We’re about an eigth of the way through the season and the picture is still pretty blurry, though a few things are starting to come into focus. The main thing being the fact Calgary probably isn’t bad enough to finish first in the Connor McDavid race. I’ll talk about that and Hartley’s weird experiments, Sean Monahan’s step forward, Mikael Backlund’s usage and Johnny Gaudreau’s development…
– The Flames won’t finish last because nobody is going to catch the Buffalo Sabres, who are awful on a near unprecedented scale. Right now they have a CF% of 36.7, good for dead last in the league. The Flames are third last in the NHL at 44.0%, nearly 10 points higher than the Sabres. To put that in perspective, the Boston Bruins are at about 53.4% currently (7th in the league); meaning the Bruins are to the Flames as the Flames are to the Sabres. Which is why Buffalo mustered just 10 shots against the Maple Leafs the other day. 
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– If anything, those numbers might undersell how bad the Sabres have been so far because they’ve played a lot of their season while trailing (while the Flames have not). This means score effects may be skewing their possession numbers upwards! So unless the Flames lose Giordano, Brodie, Russell, Backlund, Monahan and Hudler too injury in one fell swoop, Buffalo will win the race to the bottom by a couple furlongs. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee them Connor McDavid in June given the lottery rule, so it would be hilarious if the Sabres organization was rewarded for their historic tank job with 3rd overall.
– As for the Flames, their record still sort of flatters them. With the exception of the recent game against the Canadiens, Calgary has been the recipient of better than average luck this year. Their PDO currently sits at 103.5 (4th highest in the league), due mostly to some incredible even strength goaltending (95.06%). As much as we expected an improvement in puck stopping this year with the arrival of Hiller, there’s no chance that’s going to continue.
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– In terms of specifics, there’s been some interesting experiments conducted by Bob Hartley so far. His forward usage has varied quite drastically from one game to the next recently, particularly when it comes to picking a hard match-up trio. The blueline sorted itself out quickly given the personnel available, but Hartley can’t seem to decide what to do with the Flames top-9.
This was particularly evident in the Tampa Bay game, where Hartley pursued a Colborne vs Stamkos (!) match-up on home ice. That’s a fairly baffling coaching choice given what we know about both players, but it’s reasonable when you assume Calgary is testing out its various young assets to see what roles they are best suited for. Colborne has the worst relative possession rate of any regular Flames forward so far this year and has bounced around the line-up (from scoring center, to shut-down center, to winger), so the experimentation continues.
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– Further strangeness occured against the Habs when Hartley put three defenders out for a Flames 5on3 PP. I’ll give the Flames points for being unconventional, but that’s a fairly ridiculous strategy – even if you grant the club doesn’t have a surfeit of offensive talent at forward. The optimal play on a 5on3 three is forcing pucks in close and through seams in order to crush the defensive triangle and take close in shots. A wide umbrella of defenders taking shots from the point isn’t a ticket to the promised land (unless you assume Dennis Wideman is going to continue score on 25% of his shots).  
– Also strange – Hartley’s determined refusal to play Mikael Backlund on the PP the last few games. Backlund hasn’t had the greatest start to the season, but he was also 4th on the Flames in scoring last year and third in goals (while playing the toughest minutes amongst Flames forwards).
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Backund’s not the most natural finisher, but he’s also far from the worst offensive option on the team. In the game against Montreal, despite having 7 PP’s and two injured forwards (Stajan and Colborne), Backlund recieved just 30 seconds of time with the extra man. The only forwards with less than that were Lance Bouma and Josh Jooris – even Brandon Bollig (who has less points in his career than Backlund had last year), got 30 seconds.
In fact, during a rash of PP’s in the third period after Matt Stajan left the game, Hartley chose to move Paul Byron to center between Gaudreau and Jones for the 2nd unit PP rather than have Backlund on the ice. That was eyebrow raising.
– I’m okay with Hartley considering Backlund a 2nd PP unit guy at best when the roster is healthy. As mentioned, he’s not the world’s best finisher. Still, he isn’t exactly Tim Jackman either. It would be interesting to hear Hartley’s thinking on the matter, especially since he was happy playing Backlund heavily in all situations by the end of the year last season. 
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– Hartley also isn’t matching Backlund against the other team’s best players right now, chooising instead to stick him with own-zone faceoffs (sub-40% zone start ratio currently) and the dreadful third defense pairing of Smid and Engelland. This is surprising because the Flames were so dominant last year with Brodie, Backlund and Giordano on the ice at even strength. For right now, Backlund is stuck with a weird middle rotation defensive role, except without the hard match-up requirement.
– Combined, the two things suggest that Hartley is moving other pieces around Backlund for experimentation purposes or Backlund isn’t 100% health-wise. 
– Let’s move on to Sean Monahan, who seems to have taken a step forward this season. Most people are worried about a sophomore slump since he’s only managed 4 points so far, but the good news is his underlying numbers have all improved – his per game shot rate is up to 2.63 from 1.87 and he has one of the best relative possession rates on the team. Hartley is still giving Monahan the high ground (54% zone start, highest on the team), but at least the kid isn’t getting dominated in those circumstances anymore. The points may not come as easy as they did last year thanks to lady luck evening out, but the early returns suggest he’s a better overall player.
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– Finally there’s Johhny Gaudreau. The tiny rookie was fairly tentative to start the season and spent a lot of time on the perimeter of the play, outside of one or two flashes of skill per game. Nevertheless, he has shown steady improvment during his brief NHL apprenticeship, culminating in his recent dominant six shot performance against Montreal. Even though he could have had three or four points with a few different bounces against the Habs, it was still clear Gaudreau isn’t entirely comfortable – there were plays which he would have finished with authority in college where he double-clutched or fanned on. 
That said, he seems to be finding the range a little better each and every game. Once he starts figuring out how to get his shot through in the dangerous areas of the ice, he’s going to start doing some real damage. Given his rate of improvement through the early going, that evolution will probably happen at some point this year.
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– Related: Don’t forget to pick up your Gaudfather shirt (back for a limited time) and to enter the Gaudreau photoshop/shirt design contest. 
– Finally, Rob Vollman is hosting another Alberta analytics conference, this time in Calgary at the Global Business Centre on November 1. More details here for those who are interested.