Combustion & Calculators - 3rd Pairing D-men and Shot Quality

COLUMBUS OH - OCTOBER 22: Head Coach Brent Sutter of the Calgary Flames watches as his team takes on the Columbus Blue Jackets during the third period on October 22 2010 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus Ohio. Calgary defeated Columbus 6-2. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)

It's been a roller coaster ride on the fan bus since last C&C.  3-1-0 is a great run but I get the feeling that a lot of people felt the Detroit game was within grasp.

The return of Corey Sarich has seemed to rejuvenate the physical side of the Flames' play, but we also need to know if his ability to jack people up was complemented by other facets of his game.

We will also delve into a few facets of Shot Quality, both on the Flames and some of their upcoming opposition. 

More after the jump....

Weekly Player Spotlight  

The top 4 defense spots are set.  Bouwmeester, Giordano, White and Regehr all have their roster spots locked in at the moment.  It's the 3rd pairing defense that has been a turnstile so far.  With TJ Brodie's strong showing in preseason, many of us thought he might stick with the big club.  Sarich, Staios and Pardy were all possibilities as well. 

Let's take a look at how they compare in the possession game so far this season.  Keep in mind that we're still dealing with incredibly small sample sizes so these numbers will be extreme in both directions.

 2010-10-23_t1_medium

A couple things stick out here situationally.  Sarich has had much better starting position (Zone Starts) than the other three and Pardy has had much easier competition (QoC).  Both of those advantages could be a big part of their Corsi advantage over the others.

That said, the comparison of Staios and Brodie is very telling.  With almost identical situational stats, Brodie's raw possession numbers (Corsi) and in comparison to the team (Corsi Rel) are vastly superior to Staios.  Brodie also had the 2nd best blocked shots per 60 min on the team and a shot distance rating more similar to the Flames forwards, clearly better than any other defenseman.

Obviously with the waiver wire pickup of Brendan Mikkelson and having Brodie sent down to Abbottsford, there is little chance that TJ will be playing with the Flames anytime soon.  However, it's interesting to see his comparison with the much more expensive Staios.  Brodie will do well with more playing time in the AHL but definitely acquitted himself well for his first stint with the big club.

At this point, it definitely looks like Sarich and Pardy are better options than Staios (no shocker) and we'll see how Mikkelson fits in the games to come.

Bonfires and Pilot Lights (best & worst) 

"I'm kind of an expert at getting shot by smooth bore firearms"--Paul Giamatti's character on 30 Rock

For some reason this line just reminds me of Steve Staios.  You'll see what I mean when you look through the table below.

 2010-10-23_t2_medium

First and foremost, take a look at how often Mikael Backlund's name shows up in the "Best" column.  He may be getting some sweet ice time, but he's driving possession, popping in a few goals, winning face-offs, blocking shots and drawing penalties.  At the very least, he's made his case to stick with the big club for longer than the 10 game cut-off.

In order to back up my quote above, just take a look at Staios' Relative +/- and Penalty Differential.  He may be starting in the defensive zone more than any other blueliner, but he's digging the team into bigger holes, not baling them out. 

Matt Stajan is hot/lucky/talented (or any other adjective you can find) right now.  The problem is, we're not sure which one it is.  He's racking up points, +/-, and takeaways.  And he's doing it while playing tougher minutes than any other center on the team.  He's definitely justified his spot on the top line for now, but we'll see how long it lasts given how far above his career average he's playing.

Despite the fact that most fans are enthralled with the play of Miikka Kiprusoff and Henrik Karlsson so far, their Even-Strength shooting percentages haven't been all that impressive.  There is actually a lot of potential upside here for the Flames.

Team-level Performance 

Here is how the Flames are doing as a team in the key situations.

 2010-10-23_t3_medium

The Flames haven't been all that impressive anywhere other than the penalty kill so far.  That said, it is encouraging to see them spending more time on the PP than the PK, although that stat could be skewed if they were getting scored on early in the kill and not capitalizing on powerplays.

Upcoming opposition  

The Flames host the Sharks, Oilers and Avalanche in the next five days as they begin a 5-game home stretch.

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks top two lines right now according to DobberHockey.com are Clowe-Couture-Heatley and Marleau-Setoguchi-Thornton.  Neither of these lines has really lit it up but they're all in the plus from a possession standpoint. 

The line that Brent Sutter will want to match up against most is the Nichol-McLaren-Wingels trio.  They are a combined -83.1 Corsi / 60 despite having prime icetime.  McLaren has had 66.7% o-zone starts so far.

San Jose's most impressive forward so far has been Joe Pavelski.  He has a Corsi / 60 of 10.50 despite an astronomically low Zone Start ratio of 29.0%.

In net, both Antii Niemi and Antero Niittymaki are playing badly, probably just to spite me for writing that two mid-talent goalies can be better than a true number one goalie.

Edmonton Oilers

David Staples from Cult of Hockey had a nice summary of the Oilers scoring chance generation so far this year.

At the moment, the Oilers most dangerous forwards are Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner and  Taylor Hall.  That Hall is third on the team this early is just another indicator of his immense skill.  Just wait until he's had some time to realize how best to use those gifts, he'll be scary.

Colorado Avalanche

Much was made of the Avalanche's "luck" last season, as evidenced by high PDO for many players and a solid record despite negative Corsi rates.  As teams like Chicago and Detroit have proven, dominating the possession game can be a very solid foundation for winning.

However, Corsi doesn't account for shot quality.  While shot quality has been debated fairly heavily, there is enough evidence to say that it has a definite effect on winning, if not as high a correlation as the possession stats.  In the Hockey Prospectus 2010, Tom Awad breaks down Shot Quality in an excellent summary.  Shot distance and angle both factor into shot quality.  So what does this have to do with the Avalanche?

The Colorado Avalanche had the shortest Average Shot Distance in the NHL last season according to Tom Awad. 

And in Ken Krzywicki's latest Shot Quality paper on Hockey Analytics, the Avalanche had an expected Shooting % of 9.5%, best in the league.  Their expected Save Percentage was 91.4%, 5th best in the league.

The short version is that Colorado gets high quality shots and gives up low quality shots, so they're more dangerous than most of us give them credit for.

League Trends 

In the same paper mentioned above about Shot Quality (by Ken Krzywicki), the Flames ranked 6th in the quality of shots they gave up, but had the 2nd worst quality of shots in the offensive end in the entire NHL.  The Rangers were the worst.

In the shameless plug department, my recent article at Hockey Prospectus delves into the question of whether an NHL team should spend more money on one position over others if they want to win.

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