Everyone loves a good underdog story.
So far, it’s hard to argue the Calgary Flames aren’t exactly that in the NHL: as big a surprise success as we’ve seen early in a season.
They’re the Rudy Ruettiger of the quarter-way mark (which the league hits on Saturday).
Few expected much out of the Flames this year, not with so many young players on the roster and not with what was believed to be a long, long rebuild in its early stages.
But entering Sunday’s games, they sat 10th overall in the NHL and fifth in the gruelling Western Conference, on pace for a remarkable 104 points. They’ve scored more goals than all but four teams (3.05 a game). They have one of the best power plays in the league (22 per cent). And netminder Jonas Hiller’s even strength save percentage of .936 is eighth among regular starters.
That’s the good news.
The bad? It’s extremely unlikely they’ll be able to keep all this up.
A year ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs got hammered all season for having an unsustainable record, one built on shooting and save percentages that masked how badly they were outplayed. Where Calgary is statistically after 19 games isn’t that far off. The Flames’ PDO (combined shooting and save percentage) is sky high at 102.8; last year, the Leafs were at 102.6 when doomsday predictions were being made in part because of that number.
Both teams were very poor at controlling play, one telltale sign of an unsustainably good record.
Calgary has 24 points after 19 games. Toronto had 23.
The biggest concern for the Flames is going to be generating offence over the remaining 63 games. They lead the league in even-strength shooting percentage and are high on the power play as well, getting terrific contributions from captain Mark Giordano and a score-by-committee approach from the youngsters. There’s a lot to like about the Flames’ future right now. In addition to the kids playing well and producing, this is a hard-working group that has deserved better results in some areas such as the penalty kill. It’s also possible Hiller – a huge off-season addition – has an outstanding season and keeps them in low-scoring games the rest of the way.
But almost every other indicator has them playing over their heads and ready for a fall.
Fans have to hope it’s not nearly as gruesome as Toronto’s 2-12-0 finish was a year ago.
Most improved possession teams:
1. Minnesota: The Wild have been such an odd team to get a read on this season. After a 7-3 start, they lost four in a row. Now they’re back winning again. What Minnesota has done brilliantly, however, is drive play, to the point the Wild are the most improved possession team in the league (from 48.4 per cent last year to 57.8 per cent this one). If they can get decent goaltending, they should be able to climb the standings and surprise people.
2. Washington: Full marks to Barry Trotz. The Capitals new coach has this team playing a much more disciplined style defensively, which has allowed them to cut their shots on goal against from 33.5 a game all the way down to 26.9, fourth best in the NHL. This is another team that’s been better than its record shows early.
3. Pittsburgh: Another new coach, another team with dramatically different results. Some thought the Penguins were due for a step back after losing James Neal, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, but it hasn’t worked out that way and first time NHL head coach Mike Johnston deserves a lot of the credit. Forget their dynamite power play, Pittsburgh is now a legitimate powerhouse at even strength with a 56.7 per cent possession game.
Biggest drop in possession:
1. Buffalo: Yes, they beat the Leafs on Saturday and yes, their real prize this season is potentially Connor McDavid with the first overall pick in June. But the most unbelievable stat out of the Sabres’ season is they’ve managed to suffer the biggest overall possession drop (from 41.4 to 34.8 per cent) in the league despite finishing last year as the league’s worst team in this department. That’s hard to do.
2. Los Angeles: They keep grinding wins out, but the Kings simply don’t look right this year. Whether it’s the injuries, or missing Slava Voynov to suspension, the fact they’ve become downright ordinary possession-wise is alarming (from 56.4 to 50.1). This has always been this team’s strength – the ability to get in on the play, recover dump-ins and control the puck – but they’ve dipped below average at times all year. They’re still built for the postseason, as always, but this has been a rough start.
3. San Jose: A powerhouse from a year ago, San Jose is another California team that has seemingly lost its way early. The Sharks are down more than 4.5 per cent in possession from last year in large part due to some issue with their depth. San Jose is trying to get younger and work in kids like Mirco Mueller and there were bound to be growing pains.
UNLUCKIEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE
There are a lot of candidates this early on, but one right up there has to be Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog.
A remarkably consistent player since he came into the league and won the Calder Trophy as a rookie, Landeskog has averaged a little more than 55 points per 82 games prior to this season.
Last year was a bit of a breakout year, too, with 26 goals and 65 points. Add in the fact he has had two seasons with big plus numbers in the plus-minus column, and he has gained a reputation for being a good two-way player and hasn’t really received a lot of criticism in his young career.
And yet, this season, he’s on pace for 30 points and at minus-11 has one of the worst marks in the league.
Much of that is bad luck.
After 19 games, Landeskog has been on the ice for five goals for and 15 against at even strength. The Avs’ shooting percentage when he’s on the ice has been 3.8 per cent, one of the lowest in the league.
If you take his two 5-on-5 goals out of the equation, his linemates have scored only three times on nearly 100 shots on goal.
The Avs goalies, meanwhile, aren’t saving much when he’s out there, which is what often makes plus-minus such a dubious stat.
This won’t keep up all year, but it’s been a very hard start for a good young player.
Honourable mentions: Mathieu Perreault (Winnipeg), Alex Wennberg (Columbus), Jesse Joensuu (Edmonton)
The luckiest ones? Filip Forsberg (Nashville), Joe Colborne (Calgary), Mike Hoffman (Ottawa)
Follow James Mirtle on Twitter: