The Flames salute their fans after winning Game 3 of their first-round series against Vancouver. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Few teams have ever had a successful season the year following one with terrible possession numbers, but the Calgary Flames stand a very real chance at being the first. With a crop of good, young talent and a few steady blueliners, don’t write off the 2015-16 Flames just because of bad advanced stats.
Now that the Cinderella season has ended for the Calgary Flames comes time for speculation about where they go from here. After a season when the team defied the advanced statistical odds to make the post-season – and win a round, yet – did Calgary set up a one-off or can the Flames repeat the feat?
Strictly statistically speaking, it seems unlikely. After all, we’ve seen similar acts before. The Toronto Maple Leafs in 2012-13 were one shot away from advancing to Round 2 but imploded the following season. The Colorado Avalanche won the difficult Central Division last year and were “upset” in the first round only to finish well out of the playoffs this campaign. But for every Colorado and Toronto there has been, there have been clubs to resist what the numbers say and continue to succeed. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Flames added to that list.
Since 2007-08, when advanced statistical data first became widespread, there have been more than two dozen teams that have made the post-season with sub-50 percent shot attempts for percentages – Corsi For, for the crowd that prefers it called such. Of those teams, the numbers vary from those that finished near breakeven, say 48-49.9 percent, and those that have fallen well short of the mark, with puck possession rates below even 45 percent.
From the 2007-08 season until now, there have been only four teams to make the post-season with a shot attempts for percentage below 45 percent: the 2009-10 Colorado Avalanche, 2010-11 Anaheim Ducks, 2012-13 Toronto Maple Leafs and 2014-15 Calgary Flames. The comparisons between the four teams aren’t plentiful, but there are some similarities. Of the first three teams, none made the post-season the following year. But there is one club, one that fell just shy of falling below the 45 percent possession mark, that could be worth looking to for a glimmer of hope: the 2007-08 Pittsburgh Penguins.
That season’s Penguins were one of the worst possession teams to make the playoffs in the early days of the advanced stats era. In fact, of the nearly 30 teams to make the post-season with sub-50 percent shot attempt for percentages, Pittsburgh’s 45.4 percent mark in 2007-08 is the fifth worst in the past eight seasons. That campaign, the Penguins didn’t just make the post-season, they played for the Stanley Cup, eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings. The following year, the Penguins improved their shot attempts for percentage, increasing their possession rate to 48.1 percent and winning the Stanley Cup.
This isn’t to say Calgary can start planning any type of parade, but rather that when a roster has the pieces to improve, even the worst possession club one season can turn into a competitive one the following year given the roster doesn’t take a massive step backwards. There has been nothing to indicate that would even begin to be the case in Calgary. And while it’s hard to compare a team with Sidney Crosby – arguably the greatest hockey player alive today – and Evgeni Malkin with one that has Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, what’s worth talking about is the difference on the backend.
For all they achieved this post-season, it bears remembering that the Flames did it all without the services of their best defenseman and one of the most steady blueliners in the league, Mark Giordano. In Giordano the Flames have something the Penguins didn’t at that time: a veteran, No. 1 defenseman that is recognized as one of the best at his position. Some may argue that Sergei Gonchar, Brooks Orpik or even Rob Scuderi were at the top of their game at the time, but none of them had the ability Giordano does at this point in his career. Giordano is a legitimate threat to be a Norris Trophy candidate again next season should he remain healthy. And, truthfully, he even deserved a chance at the award this year regardless of injury.
Then add to Giordano that the Flames have T.J. Brodie, himself already recognized as one of the best young defenders in the league, and there’s reason to believe things aren’t as bleak as the numbers would lead us to believe. If they can pick up a depth defenseman to help improve possession, Calgary is in business.
With Giordano and Brodie on the blueline and a young core of players that includes Gaudreau, Monahan, Sam Bennett and Mikael Backlund up front with roughly $25 million available in cap space and there’s significant room for the team to take a huge step forward next season. Coming off the books are defensemen David Schlemko, Raphael Diaz and Corey Potter. Same goes for goaltender Karri Ramo, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency. Up front, Backlund will be up for a new deal, as will Josh Jooris, Drew Shore, Lance Bouma and Michael Ferland. But, outside of Backlund, none of those contracts should be too pricy.
Keep in mind that Tyler Wotherspoon, quite possibly the Flames best defense prospect, got some playoff experience this post-season, too, and it’s hard to argue that the Flames roster won’t have improved next season, if even by the slightest of margins. Some nights, that will make all the difference. Teams like the 2011-12 Ducks were able to improve by leaps and bounds over the course of one off-season – Anaheim’s shot attempts for percentage went from 44.4 percent in 2010-11 to 48.5 the next season – and there’s no reason why Calgary’s stars, with one year under their belts and some playoff experience, can’t follow suit.
It’s rare for a team to play from behind and win games like Calgary did this season – only Detroit and Anaheim had more wins when trailing in the third period than the Flames’ 10 – so the same formula won’t work again next year. But improving their overall game and upping their possession rate could be just the right thing for Calgary.
There haven’t been many teams in recent history that have boasted so much good, young talent and made as unexpected push into the post-season as the 2014-15 Flames. Whether that set fans up for failure is to be seen, but considering the pieces the club has to work with, it’s far too soon to proclaim them an early pick for the Western Conference basement.