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.

1 comment:

MetroGnome said...

Im actually starting to think it's time to put Langkow between Iginla and Tanguay again. Clearly, Langkow is still the best center on the team (despite his recent struggles). THe 2nd unit is pretty much a waste of time right now, so something needs to be shaken up there...

Anyways, on to the theoretical stuff. As you point out, Conroy can't hack it against the tough comp anymore. Iginla and Tanguay are carrying him at ES and it just doesn't make sense to have a top line that is hamstrung down the middle. Those two guys could probably get results with almost anybody in between them, but it should be about maximizing your returns when it comes to playing your best players.

As for Lombardi, I don't know if he'd actually get the job done on the first line or not. He was the best player on the team during a recent 10 game span (by production rates and +/- levels), meaning it porbably wouldn't hurt to at least give him a 5 game try-out with the big guns. Then you'd be able to conduct the cost/benefit analysis you describe: does the first lines production improve? If so, does it assuage the 3rd lines (probable) drop-off?

Of course, all of this is merely academic if Kipper can't rediscover his form. Im seriously starting to wonder about him now.