This has not been the season that the Calgary Flames anticipated it to be when they announced their opening night roster. Mired in a losing stretch that has seen them drop 11 of their last 15 games, the Flames sit fifth in the Pacific Division with an 9–9–3 record through 21 games this season. There have been a lot of theories thrown around as to why the team has struggled, from Jonathan Huberdeau not having the linemates that he needs to injury issues, to curses, and everything in between. And while many of these issues have some merit to them, the team’s underlying numbers point to some very clear issues that this team is facing. Let’s dive into them.
Calgary’s underlying 5v5 metrics
Taking a look under the hood using data at 5v5 from NaturalStatTrick.com, the Flames are actually looking like a very decent team. They sit fourth in Corsi for percentage (percentage of shot attempts) and tenth in expected goals for percentage at 5v5—all good indicators of the team being actually quite decent. They are getting pucks on net and controlling chances against to give themselves a good chance to win games.
Here’s where things begin to look a bit wonky. Given the numbers, it would be expected that the Flames would also be controlling the scoring chance and high-danger chance categories. However, the reality is that they only kind of do. On defence, the Flames are among the better teams at controlling scoring chances and high-danger chances against, sitting ninth and eighth respectively. This is a really good sign.
The problem is that the Flames cannot get into the dangerous zones and generate chances on net themselves. They are 18th in the league in creating scoring chances and 17th in creating high-danger chances at 5v5. And while they have scored 26 high-danger goals this season, they do so while shooting at 19.55%, a completely unsustainable percentage relative to the rest of the league.
This is a problem, and is particularly noticeable in Jonathan Huberdeau, who simply has not been shooting very much at all this season. He has just 32 shot attempts at 5v5, lowest among regular forwards, and has just nine high-danger chances to his name, two more than Adam Ruzicka who has played just over a half as many minutes this season. This is a major problem for the Flames, who need him to replace the production of Johnny Gaudreau from last season.
Calgary’s goaltending woes
The other problem of note at 5v5 has been their goaltending. The team quite simply cannot buy a save when they need one. They boast a fifth-worst save percentage of 0.907, ahead of just the Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks, Montreal Canadiens, and Arizona Coyotes. This is all while having a Vezina Trophy finalist as their starter. Their high-danger save percentage is also sixth-worst at 0.805. Yikes!
This has also been a tale of two netminders. On the one hand, Daniel Vladar has been decent for the Flames this season. In six starts, he boasts a 0.908 save percentage, good for 29th in the league among goalies who have played at least 200 minutes. He also has a high-danger save percentage of 0.854, good for 19th in the league. This is particularly impressive for the Flames’ backup.
On the other hand, Jacob Markstrom has struggled quite a bit more. He sits 16th from the bottom among netminders with a 0.889 save percentage through 16 games at 5v5. This is well below what he is used to, This is the lowest it has been since he became a regular netminder in this league in 2015–16.
The other problem with Markstrom is that when the Flames have made errors on the ice, they haven’t been able to rely on him to make the timely saves. Markstrom sits 15th from the bottom in high-danger save percentage at 5v5, with a brutal 0.795 save percentage. Nearly every other netminder in the league is above 0.800 so far this season.
The problems the Flames face
The Flames definitely need better from Markstrom. There is simply no doubt about it at this point. He has not been good enough at all to this point in the season, and when they are paying $6 million per season for the next four years in a contract with a goalie who holds a no-movement clause, it’s hard to see how the Flames are getting what they are paying for at this point.
To his credit, Markstrom has acknowledged that he does need to be better and as the franchise netminder, he has vowed to be. This will take time, but there is a lot of the season still to be played in order for Markstrom to show he can be a difference-maker for this team. Vladar has been good, but the Flames will need their started to be the guy who carries them to the playoffs.
But the goalie being better isn’t enough. The Flames are going to need to get more quality looks on net. When the company surrounding them in the high-danger chances for category are the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks, the Flames are clearly on the wrong side of the category if they have playoff aspirations this season.
This starts with getting their best forward on paper going in Huberdeau. He simply has not been good enough to start this season, and even if you think his two-way game has been better alongside Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman, the fact that his shooting and production is so far down from where it has been at any point in his career is a major problem.
Still time to right the ship
On paper, the Flames are a much better squad than their numbers suggest. They should have a chance of winning every game they play this season and should be favorites in most of those games, but the way they have been performing of late has shown them to be anything but. Whatever it takes, the Flames’ coaching staff, players, and management all need to take steps to show that this team is better than what they have shown.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire