In hockey, there truly is strength in numbers.
While their provincial rivals boast the best player in the world, the Calgary Flames possess the more formidable team. After missing the playoffs last year, the club has risen to the top of the Pacific Division thanks to a revamped defense, continued youth development and improved overall depth.
Through 27 games, the Flames rank eighth in goals per game (3.37) and ninth in goals against per game (2.78). This balance has propelled the team to a 16-9-2 record and provided head coach Bill Peters with a formula that’s difficult for opponents to handle. The underlying numbers are just as strong: According to Natural Stat Trick, Calgary controls 54.2% of shot attempts (fourth) and 53.6% of scoring chances (sixth) at 5-on-5. That’s a recipe for long-term success.
It doesn’t hurt that Peters has turned to David Rittich (2.24 GAA, 92.4 SV%) between the pipes either. 36-year-old incumbent starter Mike Smith (3.05 GAA, 88.6 SV%) had been among the worst goaltenders of the season prior to Rittich’s promotion.
The difference between their records (Rittich’s 8-2-1 vs. Smith’s 8-7-1) doesn’t merely boil down to individual ability. The Flames are visibly more comfortable with the newcomer in net. When players have little faith in their goaltender, they become tense and afraid that any miscue will lose them the game. When the man in the crease inspires confidence, the team can loosen up and perform to its standards. Mistakes happen, but it’s impossible to execute your game plan if you live in fear of every single hiccup. That’s no longer the case for the Flames.
Up front, Johnny Gaudreau (31 points in 27 games) is clearly the straw that stirs the drink. The 25-year-old playmaker’s vision and touch are sublime, and he has an uncanny way of slowing the game down to create room and carve out passing lanes. Paired with capable finishers in Sean Monahan (29 points in 27 games) and Elias Lindholm (28 points in 27 games), Gaudreau should finish the year near the 90-point mark.
Granted, the top line also concedes more goals than the team would like. Gaudreau’s GF% is only 50.0, which is not ideal for a line with its usage.
That’s where depth enters the frame. The second forward unit is now a force because of Matthew Tkachuk’s emergence as a star. The 20-year-old winger has elevated his game to a new level, registering 29 points in 27 games while completely smothering the opposition. With the third-year player on the ice, Calgary owns 57.1% of shot attempts and 55.4% of scoring chances. Those are sparkling numbers.
Mikael Backlund is Tkachuk’s full-time center, and as a responsible two-way presence, he allows the pest to fully engage on the forecheck in order to disrupt opponents and create turnovers. The steady Swede isn’t an offensive dynamo, but he isn’t required to be.
The right wing spot has mostly been split between veteran Michael Frolik and 22-year-old Sam Bennett. Both have performed admirably in that position, but Bennett should be the preferred option because of his grittiness and work in the trenches. As somewhat of an old-school player, Bennett embraces the physical side of things by delivering crushing hits and battling hard down low. He’s also solid on the cycle and makes quick, smart decisions in tight quarters.
Combining that type of snarl with Tkachuk’s natural agitating tendencies makes for a line no one enjoys playing against. Corsica indicates that Bennett and Tkachuk rank among the top 50 forwards in penalties drawn this season. This is especially valuable because Calgary has jumped from 29th to 12th on the power play this season.
In short, the second line tilts the ice in the Flames’ favor by governing even-strength play and putting the team in advantageous situations.
On the back end, a highly touted — and paid — group has finally coalesced under Peters. It offers a versatile mix of speed, puck movement and defensive acumen. The group is led by captain Mark Giordano, who’s in the midst of an offensive renaissance at 35 years old. He has 24 points in 27 games after posting 38 and 39 points over the last two full seasons. This production hasn’t come at the expense of defensive performance either, as Giordano allows the fewest shot attempts among Flames blueliners while controlling 55.6% of scoring chances.
Meanwhile, Travis Hamonic is the purest stay-at-home blueliner on the roster. He hasn’t had great puck luck (94.2 PDO), but his knack for winning key battles is undeniable. As a result, the Flames never create more or allow fewer chances than when he’s on the ice. His 59.2 SCF% ranks sixth among NHL defensemen.
Noah Hanifin, who came over from Carolina alongside Lindholm in exchange for Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland, brings a nice helping of mobility to that pairing. Hamonic can cover for him when he commits the odd mistake here and there, whereas the 21-year-old can skate himself out of trouble or deliver a good pass to relieve pressure.
TJ Brodie rounds out an excellent top four. More of a jack of all trades than an offensive maestro or shutdown defenseman, the 28-year-old makes full use of his skating to contain opponents and kick-start the transition game.
If there are weaknesses on the roster, they can be found lower on the depth chart.
2015 second-round pick Rasmus Andersson must learn to harness his aggressiveness, as he occasionally makes baffling decisions that run counter to the rest of the team’s approach. He is currently the only Flames defenseman to control fewer than half of the shot attempts and scoring chances at 5-on-5. His squad-relative metrics are awful. He’s an inexperienced 22-year-old, though, and his sheltered minutes will afford him the luxury of working out the kinks.
Among forwards, James Neal and Mark Jankowski are perhaps the only letdowns. A high-profile free-agent acquisition, Neal has struggled mightily in Calgary, managing just six points in 27 games along with a pitiful 40.9 GF%. He continually arrives late to the party, which finds him on the perimeter rather than in the thick of the action.
Jankowski is a former first-round pick who was considered a serious reach at the time of his selection. Now 24, the 6’4”, 212-pound hasn’t shown much progress. He doesn’t patrol the middle of the ice effectively, allowing the most shot attempts out of all Flames forwards without generating enough of his own. It’s likely too late for him to find his offensive stride, so he needs to start buckling down defensively in order to secure his role.
While those are areas of concern, they’re relatively minor when you consider how strong Calgary’s top-six forwards and top-four defensemen are.
If you focus your efforts on stopping Gaudreau’s line, Tkachuk’s unit hops onto the ice and gives you all you can handle. If you try to get your stars away from Giordano and Brodie, Hamonic and Hanifin are waiting in the wings. As the cherry on top, Peters has deftly mixed and matched his pieces to suit the circumstance.
Opponents can usually isolate and silence — or at least slow down — one great line or All-Star defenseman. That has been the root of Calgary’s downfall in the past: too many passengers. These days, the Flames seem…different. Confident. Complete. They can hang with just about any group in the league, and they know it. Their deeper arsenal has placed them firmly in the driver’s seat in the Pacific.