A team, perhaps outperforming expectations, with a penchant for dramatically coming back in the third period, all the while led by a defenceman over 30 years old playing at the top of his game? No, seriously – what season is this?
The 2018-19 season has drawn its fair share of comparisons to 2014-15: a year in which the Flames shocked the league by making the postseason, in part due to a handful of third period comeback wins. This season, the Flames may shock the league by hanging around the top of the standings (at least they are two months into the season), plus they’re doing that whole comeback win thing again. But this year is definitely better – so let’s run down how.
Remember when Giordano went down in late February 2015, and the Flames responded by dressing a top defence pairing of Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman? Counter that to the Flames dressing TJ Brodie with Rasmus Andersson when Giordano missed two games due to suspension. Yeah, the latter involves a rookie, but he’s a talented rookie. And it’s not as though any other pairings suffered for it – the Flames didn’t have to elevate Deryk Engelland to the top four like they did when Giordano went down in 2015, they simply kept their Noah Hanifin and Travis Hamonic pairing intact.
The Flames are currently missing two of their starting six defencemen from the season, and haven’t missed a beat. Two rookies in Andersson and Oliver Kylington stepped right in, playing third pairing minutes together, and they’ve made positive impacts on games already. It’s a far cry from the days of Ladislav Smid, Raphael Diaz, and David Schlemko: the only weak links to be found in the Flames’ defence are those of the occasional rookie mistake, and even those aren’t particularly common.
In 2015, Mikael Backlund’s primary linemate was Lance Bouma, living up a shooting percentage-inflated season; nowadays, he gets Matthew Tkachuk, a sixth overall pick who just keeps getting better. The Flames really only had three high-producing forwards in 2015 – their top line, featuring Jiri Hudler – but they’re at least up to four these days.
It remains to be seen if the likes of Michael Frolik, James Neal, Sam Bennett, Mark Jankowski, and Derek Ryan can provide more depth scoring than David Jones, Joe Colborne, Josh Jooris, Mason Raymond, and Paul Byron did, though – but the top guys have continued performing at such a solid clip, and Elias Lindholm is probably a better bet to live up to the remainder of his contract than Hudler was.
Not to mention the natural consequences of a rebuild: the kids will get better after each season.
As a rookie, Gaudreau scored 64 points; presently, he’s on pace for his second straight season of scoring at over a point-per-game clip, with triple digits a possibility. Sean Monahan had his first 30-goal season; he’s already at 20 just 32 games in. Backlund was only just starting to be a 0.5 point-per-game player; he’s now in his fifth straight season of exceeding that expectation.
And then there’s, completely inexplicably, that one older defenceman. As a 31-year-old, Giordano scored 48 points in 61 games, on pace for 65 points over a full 82-game season. As a 35-year-old, he’s already halfway there, with 32 points in just 30 games – the man time has not only seemingly forgotten to claim, but one completely reinvigorated in this new season. His career high is 56 points; he’s on pace for 85 in an 80-game season, and that’s with a 4.7 shooting percentage – below his career average 7.3%.
Not every Flame still hanging around from the 2014-15 season has gotten better – Sam Bennett has yet to consistently exhibit the potential he showed in the 2015 playoffs, and TJ Brodie had a bit of a slower start as he readjusted to working alongside Giordano – but the most important players have, and by quite a substantial amount.
It’s one thing to have a roster with new and improved players, but that doesn’t always necessarily make for a good team. In 2014-15, the Flames’ inevitable collapse was easy to see coming (though it took far longer than expected, the beneficiaries of just the right matchups) – they were one of the worst corsi teams in the NHL with one of the top shooting percentages. For all of the comeback wins the Flames have had so far in 2018-19, they’ve been earned; the numbers have suggested the win would be inevitable, not the loss.
|5v5 CF%||44.43 (28th)||53.83 (5th)|
|5v5 SH%||8.93 (2nd)||8.12 (18th)|
|5v5 CF% trailing||47.74 (28th)||61.00 (3rd)|
The 2018-19 Flames don’t just tend to control the bulk of shot attempts when on the ice – they kick it into an entirely new gear whenever they’re down, something the 2014-15 Flames couldn’t do.
In 2014-15, the Flames were largely the beneficiaries of good fortunes. That’s not to say that the same isn’t happening in 2018-19 – but it’s more that they’re creating their own fortunes, rather than simply being able to embrace them without the same amount of work and talent put in.
Third period comebacks?
Though the 2018-19 season is young yet, though, there’s one area in which the Flames differ from the 2014-15 Flames for the worse. Through 32 games, the Flames have entered the third period with a deficit 56% of the time. They have a 7-9-2 record to show for it, their 0.389 winning percentage third in the NHL.
In 2014-15, 41% of the Flames’ games saw them start the third period with a deficit. They had a 10-20-4 record, losing those efforts far more than they won (though their 0.294 winning percentage was fourth in the NHL).
This current iteration of the Flames is much better at playing with a deficit – but they’re also just much better at playing in general. Ideally, as the season goes on, they’ll have fewer deficits entering the third, because they’re already down far too late in games far too often. And for all their talent and ability, at some point, the clock is just going to go against them: and though they come away with points half the time, 56% of their games is far too high a percentage to gamble against. A discrepancy of just over seven percentage points between shot attempts in all 5v5 situations compared to when trailing is pretty major, and if that gap closes too much, the Flames could be in trouble.
That may be the only worry really facing this team, though. The 2014-15 Flames were fun, but not particularly great. The 2018-19 Flames are fun – and genuinely look great, with plenty of reason to believe they can keep it up.