The bipolarity of the Calgary Flames
By Zach Payne, Staff Writer
To say the Calgary Flames have had a rough opening month of the season is putting things mildly. Instead, they have quite literally been one of the worst teams in the NHL since the start of this season’s campaign.
Following their Oct. 29 loss to the Edmonton Oilers at the 2023 Heritage Classic, the Flames sat second to last in the league with only the San Jose Sharks having a worse record than them. For reference, at the time of writing this article the Sharks have a winless record of 0-9-1.
Yet, despite the terrible start, the numbers suggest the Flames have actually been a somewhat solid team when it comes to the underlying statistics. Sitting in the middle of the pack in most major statistical categories, the Flames should—in theory—be a more consistent and stronger club to face.
So, what gives?
What is going wrong for the Flames right now, and, more importantly, is this a fixable issue?
Starting with the problem itself, we first have to examine the Flames in all facets of the game: five-on-five, special teams and goaltending.
With the majority of games being played at even strength, five-on-five is the most crucial area of the game. So, naturally, that is the area you want a team to play their best hockey at.
So far this season, the Flames are eighth in the NHL in shot attempt percentage (54.14 per cent), 12th in expected goals for percentage (51.57 per cent) and 14th in high-danger chance percentage (52.2 per cent). Succeeding in these categories typically reflects teams that do a good job of controlling play while at five-on-five.
The fact that the Flames are in the top half of the NHL in all three impressions, signals that they are a better team than their recent results suggest. But, despite having solid control play analytics, the Flames sit in the 23rd spot in goals (12) and are tied for last in goals against at even strength (24).
Usually, this kind of disparity means one of two things: either the shooting talent is not capitalizing on chances or goaltending is holding a team back.
For the Flames, it’s been both.
The hefty problem for Calgary so far, is that they aren’t getting enough routine saves from their netminders. Flames goalies have the lowest medium and low-danger save percentages (74.55 and 93.24 per cent, respectively) in the NHL. Meaning, too many low-quality looks are finding their way to the back of the net.
Yet, while the Flames struggle to get routine saves, Jacob Markstrom has also been one of the best goalies against high-quality looks.
It’s a truly perplexing case. A team that is getting good goaltending is also a team not getting enough routine saves.
That being said, this is not a back breaking issue. Yes, it’s a concern, but the goaltending ‘voodoo’ haunting the Flames is not alone responsible for the poor start.
So, what else is there?
Quite frankly, the lack of an ability to score in any capacity.
Calgary currently sits 29th in the league in scoring, notching a measly 2.13 goals per game. The Flames also rank 31st in shooting percentage, with only 6.7 per cent of their shots hitting the back of the net.
Unlike the goaltending issues though, there is a very clear answer to this problem. The Flames are not getting to the dangerous areas of the ice enough.
Per the new NHL EDGE player and puck tracking data site, the Flames are shooting way too much from the perimeter and not nearly enough from the low slot and around the net.
The Flames’ style of play still reflects that of former bench boss Darryl Sutter and his out-of-date coaching methods—a volume-based offensive approach of shooting as much as possible and trying to take advantage of rebounds and traffic in front.
C’mon, Calgary. It’s no longer 2004.
Calgary’s offensive approach represents a bygone era of pounding the puck on net from the point. That brand of hockey quite simply does not work anymore. Scoring around the league has been trending up for years now, and the Flames don’t have a strategy that conforms to the new philosophies. Firing low-percentage shots under the idea of ‘get pucks and bodies to the net’ is nowhere near as effective as spreading opposing defences out and penetrating inside to create high-quality looks.
To start the season, Markstrom has played the second most games of any other NHL goalie. This is partly due to the poor play of hit sidekick, Daniel Vladar — but, nonetheless, he’s earned his workload. Markstrom is 10th amongst goalies who have played at least 100 minutes this season in high danger save percentage (91.1 per cent).
Yet, At the same time, however, he has the sixth-furthest average goal distance of 26.69 ft. Though for what it’s worth, Vladar has an average goal distance worse than Markstrom, at 29.88 ft — he just hasn’t played 100 minutes yet.
So, on the one hand, the Flames have struggled to get saves from distance. But, on the other hand, Markstrom has played like one of the better goalies in the league so far. The Swedish-born netminder currently ranks seventh in the league in goals saved above expected.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the Calgary Flames are simply not a good hockey team. Do they deserve the title of ‘second worst in the league?’ No, probably not. But, they are a lot closer to a basement dweller than a playoff contender.
Sorry Flames fans, but it might be time to close this chapter of Flames hockey and start rebuilding for the future.