As of today there is one team in the NHL giving up fewer than two goals per game, and that would be the Calgary Flames, who’ve been scored on just 38 times in 20 outings. They’ve been even better at 5-on-5, where they’ve given up just 20 -- one goal per game.
The rest of the deeper possession numbers tell a similar story. They’re a top three team in driving shot attempts at their opposition, they’re tops in scoring chance percentage, and they’re first in high danger goals allowed, giving up just 10 through 20 games. They’ve shut out their opposition seven times.
So the chorus of “DE-FENCE, DE-FENCE” has begun, with the sentiment being that Darryl Sutter has the Flames playing incredible defensive hockey, commanding a team that suits his style perfectly. They’ve got strong physical players, great goaltending and D-men who can lean on lighter opposition. They’ve got veterans and team buy-in and flashbacks of the LA Kings of yore keep flickering in.
That’s all fair and fine. The Flames keep the puck out of their net like crazy, but I do think it’s important to note that there’s a decided difference between the perception of how Sutter teams actually do it, and how it gets portrayed. It’s because the defensive stats end up good that it gets sold as a defence-first style, like a distant cousin to the trapping New Jersey Devils from 20 years ago. But two recent comments -- one from Ken Hitchcock, and one from Sutter himself -- help tell the story better.
Here's part of what Hitchcock said in The Athletic: “Everybody calls it defence, it’s not defence. It’s checking. And a big part of checking is puck management. A big part of checking is getting the puck out of danger areas. A big part of checking is getting it into the forwards’ hands as quickly as possible. And then, hanging on to it in the offensive zone so that you get the team on the three-quarter ice game and that’s what Darryl’s team is doing right now. They get you on the three-quarter ice game, they get the puck up to the forwards quickly, everybody checks, everybody looks the same when the opposition has the puck. And that’s his expectation.”
That’s a glowing review, but also super informative about the way the Flames play.
“Three-quarter ice” just means from the Flames' own blue line to the other end of the rink. I’ve heard Mike Babcock talk about wanting the other team “diving into their bench,” as in, trying to chip the puck out of the zone just far enough to not ice it, but to get a change -- that’s when you’re truly winning the territorial battle. At its best, “success” for the opposition means getting the puck out and getting off the ice, not actually threatening offensively.
Watch what Hitchcock is referring to below. Rather than a pile of GIFs I mashed it into one video so you can see clip after clip and get a sense for the relentlessness. The opposition is often just trying to get their breakout going into open waters, but the Flames keep them out of the middle and on the paint, getting the puck headed back to the right half of the rink. The results aren’t always perfect but the process is great:
Hitchcock went on to add: "Winning hockey is checking. Winning hockey isn’t defence. Anybody can play defence, that just means you’re mirroring people. Checking means you’re playing through people. That’s what his team does, they play right through you."
I like the addition Sutter made to this point in that same article. He noted that building offence in hockey now isn’t just stretching and trying to get behind the opposing D, it works more on the theory of the power play drop play that frustrates many, but gets used because of how it upsets defensive gaps.
Sutter: “The game has changed again in the last three to four years, quietly. Because all these young stars (around the league), and most of them being forwards, are so dynamic that they don’t play ahead of the game. They play from behind the game. Everybody thinks the game was about stretching it out and all those sorts of things, well now all these young stars have come in and they’re playing the other way. They’re gathering their speed from behind and getting the puck in the middle and attacking the defencemen instead of being behind them, that sort of thing.”
That video above illustrated how the Flames get the puck turned and pinned the other way, but Sutter’s team has been effective in those regroup situations where teams dump the pucks out on them, because of what he’s talking about above. Not stretching and forcing plays allows them to stay connected and to have support, and man is that awfully "unfun" to play against for 60 minutes.
You can’t say a team is only playing defence when they’re leading the league in shots taken, when they’re top-five in goals for, and second in scoring chances created. They’re building from below when they have the puck, and staying above when they don’t, which -- quick math -- puts them on the safe side of the puck the bulk of the time.
I should note, playing like this is awesome when you’re leading, and the Flames have led more than any team in the NHL, scoring first in 16 of the 20 games they’ve played so far. If they fall behind, it can get harder to open up the game, but tied and in the lead, you sure have to like the way they’re approaching things this season.
Any way you slice it, those offensive stats aren’t the trappings of some team that’s built on pure defending. They’ve got a plan, both with and without the puck, and the plan isn’t built on being passive. They check like demons, the Darryl Sutter way, and it’s resulting in sparkling defensive results.