What should we make of the Calgary Flames?

In a recent podcast between myself and Matthew Coller we briefly discussed the three teams who we were sure would engage in a season long dog fight to position themselves favorably for the 2015 draft lottery sweepstakes. I won’t lie. I was convinced that these two teams were the bottom rung of the NHL ladder, talent-wise. One would emerge in 2015-16 with Connor McDavid and another would come away with the consolation prize of Jack Eichel. I named those teams as the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes and the Calgary Flames, and Matt could not find a good reason to disagree with that assessment.

12 days into the season, two of those teams are doing a great job at living down to expectations; The Buffalo Sabres have two points in six games, ranking 29th both in goals for and goals against. Further analysis would be futile and depressing. In spite of Brian Gionta’s hopes, dreams and brave words, the Sabres stink. On the ice, anyway. They still have a fantastic prospect stock, as a recent viewing of the Rochester Americans reminds, with blue chippers including Mikhail Grigorenko and Mark Pysyk currently honing their skills in the AHL, among other future Buffalo contributors. The Carolina Hurricanes are similarly futile, with only two points in their first four games. With the Hurricanes, the underlying numbers aren’t so bad, but with Jordan Staal out with a long-term injury, and Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal also on the shelf, it is hard to see where their offense will come from. At least new coach Bill Peters has the team playing a responsible possession game thus far, although the fact that Buffalo’s two points came at their expense (a 4-3 decision settled in a shootout) does not provide confidence, especially if they continue to split starts between the potentially decent Anton Khudobin and the clearly well past it Cam Ward.

That leaves us with the Calgary Flames, the most surprising team of the early season. Despite finishing with the 27th best record in 2013-14 and then swapping out one of their only two 20-goal scorers in Michael Cammalleri for essentially Mason Raymond, the Flames have earned eight points in their first seven games. The interested observer did not sit up and take notice when they dismantled the still rebuilding Oilers by a 5-2 score in their second game. An upset over the Nashville Predators, also coming off a poor season through the shootout also failed to raise any alarms. But then they beat the Chicago Blackhawks, in Chicago, in overtime, played the ascendant Columbus Blue Jackets tough before losing by a single marker and came up to another road victory, this one in notoriously difficult Winnipeg, by a 4-1 final margin. Since opening night, the Flames have won four games in a six game road trip. Consider this head turned.

The common narrative last season with Calgary was that despite a deficit of talent, the youthful squad played very hard for coach Bob Hartley. Playing hard could only take a team so far, and the combination of bottom tier possession rates (26th in Fenwick close) and 29th ranked goaltending per save percentage ensured the team could do no better than their lowly spot in the final standings. It could fairly be said that without their first blueline pairing of darkhorse Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano and the emerging T.J. Brodie, the Flames would have finished far closer to the Oilers than the 10 point standings gap showed. Both defenders routinely tackled the opposition’s top lines, while starting their shifts in their own ends, yet both fared very well in all types of possession metrics.

In fact, the Flames chose today to reward Brodie, who would have been an RFA next summer, with a five year contract for a reported $23.25 million. Not bad for a former fourth round draft pick. Giordano, who has a cap hit of $4 million, set to expire after the 2015-16 season, was also a very nice tale of underdog’s redemption, seeing as how he was never drafted as an offensive defenseman out of Owen Sound in the OHL. Had the Flames only been as successful with their first round picks, this article would have never been written. Alas, in the time between signing Giordano and drafting Brodie, their first round picks were Kris Chucko (2 career NHL games played), Matt Pelech (13 GP), Leland Irving (13 GP), Mikael Backlund (246 GP – more on him later) and Greg Nemisz (15 GP).  2009 first rounder Tim Erixon refused to sign with Calgary and the Flames did not have a pick until the third round in 2010. Backlund’s relative success aside, an NHL team cannot bomb the draft in six out of seven years and expect to compete.

Back to the present. Roster with only five regulars who were drafted and developed by the organization has taken eight points out of a possible 14 to open a season in which all and sundry has expected them to struggle mightily and futilely to escape the basement. Generally speaking, as an analyst, I try to avoid looking at advanced stats so early in the season, but with the results being so head scratching, I couldn’t help it – I had to look. How else could I find out how Calgary was succeeding, or whether or not is was at all sustainable? So I looked.

I kind of wish that I hadn’t. It would have been easier to continue believing in the magic of heart and hustle and Hartley. But I can’t. Instead, I will list the reasons why the Flames’ hot start will lose steam and leave the team in its own ashes. With that torturous strained metaphor out of the way, here goes:

1)      Their PDO is an unsustainable 104.6, far above their historical record and the NHL average of 100. This is begging to regress down and fast. Their even strength save percentage of 95.3% is far above the norm of any goalie, much less a goalie with a well-established history of average to slightly above such as new-comer Jonas Hiller. Through his seven year career, Hiller has stopped 92.7% of all even strength shots. His current mark of 95.9% is essentially four saves more than his body of work tells us he should have. Four more goals against would not remove all of the Flames points, but applying a rough Pythagorean formula to the new goal differential (). ).  324/(324+441) = W%. 324/765=42.3%. 42.3% of 16 available points would knock a bit more than one point. If we also adjust their shooting percentage down to their average last year (7.86%) from their current high perch (9.29%), their 140 even strength shots would have yielded 11 goals instead of their actual total of 13. If we re-run our previous formula, we are now looking at  ). 256/(256+441) = 36.7% winning%. Now we are just below 6 standings points in 7 games. It is fair to say that early season puck luck has given the Flames two additional points in the standings.

2)      Possession. Puck luck will regress, but that does not mean that the extra two points in the bank will be taken away. Far from it. Unfortunately, their teamwide Corsi for% is also abysmal, and the team will continue to be hideously outshot, as they were when they upset the Blackhawks in Chicago. On that night, Jonas Hiller stopped 49 of 50 shots, carrying the Flames on his shoulders to victory. On the other end of the rink, Corey Crawford stopped only 16 of 18. Granted, the Flames are not always outshot by such a devastating margin, but their Corsi For% of 41.6% is better only than Buffalo. Calculating the team’s expected GF:GA based off their small sample CF% is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that teams that are outshot tend to surrender that much more than they score. As good as the Flames’ shutdown blueline pair is, this will come back to haunt the team.

3)      Talent. It all has to come back to talent, doesn’t it? Other than Josh Jooris, who has all of 10:50 of even strength ice time to his name, captain Giordano is the only Flame with a FF% above 50%. In fact, there are only five other guys (Brodie, Paul Byron, Jiri Hudler, Devin Setoguchi and Curtis Glencross) who are even above 45% Fenwick For. That’s not good. There are ten guys who are currently below 40%. Simply put, outside of those two blueliners, this is a team full of guys who cannot push the play forward. Mason Raymond has five goals already, but has only topped 20 once in his career, and at 29 years of age, should be declining. Mikael Backlund is also off to a nice start points wise, but 40 points would represent a career high, and it is awful hard to score much when you start over 60% of your non-neutral zone faceoffs in your own zone, as Backlund does. On a better team, he would be the second or third line center. For Calgary, he is the first-line, shut-down center, there to make life easier for young Sean Monahan.

I don’t think I need to go on. I will grant that the Flames may be more competitive than expected, but the numbers demonstrate a team that was a reasonable choice to finish in the bottom three league wide. Maybe Edmonton and their permanent defensive struggles pushes Calgary back up to fourth worst, but nothing will raise this year’s Flames team above the ranks of the bottom feeders.

This team is about to begin a five game homestand which includes games against Tampa Bay, Carolina, Washington, Nashville, and Montreal. It says here that they fail to pick up more than two points in front of their home town crowd.

14 thoughts on “What should we make of the Calgary Flames?

  1. As a Blackhawks fan who was apoplectic watching the Hawks bury the Flames last week in every facet of that game except the only one that mattered, and as someone who respects the power of Big Data to explain team success in today’s NHL…it’s hard to disagree with you on your prediction that the Flames will, well, flame out as expected.

    However.

    Though they got mauled in Chicago, Hiller was there for them as Crawford was there for the Hawks in their season openener in Dallas, when Chicago was playing at AHL speed for the first 50 minutes of the game.

    As you may agree, there are ways to succeed in professional team sports that defy the algorithms individual superstardom. I sense that maybe Calgary has a litte Minnesota in its blood this year. Player chemistry maybe somehow works a spell in the locker room. I don’t know.

    But one game into their tough 4-game homestand, they already have 1 of the 2 points you predicted they’d win in total. And Carolina’s up next.

    • I was probably a little needlessly short-term in my prediction of their demise, but my main point stands. Minnesota was not nearly this bad in terms of puck control (although they were below-par). Colorado, on the other hand, was. We all remember how the Maple Leafs started off on fire last season, and that team had far more firepower than this Flames one. Perhaps the Flames do break even on this homestand, but (to continue extending the play on words) they are playing with fire, burning the candle at both ends, etc.

      • Dear Ryan,

        Have the Flames continued good play and winning ways made you wonder if they’re for real?

        I’m not taunting. I’m just a bit intrigued by these guys now, after strong continued play against good teams & wonder if you all are as well…or not.

        Cheers.

        • Paul – thanks for writing. I still think they are a mirage, as their possession rates simply cannot sustain winning hockey. Especially now that they are faced with a crazy injury stack (Colborne, Backlund, Stajan, Raymond). Their score adjusted Fenwick of 45.42 is 27th in the NHL. Their PDO is 102.9, second best in the NHL. Essentially they never have the puck but have top of the chats puck luck. If this can be sustained, it will have been one of the most remarkable flukes of recent memory.

          That said, kudos to them for a good start. I am intrigued – as any analyst should be when a clear outlier is present, but am very far from thinking they are real.

          • Hi Ryan,

            So Calgary made the playoffs.

            This is not an “I Told You So” message (namely because I didn’t tell you so, I only had a gut feeling that the Flames were not the mirage that the data suggested they were) but I would like to circle back to you on this outcome, because it seems data analysis of this team, pinpoint as it is, was not as good a predictor of its success as unscientific method of gut-feeilng what this team was capable of, given intangibles such as

            • team chemistry
            •work ethic
            • shrewd coaching
            • and of course some good luck

            Doesn’t the Flames’ making the playoffs, in spite of all the data showing they shouldn’t have, mean that HP could be even more accurate about team success if it also incorporated a way to measure such intangibles?

            Thank you.

          • Inherent in the word “intangible” is that it is something which cannot be touched or measured. I give credit to the Flames for bucking the percentages. There seems to be one exception every season. Toronto, then Colorado and now Calgary.
            What comes next? Do they believe in their own exceptionalism, and fade to dust like the other two before them, or do they accept that they had more than their share of good luck and work in the off-season to be even better next season? It will be very interesting to watch it unfold and a great test of GM Brad Treliving.

  2. have you thought that the Defensive pairing of TJ and Gio is so overwhelming that possession no longer dictate the flame’s ability to win hockey games? If you watch the recent victor of the 6-2 game in Montreal, the flames clearly defile statistical odds. Sitting tied for 2nd place in the entire league, they must be doing something right

    • Brodie and Giordano are very good, for sure. Excellent even. But even with their recent successes, only three teams (Ottawa, Buffalo and Colorado) control the puck less.
      Last season, the Maple Leafs were also phenomenal in the first 1-2 months of the season. Do you remember where they ended up?
      Unless the Flames find a way to play Brodie and Giordano 40-45 minutes per game, regression will come and come hard. The question is only when?

      • It seems that maybe the Flames have bad possession on purpose…

        They play a style of game which often gives up the puck… High risk, but high reward.

        Does this (and their current position in the standings with only 5 games left in the season) make you reconsider these dire predictions?

        • Their style of play is very reminiscent of the way the Maple Leafs played a few years ago. Does that make you reconsider their place in the standings?
          In seriousness, bad possession on purpose is a fool’s approach. You can get away with it for a while, sometimes as long as a full season (Leafs two years ago, Avalanche last season). Maybe the Flames get away with it for a few more weeks.

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