Monday, April 11, 2016

Eight From 80 Feet: Dissecting the Flames Disastrous Season Between the Pipes

While they are a lot of facets of Calgary's game that you can point an accusing finger at when assigning blame for why the Flames missed the playoffs in 2015-16 -- record vs Pacific Division, defensive play, special teams, player usage -- top of the list has got to be goaltending.

In a season in which in the end, Calgary finished only 10 points back of the second wild card spot, there are two numbers that stand out for me.
  • 11th in shots against.
  • 30th in goals against.

To me, that sums it up. The team did a pretty decent job of limiting chances but too often opposing teams scored anyway.

The three-headed monster to start the season quickly became a three-headed disaster with all three goalies sharing the blame in Calgary getting off to a 2-8-1 start, which was a hole they were never able to fully dig themselves out of.

In a special edition of Eight From 80 Feet, I dig into the Flames goaltending and provide eight different views of what was a historically dreadful season between the pipes.


1. $4.5 million Not Well Spent

In the second year of his two-year/$9 million deal, Jonas Hiller had the dubious distinction of posting the worst save percentage in the NHL in the past decade. You need to go back to Andrew Raycroft (.879) in 2005-06 to find a worse mark and you also have to go four decimal points for Hiller to slide in front of the Bruins goalie.

Go back two decades and several size increases of goalie gear and Hiller's name is still prominent among the worst single seasons.


NHL Worst SV% in Last 20 Years (since 1996-97)

1. Damian Rhodes ATL, 1999-00, .874
2. Brian Boucher PHI, 2000-01, .876
3. Arturs Irbe CAR, 2002-03, .877
4. Peter Skudra BUF/BOS, 2000-01, .879
5. Andrew Raycroft BOS, 2005-06, .879
6. Jonas Hiller CGY, 2015-16, .879
7. Vesa Toskala TOR/CGY, 2009-10, .880
8. Jussi Markkanen EDM, 2005-06, .880
9. Tom Barrasso PIT/OTT, 1999-00, .880
10. Kirk McLean VAN/CAR/FLA, 1997-98, .881


If you look at team history only, Hiller's save percentage was the worst in over 25 years, going back to Mike Vernon (.878) in 1990-91. The NHL only has save percentages listed back to 1987-88 and you have to go back that far to find regular occurrences of sub .880.


Flames Worst SV% on Record (since 1987-88)

1. Doug Dadswell, 1987-88, .858
2. Mike Vernon, 1989-90, .870
3. Rick Wamsley, 1989-90, .875
4. Mike Vernon, .1987-88, .877
5. Mike Vernon, 1990-91, .878
6. Jonas Hiller, 2015-16, .879
7. Rick Wamsley, 1988-89, .881
8. Mike Vernon, 1991-92, .883
9. Mike Vernon, 2000-01, .883
10. Trevor Kidd, 1993-94, .887

Hey, didn't they win the Stanley Cup in 1989? Yes, but by scoring 354 goals that season, an average of nearly 4.5 goals per game. This year's team averaged 2.8.


2. How the Finnish Finished

OK, so we've covered off the Flames Swiss goaltending representative. What about the three Finns?

To qualify in save percentage, you must play 25 games. Of the 48 that qualified, Joni Ortio was not among them as he was three games shy. Obviously Niklas Backstrom didn't have nearly enough appearances either.

Nonetheless, here is where they all ranked or would have ranked had they qualified and spoiler alert, not one of them landed in the top 35. For Ortio supporters, you might be surprised and not in a good way. The 24-year-old finished with a .902 that landed him in-between 45th place Mike Condon and 46th place Anders Nilsson.


NHL SV% (min of 25 gm)

Top Five

1. Brian Elliott STL, .930
2. Ben Bishop TB, .926
3. Thomas Greiss NYI, .925
4. Michal Neuvirth PHI, .924
5. Corey Crawford CHI, .924

Middle of the Pack

23. Devan Dubnyk MIN, .918
24. Steve Mason PHI, .918
25. Martin Jones SJ, .918
26. Cam Talbot EDM, .917
-----------------------------------
36. Karri Ramo CGY, .909
-----------------------------------

Bottom Five

44. Ondrej Pavelec WPG, .904
45. Mike Condon MTL, .903
-----------------------------------
     Joni Ortio CGY, .902
-----------------------------------
46. Anders Nilsson EDM/STL, .901
47. Eddie Lack CAR, .901
-----------------------------------
     Niklas Backstrom CGY, .881
-----------------------------------
48. Jonas Hiller CGY, .879


That's a long, long way back of 47th place for Hiller. In fact, he would have needed to stop 146 shots in a row in order to climb above Eddie Lack.


3. Tale of Two Halves

That said, with Ramo and Ortio in particular, their-season ending save percentage could be viewed as misleading. There were circumstances for each of them that would suggest their second half is a more accurate portrayal of their abilities. Let's take a closer look.

Karri Ramo

October was a struggle. But in reviewing video and working closely with Flames goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet, Ramo made an adjustment to his style that I documented here, which was noticeable and improved his game. Looking at the splits for Ramo.
  • Before Nov. 30 - .899 SV%, 39th of 44 (min of 8 gm)
  • After Dec. 1 - .917 SV%, 27th of 57 (min of 15 gm)

Joni Ortio

It's hard to judge a guy on sporadic work. If you don't have the comfort of knowing you'll be back in the net the next night, you're playing more nervous -- trying not to make a mistake -- and that's never good.

So let's separate out October as well as Ortio's relief appearance mid-February after he first returned from the minors. Instead, we'll begin in late February with when he started making consecutive starts.
  • Before Feb. 22 - .862 SV%, N/A out of 53 (min of 16 gm) 
  • After Feb. 23 - .910 SV%, 33rd of 49 (min of 8 gm)

Split out that way, Ortio's numbers improve but are they good enough? His .910 is still below what would be considered middle-of-the-road goaltending and if you're Calgary, don't you want that at a minimum? Ortio is a pending RFA this summer and it remains to be seen if he re-signed. I think he made a decent case for it but I don't see it as a slam-dunk by any means. It may hinge on, who else they might be able to bring in and the cost.


4. No Police Record

The NHL schedule is a grind. Six months, 82 games, injuries knock guys out of the line-up, lingering aches and pains hamper guys in the line-up.

Along the way, all successful teams need their goalie to steal games on occasion. This is not something Calgary's goaltenders did very often this season. By my criteria of "stealing a game" that I explain below, Backstrom's Herculean effort in game 82 on Saturday was only the third time Flames goaltenders pulled off a heist and got the team two points they didn't deserve.

Here's my simple but logical criteria for what constitutes stealing a hockey game.
  • Win the game
  • Face 32 or more shots
  • Allow 2 or fewer goals
  • Opponent outshoots you by a minimum of 6 shots

Here are the three steals I see them. All of them coming on the road. The other two authored by Ramo.
  • Nov. 13, 2015 - Ramo in Washington, 3-2 OT win, outshot 36-29
  • Dec. 17, 2015 - Ramo in Dallas, 3-1 win, outshot 38-27
  • Apr. 9, 2015 - Backstrom in Minnesota, 2-1 win, outshot 36-25

Three is down significantly from last season where in helping the Flames make the playoffs when nobody was expecting it, Calgary goaltenders combined for 10.

Here are the number of games stolen over the last five seasons:
  • 2015-16 - 3 (Ramo 2, Backstrom 1)
  • 2014-15 - 10 (Hiller 5, Ramo 3, Ortio 2)
  • 2013-14 - 6 (Ramo 3, MacDonald 2, Berra 1)
  • 2012-13 - 6* (Kiprusoff 4, MacDonald 2)
  • 2011-12 - 6 (Kiprusoff 6)

* 48-game season


5. Too Many Crooked Numbers

I'm borrowing this expression from baseball, where a 'crooked number' refers to more than one run in an inning. As a pitcher, you're always striving to limit damage and if you can avoid crooked numbers during a start, your odds of winning rise significantly.

In hockey, I'm talking about allowing five or more goals in a game. You're not chalking up many wins if your team needs to score at least six goals. In 2014-15, the Flames gave up five or more goals in a game only 7 times. The last time they allowed that few blow-outs was 2007-08 (7). The last time they allowed fewer was 2003-04 (4), the year they went to the Stanley Cup final.

This season, opponents rung up a high-5 on Calgary 20 times. That's a quarter of the games. Heck, they gave up six-or-more goals 8 times, which is more often than last year's team gave up five or more.

Rick Wamsley
The last time the Flames got lit up 20-or-more times for at least five goals was 24 years ago. In missing the playoffs in 1991-92, the third season after winning the Stanley Cup, Calgary yielded five-or-more goals 28 times. The three primary goalies that year along with save percentage were:
  • Mike Vernon (.883)
  • Jeff Reese (.872)
  • Rick Wamsley (.850)

Take a look at how small the goalie gear was way back then compared to today. Although 28 times is excessive, you can understand how the games were higher scoring.

But to give up that big of a number in this era of fridge doors for pads and XXXL jerseys? That's brutal.


6. Six Months in a Leaky Boat

In the end, it wasn't close. Calgary's team save percentage this season (.898) was dead last and a long way back from 29th place Dallas (.906). How the Stars won the Central Division is a conversation for another day because typically, porous goaltending will kill you. Of the 11 worst teams in that category, Nashville (.910) at 22nd is the only other team to make the post-season.

The opposite rings true also. The top eight teams in save percentage all made the playoffs, the string ending with 9th place New Jersey (.919).


NHL Team SV% in 2015-16 (excluding empty net goals)

1. St. Louis, .924
2. Tampa Bay, .923
3. Pittsburgh, .921
4. Florida, .921
5. Washington, .921
-------------
26. Toronto, 909
27. Montreal, .908
28. Carolina, .906
29. Dallas, .906
30. Calgary, .898


Oh, and it gets worse. If you look back over the last five 82-game seasons, so dating back to 2010-11, that .898 mark put up by this year's Flames is bottom five.


NHL Worst Team SV% in an 82-Game Season (Since 2010-11)

1. 2014-15 Edmonton, .892 (Bachman .911, Scrivens .890, Fasth .888)
2. 2011-12 Tampa Bay, .893 (Garon .900, Roloson .886)
3. 2010-11 Colorado, .895 (Anderson .897, Budaj .895, Elliott .891)
4. 2015-16 Calgary, .898 (Ramo .909, Ortio, .902, Backstrom, .881, Hiller, .879)
5. 2013-14 NY Islanders, .899 (Nabokov .905, Nilsson .896, Poulin .891)



7. Most Goals Allowed in 23 Years

First, the good news. The goals against for Calgary isn't quite as bad as the standings suggests. While it shows 260, that includes one goal against for each of the Flames three shootout losses. The actual number is 257. That said, that was still last in the NHL and the most goals Calgary has allowed in a season since 1992-93 (282).

Now you can overcome allowing that many goals. Back in 92-93, the Flames finished second in the Smythe Division and made the playoffs because they also scored 322 goals. This year's team only scored 229.


NHL Goals Against in 2015-16

1. Anaheim, 188
2. Washington, 191
3. Los Angeles, 192
4. St. Louis, 197
5. Tampa Bay, 198
-------------
26. Ottawa, 241
27. Edmonton, 242
28. Arizona, 244
29. Columbus, 248
30. Calgary, 257


Once again, there's a strong correlation between goals against and making the playoffs. Of the top 14 teams in goals against, only New Jersey (8th) missed the playoffs. Similarly, not one team ranked in the bottom 10 made the playoffs.

The message is quite simple. Bring down the goals against and make


8. Defending the D

Lastly, by no means am I giving the Flames defence a pass on this season. The guys on the blue-line were guilty of gratuitous giveaways throughout the year, frequent bad decisions and positioning was often an issue also. It surely made Bob Hartley's video sessions the day after games an uncomfortable viewing experience.

However, anyone that has played hockey at any level will tell you that it's hard to play with much conviction as a defenceman when you don't have confidence that the guy behind you is going to stop the puck. Nobody on this team is going to state this publicly but it's the case. I've experienced it for myself. It just impacts how you play the game.

How often during the Miikka Kiprusoff era did the Flames suddenly become a much worse defensive hockey team that gave up far more chances and shots on goal when the back-up goalie was in net. Whether it was Leland Irving or Curtis McElhinney or Philippe Sauve, Calgary always seemed to play worse in front of them and it's because subliminally, your game changes when you don't trust your goalie to have your back.

When did the Flames play their best hockey as a team this season? No co-incidence it came during that stretch in December and January when Ramo took over as the No. 1 goalie and provided Calgary with consistent, solid goaltending over an extended period.

Eleventh in the NHL in shots against. That's pretty good. Eight of the 10 teams ahead of Calgary made the playoffs. Keeping the shots down should keep the chances down. Keeping the chances down should keep the goals against down. Keeping the goals against down should get you into the playoffs.

If Calgary can bring in a proven No. 1 puck-stopper this summer, this ship could be turned around quicker than some might think.



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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