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The Calgary Flames three quarters of the way through the 2014-15 season

The Calgary Flames have now played 62 games, putting them just over three quarters of the way through the season. They've defied all expectations and remain in the playoff hunt. How?

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It's the beginning of March. There are 20 games left in the Flames' (regular) season. And throughout Calgary, there's a lot of scoreboard watching going on. It's not that keeping an eye on the out of town games and praying for the best is new for this city; it's more that we never expected to be back to doing it so soon.

It's March 2015, the Calgary Flames are a season and three-quarters into their rebuild, and they have a 33-25-4 record: good for fourth in the Pacific Division, and just on the outskirts of a playoff spot.

Amid uncertainty about the status of the Flames' best player, Mark Giordano, the push for the playoffs is looking a touch less optimistic. The Flames have been on something of a small losing streak lately, and while it hasn't been enough to push them out of playoff contention - not even an eight-game losing streak could do that, somehow - things are a bit more tense. The Flames have gone from controlling their own destiny to requiring other teams to fail.

They still, however, remain where they have been for most of the season: in the midst of a tight pack of about six Western Conference teams, with four playoff spots up for grabs. They remain inexplicably awesome at third periods, with 77 goals for in the final frame and just 45 against for a +32 differential, the best in the league. And they're tied for the league lead in wins when trailing after two periods with 10.

The Flames' third periods have definitely become something of legend this season. Here are some other numbers on just how the team has performed as the year has gone on:

  • Overtime has been very kind to the Flames, at they have an 11-4 record when games need to go past regulation. Those 11 wins are good for fifth in the NHL, tied with the Chicago Blackhawks. Third period magic extends to OT, clearly!
  • They lead the Pacific Division in goal differential. With 170 goals for and 165 against, that +15 (how appropriate for this city!) is fourth best in the entire Western Conference, behind just the insane powerhouses that are the Nashville Predators (+40), St. Louis Blues (+39), and aforementioned Blackhawks (+33).
  • They have a .565 points percentage, good for 17th in the league, and ninth in the Western Conference. They need help, but they're still right there.
  • They're middle of the pack when it comes to goal scoring. The Flames' 2.77 goals per game is 15th in the league.
  • The Flames are 28th in the league in shots per game at 27.1, so all that goal scoring is coming from the benefits of a high shooting percentage. It's 10.2%, to be exact, which is second in the entire league. It's not a number they can rely on forever, and the Flames' recent difficulties in scoring goals is beginning to attest to that.
  • Defensive efforts have been a bit better, as the Flames are 12th in the league for goals against per game at 2.56.
  • They've been better at suppressing shots than generating their own, as their 28.5 shots against per game is good for eighth in the NHL. Their team save percentage of 91.0% is 16th in the league, so while there has definitely been an improvement in goaltending, the skaters are really helping out on that end, too.
  • The Flames' possession stats have increased as the season has gone on, but they remain a poor possession team. Special teams have helped out, though. With them, they have a CF of 47.2%, putting them at 25th in the league. At just 5 v 5 even strength, that number drops to 46.3%, 26th in the league.
  • Speaking of special teams, the Flames' powerplay sits at 17.7%, good enough to tie the Dallas Stars at 18th in the league. Their penalty kill sits at 80.4%, 20th in the NHL.
  • They're the second-least penalized team in the NHL, with just 174 minors. (The Carolina Hurricanes lead with 170.) Their 18 fighting majors have given them some extra minutes, though: tied for 9th with the New York Rangers with all of those.
  • Deryk Engelland has fought six times and Brandon Bollig four, so they're... doing their jobs, I guess? Lance Bouma has two fights to his name, and Joe Colborne, Michael Ferland, Mark Giordano, Curtis Glencross, Kris Russell, and Ladislav Smid have a fight apiece.
  • The Flames' PDO sits at 100.9: tied for eighth in the league with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They've been lucky, but not to an insane extent.
  • Jonas Hiller is the team's starter. Of the 62 games so far this season, he's started 36 of them (58%). He has a pretty good .913 save percentage to show for his efforts.
  • Karri Ramo is a great backup, with 21 games started (34%), and while he occasionally has the bad game, he also goes on stretches of excellent play, as his .915 save percentage will attest to.
  • And Joni Ortio, he who started the entire five-game pre-All Star road trip (14%) posted a great .931 save percentage effort before being sent back down to continue developing (until cruelest of fates befell him and he's ended up out long-term with a high ankle sprain. Very sad).

Things have been chugging along pretty calmly for the Flames over this most recent quarter of a season. January and February have provided them with mostly consistent lineups; new heroes such as All-Stars Mark Giordano and Johnny Gaudreau, not to mention Top Six Forward Lance Bouma; and a 12-8-1 record.

The trade deadline looms as we have already said goodbye to Curtis Glencross, and perhaps more. The flu kept a number of guys out of the lineup, resulting in multiple call-ups that were gifted with the occasional game but mostly forced to sat. New babies have also kept guys - Matt Stajan and Mason Raymond, to be exact - out of the lineup, resulting in rookies getting to play. We've been treated to the very low-minutes debuts of David Wolf and Emile Poirier.

Let's put some context to all of these names. In case you've forgotten, here's what the Flames have looked like over the first half of the season, from games 1-41 (minimum 30 minutes played):

And now, here's the Flames' usage for games 42-62:

42-62flames3-4woiuse

There's a very clear divide, here, between the top players and bottom feeders and/or rookies. In regards to said rookies and their debuts, there are lots of new, tiny circles right at the bottom of the chart. This is because the new additions have been sheltered, receiving low ice times and playing against the opposition's lesser players. Here's how else things have changed:

  • Sven Baertschi only got one game over this quarter of the season stretch, but boy, was he given an assignment. Baertschi played by far the toughest competition of any of his teammates, and without the benefits of offensive zone starts to boot. Consequently, he ended up being a negative possession player. Still, it begs the question: why only bother to dress him for one game, and then give him some of the team's hardest minutes? Is that a sign of faith, and if it is, why hasn't he played more? Everything involving Baertschi and the Flames as a whole is weird.
  • Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie remain the Flames' lifeblood. They get some of the team's absolute worst zone starts, all the while playing the biggest minutes, and aside from Baertschi's one game, the toughest competition. They're the best Flames regulars possession-wise, too. Calgary continues to be nothing without their top defence pairing.
  • Trending left a touch, as David Jones and Lance Bouma have been firmly grouped together over these last 21 games. They get the toughest zone starts on the team, Bouma a little moreso, and play pretty tough competition. Even more impressive is the fact that they do all this while still being relatively positive possession players.
  • Jones is roughly in the same spot - more defensive zone starts for him, though - but Bouma has completely shot upwards. His consistent promotion to the top six has seen his circumstances drastically increase in difficulty, but his possession stats have improved along with it.
  • And that is, of course, thanks to Mikael Backlund. Backlund's return to the lineup has been a godsend for the Flames. He plays slightly easier circumstances than his wingers, but he also posts the best possession stats of the group.
  • Also note how Sean Monahan has trended towards Backlund, which is an excellent sign. It means he's developing into a similar player. He isn't quite there yet, as Backlund continues to have the better possession stats, but Monahan has the better scoring. Backlund's also been able to help Monahan balance the load, as his quality of competition has increased, while Monahan's has decreased. We're trending towards a future where the Flames will have two formidable centres, and that's without Sam Bennett even joining in the mix. It's probably the best sign of them all.
  • We talked Backlund's wingers, now it's time for Monahan's. A big part of the reason Monahan has better scoring than Backlund likely falls on the circumstances their linemates play in. Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler remained sheltered, primarily offensive zone start players, Gaudreau - who we can't forget is still a rookie - especially. Still, the entire current edition of the Flames' top six are mostly positive possession players relative to their team while facing higher competition, so that's a good sign. Monahan's the lone exception, with his CF% rel at -.3. He's close.
  • Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman continue to struggle as the Flames' second pairing. They play big minutes akin to Giordano and Brodie, but in far more sheltered circumstances: more offensive zone starts, less difficult competition. Despite this, they remain negative possession players relative to their team. The only thing that's really changed is Russell is getting fewer offensive zone starts.
  • Drew Shore had a great one-game debut. He played decent circumstances and was a positive player for the Flames. He could end up being an extremely useful bottom six player for the Flames - probably with second line potential, too - if they decide they're ready for him to be in the NHL full time.
  • Curtis Glencross got injured and lost his spot in the top six. Consequently, he saw easier minutes. His possession stats went down, but he also lost the opportunity to play with the Flames' top six centres, which would be a blow to just about anybody. I mean, just look at what Backlund has done for Bouma alone.
  • Josh Jooris now faces tougher opposition, but he gets to start more often in the offensive zone, too. The good news with him is he's a positive possession player relative to the Flames. Not bad for a random rookie who made a hell of an impression in training camp: he's legit.
  • Nothing much has changed in Mason Raymond's circumstances. He mostly remains a useful veteran depth forward. He's not crucial to this team's success, but nice to have.
  • Matt Stajan still plays in the exact same circumstances, getting the worst zone starts on the team alongside Bouma. He has dropped from a positive possession player relative to the Flames to a negative one, though.
  • Paul Byron was mimicking Backlund's performance earlier, but since his own shift to the fourth line, he's begun facing much easier circumstances. There's only so much he can do to prop his linemates up, and his own possession stats have suffered for it. This attests to the importance of having a functional fourth line.
  • Joe Colborne plays some very sheltered circumstances. When the Flames are at their optimal forward situation he worked well with Stajan and Byron facing lighter competition, but he requires more sheltering than the other two, resulting in his better possession performance; however, it should be noted he's not much better than Byron while Byron gets far more defensive zone starts.
  • Markus Granlund isn't ready. He's getting the most sheltered minutes, and he's still a negative possession player relative to the Flames. He starts most often out of all Flames in the offensive zone, and plays very low quality of competition.
  • Remember back when people were speculating Granlund made Backlund expendable? I know some of you were out there. Look at their places on the chart, not to mention their relative possession stats as indicated by colour, and give your head a shake. Granlund is nowhere close to Backlund, and he probably won't ever reach his level. That's not to say the Flames should give up on Granlund - he is only 21 - but Backlund is a very special commodity the Flames cannot afford to lose.
  • Corey Potter, king of healthy scratches, finally got to play a game. He was very sheltered and couldn't handle it. There's a reason he's the team's eighth defenceman, and on the lowest rung of the non-prospect guys.
  • David Wolf could turn into a useful bottom six player. He didn't see much action in his two NHL games, and he played against very easy competition, but he wasn't too sheltered zone start-wise. There's potential, but it's important to remember this is his first year in North America, and he's still getting used to it.
  • Brandon Bollig hasn't been horrifically bad, starting most often in the defensive zone, but against an extremely low quality of player. The chart alone proves the Flames have better options than him. Baertschi and Shore, while only playing one-game samples, have shown more than him. And never forget that Jooris was initially cut from camp so Bollig could keep his roster spot. The team has better options, and severely undervalued their prospect base when they decided to trade for him.
  • The Flames' regular bottom pairing of Deryk Engelland and Rafa Diaz play middling zone starts and soft competition. Diaz is the better possession player, but he also gets slightly better zone starts, starting just more often in the offensive zone as opposed to Engelland's time just more often in the defensive zone.
  • Ladislav Smid played three games over this 21-game stretch. He wasn't very good. High offensive zone starts, low quality of competition, worse stats than Engelland. Engelland is probably the better player, actually. Though neither are actually desirable to have. Their combined cap hit is somehow over $6 million. What.
  • Michael Ferland is playing the easiest competition of them all, while starting more often in the offensive zone. Emile Poirier is getting harder circumstances than him - although not particularly difficult circumstances by any real standard - and has slightly worse possession stats than he does. This is to be expected. The rookies are getting heavily sheltered, and are definitely going to need more time.

Here's what the Flames skaters look like over the first 62 games of the season:

flames3-4woiuse

Corban Knight got seriously sheltered in his last times in Calgary, eh? He played roughly the same number of minutes Shore has for the Flames this season, so while 12 minutes is a very tiny sample size, that one looks like a pretty good tradeoff.

Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie remain the kings of this team, while Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund aren't far behind at all.

Jiri Hudler and Johnny Gaudreau are the beneficiaries of high offensive zone starts, hence their point totals, but that isn't a problem at all; they're simply Hartley's biggest go-to scoring guys, especially as he does his best to put Gaudreau in a position to succeed. David Jones has been quietly very effective this season, a far cry from all earlier demands to ditch him by a roadside or have him be on injury reserve forever or whatever it was we wanted before we all realized we actually kinda sorta like the guy.

Paul Byron is better than Lance Bouma. Josh Jooris is having a pretty solid rookie campaign, and is increasingly looking like the real deal. Matt Stajan is becoming quietly expendable with another three full seasons left on his deal.

The non-Gaudureau and non-Jooris rookies all need more playing time, one way or another. And of course, the defence outside of Brodano is a mess, and the Flames are very much in need of help in that area; help that David Schlemko alone probably cannot provide. Godspeed, Gio. Godspeed.