In terms of their on-ice product, the Calgary Flames took a few steps back in the 2019-20 season after an all-around stellar performance in 2018-19. Despite both the on-ice and off-ice issues that they faced, they still competed in the 2020 postseason. After a first round exit to the Dallas Stars, the Flames sought to improve, and they head into the new season having made moves to address multiple issues up and down their roster.
For whatever reason, some of the team’s best players all stumbled out of the gates in fall 2019 and were not as effective as they were just one year removed. This includes the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and the winner of last year’s Norris Trophy, Mark Giordano.
In 2018-19, the three of them along with Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk were responsible for 148 goals and 262 assists. It was an impressive feat that had them rivaling the 2000-01 Pittsburgh Penguins for best five-man unit on an NHL team in modern hockey.
The incredible regular season run by the Flames led to heightened expectations, but it wasn’t repeated. While there are a lot of factors that contribute to a team’s ability to string together consecutively dominant seasons, at the end of the day, you have to outscore your opponent to win.
The Flames went from second-most goals in the league to 20th in the league in the span of just one season—a worrisome drop off to say the least. The team managed a total of 210 goals for, good for 3.0 goals per game. Last year, they averaged a significantly higher scoring rate at a bit over 3.5 goals per game.
To see what might have happened, we can look at shot attempt versus goal distances, and see if the data can reveal anything about how the Flames played their game this past year.
Calgary Flames shot and goal distances
I created plots to show every Flames’ shot attempt and goal distances from the net. This is the reiteration of 2018-19 shot attempt and goal distance charts, where all shot attempts and goals by every player with at least 30 games played are shown.
The plots are created in R using the tidyverse and ggbeeswarm. Data courtesy of MoneyPuck.com. The beeswarm plot shows the full shot distribution of every player, which is useful in highlighting their tendencies in terms of where they like to shoot, and where they are successful in getting their goals.
Forwards and defencemen are split into different charts, as their positions inherently lead to very different shot distributions. So with all that said, let’s see what happened with the 2019-20 Flames.
Thirteen different forwards logged at least 30 games played last season. Among this group, Michael Frolik has the least games played with 38 before he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres. Zac Rinaldo was on the other side of the cutoff, posting 19 games over the year.
Leading the Flames in scorer last season, Lindholm did so with a unique shot distribution. As long as he was within 50 feet from the net, he’d happily take a shot. And his goals are also spread out accordingly. He proves to an effective goal scorer at various distances from the net, which could have played a large role in his goal scoring outburst.
Most of the Flames forwards tend to get closer to the net for the majority of their shot attempts, but another player that stuck out with more shots taken from further back rather than up close to the net was Gaudreau. This may have been to his apparent less effective scoring at the net, where he only scored eight goals from within 25 feet.
Other top forwards on the team all had at least 10 goals. It’s hard to tell which was the cause and which is the effect; did Gaudreau consciously take more shots from further back after not being able to score in close, or did he just have a hard time getting to the net at all given how defenders adjust their game with him on the ice?
If Gaudreau’s going to trend back towards scoring 30 goals a year, he’ll have to find a way to get closer and challenge goaltenders more effectively. Interestingly, he was tied with Mark Giordano with the most corsi for on the Flames (as per NaturalStatTrick.com).
Tkachuk and Monahan’s shooting tendencies opposed that of Lindholm and Gaudreau’s, where both of the former prefer to get significantly closer to the net before shooting. After all, it’s where they’ve been the most effectively. In particular, Tkachuk always tries to reduce the gap between himself and the goaltender if given the choice, as his shot distances skew heavily toward to net.
Monahan is also tenacious at getting to the net, though to a lesser extent than Tkachuk. Both of these players are reliable goal scorers, and are opportunistic scorers. Monahan can often be seen getting himself open for high probability shots between the faceoff circles, and Tkachuk can do almost all the work himself to build up scoring plays.
A standout player is Andrew Mangiapane. He put up eight goals in 44 games in 2018-19, and exploded this year for 17 goals in 68 games. His development has led to him being a highly reliable middle-six player, and chances are he’ll be playing second line minutes all year long. Mangiapane’s shot distribution is quite similar to Monahan’s, and for someone with his current talent, it’s no surprise that he’s getting offensively rewarded.
Mikael Backlund rounds out the top-six and he had a large range in shot distances, and was able to score within 40 feet quite effectively too. It was after the All-Star Game that Backlund really picked up. The month of February was a good one for him, as he scored nine of his sixteen goals that month alone.
The Flames had a handful of goals each from Derek Ryan, Sam Bennett, Milan Lucic, and Dillon Dube. While Calgary’s depth scoring was not as potent as it was in 2018-19, there was still some bright spots coming from the depth roles.
In particular, Dillon Dube looks to have secured his status as a full-time NHLer. Depending on how the Flames sort out their forward lines, Dube stands to greatly benefit if he can build on his playoff performance. Similarly, if Bennett gets moved back to centre, he would have a good opportunity to put together a solid campaign heading into a contract year.
Lastly, the Flames had some goals coming in from Mark Jankowski and Tobias Rieder, both of whom have since departed from the Flames this offseason. Jankowski was limited to 56 games and Rieder to 55. Both filled out the roles of penalty killing forwards, with Jankowski being second on the team with penalty kill time on ice behind Lindholm.
Rieder was a bit unlucky in his campaign with the Flames as his on-ice product was good enough to have netted a few more goals than he actually got. However, he played his role well, and was serviceable whenever he dressed for games.
Over on defence, the Flames struggled to put forth their usual “offence from the blue line” that has been a staple of their system in past years. Giordano cratered to a career-low shooting percentage of just 3.2%. His five goals had him tied with Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin among defencemen.
Among the defensive regulars, T.J. Brodie had the high shooting percentage at 6.2%, Oliver Kylington had 5.4%, and all other defencemen shot at 4.0% or lower. Overall the Flames just didn’t have the fire power from their defence that they’ve grown accustomed to.
Hanifin and Andersson seemingly took opportunities when given to drive towards the net to take shots. This was a role that Giordano had excelled in in previous years where he’d get a good portion of his goals from in close. However, this year’s small sample of goals does not provide enough context to work with.
The Flames’ defensive corps will look quite different in the upcoming year, as they no longer have Brodie or Erik Gustafsson, Travis Hamonic is virtually gone, and Michael Stone might be someone that Brad Treliving circles back to as a depth player. Both of the additions of Chris Tanev and Nikita Nesterov will be more defensive-minded—Tanev in particular has made his name in being one of the most defensive defencemen in the league.
On top of that, the Flames can anticipate the return of Juuso Valimaki, which can bode well for them in terms of getting offence from their backend. If the Flames want to continue being known as having defencemen who can activate and score on odd-man rushes, they’ll have to tweak their systems. It’ll be an experiment for Geoff Ward to figure out once training camp comes around.
It’s worth noting that the Flames’ high-volume shooting defencemen will likely make up the top-two pairings. It remains to be known who will play alongside Tanev on the second pairing, as it may benefit Giordano to take a step back and let Andersson and Hanifin take the reigns with the condensed schedule.
Shoot your shot
The Flames have a big year ahead of them. There is an abundance of pressure on their best players to rebound, and there’s heightened expectations on their young guns too. They’re at a point where they need to take steps forward and either solidify their status as contenders or there may be some uncomfortable questions and finger pointing come next offseason.
In terms of shooting and goal scoring, it’ll do the team good to take literal steps forward and get closer to the net. The shot distributions suggested there may have been an overall hesitance or inability in closing the gap and challenging the opposing goaltenders when the Flames took their shots.
Stay tuned to the follow-up article, where I take a deeper dive into shot distributions from 2018-19 to 2019-20 of the Flames’ top players to try and see if there’s any cause for concern heading into next season.