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How the Red-Hot Calgary Flames Turned Their Season Around

The Calgary Flames are likely going to be a playoff team this year. How did this happen? There are no easy answers.
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The Calgary Flames are the hottest team in hockey. They've won seven straight and are 12-2-1 in their past 15 games. This streak has pushed the Flames into what looks likes a very secure playoff spot with 16 games remaining, a stark contrast to this point last season, when the Flames were 27-34-5 and on their way to missing the postseason.

Turnarounds like these are always fun to dissect, because you can show multiple areas of improvement or excellence that have propelled a bottom-feeding team to respectability. It's never just one thing, and the methods used to transform the team can be applied to other franchises going through similar struggles.


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That's why, when it comes to the Flames, you can look at how they… or the way the team… or how they have a dominant…

Wait, why are the Flames so good this season?

It's not that the Flames should be tanking, but they are on a pace for 94 points largely because… there has to be a reason or two, right?

In an effort to help people explain why the Flames are suddenly eight points clear of ninth place in the West, I have compiled this helpful Q. & A.

I skipped the beginning part of this. Are the Flames really going to the playoffs?

Barring a collapse, yes. They are 36-26-4, two points behind the Edmonton Oilers for second place in the Pacific.

Isn't goal differential a good way to judge a team's quality?

Sure is.

What's the Flames' goal differential?


What was it last year?


So they must have made some big off-season moves to get better, right?

They did. They traded a second-round pick to get goaltender Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues and gave Troy Brouwer four years and $18 million in free agency. They also picked up Chad Johnson to serve as Elliott's backup.

So is it fair to say those guys are kicking ass?

Well, Elliott's save percentage stands at .905 in 33 starts. Brouwer has ten goals in 58 games. Johnson held the fort while Elliott scuffled, but he has just a .913 save percentage in his 33 starts. The goaltending is better than last season, but it still ranks only 20th in five-on-five save percentage (.921).


The Flames are succeeding despite a down year from Johnny Gaudreau. Photo by James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

So, the goaltending isn't great but the Flames are probably scoring at a prolific rate, right? They've got Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, a ton of great young talent. The Stars couldn't stop any shots last season but got by with an elite offense, so are the Flames doing the same?

The Flames are 18th in goals per game at 2.67. Nobody is on pace for 30 goals. Gaudreau is on pace for 16 goals, the lowest of his three-year career and 14 fewer than he had last season.

Wait, have the Flames played like ten more games than everyone else?

No, they aren't playing a 92-game schedule to gain an advantage.

Are the Flames getting credit for exhibition season wins?

No, I'm telling you, they are legitimately a playoff team right now.

OK, I'm always hearing about the "Corsi" and the "Fenwick" and how teams can be good there and good in real life, too. Are they killing it at five-on-five?

This is true, and you don't have to use air quotes around those terms. But according to, the Flames are 16th in score-adjusted Fenwick (50.3) and 16th in score-adjusted Corsi (50.5), so they are technically below average in this category. If anything, their PDO (99.4) says they haven't been getting "lucky" this season and, if anything, are due to get some more bounces the rest of the way.

Do the Flames have a bunch of shootout wins?

They are 3-2 in the shootout.

A gaggle of loser points?

They have four OT/SO losses, the second fewest in the league.


Is it possible your computer screen is smudged and the Flames have ten fewer wins and 20 fewer points than you think?

Give me some credit. My screen [wipes away smudges] is clean and the numbers here are all accurate.

People put too much emphasis on five-on-five play. Maybe the Flames are crushing the special teams aspect of the game?

They are 14th in power-play percentage (19.6) and 18th in penalty-killing percentage (80.4). So…



So why are they having this season? Don't tell me they're just winning a bunch of one-goal games, a thing that tends to happen to lucky teams?



Yeah. The Flames have the best record (18-4-4) in one-goal games this year. This doesn't mean the Flames are "lucky" the way they were two years ago when they were in fact terrible and lucked their way to the second round of the playoffs. They're lucky in that way that may not be entirely lucky, and maybe they have the ability to win one-goal games at this rate because of how good they are in crunch time.

So, that's good?

It's not bad. Let's just say if you have 76 points through 66 games, you'd rather have it be a result of an 18-4-4 mark in one-goal games than a 102.6 PDO.

The Flames' seven-game win streak has them in prime playoff position. Photo by Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Now we're cooking. What else has gone right for the Flames this season? I feel like you're holding back so you could make jokes at the beginning of this.

You got me. Overall, the Flames seem like a decidedly average team with disappointing off-season acquisitions and a down year from Gaudreau, but some stuff has gone right. Some of that stuff is Mikael Backlund, who is having his best season (20 goals, 47 points) at age 27; Matthew Tkachuk, who would be in the running for the Calder in any other season; and Dougie Hamilton, who appears to have finally adjusted to his new home.


And new coach Glen Gulutzan has one very important thing going for him: he's not Bob Hartley, who was either the worst or second-worst coach in the league for years, depending on how you feel about Patrick Roy.

The best way to explain the Flames' success is they don't have one or two big things going right; they have a lot of little things going right that have to do with personnel and a better coach.

But still…


As good as Backlund, Tkachuk, Hamilton, and even Michael Frolik have been this season, the overall numbers scream meh. I'm not comfortable with this explanation. What aren't you telling me?

Remember that seven-game winning streak?

You're asking the questions now?

Do you remember or not?

Of course I do.

What was the Flames' record before this red-hot two weeks?


Exactly. Before this seven-game run, the Flames were on pace for 86 points. Essentially, the Flames toiled in mediocrity for 59 games and did so in a very bad Western Conference while inside a very bad Pacific Division before hitting the throttle over the past two weeks. They're scoring more goals, allowing fewer goals, and playing better at five-on-five, and when you tread water in a bad conference for four months, all it takes is two electric weeks to vault into the playoffs.

In their past 15 games, they are fifth in score-adjusted Fenwick, so there's reason to believe they've found themselves.

So the Flames can be mediocre for five months, dynamite for one month, and that's enough to get to the playoffs?

NHL hockey, baby! Tell your friends about us.

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