It’s no secret the Calgary Flames had a lacklustre offseason. The team was coming off yet another disappointing season in which they failed to make the playoffs, yet made very minimal changes to the core of their roster over the summer. All this was after General Manager Brad Treliving promised there would be changes coming at the end of the season.
Despite what Treliving said, he failed to turn his words into actions yet again and the Flames stayed quiet for most of the offseason, mainly tinkering around the edge of their roster rather than make any major changes. Now just a week before the Flames 2021–22 season starts, the question still remains. Are the Flames better than they were last year, or are they worse?
Well according to Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic, the Flames are no better or worse than they were last year. According to his model the Flames are firmly in the tier of average, as they have been for what seems like their entire existence. He went as far as to call them “the league’s most average team,” which seems about right.
Dom has the Flames finishing at 41-31-10, good for 92 points which places them 18th in the NHL and fourth in the Pacific division. He has the Flames with a 54% chance at making the playoffs, but just a one percent chance at winning the cup. According to his model, the Flames have a 22% chance to finish in the top-10 in the NHL, but also a 25% chance to finish in the bottom-10. Just about the most Flames thing ever.
Let’s take a look at reasons why the Flames will be better than Dom’s prediction next season, and some reasons why they might be worse.
Why the Flames will be better than average in 2021–22
A full season of Darryl Sutter
The most obvious answer and the first one that comes to mind when we think about the Flames improving this season is the presence of Darryl Sutter. Sutter, who was brought on in the middle of last season, has had his first full offseason and training camp with the Flames and will be all hands on deck for the 2021–22 season.
It’s always difficult to judge a coach’s performance after they join a team in the middle of the season. It’s very difficult for a coach to implement full systems, strategies, and play styles in the middle of a season with very few off days, especially in a shortened season like 2020–21. Last season after coming on board, he mentioned it typically takes 10 to 20 games before a team starts seeing noticeable changes under a new coach.
Well he was right. If the Flames results to close out the season last year under Sutter are any indication, the teams underlying numbers should be night and day this year compared to when they were under Geoff Ward. Let’s take a look. I’ve broken the Flames season into three segments; the 26 games under Geoff Ward, the first 11 games under Sutter (not including the two games under Ryan Huska), and the final 19 games to close out the season under Sutter.
All numbers are 5v5 and score-and-venue-adjusted courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.
|Geoff Ward (Jan.14-Mar. 5)||24||50 (20th)||44.79 (26th)||46.89 (23rd)||43.59 (27th)|
|Darryl Sutter (Mar.11-Mar. 31)||11||41.26 (23rd)||50.58 (16th)||53.69 (8th)||47.80 (19th)|
|Darryl Sutter (Apr. 1-May 20)||19||60.08 (5th)||58.14 (3rd)||56.20 (3rd)||60.24 (3rd)|
There’s two things that immediately stand out when looking at these numbers. One is that the Flames were absolutely dreadful under Ward. Their numbers in all four stats were among the worst in the entire NHL and looked like that of a lottery team.
The second observation is that the Flames were exceptional under Sutter for the final 19 games of the season. The numbers also support Sutter’s comment that it takes a minimum 10 games for a coach to be able to implement noticeable changes to a team.
In terms of xGF%, CF%, and HDCF% the only two teams in the league that were better than the Flames over the last month and a half of the season were the first place Colorado Avalanche and the sixth place Toronto Maple Leafs. Quite solid company compared to the beginning of the season.
The Flames looked like a completely different team to close out the year under Sutter compared to what they looked like in the first half of the year under Ward. The turnaround in terms of their analytics was nothing short of stunning, and shows that this Flames core may have been being dragged down by poor coaching.
Using Micah Blake McCurdy’s model on HockeyViz.com, we can take a look at a coach’s impact on their team’s overall performance in terms of their expected goals for rate and expected goals against rate. Here’s how each coach from the 2020–21 season stacked up, divided into four main categories: good, dull, fun, and Geoff Ward.
It’s almost comical how opposite Ward and Sutter are on this model. The two are at completely different spectrums, with Ward firmly inside the “bad” tier and Sutter being near the top of the “good” tier. In fact Ward ranks out as the second worst coach in terms of offence, and the fourth worst coach in terms of defence. Not exactly encouraging stuff from a coach who claimed he focused on defence first.
On the other end, Sutter ranks as the best coach defensively in the NHL and right around the ninth best offensively. The difference couldn’t be more noticeable. Ward was coaching this team into the ground while Sutter was having them play some of the best hockey league wide at both of ends of the ice.
Now obviously Sutter’s results are in a very small sample size as he only coached the team for 30 games last season, but Sutter coached teams putting up elite underlying numbers is nothing new. Every team he’s coached since joining the LA Kings in 2011-12 has put up top end underlying numbers
The fact is despite his reputation of being an out of touch, old fashioned coach, every team Sutter has ever coached in the analytics era has put up great underlying numbers. Given his history there’s good reason to believe it will happen again next year. If, and that’s a big if given Calgary’s roster and the fact Sutter hasn’t coached a full season since 2016–17, the Flames can consistently put up these type of underlying numbers, they should be able to cruise to a playoff spot in a weak Pacific Division.
Why the Flames will be worse than average in 2020–21
They have no depth at forward/injury security
This is a pretty obvious answer, and one that clearly contributed to Dom’s model predicting the Flames to be average next season. However I think their depth issues are being understated and could have a much larger impact on the team as the season goes on than most people think. This team completely lacks depth at every position on the roster given their current lineup.
The Flames lack depth for two reasons. One is the fact the organization has had depth issues, particularly at forward every year since Brad Treliving was hired. The second reason is the Flames managed to somehow worsen their already weak depth in the offseason.
This is a team that will have to win a ton of games with final scores in the 1–0 or 2–1 ranges due to their complete lack of secondary scoring. The issue is their complete lack of defensive depth will make it hard to only allow one goal. You see what I’m getting at here?
It’s only preseason, but we already saw what a Flames lineup could look like with a couple injuries at the forward position. With Tyler Pitlick day-to-day and Blake Coleman getting some much deserved rest (and now suspended for the season opener), this is the forward group the Flames trotted out in what would presumably be the opening day lineup.
With both Pitlick and Coleman out, the Flames were forced to bring Brett Ritchie and rookie Walker Duehr into the lineup at right wing, while moving Trevor Lewis up the lineup. After Matthew Tkachuk (who is a natural left wing) the team’s right wing depth chart looked like that of an AHL team—not one expecting to contend for the playoffs.
After being forced to play Ritchie in top-nine minutes last year in must-win games, it was thought that the Flames would go out and make sure they had the depth to avoid a situation like that again. Unfortunately they did the exact opposite and are once again one major injury at the position away from bumping below replacement level players like Ritchie into the team’s top-nine and even top-six.
By swapping out dependable and solid depth pieces like Derek Ryan and Josh Leivo for replacement level forwards like Lewis, Brad Richardson, and Pitlick, the Flames have managed to crater their depth chart even more. Here’s how Ryan and his presumed bottom-six replacement stack up.
A downgrade to say the least. Pitlick is also the best of the bunch between himself, Lewis and Richardson which is even more worrying. All three of the Flames’ additions in the bottom-six will likely contribute less combined than Ryan would’ve for a third of the price.
In fact over the past three seasons Ryan has posted 80 points, including 25 goals in 192 games for a points per game of 0.41. Lewis, Pitlick and Richardson combined meanwhile have put up 119 points and 62 goals in 446 games for a points per game of 0.26.
Sure, the Flames’ top-six with Coleman looks deeper than last year, but with a bottom-six devoid of talent the team has no way to reinforce the top-six in the event of one key injury.
Now of course who’s to say the team will face any injuries at forward. Maybe they get lucky and go the entire season without missing a key forward (unlikely), but even if that were the case, the bottom-six group at full health is still incredibly uninspiring. Let’s assume the team lines up like this if Pitlick is ready to go for opening night.
Dube – Backlund – Pitlick
Lucic – Richardson – Lewis
This group of six players is completely devoid of any scoring talent or scoring threats outside of Mikael Backlund and maybe Dillon Dube. Dube has a career high of just 22 points and has yet to take the next step, while Backlund has never been an offence-first player and is 32 now. I also wouldn’t expect Dube to break out offensively playing in a bottom-six like that.
This bottom-six group combined for 42 goals in 272 games for around 0.15 goals per game in 2020–21. The three new additions in particular combined for just 12 goals in 111 games, around 0.10 goals per game. For a team that scored the 20th most goals last season, making those three players the only additions to your bottom-six is some questionable decision making.
As it has been every year under Treliving, if the Flames’ top forwards aren’t producing or one goes down with an injury, there is simply no depth to back them up and produce offence.
They have no depth on defence/injury security
Just like at forward it’s the same story on defence. The Flames simply have no depth on the back end and are one major injury away from disaster. In an offseason in which the team lost its best defender, the only additions they made at the position were two below replacement level players. Simply not good enough for a team that claims to be in a win-now mode.
Here’s how I expect the Flames to lineup on defence to start the season.
Noah Hanifin – Chris Tanev
Nikita Zadorov – Rasmus Andersson
Oliver Kylington – Erik Gudbranson
After his awful 2020–21 season, it’s too soon to proclaim Rasmus Andersson a surefire top-four defenceman before we see how he looks this season. Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson are bottom pair options at best on almost every NHL team, and Juuso Valimaki and Oliver Kylington meanwhile have yet to put up consistent enough results in their young careers to safely call either of them top-four defencemen.
This team already has a dreadful depth chart on defence, but one key injury could take it from bad to worse in an instant. A good team is one that has the depth to overcome a key injury and still compete. Just look at what the Tampa Bay Lightning did last season with Nikita Kucherov out all year and Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos banged up for most of the regular season.
Now of course I’m not saying the Flames need to have the depth of the 2020–21 Lightning, but any real playoff team should have a deep enough roster to somewhat fill in for key injuries. The Flames don’t.
To make matters even worse, the Flames’ most important defencemen is also their most injury prone one. Tanev has never played a full 82 game season in his entire career and the odds of him being forced out of the lineup at some point this season are very high. If he were to go down with an injury the Flames depth chart on defence would be in shambles.
This would likely bump Gudbranson into the top-four. Read this again: Gudbranson would be playing in the top-four. If there’s one thing a top-four containing Zadorov and Gudbranson can achieve, it’s a better shot at Shane Wright. Gudbranson and Zadorov have both looked terrible in preseason playing against mainly AHL rosters.
Case in point, just imagine trotting these two out together for 18 minutes a night on the second pair. RAPM chart is courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com
Gudbranson shouldn’t even be in the NHL, yet the Flames are one injury away from playing him heavy minutes. Zadorov meanwhile should be no more than a number-five or -six guy yet here we are with him firmly on the second pair for the team.
The defence group also comes with a ton of question marks surrounding the top of the rotation. Can Tanev continue to turn back the clock and stave off the age curve? Can Hanifin continue to improve or will he regress back to what he’s looked like for most of his career? Can Andersson bounce back from a disastrous 2020–21 season?
All three of the Flames top defencemen have major question marks going into the season, add on top of that the complete lack of depth behind them and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. With one key injury or a players performance falling off, the team could potentially have one of the worst top-fours in the entire NHL, and one that won’t win a lot of games.
It’s clear that The Athletic’s model isn’t a big fan of the Flames roster as constructed, predicting them to narrowly miss the playoffs come April. It’s no surprise either considering the offseason the team had. That said there are some clear paths towards the team either over achieving those projections or under performing them in a full crash and burn.
Given the team now has a legitimate NHL coach for the first time since Sutter was last here, there is certainly some optimism that he can continue his impressive run of turning his teams into analytical juggernauts. However the team’s complete lack of depth at forward and on defence leave them completely exposed in the event of a key injury or struggling star player during the season.
It wouldn’t shock me if the Flames ended up second in the division and it wouldn’t shock me if they finished bottom three either. It should be a roller coaster of a season in Calgary as they try to battle their curse of mediocrity once again.