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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Flames defensive play under Darryl Sutter is as expected early on

Of the many things said about the Flames over the last five months, one is ringing very true in the early stages of this season: they’re not going to allow much. That statement became true almost immediately upon Darryl Sutter taking over last year, and it doesn’t look like much has changed through three games this season. It’s an encouraging sign for Calgary and shouldn’t be a surprise knowing the track record of this head coach.

Recent returns

In the 30 games Sutter coached last season, the Flames were one of the NHL’s best teams in limiting shots and quality scoring chances. At five-on-five during that stretch, Calgary ranked third overall allowing 20.3 shots against per game. They ranked second in high danger chances against at 6.2 per game (data courtesy Natural Stat Trick).

That trend has carried over into this season, at least through the team’s first three games. So far, the Flames haven’t allowed more than seven high danger (from the slot) chances in a single game and have held the opposition to five in each of their last two outings. It’s early, but it feels like what Calgary accomplished last year under Sutter was the start of something.

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Game HDCA
Oct. 16 at Edmonton 7
Oct. 18 vs. Anaheim 5
Oct. 21 at Detroit 5

Another telling metric is tracking high danger chances against over 60 minutes of five-on-five play, which gives us the HDCA/60 rate. In 30 games under Sutter last season, the Flames led the NHL in that category at 7.67. Very early this year, Calgary’s HDCA/60 ranks second overall at 7.05. It’s still a small sample size, but it’s easier to buy into knowing how on-brand it is for teams coached by Sutter.

The resume

In the 33 combined games since Sutter has stepped back behind the Flames’ bench, the team’s combined HDCA/60 sits at an NHL-best 7.61. That tracks slightly better than what we saw from the Los Angeles Kings in the five full seasons they were coached by Sutter.

Season HDCA/60 NHL rank
2012-2013 8.55 6th
2013-2014 8.82 9th
2014-2015 8.39 6th
2015-2016 8.83 4th
2016-2017 8.54 2nd

In those five campaigns above, the Kings made the playoffs three times, advanced to the final four twice, and won the Stanley Cup once. But while things like offensive finish, special teams, and goaltending fluctuated over that half-decade, there were a few constants including how little Los Angeles gave up at five-on-five.

So why do teams coached by Sutter tend to be so strong defensively? There are a lot of different ways to answer that question. For me, though, it comes down to one tried and true hockey principle: the more you have the puck, the less you give up. Under Sutter, at least by using possession (or Corsi or shot volume), the Kings had it more than anyone else.

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Season CF% NHL rank
2012-2013 56.3 1st
2013-2014 56.8 1st
2014-2015 55.3 1st
2015-2016 56.4 1st
2016-2017 55.0 1st

Since Sutter’s return to the Flames, the story has repeated itself. Calgary’s possession rate sits at 55.2% in 33 total games with Sutter at the helm. That puts them second overall behind only Colorado during the time period in question. It hasn’t instantly led to desired results in the win column, but the hiring of Sutter has definitely made an immediate impact in how the Flames play.

You can see it in games or at practice. Sutter has preached and reinforced a mindset that stresses high volumes of pucks towards the net, hard puck retrieval after the fact, and a heavy backcheck. It’s not like these are new concepts, but Sutter gets his team to execute them at a consistently high level.

Limiting chances and delivering high possession rates are positive things, but they aren’t the only keys to winning on a regular basis. Generating and finishing at the other end, special teams, goaltending, and roster construction all play vital roles, too. But under Sutter, Calgary looks to be building a good foundation and/or identity.

I’m now interested to see how high the Flames can elevate their game beyond a solid ground floor over the next, oh, 79 or more games.