Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Keys to the Flames Making a Return Visit to the Playoffs

If you had asked last October, this season was supposed to be another rebuilding year for the Calgary Flames. In the third season without Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, slowly integrating draft picks Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett, this was supposed to be a season in which baby steps were taken from what was supposed to be an awful 2014-15.

Hard to believe but this time last year, landing Connor McDavid seemed like a more likely outcome than making the playoffs.

But my how things can change quickly. Instead, the upstart Flames defied the odds and the never-ending line of skeptics by making it to the final eight in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Fast forward to today and after a productive off-season for general manager Brad Treliving, who brought in a top-six forward in Michael Frolik and a top-pairing defenceman in Dougie Hamilton, optimism is in the air.

In reality, not far removed in real time from when this team hit the reset button, rebuilding should still be the theme of hockey conversations around town but after everyone got their post-season hockey appetite whet with four weeks of drama last April and May, plus with the upgraded roster, the word 'rebuild' is rarely mentioned anymore.

Instead, the question on everyone's mind these days is can the Flames make it back to the playoffs for a second straight season and once they get there, could they go on another run and make it consecutive years into the second round for the first time since the late 80s.

There are plenty of things that need to go right for that to happen and I've taken some time to identify a few areas where they either need to remain good at, or get better at.

Eight Keys to Making the Playoffs in 2015-16

1. Rousing Road Success

How good was Calgary's 22 road victories last year? The last time they hit that number was the year they won the Stanley Cup in 1989. The Flames 22-17-2 record in opposition buildings was a big reason why they were able to squeeze into the playoffs, edging the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings by two points. One particular area where they did exceptionally well was long road trips. Assigned an unusually-high four road trips that were five games or longer, Calgary returned home above .500 every time.

As you'll recall, that included a critical jaunt through the difficult Central Division with just over two weeks left in the season -- a trek that capped off by a win in Edmonton resulted in the Flames returning home 3-2-0 and still in playoff contention. This year's road schedule sets up much differently. There is just one five-game trip and instead there are a bunch of shorter three and four-game trips with a few one-off trips mixed in as well. The dynamic will be different but the requirement will be the same, play above .500 on the road, win a majority of your home games, and if you can do that, it should be good enough when the season ends.

2. Pacific Power Trip

In non-division games last season, the Flames were a very pedestrian 23-24-6 for 52 points. To put that into perspective, that was only two points better than the Oilers, who went 20-23-10 for 50 points. The game-changer and why Calgary finished 35 points ahead of Edmonton overall was Calgary's insanely good 22-6-1 record against the Pacific Division.

With the Central Division looking very strong top to bottom, they could gobble up the two wild card spots in the Western Conference. Calgary's ticket to the dance could hinge on finishing top three in the Pacific. The Flames play 29 divisional games (4 games vs. LA, 5 games vs. the others) and they are going to have to thrive once again. Expecting a repeat of last year's record isn't realistic but they'll still have to be several games above .500 against division foes because too many losses in those four-point games will leave too many teams ahead of them and with Anaheim and the Kings looking formidable, just one of San Jose, Vancouver or Edmonton finishing ahead of Calgary could be all it takes to end up watching the post-season on television.

3. Gotta Get Goaltending

Karri Ramo will start the season in net, but who knows who gets the crease on Saturday night, never mind next week, next month, or in six months time. Calgary's goalie situation remains 'fluid' to put it kindly or a 'mess' to put it bluntly. Of the two veterans, Ramo clearly holds the edge over Jonas Hiller at this moment as indicated by getting the tap on the shoulder to play in the season-opener. However, his grasp on the No. 1 job could last less than a couple hours if the 29-year-old Finn does what he did four times last year and get yanked by coach Bob Hartley in the first half of the game.

Ramo can be really good while on other nights, not so much. In the four assignments last year in which he was pulled before the end of the second period, the damage was 4 goals on 22 shots, 4 on 13, 3 on 11 and 4 on 13. Calgary's team save percentage and goals-against average a year ago was right in the middle of the pack -- in and around 15th or 16th. In other words, it was good enough but barely. However the 82 games are divvied up this year, the Flames goaltending will need to be just as good if not better. Regression between the pipes could be costly.

4. First Period Focus

If Danger Zone is the signature song of the Top Gun soundtrack, the signature buzzword to the 2014-15 season for Calgary was 'unsustainable', Of all the unsustainable things the Flames dabbled in and the advanced stats community would implore that they had their fingers in a lot of different pots, one of the most talked about areas was all those wild and wooly third period comebacks. Ten times in the regular season Calgary entered the third period trailing yet came back to win. That ranked third behind Anaheim (12) and Detroit (11). The Flames didn't change their MO in the playoffs either, pulling off three more rallies of that same ilk. Will it be possible to repeat that late-game success? Highly doubtful. However, where the huge opportunity lies for Calgary is to take a first period lead more often. You don't have to chase after someone if they're chasing after you.

In a statistic I would argue is just as unsustainable as the third period comebacks is how infrequently the Flames led after the first period. They did so just 18 times, which ranked 28th and ahead of only Detroit (17) and Buffalo (16). Calgary can greatly reduce the number of furious late-game comebacks required if they can stake themselves to a lead more often because as they demonstrated last year, when they do secure a first period lead, they are adept at locking it down. In chalking up a 16-2-0 mark when leading after one, Calgary's .889 winning percentage was second-best behind the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.

5. Fix Face-off Failures

Given that Corsi and how much a team possesses the puck is considered an advanced statistic, dumbing it down and linking it to a conventional stat is contrary to what one should do. However, I'm going to do it anyway. As has been trumpeted at length and as I just mentioned, the Flames were not good when it came to advanced stats last year. In Corsi Close (or Shot Attempts Close to use the NHL's lingo), which measures even-strength shots attempted for/against while the score is within one goal in the first and second period and tied in the third period, Calgary ranked 28th. I did a bit of digging and I found a correlation to team face-off percentages, which does make sense. If you lose a face-off, you're chasing the puck, which is exactly what the Flames did too much of last year.

Calgary ranked 26th in face-offs last year at 47.4%. When I started comparing team face-off percentages to Corsi Close, 11 of the top 12 face-off teams all finished above 50% in Corsi, which is what you want. It means they were in possession of the puck more often than their opponent. Similarly, six of the bottom seven teams in face-offs were below 50% in Corsi. Since generally speaking, the best Corsi teams are the teams that make the playoffs, a mandate for the Flames this year should be improving their performance at the dot. Keep your eyes on Sean Monahan, who went from 46.0 to 49.3 in his sophomore year. Mikael Backlund also went from 47.5 to 48.3 last year. If you're the Flames, ideally both of those guys are north of 50% this season. Meanwhile, Matt Stajan was 50.3% last year so he's already in the black. The wild card is Sam Bennett, who struggled in the pre-season but surely he will fare better than Markus Granlund, who was 36.8% last year in his 48 games.

6. More Penalty Killer Instinct

Last year, the Flames were shorthanded the least of any NHL team as they were shorthanded a remarkably-low 186 times. That's an average of just 2.3 times per game. Is that level of discipline sustainable? I'm not sure it is as the Flames add a bit more snarl to the line-up this year in Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett. In the pre-season Calgary was shorthanded 28 times in eight games so that's an average of 3.5 times per game. If that trend continues into the regular season, that would equate to an additional 100 times shorthanded over the course of the season and another 20 goals against based on Calgary's mediocre 20th ranked penalty killing.

A fair expectation would be to spend more time shorthanded this season and that puts the focus on new acquisitions Michael Frolik and Dougie Hamilton to see if they can make the PK better. The goal would be to improve the penalty killing enough to counter-balance any rise in shorthanded opportunities. With the games so low-scoring these days, power play goals are huge so the shorthanded work of Matt Stajan, Lance Bouma, Josh Jooris, Kris Russell, etc. is really going to be important for this club.

7. Maintain the Blue Collar Work Ethic

Bob Hartley is a demanding coach. While an affable guy for the media to chat with every day, always quick with the quips and one-liners, it's one thing to know Hartley in that way, it's quite another to be one of his employees. He's a tough boss to work for in that he demands a lot, especially in the area of fitness. His infamous mountain climber conditioning drill he subjects the team to regularly is testament to that. Like with all coaches, I fully expect there will inevitably come a time when the players start tuning out the coach. It happens to the best of coaches. We shouldn't be there yet and could be years away from that setting in as there is too many young players playing to stay in the line-up and looking to earn bigger roles.  Plus, Hartley also has a great soldier in Mark Giordano to keep everybody in line.

Make no mistake, this unwavering work ethic we saw from the team last season -- the relentless forecheck, the never-give-up attitude after falling behind in games, those were big reasons behind Calgary's success a year ago and will be once again this year. The Flames need to pack the lunch buckets and come to the rink ready to work again in 2015-16 because any let-up in this area will impact the win column and could mean death in the Pacific playoff race.

8. Sustain Secondary Scoring

Secondary scoring a year ago came in two forms. First, it came from forwards that had career years. Two unexpected sources were Bouma (career-high of 16 goals, after 5 the previous year) and Jooris (12 goals as a rookie after scoring 11 in his first pro season in the AHL).

Also, the Flames got a ton of production from the blue-line -- Dennis Wideman with a career-high 15 goals, TJ Brodie's 11 was a career-high and Giordano was on pace for a career-high with 11 goals through 61 games when he suffered that season-ending torn biceps tendon. Ferland, Bennett, Jooris, Bouma, Colborne, Raymond, Backlund, Calgary is going to need production from that middle six once again because as we saw in the playoffs, the top line can be shut down and frustrated and when that happens, you need a back-up plan.

Also, the Flames second power play unit finished the year in an epic drought in which it failed to score a goal in the final 38 games (27 regular season games, 11 playoff games). The last goal generated by the second unit was David Jones on Feb. 12, 2015. The team did score 23 times with the extra man during that stretch but Gaudreau and the top unit were responsible for each one. Obviously this an area that Calgary needs to get much better production.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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