CALGARY — Why would Bob Hartley like the analytics community right now, when all they want to do is bring his Calgary Flames back down to earth?
Yes, hockey’s cold, hard kill joys have the numbers to back up why one of the best stories of the 2014-15 season is simply a mirage. Like the short-season Toronto Maple Leafs, or last year’s Colorado Avalanche.
So what does Hartley think about a community that spends more time behind a computer than hustling down to the rink to watch practices and games live and in person, and ask questions of real live hockey people?
“(Just) because I buy a stethoscope, I can’t consider myself a cardiologist,” Hartley warned Thursday, when asked for his take on what the numbers folks think of his Flames. “We have heart. We have commitment. This is not baseball, it’s a game where you move position a lot. There is a certain truth to those numbers, but many of them I don’t think apply to hockey.”
But here is what we suspect Hartley really dislikes about hockey analytics, when it comes to his Flames. The numbers are right, and his team is simply defying them.
Every year there’s a team that finds itself on the right side of random variation. Last year it was Colorado. The year before, Toronto. This year, the Flames are the team with a No. 2 ranked shooting percentage of 10.5 percent, when the norm is about eight percent, and a 5-on-5 Corsi close (44.3) that’s ranked 28th in the NHL.
I called Rob Vollman, whose Hockey Abstract Volume III comes out in the fall, for some clarity. He confirms that, by virtually every metric, Calgary is not one of the better teams in the NHL. Colorado wasn’t last year either, yet the Avs won the Central before falling in the first round to Minnesota.
It is the possession numbers that make Calgary the target of advanced hockey stats.
“You don’t need stats to know that being pinned in your own zone for much of the game is … not a successful long-term strategy,” Vollman said.
Any team can deviate from accepted metrics of success for a period of time and still win games. Just like you can hit on a 16 at the Blackjack table and win — now and again. But accepted metrics are waiting for that team at the end of their run, and if Calgary shot at eight percent with their current possession numbers, they would be likely eight points south of the playoff race or more.
“The way I explain it is like this,” Vollman begins. “If you have the puck 45 percent this month, and 45 percent next month, it’s probably going to be 45 percent the month after that. But if your shooting percentage is 10.5 percent this month, and 10.5 percent next month, I can’t tell you what it’s going to be the month after that.
“We have no idea where shooting percentage goes (because it is largely luck-based) but we do have one number we can trust a fair deal. Which is, how much you have the puck.”
So, while the Flames celebrate Kris Russell’s NHL record 15 blocked shots last week in Boston, the stats man points out that you shouldn’t be celebrating the fact Boston had all those shots against you.
“The genius who analyzes Kris Russell, I just hope he stays away from Scotiabank Saddledome,” Hartley said. “Because we love Kris Russell.”
Some stats to chew on:
• The Flames are tied for the NHL lead with 13 OT or shootout wins.
• They lead the league in games won when trailing after both 20 minutes and 40 minutes.
• They have scored four or more unanswered goals in three straight games now, and are playing .595 hockey when being outshot.
• The Flames faceoff percentage (47.8) is ranked 25th in the NHL.
• Calgary has scored nine times with the goalie pulled, and not given up a single goal against in that scenario.
• Calgary’s Top 8 scorers are all on pace for career highs in goals and/or points.
Sometimes, as with Tampa Bay last year, unexpected success is a portent of things to come. More often, stats like those listed above are unrepeatable.
Most importantly, however, is that GM Brad Treliving isn’t being fooled. He dealt Curtis Glencross and Sven Baertschi for draft picks at the deadline, and grabbed a depth player in David Schlemko. He didn’t rush his rebuild at the deadline based on a style that could be a random variation, or perhaps a style these Flames are simply good at.
Of course, Vollman suspects the former: “If you’re so talented that you can come back in the third period every time, wouldn’t you be ahead more often in the third period?” he asks. “Chicago’s points are just as legitimate as Calgary’s points. But Calgary’s are not as repeatable, as expected, for it to continue.”
So there is some magic taking place here in Calgary. I recall the last time that kind of magic was in the air. It was 2004, and the Flames rode it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
If they’re still playing in June, maybe we’ll take Vollman out to The Red Mile.
(Some stats in this article came from hockeyanalysis.com)