Superficially, the Calgary Flames are the very picture of a team bound for a crash. A team with lousy shot metrics unexpectedly reversed a half-decade of futility in 2014-15, and that combination of poor recent history and a wretched Corsi makes them an obvious whipping boy for the analytics crowd. A closer look, however, reveals a club that should be capable of surprising anyone who’s not paying attention.
To understand what lies ahead for the Flames, it’s important first to understand what lies behind, and it’s not enough to just point to a five-on-five score-adjusted Corsi that was the third-worst in the NHL. It’s important to understand how Calgary won hockey games despite being out-shot to that degree. We need to start with goal differential.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but one thing should be immediately obvious. Calgary was above average—and in some cases well above—on the power play, the penalty kill, at four-on-four, with their goalie pulled, with the opposition goalie pulled and in the shootout. The only place they were below average was at five-on-five, which also happens to be the only part of the game where that much-repeated Corsi number has any bearing.
To be sure, the question of whether the Flames are in for a fall at five-on-five remains relevant; they weren’t good, but they were better than we might imagine from their Corsi number. But that’s a small part of the much bigger question: is what the Flames were doing in other areas sustainable? Let’s dig a little deeper.
We’ve included league rank in brackets next to each number to provide context. On the power play, rather than look at Corsi percentage we’ve instead focused on Corsi For/hour to reflect that it’s primarily an offensive opportunity. On the penalty kill we’ve substituted Corsi Against/hour for the same reasons. But that’s enough about the numbers; we want to get into what they mean.
We see one of the hidden strengths of last season’s Flames revealed in the time on ice column. Calgary’s special teams were nothing to write home about, but they spent two hours more on the power play than they did on the penalty kill. They were disciplined and drew far more penalties than they took; that’s something coach Bob Hartley almost certainly stressed and it’s a good bet he’ll do so again this year.
At even-strength, the key factor in Calgary’s ability to defy their Corsi number was shooting percentage. This is a new thing for the Flames; in two previous seasons under Hartley they were the definition of NHL average in this department, ranking 15th in 2012-13 and 16th in 2013-14. A number of veterans (Jiri Hudler, Lance Bouma, Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie) managed double digits in the goals department in large part by outperforming their S% career averages, while rookies Johnny Gaudreau and Josh Jooris also enjoyed massive shooting percentage years.
Odds are that this won’t continue. It’s unlikely that Hartley has found a strategy that sustainably boosts Calgary’s shooters. This has happened before in many cities and in the vast majority of cases the follow-up year is disappointing as players come back to Earth.
The same applies in four-on-four situations. Additionally, Calgary’s successes in situations where the goalie has been pulled (by either side) are probably aberrations; in previous seasons under Hartley the Flames have not been good in these areas. In fact, almost nobody has; only two teams since the 2004-05 NHL lockout have scored more goals than the 10 the Flames managed last year sans netminder.
If we assume the team’s shooting percentage falls all the way back to the NHL average next season and maintain the same shot rates, the impact of that regression will be between 30-35 fewer goals. Calgary was plus-25 last year, so that dip would knock them down into the red, albeit just barely.
However, that isn’t a balanced look at the team. The Flames are a young team and a certain amount of internal growth is to be expected. The club’s management had an industrious and effective off-season, importing players such as Michael Frolik and Dougie Hamilton, who should help the bottom line. Finally, there are areas where the Flames underachieved last year and could see improvement this season.
The latter area is the easiest to calculate. Jonas Hiller—who is in the fight of his life in training camp this fall—was fine at even strength last year, but wretched on the penalty kill, posting the worst number a Flames goaltender has managed since an end-of-the-line Miikka Kiprusoff stumbled through 2012-13. Even competency between the pipes while shorthanded will probably save Calgary another 10 goals, again assuming consistent shot rates.
Suddenly, we’re looking at a break-even goal differential team even before we get to the substantial internal and external improvements that any rational observer would expect. Sam Bennett, Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and others are still growing as NHL players and will be able to shoulder more of a load. Frolik is a strong two-way veteran who consistently posts strong possession numbers. Hamilton and a healthy Mark Giordano bolster an already-strong defence corps.
We’ve talked about probabilities, and that’s all we have; I don’t own a crystal ball, so I can’t look into the future and see how this Flames roster will deliver on its potential. Considering all the factors we’ve just outlined, though, I wouldn’t be banking on them to take more than a modest step backward.
They may even prove capable of building on last season’s success.