The Flames are at their 2023 All-Star break and have placed themselves firmly as a bubble playoff team. With 32 games remaining, and a dogfight stretch drive ahead in the Pacific Division, Calgary has numerous areas they can, and will likely need, to improve in. Highlighted here are the three biggest ones, at least for me.
The power play
At 19.1%, the Flames have a bottom third power play through 50 games. An improvement, even into the top half of the league, in the second half would go a long way for Calgary. Now, head coach Darryl Sutter believes power play percentages are outdated and prefers to look at goals for instead. Well, by that metric, the Flames are also a bottom third team having scored 30 goals on the man advantage.
There have been times when Calgary’s power play has looked anemic and stale. On the bright side, though, most of their shot and chance metrics have them in the NHL’s middle tier. With a little better finish, the Flames have a chance for better results down the stretch.
I do think Calgary is rolling out the right personnel on their first unit. As Ryan Pike has delved into in the past, the five players the Flames use on their top power play are historically the right choices. If Calgary can make meaningful strides in this area down the stretch, I’m confident they’ll be a playoff team. If they don’t it’ll be a lot more touch and go.
On the bright side, the Flames have a strong penalty kill that seems to be getting better as the season progresses. Even still, Calgary needs to reduce the amount of times shorthanded as they move towards the postseason.
As of this writing (Jan. 28), only the Florida Panthers have taken more minor penalties (221) than the the Flames at 194. And in terms of times shorthanded, it’s only Florida (190) and Arizona (182) ahead of Calgary’s 178. To make a long story short, the Flames take too many penalties.
As good as their penalty kill has been, spending as much time as they do shorthanded gets them out of their rhythm at five-on-five. And when players like Elias Lindholm, Chris Tanev, Mikael Backlund, and Tyler Toffoli are penalty kill mainstays, it can physically tax some of Calgary’s most important even strength drivers.
A strong penalty kill is an asset. The Flames just need to stop testing it as much as they have.
With 142 goals against on 1,384 shots against (subtracting seven empty net goals from the calculations), Calgary has an 0.897 save percentage through 50 games. When including those empty netters, the save percentage drops to 0.893, which puts them 24th overall. For a team with aspirations of a deep playoff run, that’s not going to get it done.
Save percentages are down across the league, so a strict comparison from one year to the next doesn’t tell the whole story. Still, the Flames finished at 0.913 last season with the same tandem, which is a significant swing. But because save percentages have fluctuated so much, it’s more telling to look at Calgary’s league rank. They were fifth overall last year, which doesn’t compare nicely to 24th so far this season.
Jacob Markstrom’s struggles, especially in the first quarter, have contributed greatly to the significant decline statistically. And, at 0.893 with more than half the season played, it’s going to be tough for Markstrom to finish anywhere close to his numbers from last year.
Dan Vladar has been a great story, boasts an 11-4-4 record, and has been the better of the two goalies thus far. But, despite Vladar earning more playing time down the stretch, his 0.904 save percentage leaves room for improvement, too.
The Flames had some of the NHL’s best goaltending last season, which was a huge reason why they were able to secure top spot in the Pacific Division. They’re in the bottom third this year and find themselves as a bubble playoff team. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
If Calgary’s goaltending can creep into the middle of the league in their final 32 games, we should be talking about them heading back to the postseason.