Why the Calgary Flames’ best players regressed last season and how they can rebound in 2020-21

It was no secret that the Calgary Flames of 2019-20 were far, far away from what they were in 2018-19. A big part of that was due to their top players going from all posting career seasons to all simultaneously dropping off.

Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, and Mark Giordano were just one year removed from putting themselves into the NHL history books for their aggregate offence, but weren’t able to replicate their success playing through the 2019-20 season. Of course, they aren’t solely responsible for the Flames’ success or woes, but they all contribute significant portions to the Flames’ overall on-ice product.

Following up on my shot and goal distance article for the 2019-20 Calgary Flames, we can take a look at how the aforementioned five players fared between years to see if there was any change in their shooting tendencies. Be sure to read the previous article as a primer leading into this one.

Of course, looking at shot distances presents a highly limited field of view on the bigger picture. However, it serves as an excellent starting point to diagnose players to see if there was a drastic shift in their individual shot metrics.

The idea is that perhaps an insight can be gained by comparing the two drastically different years and see whether shot distances could be a significant factor, and if it is, see if there’s anything to be fixed heading into the next season.

Comparing the past two NHL seasons

To compare 2019-20 to 2018-19, each player has a two-part chart that shows their full shot and goal distributions in the form of a violin scatterplots and boxplots. The scatter plots show the full shot and goal distributions of every shot attempt, and are complemented by the boxplots to show descriptive statistics.

The plots were created with R using the “tidyverse” and “ggbeeswarm“, and modified with Adobe Illustrator. Data from MoneyPuck.com, showing all regular season shots at all situations. One limitation of this current data visualisation presentation is that shot types are ignored, so the differences in wrist shots versus slap shots and so forth are not accounted for.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at what differed between seasons for each of the players in this quintet of Flames and see if any insights can be discovered.

Johnny Gaudreau

Beeswarm and boxplots of Johnny Gaudreau's (Calgary Flames) shot and goal distributions from 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Among the four forwards, Gaudreau had the most drastic shift in his shot and goal distances. He was able to score a significant number of his goals right in front of the net two years ago, but that goals in tight seemingly dried up for the forward. Below are Gaudreau’s total goals and shot attempts, as well as the median distances, represented by the thick bar in the boxplots.

SeasonGoalsMedian Goal Distance (ft)Shot AttemptsMedian Attempt Distance (ft)
2019-201828.527127.6
2018-193514.333724.3

Note that Gaudreau has 35 goals listed in 2018-19 despite scoring 36, since one of his goals was on the penalty shot.

Gaudreau’s median shot distance increased by just over three feet, but his median goal distance practically doubled. While his shot distribution did not change too significantly, he ultimately scored more goals last year from further out, which is seen in the scatterplot.

Further breakdown of Gaudreau’s shooting would be needed to see why he was so effective from in close two years ago and not so much last year. It could be the product of many things. For example, perhaps he changed the way he shoots, or defencemen attacked him differently when he drew near the net, or even the different coaching systems between the two years.

Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see which version of Gaudreau we see in 2020-21. As an integral part of the Flames’ offence and often their top shot-taking forward, it is paramount that Gaudreau produces and converts on more of his scoring opportunities.

Sean Monahan

Beeswarm and boxplots of Sean Monahan's (Calgary Flames) shot and goal distributions from 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Monahan was tremendously consistent between the two years in his goal distributions. However, his overall shot distribution also seemed to move back a bit, similarly to Gaudreau. In 2018-19, Monahan had a much more dense cluster of shots close to the net, which was a bit sparser this past season.

SeasonGoalsMedian Goal Distance (ft)Shot AttemptsMedian Attempt Distance (ft)
2019-202216.622423.1
2018-193415.627720.6

The descriptive statistics confirm what’s seen in the charts, where Monahan’s median goal distance only increased by a foot, which by all accounts is not a drastic increase at all over the number of goals scored. What’s more interesting though, is that his median attempt distance increased by nearly three feet as well.

Monahan consistently outscores his expected goals year over year, which exemplifies his innate finishing ability. But if he isn’t able to get as close to the net, that could be worrisome. While a three feet increase in median shot distance doesn’t seem like much, over the 200-plus shot attempts Monahan will take over a season, this could negatively impact his scoring opportunities and goal totals.

Elias Lindholm

Beeswarm and boxplots of Elias Lindholm's (Calgary Flames) shot and goal distributions from 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Rounding out the top line for much of the season was Lindholm, who showed over both years that he can score over a large range of distances. In fact, he’s been one of the Flames’ best forwards in terms of scoring from outside 25 feet since being traded to the team. No other Flames forward scored goals from between 25 to 50 feet as reliably as Lindholm has so far.

SeasonGoalsMedian Goal Distance (ft)Shot AttemptsMedian Attempt Distance (ft)
2019-202919.821630.5
2018-192727.224530.4

Lindholm takes shots from all over the offensive zone, much more so than his linemates have. There’s good reason for him to do it too, as he’s genuinely effective at scoring goals from further out. However, over the past season, many more of his goals did come from closer to the net, despite still being able to score from various distances.

Looking at his overall shot distribution however, his offensive positioning when taking shots didn’t really change, and he still had a median shot distance of over 30 feet. It just so happened that more of his shots from in close turned into goals. After all, over the past five seasons, Lindholm was the luckiest Flame in terms of outpacing his goal to expected goal differential.

It raises the question of how the Flames’ top line meshed as a unit. It could have been that the line had different on-ice positioning with their systems in which Lindholm was the biggest beneficiary. Or maybe the opposing defence focused more on Gaudreau and Monahan, effectively preventing them from creating scoring chances from in close, which in turn opened up Lindholm to take full advantage.

In any case, Lindholm has shown that he’s a scoring threat all over the ice, which bodes well for the Flames’ offence. If the Flames shift him back to playing at centre, it’ll be interesting to see what effect that has on his shooting.

Matthew Tkachuk

Tkachuk, the Flames’ highest scorer this past season, underwent a change in his goal scoring similar to that of Gaudreau’s. On aggregate, Tkachuk is one of the best players at getting in front of the net to score goals. However, he wasn’t as effective at scoring there as he was one year prior.

SeasonGoalsMedian Goal Distance (ft)Shot AttemptsMedian Attempt Distance (ft)
2019-202322.226222.7
2018-193413.427219.7

Often seen wreaking havoc in front of the goaltender, a big part of Tkachuk’s offence comes from him finding the right positioning to score from in close. Similar to Gaudreau and Monahan, Tkachuk also saw a three foot increase in his median shot distance.

Again, over the count of hundreds of shot attempts, this is significant. Based on the scatterplot, it’s still seen that Tkachuk predominantly drives towards the net, but the density of the distribution shows that he still took more shots from further out than he did in 2018-19.

This might have to do with his role on his line, particularly with the decline and eventual departure of Michael Frolik, and the arrival of Andrew Mangiapane as a top-six forward. While Tkachuk’s personal goal scoring took a hit, in exchange he had a higher assist rate.

He’s a type of player that will score himself or find the best open player to pass to in creating offence, and having Mangiapane on his line might have enabled Tkachuk to take advantage of his offensive options. Both players, as well as Mikael Backlund, can all feed off each other, as they were one of the best lines in hockey prior to the pause.

As Tkachuk will be returning from a concussion sustained in the playoffs, it will be a story to watch for. Whether the injury will affect his play or role remains to be known, but he’ll be a player to keep an eye on overall to see how he manages his health and performance. Concussions can drastically vary from person to person, from injury to injury, so hopefully he will be at 100% with no lingering concerns.

Mark Giordano

Giordano had quite a fall from grace after winning the Norris Trophy. Giordano was in exclusive company in 2018-19 with his campaign, putting himself in the same conversation as some of the best defencemen in the history of the league.

Whatever happened to him last year was baffling. Calling it an age curve could have been an understatement, as this looked to be a drop off the cliff for Giordano. The Flames will want to see him return to his former self as he’ll still be their number one defender, which will get increasingly difficult as he gets older.

However, putting the focus entirely on Giordano’s goal scoring is an injustice to his on-ice product, as he’s still an elite defenceman. He is still one of the best defenders in generating offence for the Flames as well as being effective in his own zone too.

SeasonGoalsMedian Goal Distance (ft)Shot AttemptsMedian Attempt Distance (ft)
2019-20524.422953.5
2018-191734.533451.0

Interestingly, the Flames’ entire defensive corps just wasn’t getting the goals they were the year before, and Giordano saw one of the biggest drops. He managed to score just five goals, which is literally the bare minimum to make a boxplot. His goal scoring boxplot doesn’t really give additional information, but that’s a talking point in itself.

What should be expected of the captain heading into next year? As he’ll likely be a staple on the top pairing, the Flames should decide whether they want him to be more offensive or defensive. If they opt for more defence, that might even bump him down to the second pairing.

Clearly, Giordano had a huge drop in shot attempts, which suggests he wasn’t as offensively driven was he was before. Heading into the next season, the new look defensive corps will split duties. The addition of Chris Tanev automatically makes whichever pairing Tanev’s on turn into a defence-first pairing. Would it make sense to play Giordano with Tanev so the likes of Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin could take the offensive reigns?

Or would it ease up Giordano’s load to play more offence in which pairing him with Andersson and pushing Hanifin into the more defensive role with Tanev be more beneficial? This could be something for the Flames to experiment with during training camp.

A big part of Giordano’s offence comes from his willingness to take shots and willingness to activate on plays. All things considered, Giordano is still playing at an elite level. Whether or not he individually produces goals should not factor into his evaluation, but seeing him have such a large drop off in shot attempts does raise some flags. Ultimately, it’ll come down to who he’s paired with, as that will likely drive his playing style.

Conclusion

The trio of Monahan, Gaudreau, and Tkachuk all saw increases in their shot distances. They’re not getting in as closely as they did a year prior when they were among the league’s most potent scorers. It suggests that this could be an immediate area that could be improved upon, or at least something to watch for.

This isn’t supposed to be an all-encompassing, oh-so-obvious solution to the Flames woes, but for three players on their top-six to all see lower shot volumes from in close, this might just be a significant factor that played into their scoring woes last year.

While Lindholm was fairly consistent, he was notably lucky last year, greatly outscoring his expected goals. In addition, he’ll have different responsibilities in his return to playing centre and this likely means he won’t be playing with Monahan.

The Flames have limited time to experiment with their forward groupings, so if all goes well, they’ll find a combination that makes them effective from top to bottom. In a 56-game season, every game matters that much more, so they don’t have much wiggle room.

Shot distances alone don’t tell the full story, but they do help provide insight on player tendencies. The Flames’ best players all seemingly shifted away from the net last season. Whether this was due to their own systems or due to the opposing defensive structures, it’s worth paying attention to, as creating room for top players to score is integral for sustained success.

It’ll be up to the coaches and the players to address their performances, and the Flames should play to their strengths. They’ve made significant roster changes, and their younger players are rising up to the occasion. With all the tweaks they’ve made with their roster, with any luck it will translate to on-ice improvements.

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