16 Stats: Flames’ tough schedule, Stars’ top line and the rise in power-play efficiency

16 Stats: Flames’ tough schedule, Stars’ top line and the rise in power-play efficiency

At the start of the summer, it looked like the window had slammed shut for the Calgary Flames. Johnny Gaudreau was a Columbus Blue Jacket and Matthew Tkachuk was already booking flights out of the country. Two franchise players gone in a flash, and the magical 2021-22 season that ended so abruptly was looking like a one-year wonder.

A few weeks later, that window blew wide open with the Tkachuk trade. The Flames received a full freight of value for the 24-year-old unicorn power forward: one of the game’s best playmakers and one of the game’s best defensive defensemen. A couple weeks later, they signed Nazem Kadri and the Flames were suddenly looking ready to contend again. Just like that.

And just like that, one month into the season, the roller coaster has once again sharply changed course. The Flames started hot, but have now dropped six straight giving Calgary a pedestrian 5-5-2 record. That pace is obviously a far cry from the projected 106 points the team was expected to have this season. And it doesn’t quite look like bad luck, either.

Last year’s team was excellent at five-on-five, earning 55 percent of the expected goals and 59 percent of the actual goals. This year’s version pales in comparison at 51 percent and 49 percent respectively with the biggest difference coming in their own end. Calgary’s expected goals against per 60 has dropped from 2.25 to 2.6 and their goals against per 60 has gone from 2.07 to 2.77.  

There’s been a lot of solid discourse surrounding this already from questions regarding the team’s injuries, depth and chemistry all playing a role. Those things all matter. But what hasn’t been reported much yet is the difficulty of the team’s schedule.

In their first 12 games, the Flames have played three of the league’s best teams in Colorado, Vegas and Carolina. They’ve played two games against an explosive Oilers team. They’ve played two games against the suddenly elite Devils. They’ve played against Buffalo and Seattle, two on-the-rise teams who have started strong. They’ve played a resurgent Islanders team. And they’ve played Pittsburgh and Nashville, two strong teams who have started off slow.

The Flames and the Devils in their second matchup of the season. (Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

Through 12 games there have been zero nights off for the Flames. Against that schedule, is a middling record really that much of an indictment of this team, all things considered?

Breaking down the schedule further, here’s how tough Calgary has had it so far:

xWin Percentage at the time: 0.534 (2nd)

2022-23 Projected Points: 98.6 points (1st)

5-on-5 Goals Percentage: 53.5 percent (1st)

5-on-5 xGoals Percentage: 54.1 percent (2nd)

Goals Percentage: 53.4 percent (1st)

xGoals Percentage: 53.5 percent (2nd)

The big thing that sticks out from that analysis is the team’s strength of schedule based on where each team is projected to land by the season’s end. On average, the Flames are facing teams that are expected to finish the season with 99 points, a full three points clear of the next toughest schedule (Ottawa at 95.9 points).

This start hasn’t been what many expected. But given all the fresh faces, the expanding injury list, and the schedule — the Flames deserve some slack for their first 12 games. The next 70 should be much better.

16 Stats

1. One worrying trend to start the season in Calgary, though, is the team’s discipline. Calgary’s numbers on special teams haven’t changed much on a per-minute basis, but over the course of last season, the Flames were plus-14 in combined special teams minutes. This year they’re at minus-one. The key difference is that over 82 games last season the Flames had a minus-seven penalty differential. Through 12 games this season they’re already at minus-11 with nearly one extra penalty taken per 60. Only the Ducks and Blackhawks have a worse penalty differential so far this season.

2. Last year there were a lot of analytics people, myself included, who made fools of themselves with pie-in-the-sky projections for the NHL’s newest team. The Seattle Kraken fell flat on their face and the rest is history.

It’s starting to feel like those projections were onto something — just one year early. The Kraken were supposed to be a team built on three tenets: depth, defense and goaltending. Last year they weren’t getting any of it; now they’re getting all three. 

New addition Andre Burakovsky certainly helps with 13 points in 14 games, but after him, the team has 10 forwards who have between seven and 10 points. Everyone is contributing. Balance. On the defensive side of things, the Kraken are top 10 in expected goals against and boast one of the stingiest penalty kills in the league. This year that’s leading to offense the other way and a strong 53 percent expected goals rate. That wouldn’t mean anything without the team getting saves though and against all odds, Martin Jones has been the guy this team needed so far with a .907 save percentage and 0.6 goals saved above expected. 

It may not last, but this hot start has put the team firmly in the playoff race where they belong — just one year later.

3. Yanni Gourde deserves a lot of credit for how the Kraken are playing right now. He’s their best player and the guy who best exemplifies the team’s identity. I really wonder how their season might have gone last year if Gourde was ready to go at the start of training camp. He’s that good.

Among forwards, Gourde currently ranks fourth in the league in defensive impact (a combination of actual and expected goals allowed at five-on-five and shorthanded) at plus-5.5. Could he be a sneaky Selke dark horse if the Kraken become a playoff threat?

4. After St. Louis’ franchise-record eighth-straight loss, I had some thoughts about the team’s struggles for Jeremy Rutherford’s latest column. One of the most striking discoveries was just how awful the penalty kill was, giving up 10.7 expected goals against per 60. That’s a lot of scoring chances, but the Blues aren’t alone there with four other teams giving up more than 10 expected goals against per 60.

That’s significant because the highest expected goals-against rate since 2007-08 is 8.8 by last year’s Jets. Along with the five who are north of 10, there are four more who are allowing more than nine. That’s nearly one-third of the league giving up more chances than the worst penalty kill from the last 15 years.

The reason for that is an increasingly effective power play league-wide that is reaching peak efficiency this season. The average power-play efficiency this year is 22 percent, the highest since 1985-86, and as far as the analytics era is concerned it’s not even close. From 2007 to 2020, the highest goals-per-60 and expected goals-per-60 were in 2017-18, at 7.3 and 7.2 respectively. Over those 14 years, teams scored 6.7 goals-per-60 and earned 6.6 expected goals-per-60 on average.

Last year those numbers spiked up to 7.4 apiece before exploding this year to a shade under eight. It’s been a long time since power plays have looked this collectively dangerous and it’s helping the league’s recent scoring boom.

5. The team hurting most from this year’s power-play eruption is the ‘Tampa Bay Leading’ who lead the league with a staggering 11.4 expected goals against per 60. That was mentioned in the last edition of 16 Stats, but it bears repeating because it hasn’t improved in the two weeks since. For context, last year they were top 10 at 6.9. The year before that they were third at 5.8. That’s a very worrying trend.

It’s here where the team’s talent exodus has been the most felt. Two years ago at the team’s peak, all three of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow were penalty-killing fixtures. Before being traded, Mathieu Joseph was very strong as well. On defense, it’s probably no coincidence that the team’s first year without Ryan McDonagh patrolling the blue line has the wheels falling off on the penalty kill. Factor in Anthony Cirelli missing the start of the season and it starts making sense why the penalty kill is becoming the Lightning’s biggest problem. It’s very systems and structure-based, but that’s still a lot of key contributors to lose over a short period of time. 

Tampa Bay’s shorthanded woes haven’t affected the team quite yet, they’re still middle of the pack in actual goals allowed — but the Lightning are playing with fire with the volume of chances they’re giving up. Even by just shot attempts it’s been a shooting gallery so far with Tampa Bay allowing 139 shot attempts per 60 shorthanded. Last year that number was 95.

6. One of my favorite things to point out last season was how unlucky Connor McDavid was despite the fact he scored over 120 points. You might believe that’s changed after a start where he’s scored 29 points in his first 14 games (!!!) but you’d be mistaken. At five-on-five, anyway.

Last year was McDavid’s first season with an on-ice shooting percentage south of 10 percent and it meant his on-ice goal rate of 3.28 per 60 was well below his expected 3.61. This season, that is somehow even worse as his chance rate has remained steady (3.48 expected goals per 60), but his goal rate has plummeted further to 2.96 per 60. That’s a full half-goal per 60 less than expected for a player who always scores more than expected.

7. So how are his point totals still so out of this world? A different kind of luck. 

Part of it is on the power play where the Oilers are scoring a staggering 15.2 goals-per-60 with McDavid on the ice. That would obliterate the previous analytics-era record of 13.6 by Brayden Point in 2018-19, one of four times a player has been above 12.5. I’d lean toward regression there, but it’s a McDavid who has decided he can score at will so … maybe not.

The other part is how directly involved McDavid has been in goals. Maybe it’s because he himself is scoring more, but through 14 games McDavid has been on the ice for 32 goals. He has a point on 29 of those — 91 percent. That’s 10 percentage points higher than his career average and gives him three extra points on the season. 

If McDavid can somehow keep that up while staying red hot on the power play, a few extra pucks going in as they should at five-on-five could make this an all-time season. A 150-point season, the first since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96, is within reach.

8. For goalies, larger sample sizes matter. Reputations do matter. Because it’s such a volatile position, it should take a lot of data to change minds about a player’s ability. John Gibson’s reputation as an elite goalie is reaching that level.

Gibson is now four seasons removed from his last truly great season in 2018-19 where he saved 25 goals above expected with a .917 save percentage. His work since has been truly pedestrian — and consistently so with four straight below-average seasons. This year has seen him start off especially rough with 6.1 goals allowed above expected and an awful .887 save percentage. 

Over the last four seasons, Gibson has a .902 save percentage and has allowed 25 goals above expected in 152 games, the 13th worst mark in the league — sandwiched between Thomas Greiss and David Rittich. Maybe it’s the team in front of him, but that’s a lengthy timeline of poor results that are becoming impossible to ignore. On the other hand, it is worth noting that Dallas Eakins, who didn’t get great goaltending during his short time in Edmonton either, was hired in the summer of 2019 …

9. The Jets are off to a surprising 8-3-1 start that has them leading the Central Division. It’s a massive step up from last season and it’s worth looking into what’s changed year-over-year from last season where the team earned only 89 points.

Is the team better offensively? No, they’re earning the same amount of chances and still struggling to score at five-on-five.

Is the team better defensively? No, they’re allowing 0.1 more expected goals against per 60 compared to last season.

Is the team’s power play improved? No, they’re scoring one fewer goal-per-60 and generating 1.3 fewer expected goals-per-60. To their credit, they make up for that with a slightly improved penalty kill giving up 0.8 fewer expected goals against per 60.

Is Connor Hellebuyck just playing out of his mind again? Yes, he has a .938 save percentage and has saved 12.4 goals above expected in just 10 games.

There’s your answer, same as it always has been for the Jets. They go as far as Hellebuyck takes them, but in Hellebuyck, they have one of the safest bets in the league. Never forget that his “down season” last year had him in the league’s top 10 for goals saved above expected. He’s still one of the absolute best goalies in the world.

10. We talk about Dallas’ top line a lot, but somehow it still doesn’t seem like enough. Especially given what they are once again doing this season.

In 126 minutes at five-on-five this season, the trio of Jason Robertson, Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski have outscored opponents 13-1 and have earned 67 percent of the expected goals. In 30 minutes on the power play, the trio has already scored nine goals earning 11.5 expected goals-per-60. 

This line is unstoppable and I still can’t believe the lack of respect they get. When we did our Player Tiers project before the summer we had Roberston in Tier 3C, Hintz in Tier 4A and Pavelski in Tier 4B. Across the board, it felt too low for all three given their results, and that feeling has only increased since. 

By GSVA, Robertson ranks 13th in the league while Hintz ranks 21st with the line as a whole grading out as the league’s third-best behind Toronto and Colorado. Given their pure domination on the ice, it’s becoming harder to argue they’re not worthy of such a lofty status.

11. The last edition of 16 Stats called the 4-3-0 New Jersey Devils a potential sleeping giant, a juggernaut in waiting. They’ve since won six straight games and are now sitting pretty with a 91 percent chance of making the playoffs and a projected point total of 103.7 — the eighth-highest mark in the league. This is a legitimate top-10 team and it took less than 15 games to get there. A truly remarkable leap.

Now, imagine if they were able to land Johnny Gaudreau this summer … 

12. Last year I spent a lot of time worrying about how “legit” the Rangers were thanks to the team’s middling scoring chance numbers being masked by historic goaltending and a lethal power play.

To start this year I have the opposite tune. The model may still not be overly fond of the team, currently giving the Rangers a measly 34 percent postseason chance, but that should grow once the team turns things around. And this team should turn things around with the way they’ve played so far.

Through the team’s first 14 games, the Rangers have greatly improved their expected-goals percentage at five-on-five from 47.6 percent last year to 55.6 percent this year. In terms of controlling the pace of play they’re looking like one of the league’s best teams, only this time around they’re not converting (6.4 percent shooting percentage) and not getting saves (.905 goaltending). With this team’s shooting talent plus the best goalie in the world, it’s only a matter of time before the Rangers get back on track.

13. There were a lot of people in the analytics community who were worried about what Moritz Seider would look like next to Ben Chiarot. There was the optimistic take that he’s looked fine next to elite talent in the past and Chiarot’s last season with Montreal was an aberration. There was the pessimistic take that he may look “fine” but would still tank whoever his partner is.

Through 13 games the Red Wings have a sparkling 7-3-3 record thanks mostly to Ville Husso being even better than advertised, but the team’s issues under the hood remain. At five-on-five the Red Wings have a 45 percent expected goals rate that ranks 26th in the league and their actual goals rate is only marginally better. The struggles of the team’s top pair are a big part of that.

Chiarot and Seider have spent 178 minutes together and in that time the duo has a 42.5 percent expected goals rate while being outscored 10-9. Yes, they play tough minutes, but that’s far from good enough if Detroit has playoff aspirations.

We know how good Seider is from his Calder-winning season last year — and this year he was expected to be even better. We know what Chiarot is at this point, no need to get into that discourse again. It’s not hard to do the math here.

14. At this point, we should probably just not trust what any skater does after arriving in Florida because the Panthers seem to have an innate ability to make “guys” look like something much more. Brandon Montour is the latest example. 

The Panthers looked like a very vulnerable team once Aaron Ekblad went down with an injury, but with the star defender set to come back Saturday, they didn’t really miss a beat. Montour was a massive part of that, scoring 14 points in 12 games, playing over 26 minutes per night and earning a 55 percent expected-goals percentage. His average Game Score of 1.55 currently ranks ninth among all defensemen. 

When he was traded to Florida he didn’t look like anything special — a cromulent third-pairing guy. This year he’s looking like the legitimate top pairing option his talent always suggested he would be. In Florida, he’s found redemption.

15. Some defenders are probably beyond redemption — which brings us to Rasmus Ristolainen, the current owner of a 19.7 percent expected-goals percentage. Yikes.

Sure, it’s only been five games, but in a long and illustrious career of getting caved in, it’s actually the first time Ristolainen has been below 20 percent over any five-game stretch. His previous low was 20.7 percent in October 2018. This is a brand-new low, even for one of the worst play-driving defensemen in the league.

16. Earlier this week, Matt Larkin and Frank Seravalli did some Team Canada and Team USA roster projections over at Daily Faceoff for a potential 2024 World Cup. The intriguing part? Their collective belief was that for the first time in a long time the Americans would be the favorites in such a matchup. Naturally, that piqued my interest so I checked if that would indeed be the case.

It’s not, but it’s a helluva lot closer than it’s ever been before — close enough that the argument for the States is far from outlandish. 

The last time I looked into this (last January) there was roughly a 10-win difference between Canada and USA. That’s been cut all the way down to three-to-four wins. It’s close enough between the two nations that one wrong roster choice could indeed tip the scales in a given matchup. 

A lot of credit here goes to USA’s growing forward group which now has the firepower and depth to go toe-to-toe against Canada. That’s the biggest difference-maker between now and a year ago.

Here are the rosters I used. Canada would be favored by 54-to-56 percent.

Data via Evolving Hockey, Hockey Stat Cards, Natural Stat Trick, NHL

(Top photo of  Joe Pavelski,  Roope Hintz Jason Robertson and Ryan Suter: Jerome Miron / USA Today)

#Stats #Flames #tough #schedule #Stars #top #line #rise #powerplay #efficiency

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