After being unceremoniously bounced in convincing fashion last season by the underdog Colorado Avalanche, you could be forgiven for thinking the Calgary Flames were a paper tiger that didn’t deserve their record. The fact is, though, they were one of the more dominant — if not the most dominant — even strength teams in the NHL last season. They just got out-coached by Jared Bednar and the Avalanche, and the series was over before they could figure out a response.
With that said, if they weren’t a paper tiger you would expect them to start this season off strong, and by looking at the record alone, they haven’t. At 6-5-1 they were outside of the playoff picture before Thursday’s wild 6-5 win against Florida. They’re currently third in the Pacific and have played more games than any other Western Conference team.
And they have a minus-4 goal differential when you discount shootouts.
Clearly that’s not the way the Flames wanted to respond to a disappointing playoff series, but it’s not all bad news. The Flames at 5-on-5 have been slightly above 50 per cent in high danger chances, but have controlled 55.2 per cent of scoring chances and 56.3 per cent of shot attempts this season. Their biggest area of weakness has been controlling slot passes, where they’re getting only 46.6 per cent.
Tightening up defensively will help, but the spotlight seems to be falling more on offence, specifically on the duo of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.
Gaudreau is one of the NHL’s best offensive players, specifically shining in creative playmaking, while Monahan is one of the league’s best goal scorers in tight, with quick hands and a nose for the net.
For years they’ve been one of the NHL’s dynamic duos that you can always rely on for offence, but so far this season they haven’t produced much at even strength. Gaudreau is mostly fine with nine points in 12 games, but coming off a 99-point season, expectations are higher.
Monahan, meanwhile, has done very little scoring at even strength. Seven points overall and just one goal and two assists without the power play.
Have things changed and killed the chemistry between these two? Let’s compare their underlying offensive numbers to what they did last season.
Gaudreau is shooting way less than last season, so there are fewer rebounds for Monahan to pounce on and rip into the back of the net like he loves to do. That’s the main reason why Gaudreau’s involvement in creating scoring chances is down, but he’s hitting dangerous passes at a nearly identical rate.
Monahan, for his part, is doing everything he’s good at just as often or more often than he was last season, but he’s been bit by the bad luck bug early in the year, which always looks worse than in the middle of the season.
The two players haven’t been strong defensively, but that’s nothing new for either of them, and the Flames have been able to weather this with ease for about as long as the two have been on the same line.
I fully expect Gaudreau will get a bit more aggressive offensively and start taking more shots — and bad luck for players who shoot as often and as well as Monahan rarely lasts long. Only four players in the league are putting up scoring chances at a higher rate than Monahan.
This week Steve Dangle wants to know about a classical rival of his beloved Leafs, the Buffalo Sabres.
“The leader of the Atlantic isn’t the Lightning, or the Bruins, or the Leafs, it’s the Sabres. They had that 10-game winning streak last year and faded out, but they’ve started 8-1-1 this year. Are they for real this time?”
For the first couple weeks of the season, the Sabres looked amazing. In particular when I watched their game against the Montreal Canadiens early on, they were incredible. Jack Eichel in particular looks like the superstar people expected him to be. But the Sabres haven’t exactly had an uphill battle to fight in terms of their schedule.
However, they have been one of the league’s worst teams for what seems like a lifetime, so any schedule should theoretically not be easy for them if they’re still bad. The Sabres have kept on winning, but the strong start we saw in their underlying numbers has slowed down a bit.
Compared to last season, the Sabres are a brand-new team, managing to be slightly above water in dangerous shots and really hacking away at a deep weakness in control of passes to the slot.
They’re still one of the league’s weakest teams at defending passes to the slot, though, meaning most of that improvement is offensive.
The Sabres are clearly vastly improved over last season, but the early-season dominance we saw probably isn’t possible on a consistent basis. The groundwork is finally laid out, the roster has started to turn a corner, and they have a much better chance of making something out of this early hot streak than they did last season.
BUY OR SELL
• David Pastrnak, what on earth? Talk about a heater, Pasta has scored 10 times in nine games and added seven assists, six of which were primary. Not to say he hasn’t been great, but this season he’s 37th in scoring chances at 5-on-5 and 25th in scoring chances created. Those are top line numbers, but if you’ve got a Bruins fan pounding at the door of your fantasy league ready to give you way too much for him, sell high.
• The league leader in points is… John Carlson? Speaking of heaters, Carlson hit 21 points in just 12 games, and only six of those are on the power play. He’s one of the best playmaking defencemen in the league, especially with the man advantage. But he’s just 15th in completed passes to the slot at 5-on-5, 76th in overall completed passes in the offensive zone, and 15th in scoring chance generating plays. He’s going to produce tons of points this year, make no mistake, but this looks like a big-time mirage.
• One of my biggest rebound season candidates, not for fantasy purposes but overall play, was Ivan Provorov. He had a brutal season last year, but this time the defensively proficient Flyers are controlling 76.9 per cent of high danger chances while he’s on the ice (league-high among defencemen), 63.6 per cent of the passes to the slot, and 61.3 per cent of the shot attempts. Those are absurd numbers.
• Speaking of the Flyers, they were a good defensive team under Dave Hakstol, but this start has been next level. No team at 5-on-5 is allowing fewer than their 4.1 inner slot shots or high danger chances against per 60 minutes, no one is allowing fewer than their 16.2 scoring chances against per 60 minutes, and no one is allowing fewer than their 9.21 passes to the slot against either.
• The crazy thing is that suffocating defence hasn’t hindered their offence. The Flyers are producing the sixth-most high danger chances at 5-on-5, third-most scoring chances overall, and third-most passes to the slot. If they can keep this up even a little bit, they’ll be one of the best even strength teams in the past several years.