Monday, November 26, 2007

Calgary Flames - The Missing Piece?

MG has rightly spent a good part of this Flames season complaining about 3 key problems:

1. A top heavy forward lineup
2. An ugly group of overpaid veterans taking up spots on the bottom 6 from equally capable but cheaper youngsters
3. Craig Conroy's presence on the first line

Problem number one showed a slight sign of release about 2 weeks ago for the second edition of the Battle of Alberta. Owen Nolan, spurred on by linemates Matthew Lombardi and Eric Nystrom, scored a goal and also an assist. Lombardi had a goal and an assist. Nystrom had two assists.

From my vantage point the third line has been significantly less useless since this game. They haven't always been chipping in, but it seems like their assignments have gotten bigger and they've been getting scored on less. I wondered if this had something do with Eric Nystrom's callup, and if maybe his presence had given the third line that extra bit they needed. If in fact Nystrom was making a contribution to the team's success, it could affect the severity of problem 2. First of all, I'd like to mention my argument presupposes a number of things, one of them being that Nystrom generally plays on a line with Nolan and Lombardi. Sometimes that may not be true but basically looking up his timeonice numbers would have complicated the subject more than I believed it needed to be.

Anyway, here is a selection of his numbers:

Firstly, Nystrom is playing a pretty high level of competition 5-5. Desjardins has him playing a QOC of 0.04, good enough to be tied for 4th on the team with Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich. To put it in perspective, Phaneuf is playing 0.03 and Aucoin 0.02. In other words, it seems like Nystrom is playing the second toughest competition in Calgary's lineup, with Conroy, Iginla and Tanguay playing the toughest.

Next, his GFON/60 is 2.02 while his GAON/60 1.61, which tells us that over a course of 60 minutes, the Flames tend to outscore the opposition when Nystrom is on the ice. While we find the Flames score more goals when Nystrom is off the ice (GFOFF/60 2.15), they also let the opposition score a lot more, his GAOFF/60 being 2.27. Not bad for a guy playing quality competition.

I wish I could have tracked the Desjardins numbers for Nystrom's linemates before and after he started playing, but I can keep track of their points. Before that game against the Oilers, Nolan had 1G and 3A with a -1. Since that game, Nolan has 3G, 1A and is a +2. Lombardi had 5G, 6A and was a plus 5. Since then Lombardi has gotten 2G, 3A and is a plus 4. Nystrom, for his part, has 0G and 3A +3 since that game. His totals are 1G 3A +/-0.

I guess looking at the raw numbers, the results are a little uneven. Lombardi's totals seemed to have slowed over this period, Nolan's have stayed steady, while we're working of a really small sample for Nystrom. The true positive is that all three have been positives for the team over the last 6 games, despite the Flames only going .500. While the team as a whole has been all over the map, this line has been pretty consistent.

Of course, I'm not really taking into account special teams performance, but I think if you can get your third line playing strong 5-5 hockey, that's at least a start. So I think the Flames can officially say they've made strides in correcting a couple of the problems that MG has been harping on for a while.

I believe the third problem MG has identified is slightly more complicated than the first. Firstly, I agree wholeheartedly that Conroy is not a first line hockey player. He's lost any finish he ever had, he's not playing physically, and all in all he's just not doing a lot of good out there. MG has suggested Matthew Lombardi take his spot on the first line, and Conroy replace Lombardi on the third. Firstly, we have to ask a couple of questions as to the effect this would have.

Would the first line become better?
It's undoubtedly true that the first line would be a better group with Conroy gone. However, even though Matthew Lombardi is eating up the competition, I feel his numbers are inflated because the level of competition he's been playing has been pretty low. Lombardi's QOC is -0.05, while Conroy's has been +0.09.

Would the third line become better?
Unlikely. While Matthew Lombardi is eating up his competition and using his speed and finish to put the puck in the net, Conroy has none of the above. Although his counting numbers have been terrible, his line as at least been keeping afloat. Put him with Nolan and Nystrom and the third line is unlikely to be very useful at anything. However, there is always the chance that lesser quality of linemates could be counterbalanced by the lesser competition and Conroy brings the 'A' game.

Will the better first line make up for the worse third line?
I think this is the most important question - will the increased GF/GA of the newly minted first line make up for the worse GF/GA of the third line? I don't know. I believe MG will tell you he believes the team will be better as a whole with this change. I'm not convinced - no matter how you rearrange a puzzle it's not going to be complete unless you have the right pieces - shuffling around the wrong pieces doesn't help.

I will say I'm up for the experiment though simply because I don't think there's much of anything to lose.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Calgary Flames vs. Chicago Blackhawks - Jonathan Toews

I've been given the opportunity to observe the Chicago Blackhawks in person through both their Alberta NHL contests so I thought I would do something a little different than I usually do.

As regular readers of my blog (fictional?) know, I am a big Jonathan Toews fan. He's impressed me not just with his sublime skill (check out this clip for evidence) but also his commitment to sound positional play. For instance, not only was Toews employed multiple times in the same shootout to beat Team USA in the World Junior Championship, he was employed in the final game in more of a shutdown role. He seems to be adapting to the NHL quite well, so I wanted to see a game through the eyes of Jonathan Toews. To that end, as I watched the game I kept a running journal of significant plays made by on a shift per shift basis. I missed his first couple shifts in the game as well as his last shift in the second period, but here is my general record from a live vantage point.

1st Period
13:26-12:36 - Toews beats a Flame to the puck in corner of the offensive zone (OZ), centering a pass out to the opposite side defenceman on the point who decides against pinching and therefore receiving the pass

11:14-10:30 - Toews wins defensive zone (DZ) draw and later on in the play clears the puck

7:03-6:17 - Toews wins draw (DZ) and later on in the shift gets a shot on in a broken play which produces a huge rebound

4:50-4:11 - Toews steals the puck from a Flame and has it stripped of him almost immediately, later on he sends a breakout pass to a streaking Hawk but it's a bit behind the play.

2nd period
16:00 - 15:11 - Toews wins another DZ draw, later on he strips a Flame of the puck and clears it

13:41-12:54 - Toews loses a DZ faceoff

10:15-9:34 - Toews completes a couple of nice neutral zone passes and is effective on the forecheck

8:04 - 7:06 - As Toews is covering the point Jarome Iginla becomes wide open in the slot, scoring Calgary's only goal of the game. Later on Toews has a breakout pass intercepted.

4:05-3:30 - Toews digs the puck out of the DZ corner and clears it
3rd Period
20:00-19:30 Toews clears a near miss at the side of the Hawks net. Later on in the play the puck is passed back to Adrian Aucoin on the point who promptly misjudges the pinch decision, allowing Patrick Sharp to test his 1-1 skill with Miikka Kipprusoff. Sharpe wins.

17:00-16:15 - Toews attempts to create an offensive rush with the puck, but he is easily handled at the blueline by the Flame defender

14:20-13:52 - Toews makes a nice takeaway and dumps the puck in the Flames zone before changing

12:15-11:50 - nothing significant

9:50-9:14 - Toews rushes with the puck, makes a fake dump in, steps around a Flame defender and ends up with the puck in the corner. It is later taken away from him.

7:20 -? Loses DZ draw

5:56 - 4:50 - Toews loses the puck behind the Flames net leading to a clear by the Flames

4:00 - misses DZ check high leading to a Flames scoring chance

3:11 - DZ draw win leading to a clear and an ice by the Hawks

3:00 Toews loses the defensive zone draw leading to a couple more Flames chances

2:00-1:20 - Toews' last shift. He dumps the puck into the OZ corner and then misses a pass. Later on he loses the puck in the neutral zone.


So nothing spectacular from the kid but some solid smart plays and some important faceoff wins. From the naked eye it looked like Toews (and his linemates Tuomo Ruutu and Patrick Kane) drew Regehr and Sarich, while Vic Ferrari's Time on Ice shift chart confirms it (at least on even strength). Up front it looks like Matthew Lombardi, Owen Nolan and Eric Nystrom were given the task of competing with Chicago's top line, and I have to say, they did a pretty good job. Toews and Kane were neutralized for the whole game, I would say one mediocre scoring chance.

The Flames once again got beaten by a team with lesser names playing smarter hockey. I think that's all I'm going to say about that for now.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Underperforming - Jarret Stoll

Before the 2006 playoffs began, and before everyone had counted out the Edmonton Oilers in their series vs the Detroit Red Wings, I entered a playoff pool. Against all conventional logic I picked 3 Edmonton Oilers, starting with Chris Pronger, but ending in Jarret Stoll. He was coming off a 22 goal 68 point season, but most of all I felt that Jarrett Stoll was a true hard nose player who would thrive in tough situations. I believed the playoffs would be Jarret Stoll's time to shine. He scored a couple of game winning goals including a beauty double OT winner versus Detroit. I feel he proved me right.

His strong play continued into last season. In 51 games he had 13 goals, 26 assists and by all accounts he was really starting to play well. Desjardin's on ice/off ice +/- (click here for the explanation of on ice off ice +/- ratings) had Stoll +/- rating of +.94 which was good enough for 100th in the NHL and 3rd on the Oilers (behind Tjarnqvist and Smyth) until he was concussed a couple times in a couple games and Stoll's season was prematurely ended. His quality of opponent (QOO) was +0.07.

I thought Stoll looked good in his pre-season matchup against the Flames at the Saddledome, but he just hasn't been the same player this season.

He is currently a -9 (excluding tonight's matchup) and he had 1 goal until his 2 goal effort in Minnesota the other night. Including the goals against Minnesota, Stoll is not even on pace to ice his shortened goal output of last year. But it's not just about the goals Jarret Stoll is not scoring. His defensive presence, originally the strongest part of his game, has disappeared.

Desjardins has his current on ice/off ice +/- rating at -2.09 (QOO -0.04) which is good enough for 22nd on the team. 22nd! Not only is his on ice/off ice much worse than last season, he's playing against lesser opponents.

There's little doubt that Stoll's concussion has at least some part in his severe drop off in play. Whether he is still experiencing minor symptoms (doubtful) or has lost his confidence (maybe) or just lost his timing (likely).

If it's post concussion symptoms then the Oilers and Stoll are flat out screwed.

If it's a confidence issue, then I can't imagine there is better medicine than his inspired (if not flukey) effort versus Minnesota.

If it's timing, then patience is the key. I have no reason to think that given time Stoll won't get it back. Right now that appears that it is coming along. His play is starting to normalize, and as of this instant, his checking line (including Torres and Stortini???) has kept the Sedins off the scoreboard.

I think the fact MacTavish has blatantly simplified Stoll's game could be helpful. I like David Staples assertion that "He needs to walk before he can run, hit again before he can truly dangle. He needs to get his confidence back by doing a simple task that he is capable of doing -- checking. Otherwise, he hurts his team."

I personally believe Stoll will find his game, but the Oilers, and especially fans, need to be patient with him. After all, I don't think they've got much to lose, he certainly can't play much worse.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What The Hell Is Going On With Dan Ryder? Seriously.

Came across this Fanhouse post about the mysterious disappearance of Dan Ryder today. MG has already had at least one post about this and I have just let it go until now, but has anyone considered Ryder and Walz eloped together?

Though I will say, maybe this whole event has something to do with Micheal Ryder's less than stellar start to his season.

This is a strange hockey season, I wouldn't recommend any post SCF fishing trips.

Underperforming - Steve Staios

The Edmonton Oilers went into the season on a hope and a prayer and 20 odd games in the results have not been suprising. The horrid end to last season is slowly but surely creeping into this season and the Oilers are looking more and more like a lottery team every week. Despite the bright play of several youngsters (Cogliano, Gagne, Gilbert, Brodziak) some veterans (Horcoff, Hemsky...check out LT's post for more on EVP/60 numbers, Horcoff's blow me away), the Oilers are still bottom of the NW conference and are probably soon going to be bottom of the league.

The problem (besides lack of depth and top end talent) is that some of the veteran players the Oilers count on the most are having very sub par seasons. The tri fecta of suck (I'll continue with this in the coming week) begins with my man Steve Staios.

Now in my estimation Staios has historically been one of the Oilers most steady defenceman. He's never been capable of top line minutes but he's been that guy that you can count to make the smart play, handle his own defensively, and once in a while come up with a big offensive play, whether it be a nice pass or very rarely, a big goal. Either way, he could be counted on.

Last night's game versus the Flames included a classic example of what's going wrong with Steve Staios this year. He makes an awesome play to get a low hard shot on Miikka Kipprusoff, as a result of the scramble and rebound Kyle Brodziak gets a spectacular chance to score, however, Kipper gets the paddle out and makes an equally spectacular save. The puck comes out to Staios' point.

Here Staios has a decision to make; he can either accept the fact the offensive chance is over, back off and cover the advancing Flames player, or he can try pinch the puck and keep the play alive. Staios chooses the latter and loses the puck battle. He puts a hard check on the Flames player, but it's pointless - Matthew Lombardi and Owen Nolan are on a 2-1 against Smid and they put it away. That's a TSN turning point if I've ever seen one.

Now in Staios' defence, I think he looked over to the opposite side and saw Owen Nolan streaking, but also saw Kyle Brodziak streaking behind him. That's a speed race Brodziak wins 9/10 times, at least I bet that's what Staios was thinking.

There was an article in the Herald today by Jean Lefebvre about Steve Staios where Staios discussed his mentoring role with Ladislav Smid, but he mentioned how he struggled with balancing his leadership role, helping his young cohorts prep for their games while still preparing himself.

Now, I don't think the problem is that Staios is playing too tough a minutes. According to he's mid pack in the Oilers defensive depth chart in terms of minute toughness. (from toughest to softest - Grebeshkov (who is actually getting statistically eaten alive), Gilbert, Smid, Rourke, Tarnstrom/Staios, Greene, Souray and Pitkanen). Maybe it's the fact MacTavish has showed such little confidence in a guy that has been so good for the Oilers for so long that has Staios' confidence a little thin, maybe he's trying to do too much.

I don't know specifically what the problem is, I just know he can and needs to be better if the Oilers are to have any success. QOC numbers/rankings in bold on the below table.

DENISGREBESHKOVDEDM371514.0630.64-1.32 0.11
TOMGILBERTDEDM772016.4628.69 1.07 0.07
LADISLAVSMIDDEDM51115.8528.48 1.04 0.02
ALLANROURKEDEDM524 9.6933.72-1.10 0.01
DICKTARNSTROMDEDM231715.5729.62 0.96-0.05
STEVESTAIOSDEDM242017.2327.93 0.27-0.05

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Nothing in Particular + Ladislav Smid or Sheldon Souray

It's status quo in Albertaville today so just a couple news stories I wouldn't mind touching on:

Best Hall of Fame Year Ever?
Two Battle of Alberta stars were inducted into the Hall of Fame yesterday, as Mark Messier and Al MacInnis were joined by Scott Stevens and Ron Francis. How good is this Hall of Fame bunch? So good that the 2nd all time assists in a season (6th all time) and 12th overall, 15th overall in regular season points, and he hasn't even been mentioned. Not to mention this guy.

Jarome Iginla is truly a great hockey player, but when asked I've always said Al MacInnis was the Flames best ever. He's 31st all time in regular season points (holy shit that's unreal) but he was the best Flame when it mattered the most; the spring of 1989.

Eric Lindros in the Hall of Fame?
Look, the precedent has been set that longevity is not a necessity for HOF inclusion. Mike Bossy, Bobby Orr, Ken Dryden, Cam Neely... If Lindros had quit at the height of himself, there would be no questions asked; give him credit, he gave it everything he had, probably much more than any reasonable person would have.

I think a lot of people have forgotten just how good Eric Lindros was - for those who forget, go back and watch the old Rock 'em Sock 'ems - you'll be shocked at how good he was because I bet your memory of him (like my own until I watched the tapes) was distorted by how his career ended. Even Bobby Clarke thinks this guy should make the Hall.

You say the guy never won anything? 1 Canada Cup, 1 Olympic Silver, 1 Olympic Gold and two World Junior Golds. Not to mention the Hart and Lester B. Pearson.

Enough said.

Flames Fan Turns 100
Alice Mcgowan was at the Dome Saturday, catching a game for her 100th birthday. Seriously, this woman is awesome. On the news tonight she was questioning Keenan's ability to relate to the players, and also mentioning the Flames looked better against Minnesota because they were shooting LESS. A woman who appreciates a puck control style she taken??

Ladislav Smid is a Better Defenceman than Sheldon Souray
Firstly, we're going to be working with a small sample here, so my conclusion may be questionable, but hang with me.

We'll start with 5-5 quality of opponent, which according to '' (which I admit I don't fully trust), Ladislav Smid has been playing against a higher quality opponent than Sheldon Souray. Smid's GA/60 is 3.26 with a GF/60 3.73, while Souray is 3.09 GA/60 and has a GF/60 1.24. I think that speaks for itself. Moving on, Smid has played 8 games and is a +1, while Souray played 6 games and is a -3.

We also have to take into account penalties, which I think we can all agree, lead to goals against. Smid has 2 minutes worth of penalties, while Souray has 9 minutes. Do the math for penalties/60.

Smid's GA/60 is actually only 2.06, better than his 5-5 average. Not to mention he on average plays more PK minutes than any other Oiler per game at 3:47. Souray's GA/60 is 6.06, even though he only played 3:25 of PK time per game. Neither have been on for a SHGF.

Souray's GF/60 is 2.14 while Smid's is 0.00. Smid happens to average only 39 seconds of TOI/G on the PP while Souray lead all Oilers with almost 5:00 minutes per game, at 4:52. I haven't sorted Quality of Teamates while on the PP, but I'm willing to put money Souray's was higher.

To conclude, I sort of felt that when Souray went out and Smid came in the Oilers defence actually had an opportunity to improve. I believe these statistics prove me at least partially right, and I challenge other Oilblogosphere sites to compare some of the other 'fill-in' guys versus Souray. I wonder if we can justify giving Tom Gilbert Souray's 5-5 minutes at the very least.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A War of Ineptitude

Going into tonight's edition of the Battle of Alberta, both the Flames and the Oilers are on 4 game losing streaks, but each team is on their losing streak for their own specific reasons.

The Oilers are a team lacking in high end talent and depth. They have an injury decimated defensive group and have had a couple of key veterans (Moreau, arguably Pisani) missing since the beginning of the season; what this adds up to is essentially the Springfield Falcons plus a couple of diamonds.

Now, honestly, I don't find watching the Oilers particularly frustrating. My expectation for every game is a massive loss, and oftentimes the Oilers make it at least close. If anything the Oilers are throwing fans some heartbreakers.

They have a few bright spots which have been mentioned by pretty much everyone in the Oilblogosphere, but a quick rundown:

1. The youngins - Sam Gagne has expectedly dropped off in terms of production but certainly Andrew Cogliano looks consistently good. The real diamond for me is Tom Gilbert who continues to impress by doing the little things right.

2. Sean Horcoff and Raffi Torres - Sean Horcoff continues to be a very good 2 way guy, and Raffi Torres, while not producing as much as some would want, has shown more consistency than ever before.

The Flames are losing because they can't pull their shit together in virtually any area of the game. The Flames PK is a mess, their defensive zone coverage is absolutely horrendous, their best defenceman is playing like an AHLer, and they seem to be doing everything in their power to sabotage their own efforts. In terms of top end talent the Flames are stacked but their defensive group, while mainly healthy, is terrible from positions 4-6.

They are an unbelievably frustrating team to watch. There are too many times where I watch plays and I am shaking my head at the idiocy taking place on the ice. I expect mistakes from a rookie laden team like the Oilers, not a veteran team like the Calgary Flames.

If I were a betting man, I'd bet on the Flames. They still have the superior roster and who knows, once in a while they pull it together and play a good hockey game. But I suspect this game will not be won by a good team, it'll simply be won by the team that is the least terrible on the night, and for my money, that could be either one of them.

It might be an entertaining hockey game, but I doubt it will be very sophisticated.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Is This the Best Flames Team Since '89, or the Worst?

I sometimes cannot honestly tell whether to laugh or cry when I watch the Flames, although I did a bit of both watching them at the Saddledome Thursday night vs. the Red Wings.

Whenever I watch games I like to think about the storylines going into the game and it usually helps me decide how I'm going to approach this blog. MG did a nice piece about game strategy in terms of line matchups, and I had the idea of writing a column comparing this edition of the Flames to the team that won it all in 1989 (not trying to tempt fate or anything.) I was also considering examining my claim from last year that the time to win is now - it's possible the Iginla-Regehr-Kipprusoff extention has changed that and we're back to being patient again. But as the game wore on I realized I have to ask what the hell is going on with this team...again.

As I just mentioned, MG wanted to look at the matchups - in the end, I don't think it really mattered. For one, every goal against was with a unique defensive group. Sarich and Ericksson on for 1st goal against, Phaneuf and Aucoin for the second, Ericksson and Warrener on the third, and Sarich and Regehr for the fourth. While there was no clear statistical trend, a couple defenceman stood out for all the wrong reasons.

Anders Ericksson played simply terrible on just about every shift. His positioning and decision making are horrendous and he was definately the Flames worst defenceman. The real suprise was how bad Robyn Regehr looked brutal. His +1 rating belied the fact he was often out of position and more often than not made bad outlet passes or simply couldn't handle the puck at all - he was Tony Amonte on defence.

Now, MG posists that (based on Desjardin's numbers which I don't fully understand) Phanuef is doing a better job at suppressing opposition scoring than Regehr. This is potentially true, but I also think there is a question of opponent quality. While Phaneuf is playing more minutes, Regehr's minutes more closely mirror the minutes of top players on the opposition, leading me to believe Keenan is trying to match Regehr with the opposition's best. Phaneuf is getting softer minutes which allows him to play longer and take advantage of his offensive instincts.

Up front, I often wondered (aloud) if Owen Nolan would ever win a puck race. Sure he drew a couple penalties, but he always looks like he's at a standstill out there. This was a guy that played for Team Canada in 2002 (although on the worst line with Lindros and Smyth). Does Nolan even have a purpose when out on the ice? Is there a reason shouldn't just sit him?

Mike Babcock got outcoached by MacTavish in 2006, but I don't think he's been outcoached since. Because of this, I don't think the matchups mattered much - Detroit simply outthought the Flames throughout the whole game. This looked like the 2007 playoffs all over again, with Detroit simply shutting down passing lanes and using their forecheck to cause turnovers. It doesn't help that the Flames basically do not have a defenceman capable of moving the puck, but it was a weakness that was certainly glaring on Thursday. And while hapless Flames fans intoned their team to 'at least hit somebody' Detroit moved the puck too well to let that happen. Except for the first 7 or so minutes in the first and 5 minutes in the third, the Flames were severly outclassed. Sure the Flames had a couple bad breaks in terms of posts or bounces, but this game was an illustration of the lack of consistency in the Flames game.

Is this the best Flames team since 89? Maybe on paper, but that's about it.