31 in 31 NHL Season Review: Calgary Flames
For the next 31 days, AFP Analytics is going to take a critical look back at how the season played out for all 31 NHL teams, starting with the last place team (Buffalo Sabres) and ending with the Stanley Cup Champions. In addition to a season recap, we will look at some major decisions the team will be facing this offseason.
Next up in our 31 in 31 season review is a look at the Calgary Flames, a team who was a trendy offseason pick to be a contender in the Western Conference. On paper the team looked pretty solid, with a competent forward group, one of the best bluelines in the NHL, and a perceived upgrade in goal. This season was supposed to be the first in their window of opportunity. Things could not have gone much worse and now the Flames enter the offseason with more questions than answers.
Season Bright Spots
The underlying numbers suggest the team should have better results next season if they play at a similar level to this season. The team was third best in the entire league in Corsi For % but sixth worst in PDO (.987), largely thanks to a 6.85% shooting percentage, third worst in the league. Their save percentage was tenth worst at 91.86%. The save percentage might not improve dramatically but it would be expected that the team would shoot almost one percent better. If had this season, they would have scored 21 additional goals, which likely would have landed them in the playoffs. Many of the team’s star players performed at the level expected. Just because I am not highlighting them here, it does not mean they had bad seasons. Instead, I want to use this space to highlight some players that performed above what may have been expected from them.
Matthew Tkachuk is the next Brad Marchand. He is a really good hockey player whose play is overshadowed by his stupid on-ice antics. Tkachuk led the team forwards in possession metrics during 5v5 play, having a very impressive Corsi For % of 57.29% and a 5.46% Corsi For Relative, meaning the Flames took 5.46% more shots toward goal when Tkachuk was on the ice versus when he was off. In addition to his impressive possession numbers, Tkachuk also finished fourth among regular forwards in points per 60 minutes. He is also still only 20 years old. He has one more year on his entry level contract, meaning he could sign a contract extension this offseason but will be making under $1M next season (unless he hits performance bonuses in his contract). That is an absolute steal for a player with this level of production. Who knows if he could be even better if he focuses all of his energy on the ice toward producing instead of taking cheap shots at opponents.
The next player I would like to draw attention to is Garnet Hathaway. I am surprised he has not been getting more love in the hockey analytics’ community. He has the numbers to be a player that many might argue is better than his on-ice production shows. I’m not going to go as far as saying that Hathaway is ever going to be a first line bona fide superstar but he is the type of player that should be incredibly valuable to teams in the current NHL. He never had consistent line mates but still managed to put up respectable numbers. He finished with a positive Corsi For % of 53.53% and had a near even Corsi For Relative % at 5v5 play. He also scored above 1.18 points per 60.
In today’s NHL where having the ability to roll four quality lines is becoming increasingly important, I think Hathaway becomes a really valuable player. Why do I like his numbers so much? The answer is when he is on the ice, the team does not see a major drop in play. Let’s draw a comparison to the Edmonton Oilers with Connor McDavid. When McDavid is one the ice, the team is fantastic. The problem is McDavid obviously can only play so much of the game. When McDavid is off the ice, the team got caved in. Hathaway’s numbers suggest he could play on a line away from a star player and ensure the team does not get hemmed in their own zone when their star players are off the ice. He may even contribute to driving continuous strong offensive zone play. This is why I like Hathaway.
I have to start with Jaromir Jagr. His legendary career was bound to come to an end at some point but it is unfortunate that it had to come midseason (unless he makes another comeback). Any hockey fan has to be sad to presumably see his NHL career end. I’m not going to say that signing a play of his age in a league that is going to speed would be the smartest decision but Jagr was not bad in his limited action this season. He had a positive Corsi For % and Corsi For Relative % during 5v5 play. With teams always trying to look to add veterans, “who are good in the locker room,” I think teams choose options much worse than Jagr but at some point the end has to come and this season may have been it.
I have a word that I think is effective in relaying a player’s ability and that word is “fine.” That would be how I would describe Sam Bennett. He has become a very average player, which would be acceptable if he were a midround draft pick. You might even live with it if he were drafted late in the first round. The problem for the Flames is he was a fourth overall selection. Those are the players you expect to be impact players for many years.
Granted his draft class is less than stellar and at the time he was considered one of the top prospects, it has to sting when you look at some of the players picked a few picks after him. How happy would Flames’ fans be if they had William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers, or maybe David Pastrnak? I’m guessing much more so than they are with Bennett. Hindsight is always 20/20 and Bennett appeared to be the right pick at the time but the team certainly needed to do something different to ensure a better outcome. The problem could have be/still be with how they developed and used Bennett. Would it have made a difference? We will never know. What we do know is it is probably safe to say Bennett will never live up to his lofty draft status. Maybe that is unfair to him, but that is the reality.
Another prospect (former prospect?) to discuss is Mark Jankowski. Again, I will use the word fine to describe him. He was a player Flames’ fans have been waiting to emerge after he was drafted 21st overall while still in high school. As I said earlier, fine might be found for a player picked later in the first round. The problem is his underlying numbers aren’t overly promising either. Though he did finish with a 51.17% Corsi For % during 5v5 play, that really wasn’t good on a team as strong as the Flames as evidenced by his -3.59% Relative Corsi For %. However, in his first full NHL season, it is probably still a little early to completely write him off but the Flames and their fans will certainly want to see him take a step forward next year.
Probably the biggest disappointment for Flames’ fans has to be the injury to Mike Smith and subsequent struggle in goal. Smith was good for the Flames saving close to seven goals above average. The rest of the goalies that filled in combined to give up approximately 12.5 goals below average. Those numbers are at 5v5 play, though the difference is even more dramatic in all situations. The Flames probably should have given Jon Gillies more of a chance to steady the ship as he performed above average in all situations but below average at 5v5. That is likely the reason the coaches chose to not use him exclusively during Smith’s injury.
The Flames enter the offseason with a little under $12.5M in cap space, needing to fill out the bottom portion of their roster, which can be done by staying internal. My recommendation would be to do just that. I think the team should take one more shot at a playoff run with their current core. With most of their top prospects having at least two years of cost control, they can afford to let them develop another year while supplementing their roster with those players when needed instead of relying on them to carry the team.
The team should be able to retain their arbitration eligible players, forwards Nick Shore, Hathaway, Jankowski, and defenseman Brett Kulak for at most $6M to $7M, which would leave them cap space to add a quality player if desired. If the team follows this recommendation, I would not look to add until the season begins and then potentially explore the trade market. The benefit to this strategy is it gives the team time to figure out what they really have. If they are competing, the team will have draft picks and prospects they could potentially move. If the team struggles, they can hang onto their prospects and likely move some of their players. The Flames will go into next season with few players on expiring contracts but will have plenty with a year or two left that would likely be attractive for contenders. I think making a panic trade for the sake of doing so this offseason would be a mistake but the rumors will of course swirl.
One of the rumors swirling is regarding Dougie Hamilton. He is a player who definitely has to have some value around the league. He probably could fetch a nice return. I’m not sure it would make sense from Buffalo’s perspective but a trade revolving around Hamilton for Ryan O’Reilly may be something that will be talked about. As I wrote in my Sabres’ review, the likely addition of Rasmus Dahlin dramatically changes where Buffalo needs help. As such, I’m not sure that swap makes sense now. Had Buffalo not won the lottery, that trade would make loads of sense.
The only player I might seriously look to move is Sam Bennett and that is because he likely could benefit from a change of scenery. I’m sure the team will be selling for cents on the dollar but maybe there is another team who has a similarly struggling player. I wonder if Bennett plus maybe Kulak could land Galchenyuk. Sure, it might take a little more but this could be a good starting point. Who knows what Montreal would take but it likely will be worse than they probably should get.
In summary, I think a quiet offseason in Calgary would be wise. They need to make a decision on their backup goaltender and maybe should once again dip in the free agent market. However, it might be time to see what Jon Gillies can contribute. The team is starting to reach a point when they need to know what he can do for them and bouncing between the NHL and AHL splitting time in both places.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Dallas Stars. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.