Calgary Flames: The Elusive Goal of being “Built for the Playoffs”
With the trade deadline over, and the Calgary Flames sitting at 99.9% odds to make the playoffs (at least according to MoneyPuck), there is an unfamiliar feeling in Flames Nation right now: peace of mind. The certainty of postseason hockey, and relative certainty (barring any injuries) of what the roster will look like, means fans can enjoy peace of mind, for the moment. Rather than questioning whether or not this team will make the playoffs, people are going to start shifting the conversation: Is this team built for the playoffs?
It’s an age-old hockey question, a favourite among doubters and skeptics. “Sure, they’re doing well in the regular season. But are they built for playoff success?” Internet trolls like to accompany this sentiment with #FirstRoundExit and broom gifs.
It’s not just blind criticism. The NHL playoffs are a whole different animal from the regular season, and it’s entirely possible for a player or a team to be successful in one but not the other. We see it almost every year—that team you expect will have a deep run in the postseason gets knocked out early and ruins your bracket.
But what does it really mean to be “built for the playoffs”? And is the current Calgary Flames roster built the right way?
Many people immediately think of “size and toughness” when they think of playoff hockey. It’s a bit more nuanced than that.
The physicality of the game does change in the playoffs. Here is what we know for sure:
- Hitting goes up in the playoffs (meaning it happens more frequently).
- Penalties go down.
- Fighting goes down.
- Suspensions become less frequent and shorter in length.
The game is more physically intense and taxing in the playoffs. In 5-on-5 situations, there is a 32% increase in hits in the playoffs.
But one should not assume that the increase in hits will automatically result in more frequent fights. It does in the regular season because many fights start when players stand up for a teammate who took a questionable hit.
But there are two things you don’t want in the playoffs: injured players and penalty minutes. Fights are a good way to get both of those.
Playoff teams generally don’t need an enforcer to drop the gloves and protect their stars, so much as they need players who have size to use it to change possession of the puck.
The Calgary Flames are currently dead last in the league in hits per game. That does not bode well for the argument that this team is built for the playoffs. Among players with 20 GP or more, The Flames’ team leaders in hits per game are:
- Garnet Hathaway (2.5)
- Sam Bennett (1.7)
- Oscar Fantenberg (1.6)
Those top two aren’t really a surprise. And although they’ve taken their share of criticism, Bennett and Hathaway have the potential to be real difference-makers in the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if Oscar Fantenberg gets his ice time in the playoffs because of his physicality. If players like Mark Jankowski and James Neal can turn up the aggressiveness just a little, the Flames should be okay.
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I don’t necessarily worry about the Flames’ toughness. Sportsnet described their most recent win against the Pittsburgh Penguins as “a scene out of Slap Shot”. They can take care of themselves.
When hitting goes up and penalization goes down, it’s all about knowing what you can get away with between the whistles. Know your limit. Play within it.
Honestly, agitators may be more useful than enforcers in the playoffs. And fortunately, the Calgary Flames do have a couple of those.
When it comes to offensive production, the differences between the regular season and the playoffs are harder to summarize. Generally speaking, scoring in the first round is higher than in rounds two through four.
Starting in the second round, defensive systems get tighter. Odd-man rushes become more seldom. Shot blocks become more frequent. From Hockey-graphs.com:
“There are higher attrition and risk of injuries in the playoffs due to players putting their bodies on the line to win.”
This is why even the highest-scoring regular season teams sometimes have trouble in a best-of-seven series. You can’t just out-score your problems in the postseason.
The 2018-2019 Calgary Flames have won several games where they gave up four goals or more, simply by scoring at will. Don’t count on that happening in the playoffs, especially not after the first round.
If we learned anything from the Vegas Golden Knights last year, it’s that you don’t necessarily need more big-name firepower than your opponent to win a playoff series. You need a better two-way game and a hot goaltender.
Even if you have an elite roster of skaters, you won’t get far in the playoffs without spectacular goaltending. According to James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail:
“Common wisdom when it comes to the NHL playoffs is that they are lower scoring than the regular season for two key reasons: (a) the officials put the whistle away and (b) teams play tighter defensive systems.
Statistically speaking, however, that doesn’t appear to be the case, and the goalies are making the biggest impact. […]
The average even strength save percentage during the season may have been down at .921, but the average when you remove all play by backups was actually closer to .924. Take out the starting goalies on teams that missed the playoffs and that rises up to .927.”
The goalie is almost undoubtedly a teams’ biggest difference-maker in the playoffs. Teams that make the conference finals may see their netminder’s save percentage spike by .01 or more. That may not sound like much, but the difference between a .915 and .925 is massive.
And luck does play a factor too, just ask Matt Murray. He’s not objectively better than many of the goalies that the Penguins played against in their two cup runs. But he does know how to get on a hot streak at the right time.
This is the biggest question mark in the Calgary Flames’ hopes of a deep playoff run. Mike Smith and David Rittich have both played well this season in intervals of a few weeks, but when you take in the whole season, their performance as a tandem levels out at good, not great.
As much as Mark Stone would have been a valuable piece to add at the trade deadline, a reliable goalie may end up being what this team needed even more.
I would feel a lot better if Jon Gillies was somewhere in the realm of trustworthy.
Long Story Short
So are the Calgary Flames “built for the playoffs”? Yes, in comparison to most other teams. But probably not as much as they would like to be.
While I wouldn’t describe this team as soft, they do need to show more physical assertiveness in the postseason. Moving the dial on those unimpressive hits stats would be a good place to start.
They have great offensive weapons, and will probably get even better in that category since everyone knows James Neal is just saving himself for the playoffs. No worries there.
The goaltending has shown flashes of promise but not enough consistency. I’m including both Smith and Rittich in that, although one has shown more consistency than the other (Hint: it’s Rittich). Statistically speaking, at least one of the Flames’ goalies will need to get on a major hot streak when the second round starts in order to keep up with league averages.
I know trying to predict what will happen in the NHL playoffs is a fool’s errand. Regardless of what happens this year, let’s collectively promise as a fanbase to enjoy the ride.
Also, can we start a petition for Smith and Rittich to never play the puck in the postseason?