Monday, August 01, 2016

Plenty of Goals + More Saves = Playoffs: History Suggests Flames Have a Winning Formula

Defence wins championships. Or so the old adage goes.

But also and of greater relevance to Flames fans these days, a good offence combined with anything beyond abysmal goaltending will almost always get you into the Stanley Cup playoffs. From there, as we've seen countless times, anything can happen.

Looking back over the last five full 82-game seasons, the 10 highest-scoring teams (excluding empty net goals) each year have made the playoffs with just six exceptions.

In four instances, the high-scoring team that missed was saddled with goaltending that was either last or second-last in save percentage.
  • 2015-16 Flames - 5th in goals (222), 30th in SV% (.898)
  • 2014-15 Stars - 1st in goals (248), 29th in SV% (.900)
  • 2011-12 Lightning - 8th in goals (226), 30th in SV% (.893)
  • 2011-12 Maple Leafs - 9th in goals (223), 29th in SV% (.900)

That leaves only two occurrences out of 50 where top-third goal-scoring and non-atrocious goaltending did not suffice. 
  • 2015-16 Bruins - 4th in goals (223), 20th in SV% (.914)
  • 2010-11 Flames - 5th in goals (235), 23rd in SV% (.906)

Notable about Boston's season last year is a team could not finish any closer to the playoffs without actually making them. The Bruins finished tied for 15th in the overall standings, and were even with Detroit for third in the Atlantic Division, losing the tie-breaker to the Red Wings as the result of having one less regulation/overtime win.

Six years ago, Calgary missed a playoff spot in the Western Conference by only three points, despite poor goaltending that ranked 23rd.

What this demonstrates is don't underestimate the power of a potent offence. If a team can finish top-10 in goals and get anything better than worst or near-worst goaltending, recent history suggests you have a 96 percent chance of making the post-season.

So after a hectic off-season, let's take a closer look at those two areas for the Flames heading into 2016-17.

Evaluating the Goaltending

After finishing dead last in team save percentage a year ago, can the Flames climb into the top 28 this season? Gawd, one would surely hope so.

Don't be fooled by the fact Calgary is spending less than half as much money on goaltending compared to last year, the puck-stopping will be better and probably substantially better.

In veterans Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, they're bringing in two guys, who last year made a combined 78 starts -- Johnson made 40 with Buffalo, Elliott had 38 with St. Louis. Add in their relief appearances and you get the equivalent workload of a full, 82-game season.

Combine their save percentages -- Elliott (.9299) and Johnson (.9197) -- and you get .9245, which would have ranked No. 1 in the NHL.

Top Save Percentages by Team in 2015-16 (excluding empty net goals):

1. St. Louis, .9238
2. Tampa Bay, .9226
3. Pittsburgh, .9213
4. Florida, .9211
5. Chicago, .9210
29. Dallas, .9058
30. Calgary, .8979

Now there are some concerns of regression with both Elliott and Johnson in coming over to the Flames and that is totally valid. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that never mind "concerns", there should be expectations of regression for both. However, just not of a penthouse-to-outhouse severity.

Let's not forget these two guys are not a pair of one-hit wonders. In bringing them to Calgary, this is not Brad Treliving desperately hoping for a great 'B' side hit to follow up Scritti Politti's Perfect Way or Dexy's Midnight Runners' Come on Eileen.

These two goalies are established, proven goaltenders, who have both been solid for a long time. Over the past four seasons, Elliott has spun a .920 while Johnson -- playing behind four difference defences -- has logged a .917.

With this tandem, the Flames know what they're getting as opposed to last year's carousel of an unproven Joni Ortio, aging Jonas Hiller and enigmatic Karri Ramo.

With a new coach at the helm in Glen Gulutzan and a new defensive system coming, and not overlooking the fact Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton are still pretty good defenders, the goaltending should be just fine.

Evaluating the Offence

The last two years, the Flames have finished fifth and seventh in goals (excluding empty netters). The question after all the turnover that's taken place since last year's trade deadline is can they sustain that same level of production and remain a top-10 scoring team, as is the premise for this article.

With Joe Colborne and Jiri Hudler two of the most notable departures, there's been plenty of angst among the residents of Flames nation about where the offence is going to come from this year.

Are those fears legitimate or just summer paranoia? Let's take a closer look.

Goals Lost via Departures = 56

In adding up the games played last season of guys no longer with the team, the Flames have lost the equivalent of five full-time players from last year -- four forwards, one defenceman.

Up front, lost are 49 (non empty-net) goals, which were generated by players that accumulated 319 games:
  • Joe Colborne, 18 g in 73 gm
  • Jiri Hudler, 10 g in 53 gm
  • David Jones, 9 g in 59 gm
  • Josh Jooris, 4 g in 59 gm
  • Markus Granlund, 4 g in 31 gm
  • Mason Raymond, 4 g in 29 gm
  • Derek Grant, 0 g in 15 gm

On the back end, not currently on the roster are the authors of 7 goals in a combined 79 games.
  • Kris Russell, 4 g in 51 gm
  • Jakub Nakladal, 2 g in 27 gm
  • Patrick Sieloff, 1 g in 1 gm

Goals Lost via Regression = 14

Unlike a year ago where numerous players were coming off career years -- Jiri Hudler (31 g), Lance Bouma (16 g), Dennis Wideman (15 g) and Josh Jooris (12 g) as just four examples, this isn't the case this year.

The most obvious candidate for regression this year is no longer with the team in Joe Colborne. Who else is due for a severe drop-off? It's a question you have to think about because there aren't any other obvious choices that immediately jump to mind.

To be conservative, I'll identify two. With 21 goals apiece, Mark Giordano and Mikael Backlund are both coming off career highs so let's pencil them in for a drop-off.

For the sake of argument and to give me a round number, let's say Giordano slides all the way to 12 goals and Backlund -- who had 20 non-empty net goals -- falls back to 15.

Total Goals Lost (departure + regression) = 70

Goals Gained via Arrivals = 45

With the equivalent of five full-time skaters being moved out, five players will move in. Some of these names are known, others will not be known until the end of training camp. Nonetheless, let's take a stab at how much offence has been added.

Troy Brouwer, 18 g
  • Has averaged 20 goals/season over the last seven years and that included a lockout-shortened season. He will get ample playing time including lots of power play opportunity to put up 20 again but erring on the side of caution, I will put him down for a couple less.

Matthew Tkachuk/Linden Vey/Daniel Pribyl/Hunter Shinkaruk, 12 g
  • Whether it's the 2016 first rounder and proven junior marksman Tkachuk that makes the team, or perhaps it's Vey instead and his offensive upside, or the free agent signing Pribyl coming off a season in which he lit up the Czech league, or ex-Canuck first rounder Shinkaruk -- or perhaps a combination of all of the above -- a dozen goals seems within reason.
Alex Chiasson, 10 g
  • On the heels of that magical run of six goals in seven games under Gulutzan in his NHL debut with Dallas in 2012-13, he has put up goal totals of 13, 11 and 8 over the last three full seasons. With something to prove, 10 goals seems like a fair expectation.

Garnet Hathaway, 4 g
  • Blanked in 14 NHL games last year, he did put up 27 goals in 116 AHL games so should he make the team and get in a full season, he'll surely bang in a handful along the way. 

Tyler Wotherspoon, 1 g
  • Now waiver-eligible, Wotherspoon should be a regular this season. However, as the stay-at-home element of whatever D pairing he's on, he won't be putting up much offence. But even a blind dog finds a bone every now and then and surely at least one shot will find it's way in.

Goals Gained via Bounce-Back Seasons = 25

On the flipside of guys due for regression, there are young players that will continue to develop and get better and also players that are due to bounce-back from unsustainably low shooting percentages and bad luck.
Sam Bennett, +6 g
  • Just like how Sean Monahan went 22 to 31 in his sophomore season and Johnny Gaudreau went from 24 to 30, a bump up for Bennett in year two should be a safe assumption. With 17 non-EN goals last year, 23 seems like a safe bet as he continues to settle in and get better. His four goals in one game last year showed what he's capable of. 

Lance Bouma, +5 g
  • As much squawking as there was a year ago about Bouma's shooting percentage (EN goals removed) of 14.6 being non-repeatable, his 2.1 from last year is equally non-repeatable. Goaltenders stopped 47 of 48 Bouma shots last year. If Bouma can get back to a SH% of a 6.0, 100 shots on goal -- a reasonable number based on his past -- will get him six goals.  

Dennis Wideman, +5 g
  • Still possesses a heavy slap shot. After shooting at just 2.7% last year, if he can get back to around 5.5%, which is still below his career norm of over six, that should produce seven goals based on his usual volume of shots and would be a big increase from his two goals last year.

Micheal Ferland, +4 g
  • Another victim last year of a low shooting percentage for a forward at just 3.3. If the one-time 47 goal-scorer in the WHL can get his shooting percentage back to around 6.5, 120 shots should net him eight goals, which is four more than last season.

Jyrki Jokipakka, +3 g
  • Showed some nice offensive instincts in picking up six assists in his 18 games with the Flames. Regular playing time on the second pairing with Dougie Hamilton should be ample opportunity for the young Finn to slip a few shots past opposition goaltenders.

TJ Brodie, +2 g
  • I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir when it comes to touting Brodie's upside. His career-high point total of 45 last season featured six goals, which was a drop-off from his career-high of 11 the year prior. With the amount of time he spends joining the rush, a bump-up to eight goals next season more than possible.
Total Goals Gained (arrivals + bounce-back) = 70

Final Word

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup last year having only four 20-goal scorers. The runner-up San Jose Sharks had just five. The Eastern finalist Tampa Bay Lightning had only two and there were only two on the Western finalist St. Louis Blues.
With Gaudreau and Monahan possibilities to snipe 30, and Giordano, Backlund, Bennett, Frolik and Brouwer with decent shots at 20, make no mistake, Calgary has plenty of offence. No pun intended, you could even say the Flames have offence to burn.

Even if there are unexpected drop-offs from Gaudreau or Monahan, others could surprise more so than my estimates. Heck, if Tkachuk does make the team, would it surprise anyone if he put up 20-plus goals just like Monahan did as a rookie?

Add in two proven goaltenders with lengthy resumes compared to the hope-and-a-prayer ensemble from a year ago and the formula for success is there, as has been proven in the NHL since 2010.

Red mile enthusiasts rejoice.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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  1. Where do assists factor in though? Colborne was sixth (in 73 GP) and Hudler was seventh (in 72 GP) in primary assists. Can Bennett fill the playmaking void? Guys like Hamilton and Wideman need someone to find them when the jump into the cycle.

    I am also weary about goal types.. Hudler and Colborne got a lot of deflections, who do we have left thst can generate that style of goal? Tkachuk almost HAS to make the team to be our Holmstrom.

    Will be interesting.

    1. The assists will come. Plenty from the back end, Bennett as you mentioned, a couple hundred from Gaudreau, even a guy like Daniel Pribyl fancies himself as a playmaker. At the caliber Hudler was at last year, that's a loss that can be overcome.

      As for goal deflections, seems Brouwer could be good for that, Ferland could be more involved that way, mucking in front of the net, and that's also the part of the ice that Shinkaruk likes to get to if he makes the team. I think there are options beyond Tkachuk.

      We certainly have to wait and see, as you suggested, but if a team can score, my point is that's not something to be underestimated.

  2. Your article talks about goals to goals against, but there's no mention of how the team play affected goaltending last year. I admit goaltending was horrible, but so was team defence and I think both affected each other. The team let the goaltending down just as much as the goaltending let the team down. Albeit, I understand that the mental affect bad goals can have on the team, but what about the mental aspect another odd man and high quality scoring chance can have on goaltending. Of course it's their job to have the mental aptitude to handle it while in net, but I don't think it's as simple as score more, stop more. It's a team game, and you're not accounting for the team game in the article.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You are correct that I am generalizing when it comes to save percentage and pinning it entirely on the goalies. Obviously there are other factors as you had suggested like quality of opportunities allowed, number of high-danger chances surrendered, etc. The other generalization I make is referring merely to scoring goals, like it's that simple. A good offence requires quality set-ups, good first passes to begin rushes, the ability to transition quickly up the ice, etc.

      The basic premise of the article and it was never meant to be an exploratory white paper on the 'how' at either end of the ice, was to simply point out for those not aware (and I had no idea the percentage was so extreme) is that historically, a potent top-10 calibre offence will almost always get a team into the post-season as long as while doing so, goals are not allowed at an alarming rate. So however the team can achieve that and improve SV%, be it better goaltending, better team defence, or a combination of all of the above, good things await if they can figure it out. Cheers.