Calgary Flames

Dissecting the Calgary Flames’ Penalty Killing Woes

It’s no mystery that the Calgary Flames’ special teams performance has been atrocious this season.

For the majority of 2015-16, the Flames have ranked last in the league in both power play and penalty kill effectiveness, and that hasn’t changed yet. The club has risen from 30th to 29th in power play effectiveness, converting on 15.6 percent of their man advantage chances, but still rank 30th in terms of their penalty kill, which has held the opposition at bay only 73.4 percent of the time.

This issue has become of utmost importance as of late, as the Flames’ lackluster penalty kill has directly affected their ability to win key games at a time when every point is crucial for their playoff hopes.

The Flames have allowed three power play goals in each of their past three games — they managed to squeak out a 6-5 shootout win in the first of those three, but were felled in the latter two games, with power play goals-against playing a central role in the losses. To make matters worse, the two teams that beat them were Arizona and Vancouver – both of whom reside in Calgary’s own division, and who the Flames need to take down if they hope to climb back up the standings.

So what exactly is the issue with Calgary’s penalty kill?

The Flames haven’t been a strong penalty killing team for some time, ranking in the 14–20 range among all NHL clubs over the past three seasons. But 2015-16 has surely been a notable step back in this department, as Calgary has continued to stumble in regards to shutting down opponents’ power plays, despite the fact that they boast a few exceptionally gifted defenders.

The first issue seems to be fairly clear – head coach Bob Hartley isn’t exactly nailing it when it comes to getting the right players over the boards in penalty killing situations.

Looking at the club’s leaders in regards to shorthanded time on ice, the first two names are natural choices – Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. But after that, things get dicey.

Defender Kris Russell ranks third on the time in total shorthanded ice-time, and veteran centreman Matt Stajan is right after him, leading all forwards. Neither are terrible options, but it’s clear the Flames have better choices. Russell’s role on the Flames’ blue line already seems to be far greater than it should be, considering the team has Dougie Hamilton waiting to take on more responsibility.

The 22-year-old Hamilton hasn’t been great this season, but there are a few facts about his game that can’t be denied. First, his exceptional size is undoubtedly one of his most useful attributes – Hamilton weighs in at 210 pounds and stands at a monstrous 6’6″. Operating in a shorthanded situation, one central goal of the defending club is taking away the opposition’s time and space. Cutting off passing lanes, blocking shots, and pressuring opponents into bad decisions remain fundamental aspects of any penalty killing system.

December 20, 2015: Calgary Flames defenseman Dougie Hamilton (27) during a game between the Calgary Flames and the Detroit Red Wings. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire)

And thus, sending out a player of Hamilton’s size, whose long reach makes it much easier to do all of those things, seems like a natural choice. Especially when the alternative is a player who stands only 5’10” – i.e. Kris Russell. That logic hasn’t played much of a role in the Flames’ coaching staff’s personnel choices, however, as Hamilton ranks 13th on the Flames’ roster in total shorthanded ice-time this season, having seen a total of 18:02 minutes on the penalty kill all season, as compared to Russell’s 94:06.

That 18:02 seems to have been accumulated mostly by accident as well, as Hamilton’s shorthanded ice-time per game is actually only 19 seconds – meaning he basically isn’t being used in that role at all.

Hamilton’s former coaching staff in Boston certainly felt his exceptional size could be of some use in penalty killing situations. While he didn’t play a central role when the Bruins were shorthanded last season, Hamilton still averaged over a minute of ice-time on the penalty-kill per game (1:09 minutes to be exact), helping the club finish 12th in the league in terms of overall shorthanded effectiveness.

But it isn’t simply his physical attributes that give Hamilton a perceived edge in the penalty-kill department. Being an effective shorthanded player also requires exceptional vision so as to be able to adequately read and shutdown opposing plays, and the speed and offensive awareness to exit the zone effectively.

Hamilton ranks third among all Flames defenders with a Corsi For percentage of 49.2, while Russell ranks with the fourth-worst mark on the entire team, holding a Corsi For percentage of 44.1. That discrepancy suggests Hamilton does a much better job of guiding the Flames towards offensive opportunities when he is on the ice, whereas when Russell is on the ice, Calgary is more prone to seeing the opposition earn offensive chances.

It’s no mystery that Russell is often pushed back into his own zone and hemmed in for quite some time – which has played a key role in him becoming one of the top shot-blockers in the game. While blocking shots is admirable, a player that is forced to block literally hundreds of shots each season (as Russell has over the past two campaigns) has bigger problems in their style of defensive play.

Indeed it seems, across the board, Hamilton’s numbers best Russell’s when it comes to defensive play. Hamilton has been on the ice for 42 goals-against, while Russell has been present for 54 (in fewer games). At even strength, Hamilton’s goals-against per 60 minutes stands at 2.9, while Russell is at 3.2 (the highest mark among all Flames blue-liners).

In terms of zone exits, Hamilton’s skill in this area was precisely the reason the Flames made a play to acquire him last summer. Said general manager Brad Treliving at the time:

“We talk about getting out of your end. [Hamilton] is able to go back and retrieve pucks, exit the zone. He’s ability to deny entries. He’s ability to create offence with both his passing and his legs and his ability to get shots on the net.”

February 06, 2016: Calgary Flames Goalie Jonas Hiller (1)  makes a save as Calgary Flames Defenceman Kris Russell (4) helps out on defense. (Photo by Kathleen Hinkel/IconSportswire)

Despite this ostensible advantage, Hartley has still preferred to avoid testing Hamilton on the penalty-kill. Even in the Flames’ recent loss to the Anaheim Ducks – which saw them give up three shorthanded goals and eventually lose 6-4 – Hamilton saw exactly zero seconds of shorthanded ice in that game, even though Russell was scratched from the lineup. Instead, Hartley opted to play Ladislav Smid and Deryk Engelland on the penalty kill after the top pairing was in need of a break. Smid and Engelland finished as a combined minus-2, while Hamilton finished as a plus-1 to go along with his two points (one goal, one assist).

Aside from the personnel issues, there certainly seems to be a bigger problem with Calgary’s penalty-killing strategy. Looking at each of the nine powerplay goals scored on them in the past three games, a few remarkable trends stuck out.

The Flames have been awful when it comes to adapting to their opponents’ style of play on the man advantage. Of the nine power play goals scored against them, four were almost identical goals. Each time, the opposition wired a cross-ice pass from the right-side half-boards to the left side, straight through Calgary’s four-man box, after which it was shot in from that left side.

It happened three times in a row in the Flames’ tilt against San Jose, as Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau, and Dylan DeMelo all capitalized on the powerplay using this same play. In the following game, the Coyotes did the same thing, as Shane Doan scored on the man advantage via a one-timer after a similar right-to-left cross-ice passing play.

While strong offensive teams will get their chances and killing penalties is a difficult task to begin with, the fact that the Flames’ penalty killing unit didn’t identify this strategy by the time the Sharks had succeeded with it twice in a row is a telling flaw.

They could have perhaps collapsed closer towards the middle of the zone to cut off that cross-ice feed, knowing the Sharks were looking for that pass – instead, they continued to leave it wide open, allowing it to be exploited time and time again.

Rebound control seems to be a key issue for the Flames’ netminders as well, which has certainly done the team’s penalty killers no favors.

While two of the nine powerplay goals against were straight shots from the point, three were all fairly similar. In each instance, the opposing club fired in a far shot on Flames netminder Jonas Hiller, who rebounded the puck into the slot, allowing the power play scorers to clean up and put it in the back of the net. Coyotes forward Anthony Duclair tallied in this manner, as did the Ducks’ Corey Perry and Sami Vatanen.

While the latter issue may be a tougher one to solve, it’s clear the Flames’ penalty killing woes are deeply rooted, and a systematic change needs to be made in order to remedy the problem. The Flames did do much better during shorthanded play during December and January, finishing 15th in the league over that span, but they’ve ranked third-last through February, undoing that success now that they need it most.

Interestingly enough, the Flames have only been shorthanded 143 times all season – the second-lowest total in the league. That discipline is somewhat admirable, but it hasn’t helped them much, as every time they do take that rare penalty, the puck is likely to wind up in their cage.

That slide doesn’t bode well for the Flames’ playoff hopes, especially considering their penalty kill was one of their key strengths during their storybook run to the postseason in 2014-15. Calgary allowed the fourth-fewest power play goals against last season, and also took the fewest penalties in the league. While they’ve held up the second half of that equation, they’ve already allowed more power play goals against in 2015-16 (38) than they did all of last season, ranking seventh-worst in this regard.

With plenty of crucial divisional games on tap throughout the rest of the month, and the Flames still sitting nine points out of a playoff spot, time is running out for the team to stabilize their special teams and prevent them from derailing their playoff push.

The Flames’ penalty killing unit has seemingly hit rock-bottom over the past three games, so there’s no time like the present to shake up the personnel and the shorthanded strategies in an effort to finally right the ship.

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