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Photo Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Sustainable hockey and a 200-foot Johnny Gaudreau highlight first quarter takeaways

There are some obvious Calgary Flames observations through the first quarter of the season we can quickly breeze over. They have a lot of shutouts. Goaltending has been bonkers good. Andrew Mangiapane is out of his mind. Darryl Sutter knows what he’s doing. Well, with Calgary at 12-3-5 and on top of the Western Conference, here are a few other takeaways from an outstanding first 20 games.

How they’re playing seems sustainable

I don’t have a crystal ball so I don’t know what’s going to happen in the remaining 62 games. Using the best predictive measures we have at our disposal, though, it feels like the Flames can sustain a lot of what they’ve been doing the rest of the way.

This isn’t the 2014-15 version of the team that rode percentages and third period comebacks to a playoff berth. This isn’t even the 2018-19 group that seemed to close their eyes and score at will for a two or three month span. Instead, Calgary is playing structured and solid five-on-five hockey boosted by elite goaltending. Underlying metrics courtesy Natural Stat Trick.

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CF% NHL Rank xGF% NHL Rank HDCF% NHL Rank
54.0 3rd 53.5 6th 53.2 8th

Through 20 games, the Flames are a top-third team in virtually every important statistical category. They’re top three in possession, they limit chances very effectively, and they’ve generated way more offence than most anticipated.

Sure, they’re not going to post a shutout every third game in perpetuity. But from everything the underlying outputs are telling us, mixed with our own eye test, there are no false flags or red herrings here. This doesn’t look like a team poised to fall off a cliff.

Playing with the lead is fun

Calgary has taken a 1-0 lead in 16 of their 20 games so far and have converted that into a 12-1-3 record. In fact, no team in the NHL has spent more time in the lead than the Flames have this season. They’ve also spent the least time playing from behind. When you combine those two facts, well, it’s a pretty solid recipe for success.

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Leading Trailing Tied
615:23 133:50 466:52

Calgary has played 1214:05 of hockey this year, which means they’ve played with lead 50.7% of the time. That’s crazy. Even harder to wrap your head around is the fact the Flames have trailed for just 11.0% of their season. That’s a large step from last year where they led 34.3% of the time and played from behind 35.2% of their season.

This is the best Johnny Gaudreau we’ve ever seen

Gaudreau has been this team’s offensive catalyst almost from the minute he entered the league in 2014. But for the first time, Gaudreau is performing like a true top line player. What I mean by that is: Gaudreau is a huge part of a line that plays top opposition and isn’t sheltered from defensive responsibility. And they’re excelling.

Along with Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk, Gaudreau is on a line that has outscored the opposition 14-1 at five-on-five. Similarly, that line has out-shot competition 140-98 and they boast a 51-29 edge in high danger chances. They are dominating and Gaudreau’s outputs have followed suit.

CF% xGF% HDCF% OZS%
56.9 58.4 59.4 49.5

Across the board, those numbers are the best of Gaudreau’s career. But it’s the zone start ratio that’s most impressive. Prior to this season, Gaudreau has never been under 50% in offensive starts; in fact, the lowest he’s ever been is 55.1% during 2015-16. Along with Gaudreau’s increased shot frequency, we’re looking at a player who has truly refined his game.

They have two top defence pairings

The arrival of Oliver Kylington as a bona fide top four defenceman has allowed Sutter to roll two pairings in an almost-equal fashion. Kylington’s duo with Chris Tanev has seen even deployment to the pairing of Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson. A quick look at the five-on-five ice time for all four blueliners helps tell the story.

Defenceman TOI/GP
Chris Tanev 16:51
Noah Hanifin 16:38
Rasmus Andersson 16:19
Oliver Kylington 15:49

When there’s only 62 seconds spanning four defensemen, you know things are being rolled out pretty evenly. The two pairings are getting the job done similarly, too, with Kylington and Tanev slightly outperforming Hanifin and Andersson.

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Pairing TOI CF% HDCF% OZS%
Hanifin-Andersson 291:27 54.0 52.5 50.0
Kylington-Tanev 260:37 55.4 65.2 51.9

With Mark Giordano’s departure, the Flames lost their most used defenceman. He saw heavy time at five-on-five while also occupying spots on Calgary’s top power play and penalty kill units. The only way the team was going to absorb that loss was by committee. Well, with how the top pairings have performed, you can say mission accomplished through 20 games.

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