If we’re to use past results as an indicator of future success, it would have been safe to assume that the Calgary Flames’ pursuit of the post-season in 2018-19 would be predicated on a few things.
First, Calgary would flourish thanks to an attention to detail and a strong possession game under new bench boss Bill Peters, who had proven time and again his ability to coach a team that drives play. The next would have been defensive success, as the Flames are led by a strong stable of rearguards including captain Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and off-season acquisition Noah Hanifin. And the last is that Calgary would receive superstar-caliber play from its top-end producers, with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan leading the charge.
As expected, too, most of those things have come to fruition. The Flames are among the league’s best possession teams, ranking fifth in the league at five-a-side with a 53.9 Corsi for percentage as we inch ever-closer to the mid-season mark. Calgary has been an extremely limiting team, as well, with their 52.1 shot attempts against per outing the second-best mark in the entire NHL. That speaks to their defensive strength as a whole, not just on the blueline. And, true to form, right at the very top of the team’s statistical leaderboard are Gaudreau and Monahan, the former pacing the team with 35 points, the latter the top lamp-lighter with 17 tallies.
Somewhat unexpected, however, is that it isn’t just Gaudreau and Monahan who’ve bolstered the attack, nor is it the case that the Flames are simply getting by with a middling offense and strong defensive play. Instead, Calgary has seen a sizeable and significant rise in goal production, one that has sneakily made the Flames one of the most underrated attacking teams in the NHL.
Of course, there’s a palpable irony in calling a team fresh off of a nine-goal performance, highlighted by its fourth five-goal period of the season, an underrated offensive group. But in ranking the league’s offensive groups on paper, where would Calgary have fallen during the pre-season? Somewhere between 10th and 15th?
Remember, this is an offense that, while adding Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, James Neal and Derek Ryan in the off-season, finished 20th in the NHL last season with 2.63 goals per game, had the league’s 28th-ranked power play and had only one point-per-game player. (Gaudreau registered 84 points in 80 games.) The Flames’ attack was in no way expected to keep pace with teams that had almost-unfathomable depth, nor was Calgary perceived as a team that would be able to keep with those seemingly capable of scoring at will, such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets. Yet, here we are, more than one-third through the 2018-19 campaign and the Flames boast the fifth-highest goals per game rate, the 10th-best power play and have scored five or more goals in more than one-quarter of their contests.
Part of what has made Calgary’s offense so potent this season, to be sure, is the rise of secondary stars. Lindholm, packaged with Hanifin and acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes, is among those who’ve seen a precipitous rise in production this season. Entering this season with career highs of 16 and 17 goals, as well as 45 and 44 points, Lindholm is on pace to demolish those numbers. He has 13 goals and 30 points in 28 games this season, and he’s become a Peters favorite with the Flames. No forward has seen a higher average ice time. Others have contributed in big ways, too. Mainstay Mikael Backlund in on pace for another 50-point season, Hanifin is staring down a career year, Giordano is in the Norris Trophy race on points alone and the Flames have nine players with at least a double-digit point total.
The most impressive rise, however, belongs to Matthew Tkachuk.
Having entered this season after establishing himself as a no-doubt top-sixer last season, Tkachuk was expected again to eclipse the 20-goal plateau and move into the 60-point range, as he likely would have last season if not for injuries. But to have capped Tkachuk’s production at those rates would seem laughable at this point in the season. Through 28 games, Tkachuk isn’t just looking like a top-six producer, he’s looking like he could finish within the league’s top 10 scorers — his 13 goals put him on pace to end the campaign with a career-best 38 tallies, and his current scoring rate would see him hit 94 points by Game 82. That’s Gaudreau and Monahan levels of production.
The scariest thing about Calgary’s attack is that there’s absolutely nothing that would suggest the Flames are going to slow down.
While some teams in the top-10 in league scoring are buoyed by remarkably high shooting percentages — hello, Ottawa and Washington — that’s not the case in Calgary, which shouldn’t make a regression in shooting percentage a sizeable concern. In fact, at 5-on-5, the Flames are 16th in shooting success with an 8.1 percent conversion rate. The only top-10 team lower is the Florida Panthers, who are 25th at 7.1 percent. Likewise, while other high-scoring clubs haven’t heavily tilted the ice, Calgary has been a possession beast and scoring-chance driver unlike many others. Only five teams have a higher rate of shot attempts per 60 minutes than the Flames’ 60.9 at 5-on-5, and the same goes for scoring chances, with Calgary ranking sixth at five-a-side by producing 29.1 opportunities per 60 minutes.
So, while possession and defensive depth and structure are indeed tools the Flames have been utilizing on their way to top spot in the Pacific Division, Calgary’s greatest difference maker come season’s end might be its ability to fill the opposition’s net. And that’s something few saw coming before the Flames hit the ice this season.