In last week’s piece on the Anaheim Ducks, I noted that there was something of a perfect storm – one that was breaking very favourably for Bruce Boudreau’s team. Not only had his team improved, but the combination of a new playoff format and a surprisingly unimpressive division has created something of a promising route through the Western Conference.
The playoff route discussion was centered on the unexpected development of the Calgary Flames supplanting the Los Angeles Kings – at least tentatively – in the playoff picture. It’s a totally unexpected development, the kind of happenings that create a special kind of intrigue as the NHL’s regular season winds down.
This season is something of found money to the Flames – the team’s rebuilding plans don’t necessarily need to be deterred because of one unexpected run to the postseason.
That’s an important note, because despite the 29-21-3 record, this team is still a ways off from competing with some of the better Western Conference teams.
There’s a hard-and-fast rule about NHL playoff berths over the past decade or so, and it goes something like this: at least 12 of the 16 available seeds will be awarded to teams who dictate play at 5-on-5. This is something that’s easy to quantify and easy to visualize – consider the below plot, which shows both Corsi For (per 60) and Corsi Against (per 60) dating back to the 2007-2008 season. The playoff teams that controlled 5-on-5 play in their respective years sit on the right side of our dividing line; the playoff teams that were out-possessed sit on the left side of our dividing line. (Note: For this season, which is obviously not complete, I have identified playoff teams by today’s standings.)
There’s an obvious concentration of playoff teams to the right of our dividing line, indicating that they were on the favorable end of even-strength possession. Our big black circles are, of course, Stanley Cup winners – this gives us an idea as to how dominant a team generally is to win a championship in today’s NHL. Other than Crosby’s Penguins, every team was a plus-possession one, and most of them were just otherworldly dominant.
Calgary, on the other hand, is just a bit ahead of Randy Carlyle Maple Leafs territory. Their Score-Adjusted Fenwick% -- a possession proxy that accounts for score effects – has them at just 45.8%, which is 27th in the league. The gap between them and league leaders like the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay, and Chicago is twice as large as the gap between those same league leaders and middling teams like Florida and Carolina. Even recognizing that this year is ‘found money’ and that the eye is still on the future, it’s still a bit discouraging.
This brings us to the big question: if the Flames are playing so poorly, what’s keying the team to routine victory? There are, I would submit, three factors in play here.
One, the team has shot 8.9% at 5-on-5 this year, good for second-best in the league. There is an abundance of random variance in team-level shooting percentages, and it certainly appears on the surface that the Flames have benefited from an awful lot of ‘puck luck’ in the offensive zone. It’s worth noting that last year’s Flames team, comprised mostly of the same players (and struggled comparatively to this year’s team at controlling play), shot right around the league average at 7.8%. A betting man would wager on the Flames shooting around 7.8% over the rest of the season and beyond. If that’s the case, that – combined with the poor shot generation to begin with – could create a doomsday scenario for the Flames’ playoff fate.
Two, the Flames are 10-3 beyond regulation this season (77% win percentage). That’s the third best winning percentage in the league. Unfortunately, winning games in overtime or shootout is not a repeatable skill. We know this because there is zero correlation between a team’s OT/SO winning percentage in a given year, and the team’s OT/SO winning percentage in the following year.
The games have already been played, but consider this: if we simply regressed Calgary and Los Angeles’ OT/SO records to the league norm (Los Angeles is an equitably unbelievable 2-12), the Kings would be three points up on the Flames, rather than five points back.
So, random variance is contributing a fair bit. But it’s not all luck. The fact is, Calgary is a very top-heavy team – the forward and defensive depth has dragged down the overall team’s performance. In particular, the top defence tandem of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie remains sensational.
This is the third (and maybe most important) factor. We visited this topic back in October, and it is holding true again through the first few months of 2014-2015. The extent to which the two pull the Flames to respectability is jarring.
This graph can be summarized as follows: with Giordano and Brodie, Calgary’s a fairly competitive team in terms of puck-possession and scoring chances, and have gone through stretches where they have actually experienced better than break-even percentages of scoring chances. Considering that this pairing should be buried by team effects – look how dismal things are when they are off the ice! – their performance is, again, super-impressive.
Giordano and Brodie are the kinds of talent you need to legitimately bring a team into the post-season. I’m skeptical that the rest of the team is really any good, but again, the Flames intended for this to be a rebuilding season. Squeezing into the first-round of a competitive Western Conference would be a huge feather in the cap of the entire franchise, and it doesn’t disservice them any as they continue to build towards future long-term contention.