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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

The Flames’ individual breakout seasons are (mostly) sustainable

Friends, in our travels throughout the city, we’re hearing two things from fans of the Calgary Flames. The first is excitement about the possibility of a lengthy playoff run. The second is a general level of gnawing anxiety: the fanbase seems to know that the team is good, but they’re worried that the good times are unsustainable and that the proverbial Charlie Brown/football moment will soon be nigh.

We dove into the individual results for the team’s key regulars and the good news is this: most of their breakout offensive seasons are driven by process, not puck luck.

Getting into the theory of things

In the analytics community, one term that’s often thrown about is “sustainable.” As in: are a team’s success or struggles representative of how we should expect their results to be.

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From an offensive standpoint, if a team is generating a high quantity and high quality of chances and not scoring, their struggles are unsustainable – if they keep doing what they’re doing, their numbers will bounce back. Similarly, if a team scores a ton but does so off low quantity shots or a low quantity of shots, you wouldn’t expect that to continue, would you?

Let’s dive into the Flames’ key players production at five-on-five from that perspective. (Unless otherwise noted, all stats cited are from the fine people at Natural Stat Trick and are all five-on-five.)

Shots per 60 minutes reflect shot volume. Individual expected goals per 60 (iXG/60) are a reflection of shot frequency and danger level.

Forwards

Johnny Gaudreau has 8.41 shots per 60 minutes, which is (a) above his career average and (b) roughly in line with his strong performances in 2018-19 and 2019-20 – he’s at his best when he’s a volume shooter. His shooting percentage at 15.43%, which is higher than his career average but down a tad from the 16.42% he posted last season. Even if his percentages normalize (e.g., drop slightly) a bit next season (or even during this year’s playoffs), the volume approach will make up for it and he should still be productive. His iXG/60 is at a career high, a product of volume shooting and a higher proportion of high-danger shots, and he’s posting career-best possession numbers.

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Elias Lindholm has 9.02 shots per 60 minutes, also a career high. His shooting percentage is 14.46%, which seems high but is very much in line with the 12-16% he’s had in the three prior seasons since joining the Flames – this may just be what he is when he’s wearing a Flames sweater, so his percentages likely won’t drop too much from his level. His iXG/60 is at a career high level, a product of volume and higher-danger shooting than in prior seasons and he’s posting career-best possession numbers.

Matthew Tkachuk has 8.71 shots per 60 minutes, also a career high. His shooting percentage is 15.05%, a fair bit above his career average (by about 5% or so), so it seems likely to normalize at a lower level over time. That said, like his linemates his iXG/60 is at a career high because of (a) volume, (b) high danger shots and is supported by (c) career best possession metrics.

Andrew Mangiapane has 8.23 shots per 60 minutes, again, a career high. His shooting percentage is an impressive 17.42%, the best among the team’s high-scoring forwards. It’s above his career average, but actually down slightly from last season, and he’s early enough in his career that it’s hard to say where his “normal” should be. Like the others, his iXG/60 is a career best, as are his possession numbers.

Blake Coleman has an impressive 11.8 shots per 60 minutes, close to a career high. His shooting percentage is 7.69%, a little bit below his career average. His iXG/60 is slightly above a career high, and his possession numbers are career highs.

Dillon Dube has 8.33 shots per 60 minutes, a career high. His shooting percentage is 11.21%, slightly below last season’s 12.68% (and like Mangiapane, it’s hard to figure out where his “level” is since his role keeps evolving within the team year-to-year). He’s enjoying career best iXG/60 and possession numbers.

Mikael Backlund‘s 8.91 shots per 60 minutes is in line with his career numbers. His shooting percentage is 6.54%, more or less in line with the average he’s seen over the past few seasons. His iXG/60 is about where it usually is, and his possession numbers are a career best. Backlund is basically playing the way Backlund usually is, and you could argue that the rest of the team is becoming more Backlund-y – in terms of higher shot volumes, though his teammates are getting more consistently dangerous chances and burying them more often.

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Similar to Backlund, Tyler Toffoli was a shot volume guy before and he remains a shot volume guy, with his per 60 volume roughly in line with how he always played. His shooting percentage was a low 3.23% in Montreal and has progressed to 6.25% in Calgary, but both are below his usual career figures. His iX60/60 is also slgihtly below career averages. His possession numbers are roughly in line with the other seasons in his career, perhaps a little bit lower than what he usually does. It would be a stretch to say that Toffoli is struggling, but he’s getting lass dangerous chances than he’s gotten in the rest of his career (and burying them less often, too). But in terms of volume and possession, he’s close to where he usually is.

Calle Jarnkrok has only played 14 games for the Flames and has scored zero goals, but his shot volume is in line with his career average and his iXG/60 is about where it usually is. The amount and quality of chances he’s getting suggests that he’s due for the dam to burst… eventually. His possession numbers so far with Calgary are a career best.

Defencemen

Noah Hanifin‘s 6.79 shots per 60 minutes is a career high. His shooting percentage and his iXG/60 are right around his career average, while his possession numbers are a career high.

Rasmus Andersson‘s 4.10 shots per 60 minutes is a career high. His shooting percentage is slightly below his career average, while his iXG/60 is right at his career average. His possession numbers are a career high.

Chris Tanev has had roughly the same shots per 60 minutes over the past two seasons, which have been career highs. His shooting percentage is spiking this year, but it’s (a) in line with prior career highs and (b) historically his shooting percentage spikes up every three or four seasons. His iXG60 is close to a career high – he’s had similarly high figures during past spikes – while his possession stats are a career high.

Oliver Kylington is in his first year as an NHL regular, so everything is a career high for him.

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Erik Gudbranson‘s 6.14 shots per 60 minutes are a career high. His shooting percentage is above his career average (but not quite a high), his iXG/60 is a career high, while he’s experiencing career best possession numbers.

Nikita Zadorov‘s 5.25 shots per 60 minutes are a career high. His shooting percentage is about his career average, and slightly below the average he’s seen over the past four or five seasons. His iXG/60 is close to a career high, and his possession metrics are a career best.

Long story short

We’ve discussed in the past, and you’ve probably seen with your eyes during games, that the Flames under Darryl Sutter have really focused on their attention to detail in their checking and puck possession. That means the Flames have the puck more than they have before – and that’s reflected in basically everybody but Toffoli or Backlund seeing career-highs in possession metrics – and having the puck more leads to high shot volumes.

The uptick for most players in terms of individual expected goals and shooting percentage is, itself, also a product of their possession game. The Flames have the puck more often, which in theory allows them to wear down the opposition, get more dangerous scoring chances more frequently, and bury those chances. The Flames’ individual players are experiencing shooting percentage increases, but most of them are within spitting distance of their usual career numbers and the shots they’re getting are in dangerous areas.

It’s not like they’re scoring a ton of goals from 60 feet from the net; the chances the Flames are getting are from areas, to steal a phrase from their coach, where goals are scored in the playoffs. Their checking and puck possession are providing a platform for their attacking, and their attacks are way more dangerous than in previous years, allowing them to score much more frequently than in previous seasons.

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In short: if the Flames keep playing the way they’ve been playing for the past 79 games, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to keep getting high shot volumes, dangerous scoring chances, and goals.

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