The general sense around town is that that the Calgary Flames’ 2015-16 setback was simply a case of subpar goaltending sinking a rising club. They were right there, right on the cusp of breaking through, before those pesky netminders started flopping around and throwing away the chance to contend in the West.
But is that really the case?
There’s no question the Flames are miles ahead of where they were just a few years ago, but the assertion that a stud netminder would put the Flames right on par with the Western Conference’s big boys is a hefty claim to say the least.
Judging from the way the postseason has shaken out so far, it’s fair to say San Jose, Chicago, St. Louis and Dallas rank as the cream of the Western crop. You could throw Anaheim in there as well, though they’ve seemed a step below these other four powerhouses recently.
Offensively, Calgary actually wasn’t too far behind these clubs – the Flames finished with 229 total goals, which ranked fourth among Western Conference clubs. At even-strength, they in fact finished second in the West, with their 152 5-on-5 goals finishing behind only Dallas’ 167.
Special-teams played a key role in sinking the Flames’ offense below the level of their conference rivals. Calgary finished the season with one of the worst powerplay units in the league, sitting with only 46 powerplay goals – fewer than all of the previously mentioned clubs, and nearly 20 goals below San Jose’s conference-leading mark of 62.
However, in terms of overall offensive effectiveness, the discrepancy between the Flames and the Sharks or Stars is much clearer.
Calgary posted a subpar Corsi For percentage of 48 percent this season – the ninth-worst mark in the league, and well below Dallas’ second-ranked 52.6 percent. Chicago, St. Louis, and Anaheim all finished above the 50 percent mark as well.
Considering all but one of the past nine Stanley Cup winners boasted a Corsi For percentage above 50 percent (and the one that didn’t had Sidney Crosby on the roster), this is arguably one of the most telling statements regarding where the Flames stand.
The defensive zone didn’t fare much better for Calgary in comparison to these powerhouses. Even with their talented trio of defenders in Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton, the Flames still gave up plenty of chances to their opposition.
Per War-On-Ice, Calgary allowed the sixth-most high-danger scoring chances in the league (772). That mark allowed the Flames to rank better than Dallas (783), who have had their own issues with defense this season, and only slightly worse than Chicago (732), but Calgary was considerably worse than San Jose (641) and St. Louis (682).
And that lackluster total can’t be pinned on goaltending, as opposed to Calgary’s horrid goals-against mark (they ranked last in the league). The number of quality scoring chances allowed sheds light on the Flames’ play in front of their troublesome goaltending duo, painting a picture of a club in need of much more than a new starter in the crease.
Even if we factor in the high-danger scoring chances that the Flames earned themselves, we see that the club was still among the worst in the conference, as they were far behind the western elite in terms of differential.
The Flames’ high-danger scoring chance differential clocked in at minus-56 — meaning they gave up 56 more high danger chances than they earned. Curiously, Chicago was even worse in this regard, finishing with a minus-65 and slumming it alongside Calgary in the league’s bottom seven. That wasn’t the case for the rest our Western Conference leaders.
San Jose led the NHL with a phenomenal differential of 225. Dallas didn’t reach those lofty heights due to their defensive issues, but they still finished in the positive with a mark of 48. St. Louis was close behind with a positive differential of 37.
A few other Western Conference contenders who are either on the rise or consistently part of the picture also finished among the tops in the league in this regard, putting even more distance between the Flames and a potential Western crown.
Los Angeles was third in the league with a differential of 129, while Nashville was next up with 122.
Taking those scoring chances into account, we get a more comprehensive picture of a team’s overall level of play, which brings their depth into the equation.
The Flames’ offensive depth pales in comparison to clubs like Dallas, as Calgary relies primarily on Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan up front. They get a significant amount of offense from their blue line (Giordano posted 21 goals for the Flames this season), but this reliance seems to come at the cost of better defensive play.
Thus, while the Flames might defend a bit better than Dallas, and can get some consistently dangerous offense from their top line, they aren’t able to generate as much overall offense as any of the top Western teams in the league.
So what about the Flames’ finishing with a better differential than Chicago, and sitting relatively close to them in regards to overall goals production? The Blackhawks’ growing pile of Stanley Cup rings suggests Calgary isn’t on their level, which means there must be another dimension that goes beyond the above-mentioned statistics.
That final layer is simply the quality of the players in the room – the aspects of elite players’ games that lie in the details and can’t be fully measured by statistical analysis. On this front, it’s clear to see where Calgary sits in comparison to their conference’s best.
While Gaudreau has established himself as genuinely one of the best offensive players in the league, and the duo of Giordano and Brodie is vastly underrated in terms of their standing in the league as a whole, the rest of Calgary’s roster is either still young or simply mediocre.
That isn’t the case with teams like Chicago, San Jose, Los Angeles, or Dallas.
On the Blackhawks, the list of names is fairly obvious – Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, etc. Chicago has earned a reputation of showing up in the clutch, one they again cemented by extending their recent playoff series as long as they did, and that reputation was built primarily on the backs of Kane and Toews, who are among the best in the sport in do-or-die situations.
The two former champions combined for 17 game-winners in 2015-16 alone. They have a combined 95 game-winners over the course of their NHL careers. Those are beyond exceptional numbers, and ones that point to a larger issue regarding talent assessment in the big leagues.
It isn’t always about the possession trends or the consistent level of play put forth during the regular season. Part of the equation is simply undeniable talent – the quality of a player’s offensive skill that allows them to change the complexion of a game with one shot, one rush up ice, or one pass feathered through the slot when a team is desperate for an offensive spark.
Kane and Toews fit that bill. So do Dallas’ Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and John Klingberg, or San Jose’s Brent Burns, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski.
The Flames have one legitimate threat of this ilk in Gaudreau. Fellow young guns Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett could grow into similarly high-quality players down the line. But as of right now, the Flames simply aren’t on the same level of the West’s top clubs in terms of their All-World talent. And if we consider that alongside the defensive numbers, it seems the Flames aren’t yet ready to match up against these top talents, even with a stronger netminder behind them.