The Calgary Flames are well aware of the task facing them between now and their final regular season game on April 9th. With only 45 points earned through 47 games this season — the second-least in the Western Conference — the Flames will need to go on a significant run and string together some wins as soon as possible if they hope to avoid an early end to their 2015–16 campaign.
The Flames have dropped six of their past eight games, taking their record to a disappointing 21-23-3. As the club’s brass clamours to find the root of their problems, there may be one area worth an extended look — the team’s faceoff effectiveness.
Calgary has been one of the NHL’s worst this season when it comes to winning faceoffs, ranking third-last in the league in this department with only 48% of their faceoffs won. This means, very simply, that the majority of times Calgary lines up for a draw, they’re immediately forced to defend, rather than push forward offensively.
Faceoff effectiveness is far from an all-encompassing measure of offensive success, but it is still a significant statistic in regards to the above-mentioned trade-off. Consistently allowing your opponent to start plays off with the puck in their control doesn’t bode well for one’s own offensive success, and statistical work has been done to prove the legitimacy of this relationship.
Cam Charron of LeafsNation took a closer look at the importance of faceoffs a few years back, using data from the one season the NHL tracked zone time (2002) and relating that to faceoff effectiveness and measures of puck possession. The result was the assertion that faceoffs do play a significant role in establishing quality zone time and possession — per Charron, faceoffs can help explain roughly a quarter of a team’s variance in puck possession ability.
Garret Hohl of Hockey-Graphs.com did some work on the subject more recently as well, compiling data from every game and every team in the league, dating back to 2007-08 (the first season that saw the NHL track shot attempt data). Hohl found that there is indeed a strong connection between faceoff effectiveness and possession, specifically in that teams with high overall faceoff percentages tend to also have high Corsi percentages.
Looking at the Flames’ numbers, the team’s faceoff ineffectiveness has arguably played a key role in their overall possession ability, as they also rank eighth-last in the league in Corsi For percentage with a mark of 47.7%.
Ostensibly, it appears that losing faceoffs and consistently turning the puck over to their opponents leads to the Flames giving up more chances than they’re able to take themselves. However, this is only part of the story.
One key factor to consider in the discussion of faceoffs is puck retrieval. If a team were to be horrible in the faceoff circle but exceptional at retrieving the puck (i.e. through battling along the wall, picking off passes, or performing any variety of takeaway), then it’s clear that this latter skill would mitigate the weakness of the first skill, meaning said club could still be an effective offensive force.
This is where Calgary’s faceoff struggles become problematic. Despite the Flames housing some promising offensive players, both up front and on their back end, the club has looked out of sorts when it comes to puck retrieval as of late, which, combined with the fact that they consistently lose faceoffs, means these players are often forced to defend instead.
Calgary’s recent loss to Carolina exemplifies this situation perfectly.
First, the Flames were demolished in the faceoff department in the 5–2 loss. The Hurricanes won an astounding 79% of the game’s faceoffs in the first period and 70% in the second, before Calgary came up with a strong third period that saw them win 72% of the draws themselves to slightly even things out (after the score was already 3–1 for Carolina).
The discrepancy through the first two periods played a key role in Carolina’s early possession dominance, and numerous other statistics from the game suggest the Hurricanes spent the majority of the game’s first half controlling the puck (i.e. Calgary recording significantly more hits and blocked shots).
However, it was the Flames’ poor puck retrieval skills that led directly to their downfall, as evidenced in three of the Hurricanes’ five goals. While the Canes’ second marker was a penalty shot and their fourth was a powerplay tally that came as a result of a net-front battle, the others highlight a few key flaws on the part of the Flames.
The game’s opening goal directly exemplifies Calgary’s puck retrieval issues, as the Flames were beaten twice along the wall in their own zone, failing to clear the puck and allowing Victor Rask to cut to the slot and earn a quality scoring chance.
Calgary’s faceoff woes played a direct role in the Hurricanes’ third goal. Centre Mikael Backlund started the play off by losing an offensive zone draw, allowing Carolina to exit the zone and head up ice in a matter of a few passes, springing the two-on-one that saw Eric Staal set up Kris Versteeg for the game-winning goal.
While Carolina’s fourth goal was simply a hard-fought powerplay marker, their fifth resulted from another pair of lost puck battles from Calgary, followed by a few avoidable defensive zone giveaways, all of which resulted in Joakim Nordstrom getting the puck in the slot and firing in the insurance goal.
The same trends persisted in the Flames’ recent loss to the Dallas Stars. Though the Stars’ first goal was simply an unstoppable display of elite skill from captain Jamie Benn, the club’s second tally (the eventual game-winner) was a direct result of the Flames losing a battle behind their own net – which allowed the Stars to get the puck to Jason Spezza beside the open cage.
Taking these performances into account, it’s clear why the Flames’ faceoff struggles are more important than they might be for other clubs. The one key factor that can mitigate the damage of a team losing the majority of their faceoffs is the ability to win battles and reclaim the puck — and yet the Flames’ inability to do this has not only been an issue, it’s been arguably the central reason for their recent lack of success.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this issue for the Flames is the fact that the club does in fact have an exceptional offense. Between star winger Johnny Gaudreau, other reliable young stars like Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, and the mobile defensive unit that features Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton, Calgary certainly has the firepower necessary to keep themselves in games.
In fact, the Flames’ shooting percentage during even-strength play is among the best in the league – they’re tied with Dallas at fifth, boasting a shooting percentage of 8.1. However, negating this strong offensive skill is the fact that the Flames rank dead last in the league in terms of even-strength save percentage, sporting a last-place mark of 0.909.
It seems the Flames are walking a fine line, boasting a strong offense and very weak defense – at least at the moment. That being the case, the issue of losing faceoffs (and failing to retrieve the puck after doing so) becomes all the more important, as the Flames are limiting their ability to utilize their offensive skill and are instead forcing themselves to rely on their currently league-worst defense.
Calgary has shown signs of life in terms of remedying this issue at times, such as the final period of their tilt against the Hurricanes, when they dominated in the circle, outshot Carolina 15–10 and earned a goal to nearly stage a comeback. Their resurgence wasn’t enough to make up for the early damage, however. The Flames need more consistency in those types of performances if they hope to stay alive past April, as their current trajectory suggests they simply can’t offset what seems to be a key flaw in their game.