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Percentages, not performance, dictating Calgary Flames special teams results early this season

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Photo credit:Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Pike
7 months ago
The Calgary Flames have played 12 games of their 2023-24 regular season, meaning we’re about 15% of the way through their schedule. With a decent chunk of the season behind us, let’s take a quick look at the two sides of the Flames’ special teams and how they’re doing thus far – especially compared to last season.
When you look at the underlying numbers, each group’s “true” performance level is being clouded by situational shooting or save percentages.

The power play

In 2022-23, the power play was coached by Kirk Muller and now it’s being coached by Marc Savard. The top unit was fairly set last season, but there’s been a fairly steady churn this season as Savard tries to find a group that can play the fast-moving style he likes – it’s usually Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, Elias Lindholm and a couple other guys. So far, it’s been a mixed bag, with seven power play goals on 42 advantages (and two shorthanded goals against).
In terms of process, the Flames are generating more expected goals per 60 minutes of PP time than they were a season ago – it’s up to 8.55 from 8.04. (All figures are via Natural Stat Trick.) In terms of results, the Flames are scoring less often so far – goals for per 60 minutes are down from 7.06 to 5.73. The culprit? The Flames can’t bury their chances. Team shooting percentage on the power play has dipped from 12.08% in 2022-23 to 10.45% this season.
The Flames are 15th in expected goals per 60 but 23rd in power play conversions because of their percentages. They were a league average group at generating expected goals on the PP, and they remain average a dozen games into Savard’s run.

The penalty kill

In 2022-23, the penalty kill was coached by Ryan Huska and now it’s being coached by Dan Lambert. The top unit has been pretty consistent: Mikael Backlund, Elias Lindholm, and whichever defensive pairing is the top pairing in that particular game. (Failing that, usually Chris Tanev and somebody else.)  They’ve allowed four goals on 40 opposition power plays (and scored two shorthanded goals).
In terms of preventing expected goals against, the Flames are a bottom-third team. They’ve dipped from 6.71 expected goals against per 60 last season to 8.69 this season. In terms of results, they’ve gone from 6.17 goals against per 60 to 3.48. The reason? Their goaltending. Their penalty kill save percentage has jumped to 93.75% from 86.80% last season.
The Flames were a elite defensive team on last year’s PK that were dragged down (somewhat) by average situational goaltending, and they were 5th in penalties killed. This season they’re 3rd in penalties killed, so far, because a below average systemic PK has been boosted by strong situational goaltending.
All-in-all, so far the Flames’ power play isn’t as bad as it seems, and their penalty kill isn’t quite as good as it seems. It’s early days, but both special teams units still have a lot of work to do to get to where they want to be.

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