If you had to name one of the most noteworthy and historic rivalries in the NHL, the Battle of Alberta would find itself near the top of that list. During its peak when both teams were Stanley Cup contenders, the games between these the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers were filled with nastiness, hall of fame talents, and of course, quality hockey. The “Battle” unfortunately dwindled as these provincial rivals both went through periods of struggle opposite of each other around the new millennium.
Luckily for fans, there has been a revival of sorts in the past few seasons as both Calgary and Edmonton have stockpiled a wealth of young, gifted, and in some cases truculent players that have reinvigorated the rivalry.
For the past three seasons, these games would be circled as must-watch events for fans in Alberta. Unfortunately for those who wear the Flaming “C”, the results have favored the team in the capital. Since the start of the 2015-16 NHL season, Edmonton has amassed nine wins to Calgary’s three.
The shift in power coincides with another significant milestone: that season was the first in Connor McDavid’s career with the Oilers. Taken first overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, McDavid has quickly established himself as one of, if not the, best player on the planet.
After last Thursday’s most recent loss to the Oilers (in dramatic fashion), the Flames have now dropped seven straight battles dating back the beginning of the 2016-17 season. The Flames’ effort Thursday was by no means stagnant; the game was trending into “best game of the season” territory even before overtime began. And as he’s done so many times through his career, it was #97 that delivered the finishing blow in the shootout. In his 10 career games versus the Flames, McDavid has netted nine goals and six assists, for 1.5 points per game.
The Flames most recent Battle of Alberta begs two main questions:
- Is McDavid, who seems to be a Flame killer, the sole reason for the Oilers’ winning record over the Flames?
- Which team has truly been the most dominant in the Battle of Alberta?
A total of 12 contests in the Battle of Alberta have been played since McDavid entered the league in 2015, and their results are below:
The Oilers hold a 9-3-0 record to the Flames’ 3-7-2. During these games, the Flames have scored 3.1 GPG to the Oilers’ 3.9 GPG. What is key to note from this 12 game set is that two games on 12/27/2015 and 01/16/2016 did not feature McDavid due to his collarbone injury. This injury caused slight variations in the end results:
With McDavid in the lineup, the Oilers managed to win eight of the 10 games played. Without him in the lineup, the two game series was split. On the offensive side, the Flames’ goal production lowered minutely with McDavid out of the lineup. The opposite trend was observed on the Oilers’ side. Their GPG was significantly higher when McDavid suited up.
One interesting difference in the win column is that Glen Gulutzan has yet to beat the Oilers in his Flames tenure. All three wins the Flames have had since McDavid joined the league came during Bob Hartley’s final season.
The two games played without McDavid may be a small sample size to pull from, but still show differences in the final results. These assumptions alone are not be able to concretely support a final conclusion on his impact, but there are more advanced metrics that can help investigate these trends further. All metrics discussed below refer to 5v5 Score and Venue Adjusted values.
5v5 possession ratings in the Battle of Alberta have fluctuated. Some games have an relatively equal split, and others are much more lopsided. Of course, CF% doesn’t always confirm a team’s end result. This is best exemplified from the 1/21/2017 contest where the Flames dominated with a CF% of 68.29%, but ended up losing the game 7-3. This was the most extreme split, but an average over the 12 games provides a more even picture.
The Flames hold the possession edge slightly over this period with a 51.48% CF. In the 10 games with McDavid in the lineup, the Flames actually improved their CF% by just over 1.5%. Ironically in the two games McDavid was missing from the lineup, the Flames were chasing more than usual dropping their average 43.60% CF. With McDavid in the lineup, the Flames appeared to play a much more defensively centered game compared to when he wasn’t.
Scoring chances for both teams varied much more from an equal split. Besides the aforementioned 1/21/2017 game, the team with the higher SCF% corresponded with a win the majority of the time.
The averages show that even though the Flames only won three games, they held the higher proportion of scoring chances by 0.4%. Not a significant margin, but over the 12 games they had a few extra chances than the Oilers. Adding McDavid into the equation confuses the trend a bit, as the Oilers had a lower SCF% with him in the lineup. In the two games without McDavid, they dominated the scoring chance opportunities improving by just over 4% above the mean.
Categorizing the scoring chances even further, we see that the trend observed in SCF% is further exacerbated when looking at the “high danger” chances. Teams with a higher SCF% seemed to hold the higher proportion of HDCF% as well.
The averages once again show the exact same trend as observed in the previous two statistical categories. The Flames hold the edge over the 12 game series by a slight margin. Calgary also happened to have a higher proportion of high danger chances with McDavid in the lineup than they did without facing him. Over the small sample size of missing McDavid, the Flames held the closest difference from the Oilers in HDCF%.
The McDavid Effect?
From a wins standpoint, it’s quite clear that the Oilers have benefited greatly with the presence of #97. Outpacing the Flames in both wins and GPG with McDavid, there is a clear advantage in the Battle of Alberta.
What is more interesting is the effect that McDavid has had on some of the more advanced metrics. It could have been assumed that by having McDavid in the lineup the Oilers should have continued their dominance and held the slight edge in all of the statistical categories. The opposite trend was exhibited as the Flames seemed to have the better statistical performances with McDavid in the lineup. This hasn’t been able to translate into wins unfortunately for the Flames.
A case could be made that by having McDavid in the lineup, the Flames must alter their game plan vastly to accommodate for additional defensive coverage. This would explain for the rise in possession ratings, as it could have been a greater focus during those games. That of course could come at a cost, as demonstrated by the win breakdown between coaches. Gulutzan’s possession centered system has resulted in zero wins over the Oilers. Hartley’s strategy may have been matched more favorably over the Oilers than Gulutzan’s.
From an on-ice perspective, the Flames have appeared to be the better statistical team in a handful of categories. Their effort does not properly reflect in their 3-7-2 record, as they vastly outperformed their provincial counterpart in some cases.
There is no denying that McDavid has has a drastic effect on the Battle of Alberta in a number of ways. He seems to bring out the best in the Flames, while his own teammates more than picked up their play in his absence. The Flames may have been the better team on most meetings with the Oilers, but they still haven’t figured out how to chalk up a single win in last seven matches. With or without McDavid, the Flames need to learn how to beat Edmonton if they want to keep pace in the Pacific over the next eight years.