This has been far and away one of the best seasons for the Calgary Flames in recent memory. First in the Western Conference with 29 points and boasting a 12–3–5 record after 20 games, things could hardly be going better for the Flames. However, like a nice car, even if things look great on the outside, it is important to look under the hood to make sure everything is looking great internally. Analytics try to help us explain why things happen the way that they do on the ice. Let’s take a deep dive into the Flames’ analytics this quarter to see what’s working so well.
Even strength fundamentals
Shot attempts have long been used as the most reliable way to predict a team’s success, and Corsi accounts for them collectively. Corsi is then broken down into scoring chances and high-danger chances to denote where the shot is taken from as a measure of likelihood of scoring. In all three categories, the Flames have done well, and that remains true when looking at expected goals.
Let’s take a look at the numbers. All stats in this section is from Natural Stat Trick, taken at 5v5, score-and-venue-adjusted (SVA). The data includes all games played on November 24, 2021.
Top-3 in all major shot attempt categories is incredible for this team. Not only are they driving play the right way, they are limiting chances against. These data points are the percentage of chances create versus chances allowed, with 50% being your breakeven line—an equal number of chances for and against.
When looking at rates, they are also excelling at both offence and defence. Using the same four measures as above, here are their rates per 60 minutes for and against. Looking at rates removes the discrepancies in games played between teams, as there’s currently a five-game gap between the most games played versus the least (21 GP vs 16 GP—Flames are again at 20 GP).
For the most part, their rates tell a similar story of on-ice dominance. Where they lag in some offensive areas, they certainly make up in defence.
On top of that, where it matters most in winning hockey games is how many times you put the puck in the net versus how many times it ends up in yours. Here are their goals at 5v5, note that these are absolute and not SVA.
And yet again, the Flames look very good. They have scored 43 goals this season, good for fourth in the league, while allowing a league-low 20 against. They have the best goal differential in the league to this point at +23, carried both by their offense, as well as by their defense and goaltending.
Speaking of netminding, the Flames are getting the best in the league, with both Jacob Markstrom and Daniel Vladar putting up incredible numbers for Calgary. The two of them have a combined 0.954 save percentage at 5v5 SVA this season, which includes seven shutouts—five from Markstrom and two from Vladar.
Looking at the all situations heatmap below from Hockeyviz.com, the Flames’ two netminders have both put up phenomenal starts, stopping shots from all over the ice. The chart shows just how good the Flames’ netminders have been, breaking down the likelihood of a goal compared to the league so far this season. To make it easy, shots taken in blue areas are more likely saved by the Flames’ goalies, red is more likely to be a goal. The more blue you see, the better the goaltending.
Both netminders have done incredibly well in shots from in tight. Neither goalie has allowed much from right in front of their own net, which speaks to both their ability but also the Flames’ defencemen in keeping their lines of sight open to shots in high-danger areas. With the exception of Oliver Kylington who’s been catching headlines across the league, the Flames’ top-four defencemen have not received the credit that they deserve for helping the team to be where they are today.
Special teams performance
The Flames have also excelled so far on both the power play and on the penalty kill, capitalizing on their chances and minimizing threats against. With the man-advantage, the team’s top unit has been particularly effective, and has kept the same five players together since the start of the season. The second unit has also been good, with some movement such as inserting Kylington into this group more frequently.
So far they have clicked quite well, as shown by this chart from Hockeyviz.com
The team is performing at 9% better than the league average, and sits inside the top-10 in scoring chances and high-danger chances created with the man-advantage.
On the flip side, the Flames’ penalty kill has been phenomenal as well.
Twenty-nine percent better than the league average is phenomenal on the penalty kill. They have also limited chances right in front of their own net at a much greater rate compared to the league. On top of that, the Flames’ penalty kill has also created a ton of chances down a man, leading the league with 11 high-danger chances of their own on the PK. They also have two shorthanded goals so far this season, and quite frankly it should be higher. As they say, a good defence is a strong offence.
Areas of improvement
On the whole, the Flames have done exceedingly well to start this season. The product on the ice combined with the underlying analytics show an overall excellent start to the year. However, there is still room for a few tweaks.
First is the Flames have produced well, but have been riding on very high save percentages from their two netminders. They need to also convert on their chances to put less reliance on their goaltending. The last game against Chicago is a good example of what happens when one of their netminders is not performing near-flawlessly. Markstrom had a hiccup playing the puck which lead to a goal against to tie the game at 2–2.
While the Flames were able to pick up the win, they had a long stretch of not converting on their chances despite outplaying the Blackhawks. If Calgary didn’t score the go-ahead goal to make it a 3–2 game, it could have gone the other way for Chicago or the game could have headed to overtime—and we all know 3v3 hockey has been disastrous for the Flames so far this year.
Second, the Flames have created a number of chances at 5v5, but aside from the team’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk, as well as Andrew Mangiapane, they are not getting enough production. The Flames have 23 goals from these four players at 5v5, but just 15 from the rest of their forward group, five of which came off the stick of Milan Lucic.
Most worrying of all, none came from Sean Monahan, who has struggled to make an impact offensively this year. He’s been long rumoured to be shopped as a part of trades, but his value has gone down with each passing year. Whether he stays in Calgary or gets dealt elsewhere, the Flames need to get Monahan going. With four of the Flames’ best players (Mangiapane, Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and Kylington) on expiring contracts, the Flames will need to find a way to make the money work if they are to retain all four.
Finally, the Flames have a history of looking very good in the first handful of games under a new coach and then seemingly giving up on the system when things get tough. Their biggest adversity so far this season is mainly the mess on the schedule—having played just seven games at home versus 13 on the road.
The team has not faced significant injury trouble or losing skids to this point. It is inevitable that they will face greater adversity as the season wears on, but will need to continue to play the way Sutter wants them to play if they are to be successful when hurdles come along.
A start worth celebrating
The Flames have shown that their great start goes beyond the standings. Their underlying numbers are solid a cross the board and they could very well be playing at the team’s true talent level. Every team will have things to work on, but for the Flames, they have clearly got a head start with putting in the work.
It’s always good to win games and let other teams chase, and hopefully when the Flames cross the midpoint mark, they’ll look just as good as they do now.