Ask the average Calgary Flames fan what their club needs in order to be better next season, and the answers will likely all sound fairly similar: better goaltending.
That certainly isn’t incorrect. Calgary’s netminding duo of Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo were a huge disappointment in 2015-16. Ramo led the way with a mediocre 0.909 save percentage and a 2.63 goals against average, while Hiller posted marks of 0.879 and 3.51.
Young gun Joni Ortio saw 22 games of action as well due to injuries to both veterans, and the 24-year-old came up with a 0.902 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.76.
All in all, it wasn’t a great showing from any of them, and the result was Calgary finishing dead last in the league in terms goals-against per game (3.13). And yet, while the subpar goaltending was crucial in sinking the Flames’ 2015-16 campaign, it arguably wasn’t as impactful as the team’s tumultuous defensive play.
The number of notable names on Calgary’s blue line often leads to the assumption that the team’s defense is one of the club’s key strengths.
After all, Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton earned praise just last summer as potentially the NHL’s best defensive corps.
That isn’t quite how it all shook out though. While offense from the backend wasn’t an issue, by season’s end the Flames had given up the fourth-most total shot attempts in the league, with their 3795 shot attempts-against ranking behind only Colorado, Ottawa, and the New York Rangers.
The number of chances given up by the Flames is crucial, as it paints a clearer picture of how often the ice was tilted towards their net.
For example, Calgary actually ranked 11th in the league in terms of shots-against per game (29), leading some to believe that the club was limiting chances on net, and it was simply the goaltenders that dropped the ball.
But the true story is that the Flames were giving up far more chances than they were earning themselves, forcing them to block 1320 shots (the third-most in the league) over the course of the season. And it isn’t as if the Flames were laying down to thwart quality chances and letting only the weak ones through.
Per War-On-Ice, the club allowed the sixth-most high-danger scoring chances in the league (772) while earning only 716 themselves, and that differential ranked as the seventh-worst among all NHL clubs.
Why exactly is this important? Because all of this involves what transpires on the ice before the puck ever gets to the goaltender.
Had Ramo and Hiller stood on their heads and kept more pucks out of the net, the Flames surely would have found a bit more success. But given the play in front of this duo, and the number of chances allowed, it’s clear the Flames weren’t getting very far either way.
Key to consider in regards to this issue of allowing scoring chances is the Flames’ questionable style of play throughout the season. Calgary’s star players did step up for them – Johnny Gaudreau finished sixth in league scoring, Sean Monahan flirted with the 30-goal mark once again, and all three of Calgary’s blue line stars topped the 40-point plateau (Giordano led the way with 21 goals and 56 points).
However, while offense wasn’t a problem for Calgary’s leaders, the system they played within made it difficult for them to have the same impact defensively.
The central factor in this defensive disappointment was Calgary’s reliance on stretch passes through the neutral zone. While it was a tactic that seemed to work initially in 2014-15, it fell far short in 2015-16 as opposing teams identified the Flames’ simplistic approach and simply waited to pick off the ambitious breakout attempts.
The result – Calgary finished with the seventh-most giveaways in the league, and spent much more time without the puck than with it.
It’s for this very reason – as well as an inability to adapt once this tactic was scouted and easily defended – that Bob Hartley was fired by the club early this summer. And it is because of this point that the club’s coaching decision remains crucial for the team.
Calgary certainly has some blue-chip pieces in their defensive group – a trio of names that are ideally able to shutdown the opposition and easily transition into offensive roles if given the opportunity. But what they so obviously lacked in 2015-16 was the framework to allow them to know when to properly pick their spots, and it is this, rather than better goaltending, that remains the Flames’ biggest need in 2016-17.
Instead of providing reliable defense and potent offense when the opportunity arose, the Flames’ blue line simply got buried under chances from the opposition, and looked to add offense just to help the club survive.
General Manager Brad Treliving could put an All-Star calibre goaltender in net and hope for better results, but unless the team is able to gain more control over the trading of chances with the opposition, the Flames don’t seem destined for significantly more success.
Luckily for the Flames faithful, Treliving seems to be well aware of the issue. With Hartley now out of the picture, the organization remains in search of their next head coach, and the fact that they haven’t rushed into choosing their next bench-boss suggests the club is being very careful in selecting the system that will govern their talent next season.
There’s a strong chance Treliving will select his next coach before he acquires the club’s next starting goaltender, and rightfully so – as the success of the former will undoubtedly affect the success of the latter, and could in fact be the determining factor in whether or not the Flames can bounce back in 2016-17.