The Calgary Flames were sidelined from action essentially right as they hit the one-third mark of their season. It’s a sizeable amount of games played to see how the team is doing, and it’s pretty clear they’ve exceeded expectations so far. While they went into their COVID-induced pause on a four-game losing skid, they have plenty about their game to be happy about. Which aspect in particular has been the best to see as fans? We asked, you answered.
Calgary’s fresh start
It goes without saying that the Flames have rebounded from their utterly disappointing finish in 2020–21 in both a surprising and dominant manner. They’ve seen several aspects of their game starting to go right in ways where last season saw everything go wrong—after all, it led to the midseason firing of Geoff Ward as Darryl Sutter was handed the reins to the team.
The Flames’ product has been significantly better than it has been in recent years. For the first time in a long time, the team has an identity—one that forced the league to take notice. From their offence and defence systems, to their goaltending, and of course their coaching, all systems are tending more towards optimal than they are towards dismal.
That said, what in specific has brought the most joy to Flames fans?
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This was the most popular answer from the poll, as there’s happiness created in watching Sutter behind the bench and in his press conferences. The Flames have fully bought into Sutter’s coaching system, and it’s paying dividends.
He’s a coach known for getting the most out of his players, and the difference between how the Flames started last year with Ward versus this year with Sutter is stark. Sutter didn’t have a proper training camp to get the team acclimated to a style of hockey that’s he wanted to see last season. Even through most of training camp and preseason games, the Flames didn’t look particularly effective.
Yet, as the regular season started, Calgary flipped a switch and their identity as a team became clearer with each game. They were a checking team, and their pressure coming in waves made it extremely frustrating to play against.
The team has an identity again, and that entirely stems from adopting Sutter’s system as a whole team and making it work with the players currently on the roster.
After a disappointing season last year—derailed by too heavy a workload that led to an injury that was never fully recovered—Jacob Markstrom returned to his second season with the Flames on a mission. He made modern history with his shutouts, and has elevated his play to the level of goaltending the Flames were expecting when they signed him to a six-year, $36 million contract.
And then there’s Daniel Vladar. Brought in to be a backup, he was given a chance to actually know his role. Last season with the Bruins was a neck and neck race between him and Jeremy Swayman for their own goaltending depth chart, and the Flames recognised that the Bruins would look to move Vladar after Swayman pulled ahead. His start with Calgary has been nothing short of spectacular as their backup, and he’s looked solid on the ice.
The Flames are quickly making a case for having the best goaltending tandem in the NHL right now. If this level of play persists from both goalies as the season wears on, then there’d be no question about it. Both netminders have contributed in big ways to the Flames’ record. They have provided reliability in net and the Flames have hardly wavered on that front.
Here’s a team-level snapshot of how their goaltending has been—all charts courtesy of HockeyViz.com. Between Markstrom and Vladar, they’ve been subject to 75 expected goals at all situations, and only allowed 61. The hexagonal heatmap shows where they’re better than average at making saves (blue areas) versus where they are worse than average (red areas). Most of the high-danger zone in front of the net sees the Flames goaltenders making more saves than an average goaltender might, and that’s a very good thing.
Goaltending for the Flames has been an issue for years, but it’s looking more promising now than ever. Both Flames goaltenders are playing great hockey and the Flames could very well secure the William M. Jennings Trophy by season’s end, an perhaps a Vezina too. The added bonus to this is that goaltending and this is reflected down the whole organisation too, most immediately with the Stockton Heat as Dustin Wolf is making his presence known in the AHL.
The Flames acquired a handful of players in the offseason that pointed towards them trying to become a blackhole of shot suppression in their own zone. Most players fit Sutter’s mantra of being a defensively sound player before offence mattered.
Now the Flames are one of the best in the league at limiting offence generated against them, and are instead much more effective at creating offence for themselves. Let’s turn again to team-level snapshots of defence performance.
At 5v5, the Flames are limiting a lot of shots from in close (blue means less shots compared to the league average, red means more). Couple this with the goaltender they’re getting and it’s no surprise that they’re one of the best teams in the league in terms of goals against.
Turn to their penalty kill and the difference is even more drastic (the colour scheme for special teams is changed such that purple means less shots compared to the league average, orange means more). Teams are just simply unable to get in close on the Flames and typically resort to taking shots from afar. The Flames penalty kill has been a bright spot in an already good start for the team.
In general, the Flames’ are actually quite effective at generating shots. Their plots should be looked at altogether to see what’s going on with the team from an offensive standpoint. First of all, they’re generating a lot of shots at both 5v5 and on the power play. Their power play in particular is very effective at funneling pucks toward the net before they shoot. It creates high-danger chances and gives them the best chance at scoring.
Their 5v5 play—while able to also get in close—doesn’t have the same level of effectiveness. More shots are taken from further away. What’s telling however, is that the heatmap is predominantly red with few areas of blue. It suggests that the Flames are taking way more shots in all areas of the offensive zone and aren’t necessarily afraid to shoot when the opportunity arises. This makes sense given how Sutter wants the team to play.
However, the last chart shows what’s wrong with their offence. They have very little finishing ability. Despite peppering their opposition with shots, their finishing talent is limited to just a few players on the team, and it’s cost them approximately 11 goals already. That could have been the difference in a win versus a loss—particularly in their latest string of losses where some game outcomes felt like they should have been definite wins.
The Flames’ offence hasn’t been bad per se, it has just been frustrating how tantalisingly close it is to being elite. The need more goals going into the back of the net and they need to find a player who can capitalise on chances.
Overall, Calgary’s offence is still a positive, as they’re still outscoring their opponents more often than not. They have one of the league’s best goal differentials—that just doesn’t happen if they only have defence. They’re clearly effective on both offence and defence.
Joy to the Flames
The Flames are still paused from their games and the news around the league continues to worsen. It’s not a pleasant situation to be in for anyone. Their next game is still not yet known as the team continues to be almost entirely in COVID protocol. They won’t be playing until after Christmas and it’s been a dreadfully long week with more days ahead without Flames hockey.
However, there’s definitely lots to be happy about for this team. This unexpected pause gives time to reflect on the season so far, and it’s clear the Flames performing at a dominant level that looks and feels sustainable. A losing streak doesn’t feel season breaking whatsoever. With any luck, they can return safely in good health and get back to their winning ways.