Were the Calgary Flames sunk by bad play or bad luck this season?

Calgary Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan talks about his team not getting key goals at important times.

Six points out of the playoffs, eight games remaining and needing to leapfrog three teams just to get to the wild card, the Calgary Flames are unlikely to sneak into the playoffs this season. Perhaps their place on the outside looking in is a symptom of the parity the NHL loves so much, but it’s hard not to think the Flames should be better than this.

The Flames have a terrible home record this season at 15-17-4, which is likely the difference between making the playoffs and not. Head coach Glen Gulutzan was asked about their home-road split recently on Hockey Central Saturday with Jeff Marek and John Shannon, to which he replied that, based on their internal metrics, the record doesn’t reflect their play.

Without knowing for certain what metrics the Flames are using, Gulutzan’s claim passes with flying colours when you look at the Flames’ total numbers this season.

The Flames are less effective on special teams than at 5-on-5, and their power play has been a huge drag on their effectiveness. This is something Tyler Dellow of The Athletic pointed out recently about their 5-on-3 work, but it extends to their 5-on-4 power play as well.

The problem is the Flames haven’t only struggled on special teams. They’re getting just 49.82 per cent of their goals at 5-on-5, and 49.66 per cent at even strength overall. That alone isn’t enough to take them out of playoff contention, but only three of the 16 teams currently in playoff spots are being outscored at even strength: San Jose, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey. Florida, one point behind the Devils for a wild card spot, are also being outscored.

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A combination of an anemic power play that’s almost three percentage points worse than the league average of 19.8 per cent, and not getting their earned goals at even strength has kept the Flames out of the playoffs.

If you’re trying to find why the Flames haven’t gotten the goal differential their play has seemingly earned, the easy answer is they’re a top-heavy team.

Their first line of Sean Monahan between Johnny Gaudreau and Micheal Ferland is one of the league’s best offensive lines and their second line of Mikael Backlund between Matthew Tkachuk and Michael Frolik is one of the league’s best two-way trios. The top defence pairing of Dougie Hamilton and Mark Giordano is brilliant. After that, though, things get a little dicey, but that hasn’t been the root of their problem.

The Flames have a couple players who don’t live up to where they’re slotted on the depth chart, but among those who have actually played significant minutes (300+), only Sam Bennett and Troy Brouwer are below 50 per cent in on-ice high danger scoring chances or scoring chances overall, and only Michael Stone is below 50 per cent in Corsi.

That speaks to a team playing a strong system with decent depth, and yet they haven’t got the breaks.

Looking at roster players who have hit 500 or more minutes at 5-on-5, we can see where the issues are by comparing their on-ice goals for percentage to their expected goals for percentage using Corsica.Hockey’s model, and order the players by total ice time descending left to right.

The top line for the Flames has been the only bright spot by this measure, with all three players over four per cent better than expectations in goal differential. But everyone else aside from a low leverage player like Matt Stajan has been devastatingly unlucky.

The entire top-four on defence have been getting less than they deserve, which basically cripples the entire team, despite the Hamilton-Giordano pair controlling 58.5 per cent of high danger chances, and the Brodie-Hamonic pair controlling 53.7 per cent.

The biggest factor outside of that top-four has been the 3M line’s absurd year of bad luck, where they’ve controlled 55.9 per cent of high danger chances, 59.22 per cent of shot attempts, but have just 46.81 per cent of the goals. As a line, they’re nearly 12 per cent lower in goals for percentage at 5-on-5 than Corsica’s expected goals says they should be.

That’s unbelievable.

To top things off for the nightmare season that line has had, they’ve also taken 15 more penalties than they’ve drawn, which is the second-worst mark for any line in the league that has played more than 300 minutes together, trailing only the Jets’ Scheifele,-Wheeler-Connor line with 19. Oddly, the Gaudreau line is the NHL’s best in penalty differential at plus-14.

The Flames are not a perfect team, and maybe Mike Smith staying healthy all year gets them to the playoffs anyway with his stellar even strength save percentage, but this has to be a bitter pill for the Flames organization to swallow. It isn’t like there are major off-season mistakes by the front office to point to, nor has the coaching staff been terrible and in need of being replaced.

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The only real issue that can be easily corrected is the power play, but it’s a lot to ask for that to make up six or seven standings points in one season. For example, if the Flames drew the same number of power plays this season, but converted at the league average rate of 19.8 per cent, it would net them just an extra seven goals.

The general rule of thumb is three goals equals one point in the standings, so seven goals only gets them 2.3 extra points when they need at least seven to jump ahead of the Ducks. For the power play to compensate for their bad luck at even strength this year, it’d have needed to convert on 25.5 per cent of their attempts, which is something only the Penguins have done this season.

Calgary iced a very good team, one that was top-10 at 5-on-5, and lost a year of their core’s prime due to factors outside of their control. The good news is they aren’t likely to be in this same spot next year, so there’s no need to panic over the summer.

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