Calgary Flames: The Blueprint for a Positive Goal Differential

CALGARY, AB - APRIL 07: A fan smiles as the Calgary Flames salut the crowd following their 7-1 win over the Las Vegas Golden Knights Saturday, April 7 at the Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary, AB. This was the team's final game of the season. (Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
CALGARY, AB - APRIL 07: A fan smiles as the Calgary Flames salut the crowd following their 7-1 win over the Las Vegas Golden Knights Saturday, April 7 at the Scotiabank Saddledome, Calgary, AB. This was the team's final game of the season. (Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Calgary Flames have been on somewhat of a see-saw in terms of goal differential for the past five years. What is it going to take for them to finish in the green this season?

As a statistic, goal differential isn’t talked about very often because it doesn’t actually determine that much. If you don’t believe me, just ask the 2011 Vancouver Canucks, who made it to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins despite their -11 goal differential. That means they plausibly could have won the cup with a -10 in that series. Let that one sink in.

However, being in the green does seem to count for something. In the past five years, only four teams have made the Stanley Cup playoffs with a negative goal differential, and only eight teams have missed the playoffs while positive.

With all of the complex analytics out there, there’s a remarkably consistent and simple formula for making the playoffs: just score more than you get scored on.

So goal differential may be a surface-level statistic, but it does have some merit as an indicator of a team’s overall performance.

Plus, it’s just more fun to be a fan if your team scores more goals than it allows.

The Calgary Flames: A Pattern

Let’s take a look at the Calgary Flames’ last five seasons. They have alternated between positive and negative goal differentials since 2014:

  • 2013-2014: -32
  • 2014-2015: +25
  • 2015-2016: -29
  • 2016-2017: +5
  • 2017:2018: -30

Will this team continue the pattern and finish in the green (and hopefully in the playoffs) next April? Or will they break the pattern with two consecutive seasons in the red? A closer look at the numbers would indicate some reasons for optimism.

Based on the Flames’ stats from the past five years, the metrics that seem to have the biggest impact on goal differential, not surprisingly, are shooting percentage (S%) and save percentage (SV%).

The Flames’ +25 season in 2014-2015 featured a very healthy team-wide shooting percentage, above average shots against per game, and a save percentage that was exactly league average.

2014-2015 SeasonCalgary FlamesLeague Average

During their most recent season, which concluded with a disappointing -30 goal differential, the Calgary Flames were better than league average in shots for and shots against, but below league average where it counted: shooting percentage and save percentage.

2017-2018 SeasonCalgary FlamesLeague Average

New Season, New Faces

Barring any sort of dramatic trade or injury circumstance between now and October, the Calgary Flames will begin the 2018-2019 season with the same worrisome goaltending tandem, but much more firepower. They made a lot of acquisitions this offseason, among them four full-time NHLers: Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, Derek Ryan and James Neal.

Related Story. Calgary Flames sign James Neal to five-year contract. light

Lindholm and Ryan both made positive contributions to the Carolina Hurricanes’ S% last season, meaning they both had a personal S% that was above the team average of 8.1. Lindholm’s was 10.5 and Ryan’s was 11.1.

Hanifin’s was below team average at 6.1, but he gets somewhat of a free pass because it’s rare for defensemen to be above the mean in that category. Last year, only five blueliners (among those who played at least 60 games) in the entire league had a S% above 9.2, which was the league average for all NHL teams.

Lindholm contributed 5.5% of the Hurricanes’ total shots last season, and roughly 7.1% of the team’s collective S%. Ryan, who had only one goal fewer, accounted for about 4.9% of the team’s shots and about 6.7% of his team’s S%. Hanifin took about 6% of the team’s shots and contributed 4.4% of the collective S%.

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James Neal, who has been described as a “sniper”, had the highest personal S% of all the above at 12.4%. He played on a surprisingly deep Vegas Golden Knights team which had a collective S% of 10.0, which means he, too, helped his team trend upwards in that category. He personally contributed a respectable 7.5% of his team’s total shots and 9.3% of the Knights’ S%.

So while acquisitions like Austin Czarnik, Dalton Prout, and Kerby Rychel are still question marks, we can count on Neal and Bill Peters’ three former Hurricanes to pull their weight in terms of S%. At least based on last season’s performance, I bet they won’t be passengers and will make a positive contribution there.

And let’s not forget who these players are replacing. I’m not going to bore you by running the numbers on Curtis Lazar, Troy Brouwer, and Matt Stajan. Suffice it to say their stats are not as good in this area. Losing Michael Ferland and Dougie Hamilton does hurt, but the gains exceed the losses this offseason.

The big question mark remaining is Calgary’s collective SV% next year. I believe that if David Rittich and Jon Gillies can bring their SV% up just a tad, and if Mike Smith takes on a slightly lighter workload than he did at the beginning of last season, the Calgary Flames will be just fine. A .004 increase would bring Gillies up to .900 and Rittich up to a .908, and there’s no reason Mike Smith can’t put up a .920 or more if healthy.

That’s a lot of “ifs”. But I’m an optimist.

With these new acquisitions on the roster and the hope of slightly better performance from the netminders, I believe the Calgary Flames can finish next season with a positive goal differential.

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And if the past five seasons are any indication, finishing in the green means 9/10 odds of making the playoffs.

Shout out to @JoelElford who helped me run the numbers on this article, which turned out to be way more “math-y” than I had anticipated.