The Calgary Flames are not a good team offensively. While they are better on defence and are arguably near the top of the league in that category, their offence leaves a metric tonne—or rather several metric tonnes—to be desired. This Flames roster had its first real philosophical shift to being a defence-first team with Darryl Sutter as head coach. When he took over the reins as Geoff Ward was relieved of his coaching duties, Sutter instilled a system that prioritised checking above all else. It’s an old-school style of hockey that has practical application, and especially works when there are still players who innately drive offence regardless of the system.
Now with Sutter gone and Huska leading the carriage, the Flames are seemingly directionless on the ice. Their system looks to be one of having no system at all. After an offseason of re-energising the roster with a strong emphasis on creativity on the ice, this team finds itself 26th in the league in goals for, and this ranking was boosted heavily by their 6–3 win over the Seattle Kraken. Even if they find a way to get offensive outbursts in coming games, they’re still in the bottom third of the league with an uphill battle to get into the middle third.
No offence for Calgary
Whether the Flames are still struggling to shake off Sutter’s defence-first system or they are outright unable to embrace new-age hockey remains to be seen. While every other team seems to be prioritising shots from high-danger areas, the Flames appear to be prioritising shots. From any and all areas. This is happening so much so that when compared to the league average, the Flames are well below the mark for getting shots off from in close.
Head Coach Ryan Huska has noted that he wants the team to be more creative, but there is no structure. Creativity without structure leads to missed passes and rushed shots. As a coach, he needs to figure out how to get the best out of each individual player, but also get the team to focus on the task at hand of getting off shots that are more likely to go in.
Using 5v5 Offence plots from HockeyViz.com, it is abundantly clear that the Flames’ offensive system is lagging behind the rest of the league. For reference, the more red there is, the more a team tends to shoot from that area compared to the league average. The more blue, the less they shoot. Given that there’s a deep blue sea right in front of the net between the two circles, i.e. the high-danger areas, this is the visual confirmation that the Flames aren’t getting high-quality shots compared to the average NHL team. Now the caveat here is that the plots don’t quantify what an average team is by itself, they just quantify where a team stacks up compared to the league average.
There are three glaring issues right away. Let’s start with the easy one: their expected goal rates. Per 60 minutes of 5v5 ice time, they’re due for just 2.63 goals. Clocking it right at -0%, the Flames literally can not be any more average. This is unsustainable for a team that wants to see playoff action come spring.
Now for more of the chart interpretation and the second and third issues. Where they don’t shoot from and where they do shoot from. Again, blue means a team does not shoot in those areas, and the Flames have basically a massive void of no shooting from in front of the net. While other teams are finding ways to get more shots to the slot, the Flames don’t even bother. How do we know they don’t bother? It’s the excess of red in other areas.
Had the Flames’ chart been all blue with little red, then there’d be a clear signal that they’re not shooting the puck at all. However, that’s not the case. They often outshoot their opponents but rarely outscore them. All the extra red shows areas on the ice where the Flames shoot more than average. They are shooting more from the boards and the circles—for whatever reason unbeknownst to everyone watching them. As soon as a shot becomes available in these lower-danger areas, you can bet the Flames will just try to shoot immediately instead of funnelling the puck to the slot first. It’s one thing to see a little bit of red from low-danger areas, it’s a huge problem to see this much.
NHL Edge confirms the Flames’ inefficiencies
Former Flames employee David Johnson, who was a part of the analytics team during his time with the team, made note of the new stats available from NHL Edge a couple days ago.
The Flames are just downright bad at getting off high-quality shots. They’re ranked 31st in the league, ahead of the San Jose Sharks, but look at the values. The two teams are more tied for last with nearly a two-percentage point difference between them and the 30th-ranked Anaheim Ducks.
Low-danger shots beget poor results
In quantifiable metrics, in visual representations, in simply watching the games and using the eye test, the Flames are simply not a threat in the offensive zone. They are pushing all their chips into the quantity over quality mantra, and in today’s league where NHL goalies are as good as they’ve ever been, extra quantity for the sake of quantity rarely translates to outscoring opponents. Nowadays, extra quantity needs to come with actual quality too.
Solve this problem and the Flames may start looking a bit more serious on the ice as an offensive power. Until then, they’re going to be predictable, solvable, and easy to play against.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire