach to justify how great he is? Or an eye test? Or outcomes?

      I don’t mind some skepticism regarding stats use, but this is good work. All methods or ways of thinking I’m seeing draw questions around why gully is getting less as the personnel improve.

      I wouldn’t call this a lynch mob, I’d call it a bunch of informed fans seeing what is painfully obvious and patiently waiting for Treliving to do what is equally obvious!

  • ComeOn

    I don’t think this is what you intended to say:

    ‘In fairness to Giordano, he has played 173:36 on the penalty kill, hence his higher per 60 ranking. ‘

    Great work

  • redwhiteblack

    I said it months ago (way before the stick toss) that the talk of GG failing this group would grow louder and that it is an inevitable fact he is gone. Everyone knew he (and the current coaching staff) would continue to be clearly sub par in getting results. He clearly needs to go. Why put up with it?
    It is not good the longer ‘the elephant in the (dressing) room’ is not dealt with.