Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Two Ways To Look at "It's Not Sustainable"

The analytics experts, the advanced stats gurus, they're all out in full force these days. In their scope is the explanation-defying, feel-good story of the NHL season -- the Calgary Flames, the should-be Connor McDavid contenders, who instead are contending for first place in the Western Conference thanks to a stunning 12-6-2 start.

The gist of their Tweets, columns and exposés -- often accompanied by colourful charts and graphs, is that what has just happened won't continue to happen. In the name of science, damn it, it can't continue to happen.

Remember as a kid when you still believed in Santa Claus? Well, these folks are like the mean neighbour kid next door, who ruined it. You know the type -- whiny, snot dribbling out of his nose, slingshot in his back pocket. The jerk that felt compelled to explain that: (a) Reindeer are unable to fly. (b) A chubby man can't wiggle down your chimney if you have an artificial fireplace. (c) Simple travel logistics don't not allow a sleigh to fly to every house in the world in one night.

But have these skeptics stood at Mark Giordano's locker and looked into the whites of his eyes and told him this is all a fluke?

Have they listened to him talk?

Have they stood nose-to-nose with Bob Hartley and heard him gush about this hockey club's leadership and character.

Have they watched his team play?

Calgary has outscored teams 27-12 in the third period and that's not solely because they've gotten some lucky breaks. That's a well-conditioned hockey team under the guidance of a demanding coach that is huge on conditioning, who skates them hard each and every practice.

It seems the more wins that the Flames chalk up, the louder the voices of opposition get. They are not a good team, Calgary is an awful team, this is not possible, it cannot continue. This line chart I just plotted proves it.

Remind me, is it the 'x' or 'y' axis that measures a player's heart?

Not Sustainable, Nor Does it Need to Be

In overcoming a two-goal third period deficit Tuesday night to beat Anaheim, the NHL-leading fourth time the Flames have come-from-behind to win a game when trailing after two periods, Calgary improved to 12-6-2 on the season.

The Flames reach the quarter-mark ranked third in the Western Conference. Over the first 20 games of the season, they're playing .650 hockey in terms of point percentage.

You know what, you're right, that is not sustainable. We can all agree wholeheartedly that Calgary will not finish the season with 106 points, which is the pace they're currently on.

However, we're overlooking a key thing. Playing at that clip is no longer a requirement either.

Let's not forget that with 12 wins already locked away in the vault, the Flames don't need to keep playing at that ridiculously high of a level.

In making the Stanley Cup playoffs last year as the Western Conference's second wild card team, the Dallas Stars reached the post-season with 91 points.

Calgary can finish this season with 91 points if they play .525 hockey the rest of the season. That's playing three games above .500 over the season's final 62 games.

So where the Flames just finished a 20-game segment six games above .500, they need only be one game above .500 in each of the next three 20-game segments to put themselves on a 91-point pace and give themselves a legitimate shot at the post-season.

It's time to back down from the 'they can't continue to play .650 hockey' soap box and ask the more relevant question of can this hockey team play 'slightly above .500 hockey' for the duration of the year.

The Good News: Other Things Are Also NOT Sustainable

While that particular segment of the hockey community obsessively points to the standings and emphatically shakes their head side-to-side while touting inadequate puck possession, elevated shooting percentage, inflated save percentage and yada, yada, yada, overlooked are other challenges that the Flames have had to persevere and overcome over the first six weeks that are also "not sustainable". These need to be included in the same conversation.

1. Injuries

The Flames have won seven of their last nine games and they've done so while missing four key veteran forwards, who have been on the IR for that entire span:
  • Mason Raymond - When he injured his shoulder, he led the team in goals with five in his first 10 games
  • Mikael Backlund - The first round pick finally arrived last year. Was Calgary's best forward over the final 2/3 of last season.
  • Joe Colborne - Had eight assists in his first nine games. At the time I wrote this piece on the former first round pick, he was tied for the NHL lead in helpers.
  • Matt Stajan - Leader, plays in a defensive shut-down line, key part of the penalty kill

Additionally, most of that stretch has come without Michael Ferland, a good-looking prospect, who was the team's best player in the AHL when he was called up -- only to end up sidelined in his first game with a concussion.

Tuesday's toppling of the Ducks also came without big winger David Jones -- playing his best hockey since he's come to Calgary and alternate captain Kris Russell, a key member of the Flames top four on the blue-line.

You want to talk not sustainable, this unlucky rash of injuries Calgary has persevered at forward is not sustainable. Colborne will return, Raymond will return and if they can get Backlund back as well, those will be significant upgrades over the likes of Devin Setoguchi, Max Reinhart and Brandon Bollig.

2. Inexperience

Calgary has played the first 20 games with an influx of youth. Entering the season, Johnny Gaudreau, Markus Granlund and Josh Jooris had a combined eight NHL games on their resume.

Now they're at 49.

While the goal-scoring rate for Jooris will fall off, I see no reason why Gaudreau -- who had zero points in his first five games, won't improve production-wise in the next 20-game segment. If you've watched Granlund play, his eight points in nine games does not look like a mirage.

The overall play from the three of them will only get better because that's how it goes with rookies. With experience, you get better. Every game, you learn. Every practice, you improve. Talk to them and they'll tell you that. These guys are feeling more and more comfortable every day.

So what's not sustainable or won't be the same factor the rest of the season is the first-month jitters or nervousness, the inexperience of rookie NHLers. While the production won't necessarily improve, all three of these players will be better all-round players in games 21 to 40 and beyond.

3. Glencross Slump

Let's not forget that the Flames fast start has come without Curtis Glencross contributing as he normally would. In fact, far from it. Sure, the 31-year-old has 10 points but during his previous seasons in Calgary, he's been counted on more so as a goal scorer and he's proved he can be that.

If not for injury, Glencross could easily have had two 30-goal seasons already to go along with a couple 25-goal seasons. He is a sniper, who has yet to get going this season with only two goals so far. You do not score at the proficiency he has over the past four seasons and suddenly turn into a 10-goal scorer.

Is he a 30-goal scorer? Probably not. But he's definitely a 20-goal scorer. He's getting chances, he's hit a bunch of goal posts this year. I think it's safe to say his current drought is also not sustainable. When he does break out of this slump, he will provide the Flames with a new source of offence.

4. Bad Goals Against

Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo have given the Flames some superb goaltending this season. This past 7-10 days has been a regression of sorts. Oh, they've mixed in some highlight-reel saves, for sure, even one or two game-savers. However, over the last four or five games, it seems like there has been at least one bad goal allowed each night if not two.

I would argue that after 15 games of stellar goaltending before that, this penchant for surrendering a bad goal is also not sustainable and that the level of goaltending Calgary has been getting the last few games will revert back to closer to what we saw in the first 15 games.

Calgary has been winning lately despite some tough goals allowed. I would expect less bad goals for the team to have to overcome in the weeks ahead.

Optimism + Pessimism = Realism

In 2001-02, backed mostly by Roman Turek's goaltending, the Flames reached the 20-game mark with an unbelievable 13-2-5 record for 31 points. It's the only season in the past 21 years that Calgary has gotten off to a faster start than this year.

That season, under coach Greg Gilbert, the wheels began to wobble right about now. Starting with game No. 21, they went on a 0-4-2 skid and by the time the season was over, they had missed the playoffs in the Western Conference by a whopping 15 points.

With that as a historical case study, this year's Flames haven't assured themselves of anything quite, far from it.

That said, I'd suggest epic implosions like what happened 13 years ago, are also something that is not sustainable or would be considered 'the norm' for this organization. There will be a regression, there is no doubt about it, but given the strong leadership this club has and the work ethic and culture Hartley has established, plus the impressive fact that Calgary has gone over 50 games -- dating back to mid-January of last year -- since they last had a three-game losing streak (longest such streak in the NHL), it's hard to imagine a spectacular regression of that type of magnitude happening this year.

If you're a Flames fan, there's no way you could have asked for anything more from the first 20 games. All this from a team, which as I explained in this piece two days ago, is very much one of the have-nots of the NHL.

The good news is they play the games on the ice and not on paper and as a fan, that's a good thing. Besides, it's also far more entertaining that way.

Is the playoffs possible for this team this season? I remain skeptical but what I do know for certain is playing .525 hockey the rest of the year is far more likely than playing .625 hockey so the required marks to get accepted into the playoffs has come down. If they don't make it, they've certainly assured themselves of being in the race for far longer than most of us ever imagined.


Recent Related Flames Reading
  • LISTEN - The archive from my guest appearance on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio on November 19 when I joined Jim 'Boomer' Gordon and we talked about the Flames fast start and discussed that popular question: Is it sustainable?
  • Wrong Side of the Tracks, Right Side of the Standings - If the 2014-15 NHL season was an 80s movie, the Flames with Byron, Bouma and Jooris would be cast as the poor kids, up against the rich kids in Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins. So far, the poor kids are dating the gorgeous cheerleader.
  • Strike up the Polka Band: Sven is Happy, Happy, Happy - Baertschi is back. Or, at least he sure is playing that way. After picking up his first NHL points in over 11 months, I caught him with him one-on-one to discuss his need to be a part of -- and feel a part of -- the offence and the swagger he draws from being on the ice for Flames goals.
  • Sweet 16: Sixteen Reasons for Flames Fans To Smile - Sixteen games into the season and the Calgary Flames are the talk of the NHL and so they should be with an improbable 9-5-2 record. Here are 16 reasons for Flames fans to enjoy this season's early success. 
  • Flames on a Roll: Buckle Up, Hang on Tight and Enjoy the Ride - Calgary is playing exciting, competitive and winning hockey. As a fan, isn't that what you signed up for? My examination of the Flames fast start includes reason for optimism, but mixed with realism. 
  • A Different Kind of New Era in Flames Hockey: Wave Bye Bye to 19,289 - It happened quietly and without any fanfare during the last home-stand. A stretch of 392 consecutive sell-out crowds at the Saddledome, which dated back over 10 years, is now over. I took a look back at the streak and ponder what's next?


  1. The question isn't "can" they do it?, it's are they likely to do it?. The answers respectively are yes and no. Toronto fluked there way to a playoff birth in the lock-out shortened season and the Aves did it last year so, sure they can do it to... but Toronto's luck came crashing down in spectacular fashion last year and the Aves have been once again relegated to bottom-feeder this year. Here's the raw facts... 26.2 and 29.3... that's the Flames SPG and SAPG, call me crazy iif you want but I find it less likely that teams that get outshot will make the playoffs.

    If I may address your 'also not sustainable' points individually...

    1: Injuries: While it's true that all of them do represent upgrades on Devin Setoguchi, Max Reinhart and Brandon Bollig the truth is that they won't be replacing those three... they'll be replacing people higher on the depth chart. There may be a trickledown improvement (although I wouldn't bet on Bollig losing his job anytime soon) but it'll be to the tune of 5 minutes a game (a guestimate on how much time those guys have played per game considering Bolligs fourth line status and the amount of games the others dress).

    2: Inexperience: Yes they will gain experience and lose the first month jitters or nervousness... but they'll also lose the adrenaline they get from playing in the bigs for the first time on the reg, other teams will develop a 'book' on them, and they'll start to experience the grind of the NHL regular season.

    3: Glencross Slump: Curtis Glencross currently is producing at a 0.5PPG pace... Curtis Glencross career PPG rate? 0.55. He's not really in a slump at all he's just contributing in a different way. Even if you want to just consider his rate vs. more recent data he's only down a little which is to be expected considering he is for effectively the first time the teams #1 LW and thus expected to face harder assignments.

    4: Bad Goals Against: Jonas Hiller Career SV% 0.917, his current SV% 0.920. While I agree that we won't see stinkers let in like we have recently I also disagree that we'll see a return to the early stellar performance. Or if we do we'll see alternating hot and cold stretches.

  2. How many of the 'advanced stat' gurus and 'analytics experts' are blogger 'hacks' without stat degrees? Yes, not sustainable, but using data as a predictive element won't get you too far (I hope I don't eat my words).

  3. The number of shots means nothing.... I rather give up 50 shots from the point and take 20 shots from the slot any day. Take a look at scoring chances for and against and that may paint a better story. If you're outshooting a team by 10 and only out chancing them by 1 or 2... it's not much of a difference.

    1. Actually there tends to be a strong corralation between total shots and total scoring chances (the more shots a team takes the more scoring chances they have). Which makes perfect sense since one is a product of the other.