So the Calgary Flames were eliminated on Sunday night and that’s fair enough. The Anaheim Ducks were and are a much better team. But the important part here is the lesson they can take from that opponent.
For the last few years, the Ducks were criticized heavily for their inability to get too deep in the playoffs. They’d rack up a bunch of points in the regular season (an average of 102 per 82-game season in the last four) then lose in the playoffs, often in embarrassing fashion, and then work to figure things out over the summer with little success. It wasn’t until this year, when a stock of young talent shored up the team’s depth while Bob Murray went out and got a legitimate, defensively responsible No. 2 center in Ryan Kesler to help ease the usage on the Ryan Getzlaf/Corey Perry duo.
And it worked. The Ducks posted the third-best regular season in franchise history, and have now gone 8-1 in two playoff series (albeit against a banged-up Jets team and a poor Flames club). While it’s tough to say they’re better than Chicago, they’re certainly better positioned to give a team of such power a legitimate run for their money.
Murray continually tried to identify areas of weakness in his club, and despite the fact that they finished with a franchise-record 116 points, he actually went out and made a significant, bold move to further improve the club, swapping out a No. 1 pick, a mediocre defenseman, and a 20-goal-scoring 25-year-old center who many thought could be a major contributor going forward. The Ducks got the better of that deal by far.
Now, the Ducks learned this lesson the hard way over a period of a handful of years: Just because you have good regular seasons built on success in the percentages doesn’t guarantee you’re all that close to a Cup. Last year was the first one in four in which the Ducks advanced out of the first round. This is the first time they’ve moved out of the second since they won the Stanley Cup eight years ago.
Put another way, the Ducks weren’t convinced that just because they got good regular seasons and then were bounced unceremoniously from the playoffs didn’t mean they were actually Cup-competitive. And that’s a pitfall the Flames need desperately to avoid.
The biggest question, then, is whether they buy their own hype.
All season the mantra out of Calgary has been that hard work and good systems were what led to the amount of success they had relative to expectations; most people had them picked to finish in the Edmonton-Buffalo-Arizona area but they knocked down 97 points to finish with the eighth-most points in the Western Conference. Many have noted that this shows that a team so young may not have been smart enough (or whatever line of BS the media decided to shovel about them) to believe they were as bad as they ought to have been, or that Bob Hartley’s systems — which were not very effective last season — were somehow revelatory this year. It’s been said a lot, but the Flames are now the latest team to “solve corsi” and figure out how to drive “shot quality” long-term.
And while you’d have to say that they kept up the mystique of that notion longer than the Maple Leafs or Avalanche did in the two years prior, reality did come crashing down around them in this second round, all afire. Average attempts per game in the five-game series came to about 48.8-39.4, a huge difference even if it doesn’t look like one (by way of comparison, the Rangers/Caps series is currently at about 54.8-53.5).
But the thing is, apart from Game 1 all these games were close enough that a team like Calgary, a team with Brian “Analytics Are Like a Lamppost for a Drunk” Burke at the helm, might be able to say they deserved better. Excluding empty nets, after all, the Flames were only outscored 11-8 after that initial blowout. And given Burke’s stated fascination with adding “beef” around smaller skill players with high ceilings like Sam Bennett and Johnny Gaudreau, one wonders about the mandate Brad Treliving will have this summer.
The good news is that Treliving has made a lot of comments that indicate he might believe this is all a mirage, but could also be interpreted as simply seeing the team as being “ahead of schedule” in this admitted rebuild. If he actually means the latter, that strikes me as deeply troublesome.
The Flames are the worst possession team to make the playoffs since they invented the shootout, and that infamous corsi share of 44.5 was infamously third-worst in the league. They got by on the fifth-highest PDO in the league, and most of the teams ahead of them (apart from second-worst corsi team Colorado, who were predictably awful) got elite-level goaltending from elite-level goaltenders. Only Tampa had a higher shooting percentage.
And so Treliving has to ask himself: What happens when 10.5 percent shooting regresses to the league average of 8.9 percent? If the Flames take the same number of shots next season (a 28th-best 2,252) and only shoot in the neighborhood of this year’s league average — let’s be nice and say 9 percent — their goals-for number drops from 237, which was tied for sixth in the NHL, to about 203. That’s a loss of 34 goals, and given that we know about 5.5 goals worth of goal differential equals a win, that costs the Flames a little more than 12 points in the standings. They go from a 97-point team to an 85-point team.
And look at the situations in which they exceeded the league average:
You can think Bob Hartley is a good coach overall — I’m not convinced — but the idea that he has figured out how to nearly triple the league rate in shooting at 4-on-4, or improve extra-attacker shot quality by 70 percent is obviously ridiculous. The Flames’ goal differential in those situations: 14-8 at 4-on-4, and 10-11 with an extra attacker. That alone adds a lot of points to their season total; scoring at 4-on-4 leads to OT wins (Calgary was 9-4 in 4-on-4 overtime) and scoring with the extra attacker gets you to overtime more often than not.
A good way to evaluate the success of systems overall is to look at where goals are scored. Thanks to War On Ice’s Hextally tool, we can examine this closely. That indispensable stat site breaks the attacking zone down into 15 zones, which I’ve recreated below. As you might imagine, higher-percentage areas are generally closer to the net, so let’s see if the Flames really exploited that at 5-on-5; Flames are in red, the other 29 teams are below them in grey:
(I also looked at 4-on-4 zones too, but we’re only talking about 120 shots, so that’s not a big enough sample to definitively say, “Well they were clearly effective from this part of the ice.”)
So as you can see, the Flames had more success than the other 29 times in the middle slot, in the home plate area, and perhaps most notably down the right wing (opponents’ left side). But when you compare that with the rate at which they actually shot from those places relative to league average, you’ll see that the Flames aren’t actually getting to those areas very effectively, at least relative to where everyone else is:
Meanwhile, the Flames are also not getting to the net nearly as much either, but rather the majority of the areas where they do take more shots than opponents are low-percentage areas. Their left point, the high middle slot, and the low middle slot. They’re right around league average between the hashmarks and from the upper left circle. So maybe you say this is a function of Jiri Hudler, who had 31 goals, driving shot quality, but they certainly don’t drive quantity enough that you’d expect him to keep up shooting 19.6 percent versus a career average of 15.1 percent (which is still quite high).
So this is something Hartley has to fix, certainly. The question is whether he can do it, and how much of the problem stems from personnel.
It’s no secret that the Flames do not have a very good roster. Good or even great veterans at just about every position? Sure. Hudler is a proven borderline-first/second liner (his 76 points this year exceeded his career high by 19, but you can usually count on him to break the half-century mark every season). Mark Giordano is a Norris-calibre defenseman and TJ Brodie isn’t far behind. Jonas Hiller is average or slightly above it.
But a lot of older guys overperformed this year, to lead to this kind of season; the odds that 32-year-old Dennis Wideman ever approaches 15 goals and 56 points again in his career are basically nil, Kris Russell isn’t likely to rack up 30 assists again any time soon, etc. A lot of this team’s offense came from the blue line, and that’s not really much of a recipe for success when that same defense also bleeds possession.
And yes, Calgary does have some very interesting younger players. Mikael Backlund looks to have finally become the possession player everyone thought he could be. Johnny Gaudreau is electrifying, Sam Bennett looks like he could be something special, Sean Monahan put up 31 goals at age 20, etc.
But how much will youth step up next season, or the one after that? Can you really expect more out of Monahan, or indeed most players in the NHL, than 31 goals? A top-3 center situation of Monahan, Bennett, and Backlund is a good place for any team to be moving forward in theory; you can go out and get a good fourth-line possession center on the free agent market for peanuts every year, in the post-Matt Stajan era a few years from now, even if they don’t develop one in the interim.
But in terms of where centers who top out at 21, 19, and 26 (if they do indeed re-sign Backlund, which they should have done months ago) regression from the highs seen this year can perhaps be expected. And certainly the rest of the team isn’t there yet.
Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler could be a whopper of a top line going forward — again, in theory — but beyond that, their second highest-scoring wing this season was David Jones at 30 points. That’s a huge drop-off. And it’s not one that can be fixed easily. A lot of what the Flames have is guys who are perceived to be better than they are. “Matt Stajan is a good depth center” (but he had 17 points in 59 games), “Mason Raymond was a good veteran pickup” (but maybe you want more than 23 points for your $3.15 million), “Deryk Engelland provides a lot of toughness” (but Deryk Engelland sucks), etc.
The concern Flames fans ought to have here is that while Gaudreau, Bennett, Monahan, and Brodie are good players for the future, they’re going to get expensive. Brodie is already signed to a very reasonable long-term extension for what he provides at the back end ($4.65 million through 2020, which is a steal for Treliving), but next year for Monahan will be a contract year. Same with Gaudreau. And because they burned a year of Bennett’s ELC on two playoff games for a series the team was doomed to lose anyway, he’s due a new deal in 2017. Maybe you say it’s a good problem to have, and it’s not like the Flames are hurting for cap space right now, but things could also start to get tight. What if they all want Ryan Johansen money, etc.?
The Flames have 15 guys on deals for next year and a number of RFAs they will undoubtedly re-sign, most on one-way deals (Backlund, Josh Jooris, Lance Bouma, Michael Ferland, Drew Shore). That’s all well and good. Only six are signed for 2016-17, which is even better, because that frees up a lot of money.
But the danger, again, is that they believe the hype. If they go out and sign even a small number of veterans to longer-term deals this summer, the current flexibility is greatly imperiled. And Treliving’s track record of player acquisitions hasn’t been great. The contract to Engelland (three years, $2.92 million per) is as incomprehensible as it is indefensible. Raymond is an expensive, unneeded depth piece. He traded for Brandon Bollig for some reason.
He makes sensible deals, of course (signing Jonas Hiller shored up the goaltending, he grabbed David Schlemko off waivers to bring in an extra body when Giordano went down for the year, he offloaded Curtis Glencross when it became apparent the winger wouldn’t re-sign), but these are transactions anyone could have made. Perfectly obvious moves. The nonsensical has slightly outweighed the judicious to this point.
There’s also the matter of what you do with Giordano: On the one hand, injuries have kept him from winning the Norris two years running, and obviously he’s fantastic. On the other, re-signing him for a deal that starts in 2016-17 should therefore be quite expensive, and by that time he will be 33 years old.
You’re approaching danger territory at that point; from 2005-06 to present, the number of defensemen who have broken both 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 and been at least 35 years old is just 42. The vast majority of them are, ahem “defensive defensemen,” who don’t drive play, let alone score a lot. The number of Norris-level seasons or even close turned in by those guys are basically Zdeno Chara (best of his era), Nick Lidstrom (second-best ever), Brian Rafalski (borderline Hall of Famer). Giving Giordano big money means you think he’s to that level, and I’m not sure that’s a smart bet.
If he wants a long-term deal at a high price point — which he should, for his own sake, because he’s never gotten the mega-payday of his elite peers — is it wise for Calgary to give it to him? When do the wheels fall off? Can he play at this level for the full 82? Big questions, all of which lead to another, bigger one: “What if you don’t give him the money?” They’ll probably have an answer one way or another this summer; there should be no way they let him go to even the trade deadline with that question hanging over proceedings. And because the Flames have very few NHL-level defensemen in the cupboard, well, how do you solve that problem in a sensible way?
The point is that any pursuit of this level of team performance next season, whether that comes in the form of giving out too-big contracts to depth players — which is all you’re going to get on the UFA market this summer — or trying to poach someone via a trade that involves giving up futures (because they have few veterans anyone would actually want, though fortunately Treliving claims to have an opposition to this tack), would be exceedingly unwise.
It’s the path Toronto took in signing David Clarkson at huge cost and others to add what the team “lacked.” and Colorado did in signing a creaky Jarome Iginla big-money and long-term, and trading for Brad Stuart. It’s a path that leads to ruin.
A lot of Treliving’s comments about, “We’re ahead of where we thought we’d be are,” are shown as him perhaps being wise enough to know he still has a lot of work to do, but could also be seen as, “We’ve arrived ahead of schedule.” These are not the same sentiment. Thinking Hartley can wring a sort of performance like this season out of any bums you plunk down on the roster — and boy were there plenty of them this year — is the kind of thing bad GMs do.
People don’t think Treliving is a bad GM. Yet. And if he’s not, the best plan he can adopt is to roll the dice with more or less this exact same roster next year, let the chips fall where they may (probably in the 76-82 point range), and continue to build for the future. Anything beyond that is the overreach the likes of which doomed Icarus.
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