Calgary Flames

Flames Sunday Census: Building on the positives in Calgary’s on-ice game

The Calgary Flames are off to a 2–1–1 start to open their 2021–22 campaign. After two losses against Pacific Division opponents, they’ve strung together two wins against Eastern Conference teams. While the season is young, there’s a lot to be said about this Flames team and quite frankly, there’s a lot of good things that should continue and a lot of iffy things that need to be worked out. But keeping the focus on the positives, which aspect of the team has been the brightest spot so far? We asked, you answered.

Finding the positives from a limited sample

Four games isn’t exactly a lot to work on in terms of team evaluation—and no one should be doing any assessments at this point in the season anyway—but it’s enough to start putting together observations. Especially for a team like Calgary, they entered the season without a captain and had a ton of questions about their roster—many of which would only be answerable with real gameplay.

Truth be told, there’s a lot to like about the Flames’ early on-ice performance and results so far. While they have been far from perfect, they’ve already rebutted a lot of the doubt cast against them based on the offseason moves. Should they keep up this current style of play and make adjustments in areas that need adjustments, they’d be set to see a much more favourable season compared to last year.

So between the offence, defence, special teams, and goaltending, which of these four categories has been the most positive for the Flames?

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This poll ended up being one of the more evenly split polls in recent memory for the Sunday Census. As mentioned, while there’s always room for improvement, there’s already lots to like in all aspects of their game. Let’s break down why each of the categories are positives for the Flames.

Positives on the Flames’ special teams

Garnering just 17.1% of the votes, the Flames’ special teams were the selected the least. Their power play is ranked 20th in the league, operating at a 16.7% efficiency. They’ve scored two power play goals across 12 power play opportunities, and have given up one shorthanded goal against.

On the penalty kill, Calgary is also ranked 20th in the league with a 76.9% success rate. They have been shorthanded 12 times so far, in which they’ve let in three power play goals against and scored one shorthanded goal for. At a first glance, neither the power play nor the penalty kill has been particularly inspiring, but there’s more to their special teams play than just goals for and against.

Per Natural Stat Trick, the Flames are ranked 21st in 5v4 CF% with 83.3% and 23rd in 5v4 xGF% with 85.6%. Their power play definitely needs to be cleaned up and this years long trend might continue this season based on early results. However, the between the two goals they have scored on the power play, one was from Elias Lindholm and the other from Andrew Mangiapane—they’re on the first and second units, respectively. That’s where the Flames can really be opportunistic. If both units are able to find ways to score, their power play will be that much more effective.

Calgary’s penalty kill was at its worst in the first game of the season against the league’s best power play. Connor McDavid scored twice on the man-advantage en route to handing Calgary their 12th straight season opener loss. However, since then, their penalty kill has been solid. I recently broke down the stats in much more detail: the Flames are ranked first in the league across several possession metrics that show they’ve been excellent at limiting high-danger opportunities against while successfully generating offence while down a player.

In fact, after their matinee game against the Washington Capitals, they now have a league-best five high-danger corsi for and a league-best zero high-danger corsi against. They have an out-of-this-world 4v5 xGF% of 47.0%. To put that number into context, 12 NHL teams have worse xGF% at 5v5. Yes, the Flames penalty kill is quite literally more effective than nearly half of the league’s even strength play.

So the Flames’ power play stands to improve and their penalty kill will come down to earth eventually, but there are definitely many positives to the Flames’ special teams that’s become evident over their first four games.

Positives on the Flames’ goaltending

With 19.4% of the votes, goaltending is the next most positive aspect of the Flames’ game.

So far this season, Jacob Markstrom has started three games while Daniel Vladar has one. Markstrom has a an overall save percentage of 0.924 with a 1–1–1 record, while Vladar is at 0.880 with a 1–0–0 start.

Markstrom’s all strengths SV% puts him at 17th in the league right now, but better yet, when looking at high-danger SV%, he’s posted an even better 0.929 mark, good for sixth in the league. He has some cleaning up to do with low- and medium-danger chances. All goalie save percentages are at all strengths.

Markstrom has a low- and medium-danger SV% of 0.952 and 0.857. These marks are good for 45th and 46th in the league, respectively. Quite a significant drop from his high-danger performance. But that’s exactly what’s great about his start. Markstrom is saving high-danger chances and that’s going to bode well for the team moving forward.

Vladar has slotted into one game so far. Many didn’t expect his regular season Flames debut to happen so soon, but Darryl Sutter was quite intentional about this, mentioning that this had been the plan well before the road trip started. His first performance a tight game against the Capitals that saw the Flames chase Vitek Vanecek out of the Capitals’ crease after a period. Long story short, Vladar could have been better in the second period, but he ultimately kept the Flames in the game come the third period.

Vladar’s high-danger SV% is at 0.857 after one game, which is good for 23rd in the league. Unfortunately, his medium-danger SV% is 0.714 so far, putting him 59th out of 61 goalies. He’s still one of 31 goalies with perfect low-danger performances though. In one appearance with three goals against, his performance would obviously be all over the place, but he picked up the all-important first win as a Flame in his first start.

Overall, the Flames’ goaltending tandem is off to a promising start. Of course, anything can happen when it comes to netminding, but the duo of Markstrom and Vladar are looking sound for the team.

Positives on the Flames’ defence

With 30.2% of the votes, the Flames’ defence is next. To evaluate defence and offence, we’ll turn to 5v5 score-and-venue adjusted stats for Natural Stat Trick. Specifically, looking at their rates per 60 minutes of play, as that will be a good way to separate defence from offence. For context though, the Flames have a 5v5 SVA CF% of 57.0%, which is the best in the league. So we can start to see which of offence or defence is contributing to this more.

On defence, their CA/60 is currently at 48.03. That means they are giving up less than one shot attempt per minute at 5v5. This rate also puts them third lowest in the league, only behind the Buffalo Sabres’ 46.8 and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 47.2. The Flames have an xGA/60 of 1.97, good for sixth lowest in the league. In terms of high-danger corsi, their HDCA/60 is 7.66, the second lowest in the league, only behind the Minnesota Wild’s rate of 7.27.

So on defence, they are actually not just above-average, the Flames are currently near the top of the league for on-ice defensive metrics. That’s exactly where the Flames want to be with Sutter behind the bench.

Further, from a player standpoint, they’re getting fairly good results across their pairings. The sore spot on their defensive corps has been the play of Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov. However, with Zadorov scratched and Oliver Kylington in his place, this switch has already turned things around for Tanev and is making Kylington look more and more likely to become a permanent fixture in the lineup.

If the Flames continue to ice the pairings of Noah Hanifin/Rasmus Andersson, Erik Gudbranson/Juuso Valimaki, and keep Kylington as Tanev’s partner, then they might have already found the optimal combinations for their lineup. Let’s hope this can continue onwards into the season.

Positives on the Flames’ offence

Their offence was selected as the most positive area of the Flames’ play. Interestingly from a scoring standpoint, the Flames are heavily lopsided in terms of scoring depth.

They have six 5v5 goals so far this season, with three belonging to Lindholm, two to Mangiapane, and the last courtesy of Blake Coleman in his home debut for Calgary.

Open the scoresheet to all situations and Lindholm adds three more goals for a total of six, Mangiapane has an extra power play tally, and Matthew Tkachuk makes for the fourth skater with a goal. No other Flame has scored yet over four games. That said, Johnny Gaudreau has racked up six assists—all of which have been primary.

The effectiveness of Lindholm and Mangiapane can’t be understated. When a team lacks scoring depth, having a couple of players finding the back of the net with elevated shooting percentages will help cover up the lack of goals from the rest of the team.

This outcome can be vieweed a couple of ways. This early in the season, not having many players score isn’t concerning as the goals will eventually come. But if Lindholm and Mangiapane take a slight step back, then the Flames are going to have to fight for points in low-scoring games, in which they’re going to need their goalies to do most of the grunt work.

Now, looking at rates, the Flames have a 5v5 SVA CF/60 of 63.78, good for fourth in the league. Their xGF/60 is average, ranking 14th in the league at 2.34, and their high-danger corsi for is even lower, slotting in 18th with a rate of 9.60. Nothing about their offence has been extraordinary, but what can one really expect for a team that regularly ices all of Milan Lucic, Trevor Lewis, and Brett Ritchie. The bottom-six doesn’t exactly inspire “fire power” at all and that’s going to cause the Flames to continue to have huge disparities between their best and worst players.

The Flames definitely have things to work out on offence, but for now we can enjoy the Lindholm show and hope it continues for more games throughout the season.

Fuelling the Flames

The Flames have a lot of good things going for them already this season. The offseason was not kind to Flames fans and many were significantly doubting the team’s ability based on their roster. Again, four games doesn’t provide a solid enough base to evaluate the team, but the early observations back up a few key positive areas.

Every year, teams enter the season expecting to spend a few games before they figure out what they need to fix. However, the Flames are one, already performing well in specific circumstances, and two, know exactly what they need to fix their play. Sutter has already shown a willingness to scratch Zadorov and put in Kylington. This rapid and agile adapting will keep the Flames in a constant state of improvement, and this is good news for the team.

We’ll soon see what other areas the Flames are able to execute as actual on-ice improvements. But to sum it all up, this team has strung together a start to their season that has been void of doom and gloom, and that’s a huge plus for Calgary.

Photo by Terence Leung/NHLI via Getty Images

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