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Super 16: Analytics challenge Flames' feel-good story

by Corey Masisak / NHL.com

One of the most fascinating stories of the 2014-15 season has been the surprising play of the Calgary Flames.

Thought to be in rebuilding mode, the Flames made a couple of modest additions during the offseason, but nothing that swayed most prognosticators to believe they were ready to compete in the rugged Western Conference. Here they are though, sitting in third place in the Pacific Division and sixth in the West with a 17-10-2 record and maybe most impressively a division-best plus-14 goal differential.

"The preseason predictions that we were going to be in the 'Connor McDavid Derby,' I didn't believe that at all," president Brian Burke said at the NHL Board of Governors meeting in Boca Raton, Fla. "In fact, I called a couple people in the media and complained about it. I thought that we would be better than that.

"I didn't believe it. I felt we finished strong last year. We built a foundation of hard work and tenacity."

Calgary is winning despite several indicators the analytics community would suggest are unsustainable. Burke mentioned his team played in a lot of one-goal games in 2013-14 (49, one of the highest totals in NHL history) and that showed his team was closer to success than people realized.

Super16 Keeping It Close

Team, season One-goal/tied games
Oilers, 1999-00 54
Panthers, 1993-94 53
Bruins, 2003-04 51
Devils, 2013-14 50
Devils, 2002-03 49
Oilers, 2003-04 49
Panthers, 2003-04 49
Coyotes, 2003-04 49
Panthers, 2010-11 49
FLAMES, 2013-14 49
FLAMES, 2014-15 36.8*
*Current pace
Data via Elias Sports Bureau

One-goal games are a divisive situation in hockey. When teams win lots of them, the traditional line of thinking has been [insert typical sports cliché here]. They know to win, they have clutch players, they work hard to earn their bounces, etc.

Analytics studies have shown success in one-goal games can fluctuate a great deal, and is typically random. Teams can win a lot of one-goal games one season or lose a lot the next season, and there isn't much to glean why.

This season, the Flames have played 13 one-goal games in 29 tries, and have not accumulated an abnormal amount of points in those contests (they're 7-4-2, a .538 winning percentage that is tied for 12th). As the accompanying table shows, the Flames are relying as much on playing close games like they did a season ago.

The problem for Calgary is a lot of other factors.

The Flames are currently 29th in the NHL in Corsi-for percentage and 26th in the League in Fenwick-for percentage. Both numbers are below 47 percent and the total shot attempts (Corsi) at 44.7 percent is particularly alarming. The accompanying table shows all of the teams who have finished a season with a CF% of below 45 percent in a full season since 2005-06.

Super16 Chasing The Puck

Team, season CF% Points
Sabres, 2014-15 36.7 64*
Maple Leafs, 2013-14 42.8 84
Thrashers, 2007-08 42.9 76
Sabres, 2013-14 43.1 52
Ducks, 2010-11 44.3 99
Oilers, 2013-14 44.3 67
Wild, 2011-12 44.3 81
Panthers, 2009-10 44.6 77
FLAMES, 2014-15 44.7 109*
Avalanche, 2009-10 44.8 95
Oilers, 2009-10 44.9 62
CF% = Corsi for percentage at even strength
*On pace for
Data via War-on-Ice.com

Two of the nine teams made the Stanley Cup Playoffs (the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10 and the Anaheim Ducks in 2010-11), but those two also had a huge drop in points the following season. Two other notable teams in this group are the Toronto Maple Leafs from last season and the Minnesota Wild from 2011-12. Each appeared to be en route to a playoff berth (the Maple Leafs were in second place in the division into March; the Wild started 20-7-3 and were first in the NHL) before crashing and missing out.

Comparing these Flames to another team associated with succeeding despite bad puck possession like the 2013-14 Avalanche does not quite work. The Avalanche had game-breaking forwards, and those types of elite scorers can help make up for bad possession numbers (at least for a while, anyway) and elite goaltending numbers.

The Flames are not built that way. Their top players are defensemen Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie, and while elite defensemen can drive puck possession, it is much harder for them to help sustain a team's high shooting percentage. Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo have been good, but not great like Semyon Varlamov was a year ago.

The shooting percentage is the second issue for the Flames from an analytics prospective. Calgary is shooting better than 11 percent as a team, and better than nine percent at even strength. The Flames have the third-fewest shots per game (second fewest at even strength), but are tied for sixth in the NHL in goals per game.

Thirteen players on the team are currently shooting 10 percent or better. There were 198 players who shot better than 10 percent (and played at least 40 games) in the entire NHL in 2013-14. That's about 6.5 players per team.

These are reasons to believe the Flames cannot sustain their current 109-point pace, but teams do not need 109 points to make the playoffs (even in the West).

"I think it's really early to talk about anything like that because it's so tough in the West and the compression that the cap has produced," Burke said. "If you lose four in a row, you can go from the fifth spot to the ninth spot."

Even if the Flames do not continue to win at this rate and do not make the playoffs, there are reasons to like what Calgary is building. Giordano and Brodie are two of the best defensemen in the NHL and each is signed to a team-friendly contract.

Each deserves to be in the Norris Trophy conversation, with Giordano as one of the favorites. There are lots of great No. 2 defensemen in the West, and Brodie belongs in that group.

"You know what happens? You think you know players and then you take over a team and you realize you don't know them," Burke said. "You don't know any team other than your own intimately. When I came in I thought Brodie was a small, skilled [player] but a non-factor, kind of timid, was my outside view. When I got there the two players that impressed me the most last year were Mikael Backlund and him.

"I was amazed how much better a hockey player those two are than I thought."

Backlund and Sean Monahan are building blocks at center, and rookie Johnny Gaudreau has shown he can succeed at this level and might develop into a game-breaking type talent. There is also reason to believe the return of Backlund, who has only played 11 games this season because of injury, could help the Flames nudge their puck possession numbers closer to respectable levels.

The key will be for the organization to ascertain which players are providing performances that can be counted on moving forward and which might be one-season anomalies. Burke has been outspoken against the use of analytics in hockey, but he softened that stance recently and the general manager he hired, Brad Treliving, might prove to be one of the best at melding traditional and analytical viewpoints.

Burke is correct in saying the Flames were hindered last season by terrible goaltending, and the addition of Hiller plus the improvement of Ramo has helped. He is correct to say his team is not as far from playoff contention as pundits thought before the season began.

That said, the Flames still might not be ready for that level, and there are reasons to believe how they have played to this point is not how they will perform the rest of the season. They will certainly be an intriguing team to monitor between now and the NHL Trade Deadline.

"I don't think you can ever pull back on the reins on your players," Burke said. "If they can keep winning games, we want to keep winning games. We said it last year. Our goal is to win as many games as we can. That's never going to change. Every night when they drop the puck your goal has to be win that game, and if that creates some runaway expectations then we will live with that."

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series right now, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. All rankings, records and statistics are through the games played Wednesday night.

1. Chicago Blackhawks (19-8-1)

The Blackhawks went 11-3-0 without Patrick Sharp. They are 4-0-0 without Corey Crawford. They have been the best team in the League at generating shot attempts at even strength, and have allowed the sixth fewest per 60 minutes. Remember when people were wondering what was wrong with Chicago or saying they didn't deserve to be at or near the top of these types of lists?

MUST READ: Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times writes about Brandon Saad continuing to develop into an elite player.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning (18-8-3)

The Lightning have lost three of four games, but lead the NHL in regulation/overtime wins and goals per game and are tied for second in goal differential with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They're also fourth in shots allowed per game. One area that needs some work is the penalty kill, with Tampa Bay below 80 percent and in the bottom third of the League.

MUST READ: Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune writes that Jonathan Drouin should stay with the Lightning instead of joining Canada's entry in the IIHF 2015 World Junior Championship.

3. Nashville Predators (18-7-2)

This feels a little too high for the Predators, but injuries are a problem for a couple of other teams that could be in this spot. Nashville leads the NHL in PDO, which is mostly because of Pekka Rinne's incredible .943 save percentage at even strength. Rinne is having the type of season that he re-established his credentials as one of elite goaltenders, but that figure is likely to drop at least a little. The Predators are controlling shot attempts at an elite rate though, so it isn't all good fortune.

MUST READ: Braden Thompson of On The Forecheck writes about Rinne and tries to quantify what the difference in goals allowed might be if he regresses towards his career numbers.

4. St. Louis Blues (18-8-2)

Speaking of goaltenders, Jake Allen had a bad game after Brian Elliott got hurt, and Martin Brodeur has now played in three straight games. If the Blues end up buying into the idea that Brodeur's experience will help them win games in the playoffs, here's hoping his save percentage is a little better than .904 by then.

MUST READ: Josh Cooper of Yahoo Sports writes about the partnership between Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (18-6-3)

It feels like the Penguins haven't been completely healthy since before Jordan Staal got hurt during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That's a slight exaggeration, but only slight. They played a game Monday without Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Patric Hornqvist, Beau Bennett, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. That's the top four wings (before the season, anyway) and two of the top four defensemen. They still stole a point with a late comeback against the New York Rangers, but there has to be a better stretch of luck with health in the near future for this franchise. Some year soon, anyway.

MUST READ: Jesse Marshall of The Pensblog writes about the improvement Simon Despres has made with new coach Mike Johnston.

6. Detroit Red Wings (17-6-6)

The Red Wings probably haven't been getting enough attention for the way they are stifling teams. Detroit leads the NHL in shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes by a not insignificant margin. The questions with this team before the season were mostly focused on the defense corps and goaltender Jimmy Howard's dip in form last season, but Mike Babcock's crew is playing great team defense, or what constitutes that in a more analytics-friendly NHL.

MUST READ: Babcock says this is the best Red Wings teams since 2009, writes Ansar Khan of MLive.com.

7. Anaheim Ducks (19-6-5)

The Ducks beat the Edmonton Oilers in a one-goal game Wednesday. Anaheim has played 30 games, and 20 of them have been decided by one goal. None of those 20 have resulted in a regulation loss (15-0-5). They are 4-6 in games decided by more than one goal.

As mentioned above, success in one-goal games can be random and fleeting. The Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings are 4-4-5 in one-goal games, while the Buffalo Sabres are 8-4-2. If not having Corey Perry for a while doesn't cost the Ducks some points in the standings, continuing to play so many one-goal games and a few bad bounces in the wrong direction likely will.

MUST READ: Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register writes about Frederik Andersen handling a heavy workload for the first time in his NHL career.

8. Minnesota Wild (15-10-1)

Darcy Kuemper had a great start to the season, but the Wild are back in a familiar position with their goaltending. Kuemper has been pulled in three of his past seven starts. His save percentage is down to .905, and is identical to Niklas Backstrom's. Last season they added Ilya Bryzgalov, but given the potential for this to be one of the better teams in the League either Kuemper needs to be better or the Wild may again have to look elsewhere for help.

MUST READ: Declan Goff of Hockey Wilderness writes that Thomas Vanek's lack of goals has not been the problem some people have suggested it is.

9. New York Islanders (19-9-0)

The Islanders have blown a three-goal lead in back-to-back games, but that's not likely to be an ongoing theme (though giving away leads was a serious problem in 2013-14). This team has more offensive firepower to combat lulls or the opposing team getting on a run.

Like the Ducks (and Vancouver Canucks), one concern is the team's reliance on one-goal wins. They have 24 of a possible 28 points in one-goal games (12-2-0), and are 7-7-0 otherwise. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

MUST READ: The Islanders are close to being fully healthy at forward, and garik16 of Islanders Analytics writes Matt Martin should be the odd man out of the lineup in that situation.

10. Los Angeles Kings (14-9-5)

The Kings are a difficult team to read. From one prospective, Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones are carrying a team that would be in trouble without great goaltending. They are sixth in the League in Corsi-for percentage at even strength, but that is in all situations. Filter the puck possession stats just about any other way (score close, use Fenwick metrics, etc.) and Los Angeles drops to the middle of the pack.

Still, a middle-of-the-pack possession team with great goaltending should be higher in the standings (that’s pretty much what Anaheim has been at times in the past couple of seasons, and what St. Louis was before Elliott's injury).

MUST READ: Rob Vollman writes about the Kings' puck possession issues for ESPN.com.

11. Vancouver Canucks (18-9-2)

The six worst teams in even strength save percentage include the Oilers, the Dallas Stars, the Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes. Their placement in the standings reflects that. Another is the Wild, and their goaltending issues were just documented. The sixth though (fourth worst, at .907) is the Canucks.

Three straight losses might have the Canucks inching back to where their analytics profile would suggest they should settle (a slightly-above-average team but not a great one). The schedule sets up well though. Vancouver doesn’t leave the time zone for a month, with nine of the 11 games at home.

MUST READ: Jim Jamieson of the Vancouver Province writes about some likes and dislikes with the Canucks to this point.

12. Montreal Canadiens (18-10-2)

The Canadiens were like the Ducks, Islanders and Canucks a couple weeks ago, and then they lost four games by one goal in a span of eight days. They didn't stop "knowing how to win," even if they lost six of seven games overall. Montreal is still a solid playoff team, but one that might still need a tweak or two to be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

MUST READ: Arpon Basu of NHL.com writes about the first recognized empty seat in the Bell Centre in nearly 11 years.

13. San Jose Sharks (15-11-4)

So losing four games in a row, including three where they heavily outshot the opponent, wasn't the end for this Sharks team and was actually just a precursor to a stretch of success. There is no question it was a really weird summer, but the Sharks are playing well and might be back near the top of the Western Conference before too long.

MUST READ: Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area writes there are some positive signs starting to show up in this time of transition for the Sharks.

14. Boston Bruins (15-12-1)

The Bruins weren't the first team to go 0-for-California on a three-game swing through the state and won't be the last. Zdeno Chara returned from a knee injury Thursday, and David Krejci is practicing, which is some of the best news the Bruins have had in a while.

MUST READ: Fluto Shinzawa of the Boston Globe writes that the numbers don't lie about this edition of the Bruins.

15. Winnipeg Jets (15-9-5)

The Jets have climbed into the top 10 in both puck possession metrics, and Michael Hutchinson is pushing Ondrej Pavelec, who is also playing better than he has in years, for more playing time. Key injuries on the blue line could be a concern moving forward, though Dustin Byfuglien can help (and maybe this leads to him staying back for good).

MUST READ: Garret Hohl of Arctic Ice Hockey writes about Evander Kane's lack of production.

16. Calgary Flames (17-10-2)

Further to the point about Monahan having a great sophomore season, he is second among all first- or second-year players in the NHL with 76 shots on goal. The only player ahead of him is Nathan MacKinnon with 84. That's pretty good company.

MUST READ: Ryan Pike of Flames Nation writes about Calgary's chances of making the playoffs if the Flames do start to regress.

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