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How much better are the Flames now than when Darryl Sutter returned?

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Photo credit:Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
7 months ago
The 2020-21 season was, in a word, rough for the Calgary Flames. The team wasn’t all that good and they ended up using three different coaches at various types. But Darryl Sutter was the third of those three coaches, and the changes that he started to implement in the final 30 games of 2020-21 helped the team turn a corner to begin the 2021-22 season.
Let’s dig into just how much better the Flames are now than when Sutter returned to them last March.

Team and systems

Let’s dive in a bit on team-wide and system-specific aspects of the Flames game and how they changed between coaches last season, and from last season to this season. (Unless otherwise noted, stats are via Natural Stat Trick, and 2021-22 stats and ranks are through the Flames’ first 72 games.)
First, some definitions:
  • We’re looking at three proxies for the volume and quantity of chances for and against:
    • xGA/60 and xGA/60 are the 5v5 expected goal for and against rates
    • SCF/60 and SCA/60 are the 5v5 scoring chances for and against rates
    • HDCF/60 and HDCA/60 are the 5v5 high-danger chances for and against rates
  • S% is 5v5 shooting percentage, SV% is 5v5 save percentage, PDO is those two percentages added together
  • xGF/60 (PP) is the team’s expected goals for rate on the power play, while xGA/60 (PK) is the team’s expected goals against rate on the penalty kill
  • We’re looking at three segments: the combined Geoff Ward/Ryan Huska run (26 games), Sutter in 2020-21 (30 games) and Sutter in 2021-22 (72 games). Overall change refers to the change between this season’s metrics and the Ward/Huska run.
2020-21
Ward/Huska
2020-21
Sutter
2021-22
Sutter
Overall
Change
xGF/602.37 (8th)2.35 (9th)2.88 (3rd)+0.51
xGA/602.21 (15th)1.89 (2nd)2.29 (4th)+0.08
SCF/6026.41 (8th)26.64 (9th)32.26 (3rd)+5.85
SCA/6024.97 (18th)21.65 (3rd)24.38 (3rd)-0.59
HDCF/6010.64 (9th)9.90 (14th)12.14 (9th)+1.50
HDCA/6010.10 (16th)7.67 (1st)9.42 (2nd)-0.68
S%7.90 (17th)9.08 (9th)8.34 (16th)+0.44
SV%92.23 (13th)90.80 (26th)92.77 (3rd)+0.54
PDO1.001 (17th)0.999 (16th)1.011 (8th)+0.010
xGF/60 (PP)5.77 (25th)7.24 (7th)8.26 (5th)+2.49
xGA/60 (PK)6.13 (11th)5.87 (9th)5.73 (4th)-0.40
The Sutter Flames are much, much better at generating possession and meaningful scoring chances than the prior incarnation. Much, much better. They’re a decent bit better defensively, too, having really tightened things up upon Sutter’s initial arrival and letting it off the leash a tiny bit during this season. Their shooting and save percentages have seen an uptick, perhaps because they’re generating more dangerous looks offensively than before while reducing the dangerous looks they give up.
The Flames’ power play is significantly more dangerous, while their penalty kill allows fewer expected goals than under Ward. Again, a noticeable, sizable improvement.
Let’s see how the skaters and goaltender who played regularly under the various coaching regimes have seen their impacts changed during each regime.

Forwards

Eight forwards played significant minutes under Sutter and the prior coaching staff.
All stats are per/602020-21
Ward/Huska
2020-21
Sutter
2021-22
Sutter
Overall
Change
Johnny Gaudreau2.67 xGF
2.18 xGA
2.38 xGF
2.17 xGA
3.34 xGF
2.26 xGA
+0.67 xGF
+0.08 xGA
Matthew Tkachuk2.28 xGF
2.28 xGA
2.70 xGF
1.84 xGA
3.41 xGF
2.19 xGA
+1.13 xGF
-0.09 xGA
Elias Lindholm2.22 xGF
2.22 xGA
2.33 xGF
1.96 xGA
3.29 xGF
2.28 xGA
+1.07 xGF
+0.06 xGA
Andrew Mangiapane2.77 xGF
1.97 xGA
2.48 xGF
1.72 xGA
3.16 xGF
2.13 xGA
+0.39 xGF
+0.16 xGA
Mikael Backlund2.91 xGF
1.94 xGA
2.36 xGF
1.99 xGA
2.84 xGF
2.20 xGA
-0.07 xGF
+0.26 xGA
Milan Lucic2.50 xGF
2.19 xGA
2.12 xGF
1.79 xGA
2.32 xGF
2.23 xGA
-0.18 xGF
+0.04 xGA
Sean Monahan2.40 xGF
2.17 xGA
1.95 xGF
2.02 xGA
2.40 xGF
2.27 xGA
0.00 xGF
+0.10 xGA
Dillon Dube1.96 xGF
2.42 xGA
2.41 xGF
1.73 xGA
2.98 xGF
2.50 xGA
+1.02 xGF
+0.08 xGA
As you can see, most of the holdover forwards saw significant offensive improvements. The standouts are Gaudreau, Lindholm, Tkachuk and Dube. The exceptions are Backlund, Lucic and Monahan. Backlund gets tough defensive assignments, which somewhat explains the lack of improvement. Lucic and Monahan have had challenging seasons, though, even with easier assignments. (If you want to make an argument that Backlund’s starting to see his impacts eroded by age: that might also be the case.)
Defensively, the Flames were a fairly good defensive team under Ward and under Sutter they’re about the same, though Backlund and Mangiapane (with tough assignments) are seeing tough assignments but have had defensive impacts worsen more than the team as a whole.

Defencemen

Three defencemen played significant minutes under Sutter and the prior coaching staff.
All stats are per/602020-21
Ward/Huska
2020-21
Sutter
2021-22
Sutter
Overall
Change
Rasmus Andersson2.17 xGF
2.64 xGA
2.23 xGF
2.36 xGA
3.09 xGF
2.39 xGA
+0.92 xGF
-0.25 xGA
Noah Hanifin2.42 xGF
1.89 xGA
2.27 xGF
2.01 xGA
3.10 xGF
2.33 xGA
+0.68 xGF
+0.44 xGA
Chris Tanev2.50 xGF
1.73 xGA
2.34 xGF
1.41 xGA
2.76 xGF
2.13 xGA
+0.26 xGF
+0.40 xGA
Offensively, Andersson and Hanifin have had big improvements under Sutter. Tanev has had a slight improvement, but he was typically used in a shutdown role (and if you look at his defensive impacts, he went from being their best defensive regular to their best defensive regular). Andersson has seen big defensive improvements, too, while Hanifin and Tanev went from being really strong defensively to just being pretty good defensively.

Goalies

Jacob Markstrom was the top goalie under both regimes.
5v52020-21
Ward/Huska
2020-21
Sutter
2021-22
Sutter
Overall
Change
SV%.921.914.931+.010
HD-SV%.827.783.855+.028
MD-SV%.907.903.911+.004
LD-SV%.976.982.981+.005
It’s hard to argue about Markstrom’s play here. He’s good. He’s been better across the board – low, medium and high-danger situations – than he was under the old coaching staff.
There’s a theory that Sutter’s checking style and defensive system is less taxing for goaltenders than Ward’s run-and-gun style. How have the frequency of shots of each type changed?
5v52020-21
Ward/Huska
2020-21
Sutter
2021-22
Sutter
Overall
Change
HD/607.925.877.29-0.63
MD/607.837.097.42-0.41
LD/6013.4911.0011.76-1.73
Markstrom is seeing fewer shots per game in every situation. Across the board. He’s been independently good, but the way the team in front of him has adapted and adjusted has made his life easier (and probably made things more sustainable).
In short: Sutter’s made the team more consistently dangerous and potent offensively at five-on-five, and both sides of special teams have also improved. They’re more or less as leaky defensively than they were under Ward early last season, but the frequency and danger level of the chances they give up has been lessened by a more sustainable checking style. (When they’re bad defensively, the team doesn’t implode or anything.)
Do the numbers match up with what you’ve noticed over the past two seasons? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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