With training camps opening in about a week and a half, a lot of predictions are starting to roll in for how things will shake out this season. One of the most common themes in these predictions, though, is that no one quite knows what to do with the Calgary Flames.
It's no secret they overachieved last season, and no secret they improved more so than just about anyone else in the league, though one might be inclined to listen to arguments in Dallas's favor here.
But at this point, the degree to which we've seen teams just like Calgary fail in years after big steps forward in terms of success is enough to give doubters pause that maybe Dougie Hamilton and Michael Frolik and the continued improvement of the team's various U-20 players will be enough to make up the coming correction in team shooting percentage.
On the other hand, there are people who think that even those additions might not be enough, even if they do constitute, again, a huge improvement.
The general consensus seems to be that Calgary is perhaps a borderline playoff team when all is settled. They might make it just-barely, or they might miss it just-barely. Only the most ardent Flames homers think they're actually going to improve on last year's total of 97 points (which, it's worth remembering that 97 was the lowest total for a playoff team anywhere in the league last season).
People at this point are intimately familiar with the arguments against the Flames, namely that their team shooting percentage was so high (a second-in-the-league 8.7 percent at evens, and 12th-best 12.9 percent on the power play) and their possession numbers so rotten that they're going to start losing a lot of the one-goal games they won last year. They were 19-13-7 in one-goal games overall (a .577 win percentage), including shootouts, but 20 of those games needed at least an overtime period to settle. They were 4-3 in shootouts, but 9-4 in 4-on-4 overtimes. Most of the time, teams go about .500 in both, so that overtime number is very out of sync with the norm.
But again, we know all this. And we also know that Calgary's improvement this summer significantly surpasses the steps forward taken by their low-possession, high-point-total forebears in “Statistically Unlikely Seasons Plus-1.” If there's one thing you could say for Brad Treliving, it's that he — unlike general managers in a similar situation in years past — understands that this team needed help. He did not necessarily, as so many Flames fans did, buy his own team's BS narrative that they've magically figured out the way to “out-quality” and “out-work” possession numbers.
So no, the Flames did not rest on the laurels of improbable regular- and postseason success and wisely beefed up given that Anaheim made sure they had the cleanest clock in the league in that second-round thrashing. And while it would be rote at this point to revisit the doom-and-gloom pronouncements of crashing percentages suffocating this team's hopes in the cradle, there are other things to consider that the Flames did well beyond “get the bounces.”
Perhaps the biggest of these is that Calgary draws penalties and also stay out of the box. Indeed, their penalty differential was tied for 11th-highest of any team over the last eight seasons — colloquially known as the "Behind The Net Era" — at plus-47. What's interesting is that during that time, there isn't much correlation between 5-on-5 possession (CF%) and penalty differential.
Unfortunately, there don't seem to be too many teams that are necessarily good or bad from one year to the next in terms of keeping that number up. Even teams with little coaching turnover generally can swing wildly from one side to the other, regardless of their quality. During this eight-season span, though, there's about a 41 percent correlation between one year's penalty differential and the next, meaning that teams do seem to exert some amount of control over this issue. And while you don't often see a jump in either direction as significant as Calgary's positive change of 43 additional penalties in their favor overall.
Mainly, what the Flames seemed to do particularly well here was avoid taking penalties; they drew a decent amount themselves, but only taking 176 penalties at 5-on-5 puts them 32nd out of 240 teams. That's almost the 87th percentile. And there's even more of a positive correlation in this regard, meaning teams have more control over the penalties they commit than their overall penalty differential. That should bode well for Calgary, though it comes with the caveat that Hamilton has generally committed more penalties than he's drawn (which isn't uncommon for even good defensemen), and therefore might not be much of a help in this department.
Having the ability to spend nearly 100 extra minutes on the power play over the course of a season than penalty killing is going to do wonders for your total goal differential; Calgary was plus-24 overall, but minus-2 at full strength. Having the fourth-highest PDO in the league at 5-on-5 even got them that far. Meanwhile, though, the team was pretty middling in all ways on special teams, and it's really only the huge disparity in time on the power play versus killing penalties that drove them to that level of success. History indicates that they can exert some influence here and perhaps keep themselves out of the box enough to give them the extra push they need to make up for the even-strength percentage-cratering that's likely to happen this season.
One area that remains a major point of concern, though, is the third period in particular. Through all game situations — 5-on-5, special teams, goalie pulled, etc. — the Flames were second-best in the NHL in terms of goal differential, at plus-31. When it came to anything that wasn't 5-on-5, though, they were dominant.
Finishing the season just minus-3 on the PK in the third period is insane. Even with how few penalties they conceded (a league-lowest 40), that's not a number you can expect to hold up. Likewise, their shooting 18.3 percent on the power play in the third isn't going to keep happening, no matter how good Johnny Gaudreau is at putting the puck in the net.
The most interesting thing for me here, though, is the fact that they only allowed one more empty-net goal than they scored with the goalie out. Their shooting percentage of 17.3 percent with their own goalie on the bench is the 23rd-highest in the last eight seasons (90th percentile), and that's a number that will likewise come down.
That all comes despite the fact that their third-period score-adjusted possession numbers (47.6 percent), while improved from the first two periods (46.9 percent and 45 percent, respectively), were still seventh-worst in the NHL.
Meanwhile, their goal numbers in all situations during the first (minus-16) and second periods (plus-4) are, as you might expect, far more pedestrian than those in the third. Those who would have us believe that the Flames' results last year reflect their true talents are effectively asking you to ignore all but the third period, and really, all but the special teams play they put together in those thirds and overtimes.
If all these percentages even out, their problems at 5-on-5 last season might not seem so problematic in comparison given their less effective power play and penalty kill. Even assuming their abilities to draw penalties and stay out of the box remain unchanged (though it seems a safe bet that a number so great can't stay that high), the Flames will probably have less special-teams success simply because of how good they were last year, especially in the third periods.
What they did basically for the entirety of last year in a single period makes for immensely entertaining hockey, of course. But whether it makes for winning hockey on a consistent, year-over-year basis, is another matter entirely.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.