The Calgary Ava-Leafs?

December 1st, 2014 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

The buzzer sounds, and the Flames; all smiles, make their way to the dressing room in Arizona, fresh off a 3-0 victory and a four point, three game road trip.

PGA golfer Graham Delaet joins them soon after, cladded in head to toe Flames gear as Iphones flash catching the Saskatchewan native with his favourite Flames players.

Bob Hartley, the proud papa, talks to the CBC about the Flames work ethic, and how the world may be over looking the skill the team has amassed to go along with the elbow grease, and never say die attitude.

Back in Toronto, the on air desk guys suddenly realizing their extra time from a rapid game in the desert turn to the Flames as the topic, with Hrudey, Kypreos, and Elliot Friedman all gushing about the team speed, the goaltending, the defensive all star duo, and the fact the Flames are fun to watch.

A quick look at the advanced stats however tell a different tale, the Flames were on the wrong side of the advanced stat bottom line with a game corsi% rating of 45.2%. Two nights earlier, and impressive track meet of a game in San Jose had the club post a Corsi% number at a measly 37.9%.

I point all of this out, because things just don’t seem to add up. A hockey fan can be a homer, and I like anyone could certainly look at things through rose coloured glasses. But the head coach is carrying the same torch, and so too were the Toronto-centric desk jockeys in Toronto after watching the late game from two time zones away. Nobody has the Flames on the ropes, hoping against all hope that the legendary Kari Ramo could block just a few more of the 150 shots he faces every night playing for the weak and inexperienced Flames.

Could all these eyes be this wrong?

Or is there a better way to measure hockey games? There has to be doesn’t there?

Let me preface all this by stating I’m not an anti-advances stats guy. I find them very interesting. I like the fact that an effort is being made to quantify a hockey game in a way that can be dissected and broken down.

Its pretty hard to argue against Corsi as a baseline starting point in the very least. Number of shot attempts in a hockey game split into percentage between the two teams, always adding to the whole number of one. If you direct 55 pucks towards a net, and your opponents direct 45 you have to be doing something right.

But is it that simple?

Last year it didn’t take a forensics expert to see the Maple Leafs were a team on the cusp of a fall. They were getting out shot most nights, out chanced every night, and relying way too heavily on their goaltending. The Avalanche, a team that defied odds and made the playoffs did so with Semyon Varlamov winning the Vezina Trophy, the perfect example of being carried by your goaltender.

The Flames and their winning ways are different. They relied on their goaltending early, there is no doubt. Hiller’s performance in Chicago this season was one of the finest examples of goaltending in Flames history. A few nights later, Hiller was again the difference in Winnipeg when he held his team in it and let them come back and find the win. There is do doubt in the first ten games the Flames were stealing a script from Colorado in forging a great and unexpected record.

Things have changed since then however.

A young team has grown more confident, using the early goaltending as a security blanket, and now taking steps on their own to prove their NHL mettle.

The league has an average save percentage of .914 to date, the Flames? Below average, sitting at .911 including a nine game stretch before the back to back shutouts of .871, a spell that saw the club go go 5-4-0 against some top end NHL contenders. Clearly the goaltending wasn’t the clutch that fortified that stretch of games.

So I think we can safely scratch goaltending off the list as to why the Flames are situated in the standings where no one, and certainly not I expected to see them.

The culprit appears to be the other half of the PDO argument, shooting percentage.

The more Flame specific way to explain the unexplainable is shooting percentage where the club sits 2nd in the NHL behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning. Is a 11.3% save percentage sustainable? And how did it even happen through 25 games, or 30% of a hockey season from a club that has reportedly no talent, and any talent they do have is on the injured reserve?

Last season the Flames had a 9.3% shooting percentage, and that rate applied to this season’s shots on goal would deliver 15 less markers through 25 games this season. With the Flames +14 in the goals column, that adjustment would move the team into the middle of the NHL at a -1 rank, and likely just out of the playoffs.

They’d be worse, sure, but they wouldn’t be Connor McDavid bad.

I can’t blame people that grab their teddy bears and slumber off to sleepland before the Flames start their second periods each night for attempting to explain a team by statistics. I watch every game, but then that’s a joy. If someone made me record and watch every Carolina Hurricane game in a season I might quickly start to hate the sport of hockey.

So the Calgary fan, and the Calgary media have the sight test in their back pocket, more than most out East or out of their market.

Before it was vogue to suggest a player like Mikael Backlund was an advanced stat hero for the Flames I noticed a lot of the little things that made his game more than goals and assists. I certainly wasn’t counting shot attempts for and against when he was on the ice, but you could tell he did a lot of little things right.

He got the puck in deep, always.
He caught people on the backcheck.
He took the puck away from pressure creating time and space for his linemates.
He developed the ability to hold on to the puck long enough to create chances.

So it didn’t come as a shock to find out he was one of the darlings of the advanced stat crowd. The eye test and the stats test added up.

For this young Flames team however, I just can’t tie the numbers and the eye test. How many games have the Flames goaltenders had to steal this season? How many games have the Flames filled the net with fluke goals? How often have you honestly felt the Flames had no business being in a game?

Is it possible that coach Hartley and the Flame’s brass are walking out a style that defies advanced stats at least in the traditional sense? Could a team defense frustrate the opposition through back checking, and shot blocking to the extent that opposition coaches have instructed their teams to shoot all the time and from everywhere? This would explain high shot attempts without the eye test feeling of being under siege or out played.

Could the Flames be playing a puck possession game that has them shoot into blocks less often, saving their shooting efforts for a higher degree of scoring chance?

Do the Flames give up the zone, and the perimeter shot knowing they will block a good percentage of these attempts, and then use their quick pass transition game to create a more dangerous opportunity the other way?

Until we get a true measure of actual blue chip scoring chances, all these numbers will ever suggest is a team shooting the puck more often than their opposition is the better team on the ice.

But for now I’ll just have to accept the fact that the Flames, 16 points up on their provincial rivals the Oilers are actually the inferior team in Fenwick, Coris and PDO.

Damn, and the season seemed so promising.

Ranking the Team’s Games

    Corsi Top 5 Best

1. Flames 6 Montreal 2
2. Flames 3 Nashville 2 (SO)
3. Hawks 4 Flames 3
4. Flames 5 Carolina 0
5. Ducks 3 Flames 2

There is little doubt that the win in Montreal and the home ice pasting of the Hurricanes were two of the Flame’s most memorable nights of the campaign, and all 5 games were exciting from a Flame’s stand point, but the Nashville game in particular was used as an example by many of the Flames being carried by their goaltender early in the season.

    Corsi Top 5 Worst

1. Flames 2 Hawks 1 (OT)
2. Flames 5 Oilers 2
3. Flames 4 Nashville 3
4. Flames 2 Sharks 0
5. Flames 6 Panthers 4

The remarkable thing about this list is that the Flames emerged with 2 points in all five of their worst advanced stats games this year, what are the chances of that? The Hawk game on this list is the only one that jumps out as a game where the Flames had no business winning.

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