The Calgary Flames finally seem to be trending upwards after a worst-case scenario start to the 2015-16 season. The Flames are now just two points out of a playoff spot with a record of 13-14-2, and are in the midst of a five-game winning streak.
Calgary’s recent resurgence shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a return to their true level. While it’s true the team has been finding ways to win – and even rekindling a bit of their “comeback kids” mentality – there are still significant issues in need of solving.
Chief among these has been Calgary’s horrid special teams numbers.
Last season, the Flames got by on decidedly average special teams play, as their powerplay ranked 16th in the league and their penalty-kill sat at 20th. Neither total was very impressive, but the 2014-15 Flames were a club that lived in the details of their defensive game, keeping games as close as possible to give themselves the best possible chance of earning a victory.
Thus, while the Flames’ 2014-15 powerplay and penalty-kill weren’t good enough to take them to the next level, they also weren’t bad enough to burn the club too often.
However, this season the Flames find themselves in an entirely different situation, as they currently rank dead last in the league in both categories.
Calgary’s 30th-ranked powerplay has converted on only 11.6 percent of their chances through the first 29 games of the season, scoring a league-worst 10 goals on the man-advantage in 86 powerplay situations. Similarly, the team’s penalty-kill sits last with a rate of only 70.9 percent, allowing 23 powerplay goals-against on only 79 shorthanded opportunities.
Part of the Flames’ powerplay woes seemingly stem from head coach Bob Hartley’s trouble with finding the proper configurations of available players. For example, veteran defender Dennis Wideman currently leads all Flames blue-liners in powerplay time-on-ice per game, logging an average of over 3 minutes on the man-advantage. All while star defensemen Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie both sit with far less – Brodie in fact holds the least of these three, despite undeniably being the Flames’ best rearguard this season.
Up front the Flames have often sent out the familiar forward trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Jiri Hudler, though they’ve failed to find much of an offensive spark as of yet – combining for just four powerplay goals.
Another key issue with Calgary’s powerplay is the fact that they aren’t earning many chances to test it out at all. The Flames currently rank 24th in the league in powerplay opportunities earned, totalling only 86 through 29 games. They were much better in that regard last season, finishing 11th in the category.
The absence of Lance Bouma – who’s been sidelined with a broken fibula since mid-October – seems to have played a central role in that slide, as Bouma ranked first among regular Flames skaters last season in terms of minor penalties drawn per 60 minutes (1.15). Rookie Sam Bennett has carried that torch this season, drawing a team-leading 2.22 minor penalties per 60 minutes. But outside of him, the Flames have had a tough time getting their man-advantage unit on the ice.
Losing Bouma has undoubtedly affected Calgary’s penalty-killing as well, as he ranked first among all Flames forwards last season in shorthanded time-on-ice per game with a mark of 1:46. He also ranked second in total shorthanded time-on-ice, trailing only T.J. Brodie.
Since Bouma was forced out after only three games, the Flames have been forced to shuffle the deck on the penalty-kill. Veteran pivot Matt Stajan has taken over top duties, currently leading all Flames forwards in shorthanded time-on-ice per game. Two-way force Mikael Backlund comes in second, as was the case last year, and offseason addition Michael Frolik is in that fold as well.
But the new combinations haven’t been working out for Calgary, and the lacklustre results have the Flames playing with fire, so to speak, as the team can continue to fall short on special teams for only so long. The number-one reason the Flames have been able to remain in the playoff hunt is simply the luck of competing in the much weaker Pacific Division.
The story of their 2015-16 season would be quite different if the Flames were a Central Division club, as the top six teams in the Central would all be ranked higher than second place in the Pacific due to their phenomenal records. While Calgary’s playoff hopes are alive, it isn’t necessarily because the team has found a way to remain balanced through their struggles. Regardless, their current streak has them within striking distance of a postseason spot and Calgary certainly hves the pieces to get there.
But sustained success will be hard to find if their special teams can’t escape the league’s basement – even in their own weakened division. With Calgary currently allowing the most goals per game in the league (3.52), and 70 percent of those goals coming at even strength, the Flames simply can’t afford to be falling short on the penalty kill and giving opposing clubs more chances to put pucks in their net.
On the other end of the rink, the Flames have proven the strength of their notable offensive pieces – headlined by Johnny Gaudreau, who currently ranks seventh in the NHL scoring race – but with plenty of goals flooding their own net, they also can’t afford to pass up powerplay opportunities. A strong powerplay could even the playing field for Calgary, in terms of scoring more and mitigating the effects of their lacklustre goaltending. But Calgary has both scored and gotten to the man-advantage rarely, leaving this area of their game notably under-utilized.
It’s a situation the Flames will have to remedy sooner rather than later – especially with the Edmonton Oilers picking up steam just as Connor McDavid prepares to return from injury. With the West’s two wild card spots looking certain to go to Central Division clubs, the Flames’ only chance at the postseason will likely come via a top-three finish in their own division. Improved Arizona and Edmonton squads suggest that race will be a much tougher one this time around, meaning Calgary must right the ship as soon as possible.