Friday Flames Notebook: Improved systems with the power play, top-six units, and active defensemen

The new season is upon us, and I am super excited to debut a new project this year. Friday Flames Notebook will be a weekly column that will come out at the end of every week, and will feature a number of my observations from throughout the week. The subject matter will vary, from analytics to video, to my thoughts on uniforms and other subjects. I hope you join me each Friday to check out the week that was in the universe of Calgary Flames hockey.

First up, I explain some of my thoughts from the first week and a half of the season. With Calgary only playing three games, there has not been much hockey to analyze. But from what we have seen, this team looks deeper, more possession oriented, and certainly better in goal. For the first time in a little while, it is an exciting time to cover this team and be a fan, and I for one am loving it. Let’s jump into the thoughts from this week.

Notes From the Week

1. New power play breakout

The Calgary power play has been much improved this year, and is out to a scorching hot start. The team has scored six power play goals through the first three games, remarkably from six different players. One thing I noticed that the power play was doing different this year was only dropping one player back on the breakout.

Instead of two guys going back for the drop pass, it is only Johnny Gaudreau. While theoretically giving Johnny one less outlet to pass to, it is forcing more of the defenders to defend the initial rush, giving more space to the drop pass. The increased zone time from smooth breakouts has been a huge boon to the extra man unit.

This is the one man drop pass they are using this year:

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For comparisons sake, this is what the two man drop pass looked like:

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The one man back strategy is working so far, as it forces more of the defenders to stick to their own blue line, opening up room for Johnny to make plays. It is a small difference that has made life a lot easier on this unit so far.

2. Active D lead to puck possession

I have noticed that the Flames are doing a way better job of creating chances in the zone at five on five. So far this season, they have been far more dynamic in the zone, and it starts with the defensemen. Juuso Valimaki is incredible at this, and it leads consistently to great offensive chances. Whenever he moves the puck in the o-zone, he almost always follows it up by cutting through the middle of the defence.

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This was the possession that resulted in Johnny Gaudreau’s goal on Monday. I love the movement from both defensemen on this play. There were too many times last year when defensemen were stuck on the blue line, and if they did get the puck they settled too often for weak wristers from way out. This year, the team seems way more focused on keeping puck possession, and playing as a five man unit.

Another part of this new dynamic focus is having the third forward play higher in the offensive zone. This creates more space for all the forwards, and when combined with the defensemen being more active, creates a much more fluid strategy. It puts defenders into more difficult positions, and creates gaps in communication that the team can exploit. Here are some examples.

3. Cleaner breakouts

One thing that has driven me crazy about this team in recent years is their tendency to always revert to flipping the puck out of the zone. This play almost always results in a turnover, and it just is not a winning strategy.

So far this year, Calgary has done a way better job of connecting passes in the defensive and neutral zones, and their possession numbers have been better. As a team, Calgary’s five on five score-and-venue adjusted CF% is 54.0%, and their xGF% is 54.1% (all stats 5v5 SVA from Natural Stat Trick). If they can keep those numbers up, the team will have a lot of success this season.

This clip is a good example of a play that normally leads to one of the players lifting the puck high into the air, or ripping it off the glass and out of the zone. Instead, three guys in a row held on to the puck, and made a play under duress. The result was a clean breakout that led to puck possession in the offensive zone, instead of the play coming right back at them.

One reason for this is that the team swapped out Travis Hamonic and Oliver Kylington, who both were not good at making passes in the defensive zone. They replaced them with an entirely new third pairing in Valimaki and Nikita Nesterov, both of whom look to make plays instead of lifting the puck out of the zone. It has hurt them a few times, but I can live with that as long as they are controlling possession so much.

Chris Tanev has also been a pleasant surprise, as he has shown a great ability to make the first pass on top of the shot blocking and penalty killing we knew he would provide.

4. Andrew Mangiapane: Nasty

Not much to say on this one:

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Andrew Mangiapane has had a nice start to the season, and might get a chance in the top six this week if Dillon Dube misses any time. Mangiapane has not gotten rewarded for it on the scoresheet, but has posted really nice possession numbers of 56.4% CF and 55.4% xGF playing mostly alongside Mikael Backlund. That line might be more of shutdown line this year, which could limit Mangiapane’s offensive potential, but as long as they continue to have the puck as much as they have, the goals will come.

5. Matthew Tkachuk and depth at the top

I wrote about Matthew Tkachuk in depth earlier this week about his on-ice contributions with video breakdown, but its worth repeating again. The guy is on an absolute tear to start the season. Through 37:54 of ice time at five on five, his CF% is 71.8%, and his xG% is 75.8%.

Those numbers might be unsustainable, but Tkachuk and linemate Elias Lindholm have totally changed the look of this team. For so many years Calgary had to hope the top line with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan could produce at ridiculous levels, and the Tkachuk and Backlund line would contribute as well.

Now, the Tkachuk line is looking more like a first line staple than a second. It may just be a mental switch, but Gaudreau and Monahan can be framed as super charged second liners rather than first liners.

Is Monahan a true number one centre? What if he doesn’t have to be? If Lindholm can play like a first liner, then Monahan can feast on easier matchup. This team is way deeper this year, but it doesn’t show itself on the third and fourth lines. Rather, it is helping right at the top.

6. Whatever this is

The Flames are playing well. Life is good. Sometimes we all need a good laugh. After Matthew Tkachuk had to leave the ice suddenly during a power play, Milan Lucic found himself out there in a new position.

Without time to get to the net front, the big fella had to stay at the half-wall. He took that job seriously apparently, because he is still stuck to the wall even though the puck is with Gaudreau on the other boards. An NHL rink is eighty five feet wide, so I’m going to guess that Lucic is ninety plus feet away. Sometimes you just have to smile.

And hey, if the Flames ever need a goal, maybe they can look to the Lucic one timer. I guarantee the defence won’t see it coming.

7. Best Uniforms in the League

As Flames fans, we have endured a lot over the years. One of the hardest pills to swallow has been the boring home and away sets the team has worn for many years that feature way too much black embroidery, and yes, the shoulder patch flags. These new uniforms are so freaking awesome.

Some great shots in this tweet from the Flames of Jacob Markstrom‘s pads for the Blasty uniforms. I am so, so excited to see the team take the ice in those.

See you next week!

That’s it for this week. See you back here next Friday, and every Friday all season long. Have a fantastic weekend, and we will have some hockey to watch on Sunday. Enjoy!


Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

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