Managing A Playoff Team in Transition

April 10th, 2017 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

When the NHL instituted a salary cap in 2005 it quickly brought the end of the idea of a perfect NHL hockey team. Every NHL team is faced with limitations in assembling a roster, you can’t put high end quality in all 20 roster spots.

The 2001 Colorado Avalanche didn’t have that problem. Up the middle they had Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Stephane Yelle and Steven Reinprecht. On the wings they boasted Alex Tanguay, Milan Hejduk, Chris Drury and Adam Deadmarsh. On the blueline they had Adam Foote, Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, Martin Skoula and Aaron Milller. Of course in net they had Patrick Roy.

They had a top end of the roster for sure, but the drop off wasn’t like the cliff that today’s general managers must manage.

The winning organizations are able to find solid talent on first year contracts, either by keeping players in the AHL to blossom longer, signing key college free agents, or by doing a bang up job of scouring Europe for those rocks that need to be overturned. But even the best organizations will eventually run into trouble. The Blackhawks have been masters at turning over their roster, while the Los Angeles Kings eventually ran out of luck and hit a wall.
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Banking on Bennett

March 22nd, 2017 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

Sometimes it’s easier to not have a choice.

The Edmonton Oilers have had to wonder when gazing back on draft history if they selected the right player time and time again. The book is in on Nail Yakupov, but additional questions swarmed the choices of Taylor Hall (Tyler Seguin) and Ryan Nugent Hopkins (Gabe Landeskog). That first overall choice gives you the field, but with that comes a lot of post draft analysis and navel gazing.

When The Hockey News went to select their cover for the 2014 NHL Draft they couldn’t decide on just one player, instead they put four on the cover, and as it turns out that’s exactly the four that went as expected in the top four picks.

The Flames, with the fourth pick, took the last guy standing, that being the somewhat controversial Sam Bennett, a player who has struggled in his sophomore season after a pretty good rookie season, and a playoff showing before that that looked very promising.

The Oilers, who sat third in the draft had the choice between Leon Draisaitl and Sam Bennett, and at this moment in time only a fool would call that a bad choice, as the German center has become a huge part of their core and has passed the previous core players like Nugent Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, in terms of importance.

The results are still early though, not as early as any proclamations from Calgary that Matthew Tkachuk is the better player over Jesse Puljujärvi, but early nonetheless.

But why with the Flames only 9 games and 3 weeks from returning to the playoffs would I be writing a draft article?

Naturally, the suspension to Matthew Tkachuk.
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Built for a Run?: Flames Roster Post Deadline

March 2nd, 2017 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

Going into any trade deadline it’s inevitable that a bubble team would have three different courses of action, all with their own perils and tribulations.

You buy. You sell. You do nothing.

It’s Canada, the city has a keen interest so doing nothing is just plain mean, so let’s face it the choices are down to two.

Brad Treliving was quite bold a couple of years ago with a team just on the outside, he didn’t add other than a waiver wire pick up, and he sold in jettisoning both Curtis Glencross and Sven Baertschi; the Flames of course made the playoffs anyway.

I think this year the assumption was the add, with the Flames in a playoff spot somewhat firmly, but then the trepidation became the cost and the timing. Do you want to go all in as a wildcard seed? Seems a little rushed. How can you be in a rebuild and move picks and prospects?

In the end, Treliving did pretty much what I would have expected him to do;

1) Fix the most glaring hole on the team with a creative and less expensive option
2) Alter his protection list for next season by taking on a forward that another team would have trouble protecting

Did I have the defenseman solution nailed? Nope. Stone was a name out there, but he wasn’t the one I was guessing (Kyle Quincey). Was the protection list forward the guy I saw coming? Once again no, I was imagining a more established player from a non-playoff team.

So how did he do?

When the Curtiz Lazar news came down I did what every hockey fan in the city did. You google Kostka and realize it was a throw in, you ignore Jyrki Jokipakka as he was waiver fodder the day before, you nod your head on the Lazar project idea and then you cringe that they gave up a second round pick.

What’s interesting is chasing down some Ottawa views before the trade; I like others noticed the Lazar on the market comments on Twitter and the asking price of a first round pick, something that seemed way to high from my standpoint.

Exhibit A:

When I saw this I thought they should jump on it. Lazar has value no doubt about it, but he’s sputtering so a second seemed fair to me.

Exhibit B:

Really? I get that it’s a weak draft and that you’re dealing a young player, but a first for a player that is listing? If that’s his firm price he wasn’t going to get it.

Exhibit C:

Turn a first round pick down?

From a Calgary perspective I like this now that Lazar is Flame’s property, but Ottawa media has known to be some of the most kool-aid’d group in hockey so you have to take it with a grain of salt.

I am glad history like this exists though, as I’m sure many in that nation’s capital will change their tune now that Lazar is gone.

Either way I think the Ottawa view before the trade helps frame the value somewhat when assessing the move made by Brad Treliving.

My personal view before and after the trade? Meh. I wasn’t a big Lazar fan. When he was added to that World Junior team and made captain I thought they bolstered the club with an NHL ready forward and I didn’t see it. He didn’t stand out all that much to me.

So my gut is a 2nd is a little too much to acquire a project player, not a lot too much, I would have been really happy with a third, but the 2nd seems steep.

What adds some uptick for me however is Treliving. This is very much a player he wanted. The group has said they worked on this for weeks. Additionally, comments from Lazar suggest the player was a Treliving target in the 2013 draft when he was leading the show for the Coyotes.

He knows him, he likes him, and he clearly has spot for him as he’s already hinted he will be protecting him in the expansion draft. To Treliving he’s adding a piece, not a project, but from his comments he seems alert enough to know there is some work to do.

If he’s right, even to the 70th percentile and the player becomes a solid top nine forward in Calgary, then this is a very good move for the Flames.

If he’s wrong, then you go back to his comments on the draft and that they just don’t value the picks in the 2017 showcase as high as they have in previous years.

No GM is right 100% of the time, but compared to other GMs in Calgary history, I at least trust the guy’s process and work ethic to make sure he’s doing what he can to get it right.

All in all the Flames are better than they were a few weeks ago. They looked to have landed a real bargain in Michael Stone given all they gave up was a third round pick. Heck I don’t think I’d trade him straight up for Brendan Smith who cost the Rangers a 2nd and a 3rd.

The Matt Bartkowski move looks to be pretty shrewd as well as it cost them nothing.

The team has rebuilt their defense core, eliminating the biggest weakness on the team. They didn’t add up front in a significant way, but then heading into the deadline I suggested they shouldn’t as the chemistry lost could be just as important as the addition.

It’s stretch drive time, and the Flames are in a better position to not only make the playoffs, but possibly make some noise when they get there.

Pretty much all I could have asked for this season.

A Quiet Deadline Awaits?

February 27th, 2017 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

It’s very difficult using the past to extrapolate the future; a statement that’s true in almost everything, but even more so a trade deadline in the National Hockey League.

Every year is different in terms of standings, where a club sits, and their appetite for either buying or selling. But additional variables also complicate things including the number of teams willing to transact, the value of the upcoming draft and the implications on the worth of a draft pick.

In Calgary, the GM currently occupying the chair, Brad Treliving, is also relatively new to the position, so any gazes to the past would only reveal two deadlines with this being his third.

Two weeks ago it was pretty much common knowledge that the Flames needed an upgrade on the bottom half of their defense core, an additional top nine forward, and a boost to their goaltending wouldn’t hurt as well. The Flames were a solid bubble team, but with games in hand against them they were hardly a good bet to load up at the deadline.

Add to that the existing GMs recent past of selling even if they’re in the mix and it was hard to imagine any massive additions heading to Calgary on the 1st of March.

Now, however, much has changed.
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The Flames Possessed

February 11th, 2017 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

It takes a wise man to admit he was wrong. It takes a less than humble man to call himself wise, but then I digress.

The bottom line? I was wrong. Two years ago the whole world, well not the whole world, but the world of analytics predicted the Calgary Flames would come crashing back to Earth after their surprise 2014-15 return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The team was relying too much on shot blocking shots, and not enough on driving the play themselves. The argument would go that a team can get lucky for a small stretch of time, even a whole season as it turned out, but in the long run all roads lead back to averages, and the Flames were going long on their luck withdrawals.

At the time I wasn’t a fool; I could see the shot blocks and the collapsing down low, but I guess part of me though Bob Hartley had figured something out. You take away the clear shot, and then counter with an even more dangerous transition and you could beat those corsi odds. They did for a season. They didn’t the next season when the opposition a) had more luck and b) took away the Flames stretch pass counter attack leaving them without answers.

So what has changed?

Essentially it’s a tale of three seasons, two under Bob Hartley and one under Glen Gulutzan. By now we’ve all seen the graph below showing Calgary’s 5 on 5 shot attempts (corsi) over three seasons. The first section shows the improbably 14/15 Flames, the middle the last year of Hartley 15/16, and the one on the right the first season under Gulutzan.

(Courtesy Corisca Hockey)

The 14/15 team was mired in a constant puck losing battle, rolling through the season at about 46%. The 15/16 Flames made a 2% improvement, including a solid late push by the team when they were all but eliminated. Then this year’s team steps in at roughly 50%, has the odd dip in play, but then finds consistency and appears to really find it in 2017.

However, an image like this really only creates more questions rather than provide actual answers. It’s a good summary, but it doesn’t get into the meat and potatoes of what is really going on.

You hear a dialogue all the time … “Sure they have shot attempts, but from where?” suggesting the Flames are lining up at center ice and rifling pucks on net, never getting anywhere close to an opposition goaltender. Their PDO (save percentage and shooting percentage) is very low suggesting they are unlucky, but that turns to “they’re probably giving up point blank shots while not actually generating any blue chip chances of their own”, a valid concern and query.

First lets take a look at the three Calgary Flames teams.

Shots on Goal

The 14/15 Flames had 1780 shots on goal, good for 22 per game on average, but gave up 2045 shots against, for a season total of 265 more shots against. The were accurate though as they scored on 9.3% of their shots while getting scored on only 7.8% of the time. This was thrust behind the well discussed lofty PDO of 101.5 last season.

The 15/16 Flames had 146 more shots on the season and gave up 100 less, coming in with only 19 more shots against than for, a huge important. Their percentages were terrible however, as they were down 1.2% in shooting percentage and their goalie save percentage was rocked by 1.1%, their PDO falling down to 99.2, or under the luck line.

From a shot standpoint the Flames were a better team in 15/16, something the standings wouldn’t reflect whatsoever.

With Glen Gulutzan in charge, the Flames are continuing to add to that positive trend. They are on pace for 1915 shots for, down 11 shots from last year, but still up 135 from the playoff team of two years ago. In terms of team defense they are on pace to give up 1784 shots down an eye popping 162 shots from 15/16 team and 262 shots from the 14/15 team. That’s a huge improvement in their own zone. If you believe the meaning of the PDO stat, the 16/17 teams is very unfortunate in that their shooting percentage is well below the league average of 8.9%, sitting at 6.8%. Over the course of a season, that 2.1% would amount to 40 goals over an 82 game schedule, and likely lead to several more wins.

But this is just shots on goal, and as stated above it doesn’t provide enough colour when it comes to whether or not a team is generating good shots, or just throwing the puck away from all angles.

So for that we look at the three Flames teams again, but this time in terms of scoring chances, which the league defines as shots from within the home plate area of the ice.

The 14/15 Flames had 833 scoring chances, but were very good on converting as they hit on 15.8% of their chances, a good 2% above the league average. They gave up 991 scoring chances however, 158 more than they generated themselves, roughly 2 per game as an average. Their goaltending was above average in stopping home plate chances though, stopping 87.8% of the opposition chances given the Flames a Home plate PDO of 1.036 which is staggering. Outplayed, but beating the averages on both sides of the puck.

In 15/16 the Flames generated 103 more scoring chances for and gave up 64 less scoring chances, ending the season +9 instead of the previous year’s -158. They weren’t as fortunate, but still above average converting on 14.2% of their chances, but the goaltending was the real story as they were 2 points below average, turning away only 84.7% of opposition chances in the home plate area. It won’t come as a surprise but the team was sunk by goaltending.

This year under Gulutzan the Flames are on pace for 833 scoring chances, down 103 from last season, but have prevented 98 more against, giving a similar balance as last year, sitting at +4. The shooting percentage has fallen off significantly though shooting at only 12%, while the goaltending has remained spotty, improving by only 3/10 of a point.

So what can we draw from this?

First off the Flames are a different team since November 15th so I’d be curious to see where these final numbers come in compared to the averages to date, I’m guessing things will go more in their favour over the finally 25% of the season.

It would be easy to suggest the Flames don’t have the talent to score goals, but when a club’s shooting percentage is 1.5% from the home plate area it does point to an element of luck holding the team back.

Either way, it’s hard not to see the positive trends in their play in their own zone as they’ve given up 162 less scoring chances against over the course of a season, that’s winning hockey.

The Wild Wild West

Now that we’ve looked at the Flames over the past three seasons, it’s time to get back to the now and look at these metrics against the rest of the West.

Do the Flames deserve to be a bubble team in 9th in the West for the stretch drive? Are they fortunate to be where they are? Or are they unlucky not to be further up the standings?

The Flames are ranked 8th in the west for shots for per game, but 2nd in the West behind only the L.A. Kings for shots against per game. Their shot differential is 3rd in the West at a +1.6. The Oilers are 3rd, 6th and 5th respectively, suggesting both Alberta teams are playing somewhat sustainable playoff level hockey.

In terms of scoring chances the Flames are not getting it done, as they sit 12th in the West at 10.2 per game. Defensively they are pretty sound however as they rank 3rd in the West at 10.1 per game, behind only Nashville and Los Angeles. As a differential of 0.1, the Flames are ranked 8th, right on the bubble and essentially right where they are. The Oilers are a bit of a tire fire in their own zone 12th in scoring chances against, but a respectable 6th in scoring chance differential.

Clearly the Flames have made big strides defensively, but need to get it going on the attack.

Once again however the shooting percentage is the glaring issue for the Flames. They are ranked 12th in the West in outright shooting percentage at 6.8% compared to the West average of 7.6%. On scoring chances the Flames also are ranked 11th in shooting percentage at 12%, the conference average at 13.2%.

Another drill down is scoring chance average distance; maybe the Flames are shooting from the out reaches of the home plate compared to right in front of the cage. However when you look at average shot distance the Flames actually have the third best distance in the conference at 19.3 feet, compared to the conference average of 20.3. The Flames are not shooting from too far out.

On the goaltending side the Flames are ranked 11th in both overall save percentage and scoring chance save percentage, once again suggesting the tenders just aren’t getting it done.

So what if any conclusions can we draw from this?

Well to be consistent you have to think it’s a very good sign for the organization both for the stretch drive this year and as they head into subsequent seasons. All the metrics that pointed to their inability to sustain their play from two years ago are suggesting just the opposite for this year’s team. They are giving up fewer scoring chances and shots, while maintaining similar totals from both on the attack. As a team they have what experts would call unsustainably low shooting percentage and save percentage, suggesting both should move towards the mean in the final 1/4 of the season.

Every argument that made Calgarians cringe two years ago are the very same that should add optimism this time around.

The Calgary Flames look to be due for a bounce or two down the stretch drive; should be fun to watch!

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