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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

First look: Flames special teams for 2018-19

Editorial note: Mike is back all season to provide stories, analysis, and insight into the underlying factors contributing to the Calgary Flames’ special teams.

A new era is upon us: new coaches, new players, and hopefully sustainable special teams success. Last season, the Flames struggled mightily on the power play (29th – 16.0%) while they clawed their way back up on the penalty kill to seventh in the league (tied with New Jersey and Winnipeg at 81.8%).

The goal was to provide dynamic improvement on the power play, giving the Flames the missing piece to take a team ripe with talent in their prime years to the next level. For Ryan Huska, he was tasked with building on some relative successes achieved under Paul Jerrard, but making the penalty kill even more formidable in terms of aggressiveness.

Focusing on power play zone entries

A fundamental problem for the Flames last season was their shortcoming in entering the zone and setting up. It’s one of the most vital aspects of the power play and through large swaths of last season it felt like the Flames were completely inept at finding seams at the blue line.

It’s only four games into the season, but we do have some data to work with. We’ll focus on their actual in-zone play later on next week (trust me, we’re going to need a lot of time with that).

For now, we’ll be using and resurrecting parts of the work Arik Parnass did prior to joining the Colorado Avalanche. I would strongly recommend you read his work here as it is directly fueling the type of tracking I’m doing this season, and a bulk of the terminology is used in this piece.

The constant commotion on Twitter and in the fanbase has been over whether or not the Flames can move away from the drop pass mentality while moving up ice. It ultimately brings up an important question: are the Flames completely ineffective when utilizing drop pass methods on the power play?

Right now through four games the sample isn’t strong, but it’s essentially neutral:

Drop Pass Type Successful Unsuccessful
Drop Pass Individual 5 4
Drop Pass Wide 0 1
Drop Pass DD 1 0

As Parnass pointed out here, “not all drop entry plays are created equal.” Teams like the Flames can’t solely rely on a one-dimensional approach of drop passing repeatedly to a single player. A reason for Geoff Ward’s hiring was just this: options and creativity.

This brings us to how Johnny Gaudreau is being utilized so far, which showcases a couple facets to Ward’s methodology.

Entry type Success % Times Used
Drop Pass Ind. 50% 6
Dump-in 100% 4
Individual 100% 11
Pass Middle 0% 3
Pass Wide 100% 1

Gaudreau has been the primary puck carrier on 25 of the Flames’ 68 5v4 zone entry attempts. He currently leads the team in this metric and while impressive, it does highlight an important need for others like Matthew Tkachuk (seven zone entry attempts), Sean Monahan (seven), and Elias Lindholm (five) to contribute a little more. The secondary option gives the PP1 unit a little more extra in terms of flexibility if running entries through Gaudreau on a night, or against a particular team isn’t working.

Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with what he can do – be it small spaces with limited room to get by in, or at full speed:

Entry one: Drop pass individual; Entry two: Drop pass individual; Entry three: Individually driven; Entry four: Pass wide (stretch).

In the first entry, after the drop pass from TJ Brodie, Gaudreau is able to pick up speed and catch the Canucks’ penalty killers and gain the zone. From there, setting up the play begins and the Flames eventually, in a prolonged stretch, generate two shots from this entry.

For the second entry, Brodie picks up speed as the initial puck carrier only to drop once the gap between him and the penalty killers is a stick length away to the trailing Gaudreau going at full speed. The seam that’s opened gives the Flames easy access to the offensive zone.

The third entry is an individual effort based off a quick regroup in the neutral zone. Gaudreau’s skill comes into play here, splitting several Nashville defenders, and finding Elias Lindholm for the one-timer. The fourth and final zone entry showcases how the Flames can use effective stretch passing to break the Predators’ formation, creating seams, and then breaking them down quickly in their own zone with three total passes leading to a goal.

The Flames have options and often in the discourse of digesting a game in real time it’s easy to forget the team has deployed a plethora of different attack plans. With that said, here is the success rate of the different entry options seen so far:

  • The easiest, though less preferred way to enter the zone will always be dumping it in. For the Flames this puts an emphasis on races to puck retrieval and then getting into formation. They have the speed and the skill, but it’s not always an ends to a mean.
  • Pass Wide, as a means to shift the flow of play into an opening in the defending team’s penalty kill and allow the puck carrier access to the zone has been fruitful early on (6/6 success rate).
  • Drop pass and the variants versus the others have a lesser success rate currently, but we’ll see how the Flames handles teams who employ volatile forechecks in the neutral zone.

Penalty kill observations and tracking through four games

Unremarkable would be the best way to describe the Flames’ ability in defending the blue line last season at 4v5. Through the 60/82 games I’ve been able to track, the Flames surrendered a controlled zone entry-against 58% of the time. Through the latter half of the season, things improved gradually, but the point remained: giving the attacking team an open-door policy to their power play isn’t going to work out well for you in the end.

It was easily one of the most important opportunities for remediation this season and through four games it’s shown promise as well as some opportunities. Let’s start by evaluating how the Flames have defended entries so far:

Formation Type Controlled Entries-against % Dumped-in Entries-against % Breakup % Times Utilized
Passive 1-3 44.83% 34.48% 20.69% 29
Retreating Box 20% 60% 20% 10
Same-side Press 100% N/A N/A 1

At a nearly 3:1 ratio, the Flames have been turning to the Passive 1-3, a formation which they utilized 53% of the time in my tracking last season. The main observation and takeaway has been how the ‘F1’ is being utilized, specifically are they set up in a passive forechecking role or are they applying pressure alongside the puck carrier to steer them into the rest of the penalty kill.

In the first clip, the Flames set up the forecheck using Austin Czarnik (F1) along with Elias Lindholm (F2), Noah Hanifin (D1), and Dalton Prout (D2). Czarnik’s role is to apply pressure and be used to disrupt the breakout as the rest of the penalty killers hold the line. Czarnik uses his body to obstruct the path of Alex Edler, which causes problems for Bo Horvat breaking out and through the neutral zone.

The usage of F1 here to steer the puck carrier into a less desired path works out well for the Flames as Hanifin’s active stick forces Horvat offside negating the entry attempt.

Similarly in the second clip, Michael Frolik is in the ‘F1′ spot, playing the aggressor and working to disrupt the Blues’ breakout attempt. While minding his gap, keeping with the puck carrier, Frolik keeps with the trailing Blues player as the drop pass occurs. The combination of Hanifin and TJ Brodie break up the entry and the puck is cleared.

In the final clip, Derek Ryan is in the ‘F1’ spot and shadowing Colton Parayko up the ice. Despite the handoff, there’s a misread by Vladimir Tarasenko and Mikael Backlund is able to poke the puck away to end the entry attempt.

This is one area to keep an eye on as the season progresses. If the team as a whole manages to create an environment that isn’t conducive to success for the opposition then they’re set.

Shots per entry through 4GP

Like last season in the penalty kill project, we can evaluate shots per entry and get an idea of what the preferred outcome is if the zone entry is successful versus an entry breakup. We know and can accept that shots will happen, but we can also add another layer of evaluation into the analysis with an expected goals (xG) model. For this season we’ll use the Evolving Wild xG model to evaluate xG per entry along with it being used on defensive zone formations.

Entry Type Shots per entry Unblocked shots per entry Shots attempts per entry xGA per Entry
Controlled 0.33 0.39 0.56 0.50
Dumped in 0.33 0.33 0.50 0.45

As the season progresses we’ll be able to see if the Flames were outperforming the xG model in terms of what is expected versus what transpired, or if the Flames underperformed versus the model. This layer of evaluation will be applied to the 2017-18 tracking data at a later date. The hope is to give a little more analysis to the realm of special teams dissections.

In-zone work and Counterattacking

Not to be forgotten or lost in the conversation is the emphasis on improving in-zone play, specifically setting up in formation and actively working to suppress the opposition’s power play. Last season through the games tracked, the Flames used the Triangle+1/Wedge+1 formation 70.82% of the time while the aggressive variant (Czech Press) was employed just 25.5% of the time.

Like examples I’ve shown in the past and work Charlie O’Connor did back in 2016, it would be recommended that pressure-based tactics should be a priority for the Flames. They have the forward group to be a direct pressure-based team when it comes to trying to suppress power plays, they just need to keep at it for a prolonged period of time. As the league continues to embrace 4F1D units, there are opportunities for pouncing on mistakes and capitalizing.

Fortunately, through the first four games, they’ve gone hard into using a more direct and threatening approach:

Formation Times Deployed Shots-against per formation Unblocked shots-against formation Expected Goals-against Goals-against
Czech Press 19 0.74 0.79 1.61 0
Triangle/Wedge +1 5 0.80 0.80 0.13 1

This falls very much in line with how Bill Peters and then-assistant coach Steve Smith ran the penalty kill for the Carolina Hurricanes. Ryan Stimson of The Athletic has been investigating the Buffalo Sabres’ special teams and will continue to do so this season. He’s drawn attention and the honest question of how much of the Hurricanes’ success was coaching vs. existing talent.

Wrapping things up

Right now, the Flames still have a lot of work ahead of them. Finding sustainable and creative options to enter the zone is a big thing moving forward. The team is deeper at forward – maybe more than they ever have been – and the coaching staff needs to maximize their chances in creating power play goals in order to be competitive in the Western Conference this year.

Conversely, while shorthanded, the Flames need to continue finding suitable means to an end on preventing shot attempts. This comes primarily post-faceoff with a win and clearing it down the ice to prevent – to the best of their abilities – as many zone entry attempts that they can. If ineffective, then it’s a matter of outperforming the opponent by suppressing their in-zone attack.

Moving forward with this work, the next steps are as follows:

  • Adding in more and more nuance to this analysis. I have a lot planned this season for both 5v4 and 4v5 work.
  • Plotting zone entries (for, against), shot attempts (for, against), and other curiosities we can find in-game footage.
  • Additional work on xG by formation, entry type, and exploring regroup mechanics (regrouping in the neutral zone vs. regrouping down the ice).

All xG data Luke and Josh Solberg (Evolving Wild – EvolvingHockey.com) – you can support their work on Patreon too. All tracking data from myself can be found here for the power play tracking and here for penalty kill tracking.

  • Getpucksdeep

    Outstanding break downs. Had to read through that twice! On offense twice at least JG has gotten clobbered carrying the puck over the line and hacked at a few times. I would agree that a few others need to be that carrier whether on that drop back which I’m not sold on or just on the rush with a pass to the side to gain entry. Cool, deep stuff!

  • buts

    On Thursday JH had a step on a D with the puck loose on the half wall on the pp and he let the guy beat him to the puck where it was iced. I’m sorry but if he used his speed he would not have been hit hard. This kind of chicken play on loose picks, giving up will never make him a top player. Board battles for loose pucks have to be better supported. The pp employed once zone entry has taken place is pretty good this year, tho the 1-3-1 gives up a lot of 2 on 1’s it works the best against the pk box.

    • JoelOttosJock

      Disagree. He doesnt have the body structure, weight, or skating style to take unnecessary hits. Why risk an injury to our one true superstar with boat loads of offensive talent to go for a 50 50 puck? Doesnt make sense. Game 7, up by with 1 minute to go..different story.

  • freethe flames

    I had to read this a couple of times before I got a handle on it. For me the question is when we do the dump and defer(wait for Johnny or whoever) where are the other forwards and what are they doing. To often IMO they are waiting at the offensive blueline and not having their feet moving; this is fine when Johnny wins the zone and maintains a clean possession but far to often it results in the puck being stripped off of the puck carrier and an easy clearing. In 4 games the power play has looked both awful and brilliant; so what is the big difference between games. Two things stick out that make the difference between success and failure and they are when it is working guys are moving and the shooters are thinking shot first. Far to often guys in shooting position(especially guys who are good shooters) try and make the perfect pass. This happens both on the PP and 5 on 5.

    As for the PK I like the aggressive style of out manning the PP on the puck but this only works when there is great communication and positioning between the goalie and the defenders away from the puck. It also requires extreme hard work and a combination of quickness and hockey IQ. Generally I have been happier with the PK than with the PP.

  • Off the wall

    I love the breakdown you provided last season Mike.
    It was extremely interesting and provides a lot of insight into the special teams play.

    I’m looking forward to more evaluation, going forward. I must admit that we can’t underestimate the value of special teams in today’s game.
    It alone can mean the difference between winning and losing, as we’re well aware.

    It’s nice to have you back providing all the analysis for us.
    Keep up the great work!

  • Brian McGrattan's Salute

    So, clearly our new coaching staff are more creative than the couple of pylons we had last few years, which is great. On the PP especially, a good PP coach can play chess with the other team and flow of the game.

    What I’m wondering is how they are going to end up configuring the second unit. Clearly they are still tinkering, but I wonder what kind of style they could work with there. If, say, we keep up with the fore check thing, it would be super interesting to see the second unit, for instance, be super aggressive and dump and chase more. It would really throw off the PK units if we really switched it up enough. Plus I think we have some guys who could excel with a different style–maybe even with a standard two defense second PP unit with focus on zone pressure and point shots (but call me old school).

    Anyways, thanks for the analysis and here’s to hoping we diversity our zone entries and strategies!

    • TheBear64

      The 1D system seems to work well for the top line, but the second PP line looks really shaky with only one D out there. I agree that they should go with 2 D’s on the second PP line. Possibly Valimaki and Hanifin with Gio as the sole D on the top line, or switch Hanifin with Gio occasionally if you want different looks on the top PP line. Maybe even toss Brodie into the mix on the 2nd PP line.

  • fumanchu1968

    It’s very simple and you don’t need to be a genius to know that keeping it simple and getting shots on the net is the only way we’ll have a consistent and successful PP this year. We have the talent.

    • Brian McGrattan's Salute

      Yeah, they’ve been saying as much in interviews. I think they has some good looks in preseason, and will be very interested to see how they do!

    • Getpucksdeep

      I suspect its more to do with having a 4th year pro with one rookie in hanafin and Andersson and the having rookie Valimaki with veteran Stone. I was impressed with Valimaki but as a pair the two rookies paired together was a problem.