Time is running out for the Calgary Flames.
Though head coach Glen Gulutzan would surely point you to the fact that the Flames sit just three points out of a wild-card spot, the reality is Calgary has gone cold while the rest of the Western Conference is heating up. Not only is Calgary on the outside looking in, but just about every other legitimate contender out West has dialled it up a notch.
If you look at the last 10 games for every team in the Western Conference, you’ll notice that just about every legitimate contender is playing reasonably well, save Calgary. It’s pushed the Flames out of a playoff spot and now gives them just a 16 per cent chance of reaching the postseason.
Whether or not they reach the postseason in 2017-18, general manager Brad Treliving knows that he has some significant work to do with his roster.
One of the issues that has plagued Calgary over the last couple of seasons is the performance of the bottom half of the lineup. The Flames really have become a tale of two teams. The first team is the one that looks like a surefire playoff-calibre club. This usually coincides with the Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton pairing being on the ice, along with superstar Johnny Gaudreau’s line. The second team is what happens when Calgary’s stars come off of the ice.
One way to show the struggles the Flames are having at the bottom of the lineup is to plot out how performance measures versus usage for all skaters. For strong teams, you would expect to see tight clustering in performance regardless of who was on the ice. For top-heavy teams (or more generally, teams with wide distributions in performance), you would expect to see great deviations in whatever statistical measure you’re looking at.
Below, I have plotted out all Calgary forwards and defenders by three measures. On the horizontal axis is each player’s Corsi%, or the percentage of shots in Calgary’s favour when the given play was on the ice. On the vertical axis is each player’s Goal%, or the percentage of goals in Calgary’s favour when the given player was on the ice. The bubble size is correlated with usage – the larger the bubble, the more time the player has spent on the ice.
I think both skater groups are illuminating for different reasons. Let’s start with the forwards first:
I think you can comfortably slide the forward group into three buckets. The top right quadrant – the one featuring Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Micheal Ferland, Matt Stajan, and Garnet Hathaway – have really slaughtered the opposition for most of the season. They’re getting about 53 per cent of the shots and 58 per cent of the goals, which are both huge numbers.
The second bucket would be the so-called 3M Line of Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Frolik, and Mikael Backlund. Based on the way they’ve dominated territorially (they are getting close to 60 per cent of the shot share at 5-on-5), I think it’s fair to say they have had a little bit of a luck issue on the goals front. It’s hardly the area of long-term concern for this team. But still, this line has been regularly outscored at 5-on-5. And considering how much Calgary needs them to sustain success, that’s an issue.
The real problem, though, is at the bottom of the lineup. Calgary’s third and fourth lines truly are terrible and that’s been true regardless of which combination Gulutzan has gone to over the course of the season. Bottom-six forwards aren’t expected to produce or perform in the same manner as the guys who are paid to drive goal and win totals, but they also aren’t expected to submarine their team’s performance on a regular basis.
When you have six guys getting 46 per cent of the goals (and in some cases, worse), that’s a major problem. Add that to the luck issues the 3M Line has had and you have a recipe for disaster. (Side note: I included Chris Stewart on the plot for visibility purposes. I think it’s fair to say Calgary’s added another guy that really doesn’t do much to help their issues down the lineup.)
Now, the defenders:
This is where I think the real story is. Calgary’s blueline seems more talented than your average six-man unit around the league, but the performance just isn’t there.
Sure, Hamilton and Giordano wax everyone they play against, and that pays huge dividends to whichever lucky forward group is out there with them. But the team is paying guys like TJ Brodie and Travis Hamonic handsomely to produce similar results, even if they have been slid into a more defensive role. Brodie in particular is actually the team’s most deployed defender at even strength, which is noteworthy because of how poor his results have been this year.
Brodie and Hamonic are both talented players, but the longer this goes on, the more you start to wonder why the team isn’t getting similar results with them on the ice. It’s true that they see some pretty tough zone starts and are matched hard against the opposition’s best lines, but they also routinely play with the 3M Line, which definitely helps in the teammate quality department.
At the end of the day, Calgary has $21 million a year and 29 per cent of the cap invested in these four players. There may be excusable or justifiable reasons as to why there is a sizable performance skew, but the return on Calgary’s investment just hasn’t been there this year.
Calgary will surely work to salvage this season and try to snag one of the last playoff spots up for grabs. But come this summer, you have to think that addressing depth performance will remain a hot-button issue for the team. It’s on the short list of reasons why they are in such an untenable situation today.