Calgary Flames

Flames Sunday Census: How does Calgary stack up against the NHL’s best?

Due to some COVID-19 delays, the Calgary Flames set out over a week ago for a five-game road trip that ended in mixes results. Starting out in Seattle and Chicago with two wins, the Flames ended their trip with a three-game gauntlet against three of the league’s best teams. The Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Carolina Hurricanes all handed the Flames a regulation loss, often in dominating fashion. 

The team now sits at 17–10–6 on the season and currently sits in third place in the Pacific Division (albeit with a number of games in hand over Vegas and Anaheim). The team has been able to handle business against the Eastern Conference this season, but recent games against some of the league’s top teams have not gone their way.

Therefore, what is the perception of the fanbase in terms of where the team ranks against the league’s best? 

Based on the results, it appears as if the majority of the fanbase doesn’t view the Flames in the top tier compared to the rest of the league. There is close to an even split between the team either been close to being top tier, or being absolutely nowhere near it. Which makes the most prominent answer the middle of the pack.

Sound familiar? 

Whether it is true or not, the fanbase clearly views this version of the Flames to be once again neither dominant nor terrible. But just how much truth is there to that? 

The stats behind the Flames

Now in terms of top tier teams this season, for the purpose of comparison we will be looking at the top five teams in terms of points percentage as of January 8. No disrespect to the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, or Pittsburgh Penguins, but we want to focus on just that top five tier compared to the Flames.

In terms of some of their overall stats at 5v5, here is how the teams ranked: 

Carolina Hurricanes55.9% (2nd)53.6% (5th)54.8% (4th)54.3% (5th)
Florida Panthers56.4% (1st)55.4% (2nd)56.4% (1st)54.1% (6th)
Toronto Maple Leafs52.3% (8th)54.5% (4th)55.0$ (3rd)53.8% (8th)
Tampa Bay Lighting51.6% (11th)53.2% (6th)52.3% (8th)56.6% (1st)
Colorado Avalanche53.0% (5th)52.4% (8th)54.6% (5th)52.4% (11th)
Calgary Flames53.8% (4th)53.1% (7th)55.6% (2nd)53.5% (9th)

Clearly, the numbers do not lie here in terms of the top five teams selected for comparison. Almost all of the teams rank in the top 10 across the board, aside from a few outliers, and just show how good these teams really are.

What needs to be highlighted, is just how good the Flames actually are in terms of their underlying numbers. The Flames do not rank outside of the top ten in any of the categories, and often are edging out some of thier competitors on this list.

It goes to show that although they had a rough few games last week, their season as a whole has been quite strong. That is even with the COVID delay. 

Taking a look at a few other metrics, thanks to @JFreshHockey on Twitter, the Flames continue to have some strong results: 

From a 5v5 score-and-venue-adjusted expected goals perspective, the Flames are ranked in the fifth overall position at 54.7%. If you take a quick look above and below them, you’ll see that those top five teams are spread out from third to eighth with the Flames making the meat of the hockey elite sandwich. 

The team is clearly playing a strong enough style to be tilting the expected goals in their favour on a nightly basis. Aside from a few interesting cases, it’s clear to see that the top eleven teams on this list are leading, if not very close to, their respective divisions. Some pretty good company. 

If you break down the values further into expected goals for and against per 60 at 5v5 SVA, the trend continues: 

The Flames are a top-10 team in both categories and this needs to be highlighted. They are playing well, just didn’t get the results they needed. 

That being said, there are a few areas of concern for the team that were a clear red flag coming out of their southern trip. One of them being depth scoring, or lack thereof. 

A consistent, quite annoying, trend that has percolated in this team for years has been their inability to get scoring from their bottom six. This issue was masked to start the season with the brilliance of Johnny Gaudreau, Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, and Andrew Mangiapane leading the offence in a torrid manner. Now that they have cooled down slightly, the holes down the lineup have started to show a lot more. 

Between the likes of Brett Ritchie, Adam Ruzicka, Tyler Pitlick, Brad Richardson, and Trevor Lewis, there have been six goals scored. Two of which were empty netters. Yet, there have been no changes to this bottom six configuration. 

Moving up the lineup and Mikael Backlund, Dillon Dube, and Sean Monahan have only scored four goals each through 33 games played. Not great. 

This is clearly where the Flames are struggling compared to the top teams in the league: 

Their 5v5 goals scored above expected is ranked 26th in the league at -10.6. Even with their top line driving a lot of play, they are just getting simply not a whole lot more. 

This has to be where the team focuses their tailoring moving forward.

Where do they rank?

I think it’s safe to say that even as the team is currently configured, the team is strong analytically and have been able to outplay a number of teams in the league. When it comes to the league’s best, it’s hard to say that they are at their level, but I think that they are almost there with a few minor tweaks.

Call it optimism, but the Flames simply lost three games to three extremely deep and talented teams. Add in the fact that Jacob Markstrom only played in one of those games, and maybe with a bit of puck luck the results would have been much different.

What would have been more interesting was to see the reaction if the Flames had dropped their previous two games against the Kraken and Blackhawks, and won just one game out of the three played last week? Or even if the team had just picked up one victory? 

I think the perception of what this team is, or could be, is rapidly changing this season more than it has in the past. Time will tell just what they are, but for the time being they have the backbone and style of play to help them get to that top tier. 

Photo by: Kamil Krzaczynski (The Associated Press)

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