With the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets kicking off their seasons tonight, its time to look at what Flames fans can expect from this matchup in 2021. Last year the teams met only once in the regular season, outdoors at Mosaic Stadium, where the Flames lost 2-1 in overtime. Then, in the qualifying round, the Flames defeated a depleted Jets squad, winning three and losing once in the five game series. This year, the two teams will face off nine times in the new North division, starting tonight.
Flames vs Jets game days
|Winnipeg||January 14||6:00 p.m.|
|Winnipeg||February 1||6:00 p.m.|
|Winnipeg||February 2||6:00 p.m.|
|Winnipeg||February 4||6:00 p.m.|
|Calgary||February 9||8:00 p.m.|
|Calgary||March 26||8:00 p.m.|
|Calgary||March 27||8:00 p.m.|
|Calgary||March 29||8:00 p.m.|
|Calgary||May 5||7:30 p.m.|
With this shortened season’s unique schedule, the majority of the games will be in two mini-series in early February and late March. While the Flames get one more home game than the Jets, it’s hard to say for sure what difference home-ice advantage really gives in empty arenas.
If last year is any indication, when healthy, these teams should be a fairly even match. The Jets entered the playoff bubble with a 0.563 point percentage, and the Flames with a marginally better 0.564. Had it not been for some key injuries, the qualifying round series could have gone much differently.
But perhaps what is most interesting is not how similar the teams’ track records were last year, but how they got to that point. Despite the similar results, the make-up of the two teams is very different, giving the Flames a significant edge heading into the season. While the Jets relied on their league-best goaltending to propel the team to the qualifying round, the Flames made it there with a much more complete team. The same is true for the upcoming season.
The Jets roster
Based on training camp lines, the Jets roster for the upcoming season should look something like this:
Lets take a closer look at how this matches up against the Flames roster, starting from the crease.
The Jets have the league’s best goalie in Connor Hellebuyck, and Laurent Brossoit backing up. Even with the Flames’ big free-agency swing in acquiring Jacob Markstrom, the Jets are sure to have the edge in goal, at least as far as starters go. That’s no disrespect to the all-star tandem of David Rittich and Jacob Markstrom, but Hellebuyck’s dominance last year cannot be overstated. Not only did he win the Vezina trophy as the league’s best goalie, he did so while playing 58 of his team’s 71 games. His ability to play a heavy workload is key to the Jets’ success.
Below, using visuals from hockeyviz.com, we can see that both teams’ starters were excellent last season, but Hellebuyck gets the edge after facing substantially more expected goals against, and performing well.
Notably, Markstom seemed to really struggle with shots coming from his glove side. That’s something to keep an eye on this season. Where the Flames could expect to make up some ground is with their depth in the crease.
After Hellebuyck, the Jets turn to Laurent Brossoit. While two years ago he put up an excellent 0.925 save percentage, that dropped to a 0.895 last season. A bounce back season from him will be key for the Jets, especially in this series with the Flames and Jets playing so many consecutive games with few or no rest days in between. This could be a potential weak spot for the Jets, when compared to David Rittich across the rink for the Flames. Rittich is certainly not known for his consistency, but at the top of his game he can just about steal games for the team, and with a lighter workload this season could really excel.
Where things start to turn in the Flames’ favour is on defense. The chart below gives an indication of just how much Hellebuyck was relied on last season. The bracketed numbers indicate the team’s league wide rank in a given category. All data is at 5v5, score/venue adjusted, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.
|WPG||151.7 (31)||142.2 (15)||3344.4 (27)||757.0 (31)|
|CGY||130.7 (18)||146.7 (23)||3250.7 (21)||562.4 (23)|
No team allowed more expected goals against than the Jets, but their strong goaltending saved them to an extent, as they allowed only the 15th most actual goals against. By comparison, the Flames gave up a more middle-of-the-pack amount of expected goals, but still allowed more goals than the Jets.
This pattern is consistent across various defensive metrics including Corsi against and high danger Corsi against. The Jets’ team defense was generally poor, but elite goaltending kept them from allowing too many goals.
With numbers like these most teams would have looked to swing a deal for a significant improvement on the back end, but the Jets didn’t make any significant changes, instead extending two players they acquired during the last season, Dylan DeMelo and Nathan Beaulieu, and not landing any of the big names in free agency. Instead they signed depth pieces Derek Forbort and Nate Thompson. Without substantial changes to the back end, and the same coaching group behind the bench, the Jets are not likely to improve substantially at preventing chances against Hellebuyck.
For the Flames, their new look top four will include Rasmus Andersson on the top pair with Mark Giordano and Chris Tanev likely replacing Travis Hamonic on the second. On paper, Andersson should be as good as or better than T.J. Brodie was in that role, and Tanev is expected to be an improvement over Hamonic. The Flames should have a stronger defensive group than the Jets this season.
The Jets forward group is also quite interesting. Last season, four Jets forwards managed more than 60 points, compared to only one on the Flames. Despite this, the Jets underlying numbers suggest a very opportunistic offense. At even-strength last season, the Jets offense struggled with chance creation, but managed to score at a rate far above the expected. While this can often be the sign of an upcoming regression, the talent of the Jets forwards has allowed them to regularly outperform their expected goals totals in previous seasons.
|WPG||115.1 (29)||137.8 (19)||3093.4 (14)||503.3 (30)||8.16 (17)|
|CGY||132.1 (8)||132.8 (20)||3250.8 (6)||586.3 (17)||7.69 (22)|
As we can see, even with a fairly average shooting percentage the Jets managed to seriously outscore their expected total last season. With an improvement in the ‘process’ stats like Corsi for and high danger Corsi for, the scoring talent the Jets have could really be let loose.
The addition of Paul Stastny via trade should help them in this area. He has a history of strong even strength play driving, but his age, as well as that of captain Blake Wheeler, are concerns for the team. After two straight seasons scoring at well over a point per game, last year Wheeler scored 65 in 71, a notable change of pace. Strong seasons from the captain and Stastny will be vital for the Jets’ success.
The Flames were much the opposite last season, creating a higher number of expected goals and failing to convert, while also posting a below-average shooting percentage, which hopefully will improve this season. Bounce back seasons from Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau will be key if the Flames hope to rediscover their best in the west form from two seasons ago.
Considering the trade rumours surrounding star winger Patrik Laine, the age of Wheeler and Stastny in the Jets forward groups, and the Flames’ concerns with Monahan and Gaudreau, it’s safe to say both forward groups have their fair share of question marks heading into the season.
What to expect
While the two teams had very similar records last year, at least on paper it looks like the Flames have improved more since last season with the big ticket additions of Markstrom and Tanev. The Jets have elite goaltending and a talented offense, but their underlying numbers and offseason moves don’t point towards a substantial improvement this year. However, that’s not to say the Jets will be an easy opponent by any means, as the margin between each team in the North Division will be razor thin.
In truth, Flames fans should expect to find the Jets extremely frustrating to play against; the combination of elite goaltending and finishing talent up front means that the Jets are a team with the potential to win a lot of games it doesn’t seem like they deserve. With every game counting for that much more in a shortened season, a team with this construction is in a tricky position where a hot goalie can be the difference between the top of the division and outside the playoff picture.
The key for the Flames will be to remain focused even against a frustrating opponent. Games against the Jets may try their patience if chances just don’t seem to be able to beat Hellebuyck, but with a deeper squad this year, and strong goaltending of their own, the Flames should be able to come away with more of the points in this season series, especially considering the practical impossibility of Hellebuyck playing every time they meet.