Three years ago, the Calgary Flames would have been the most hotly-debated team on the NHL playoff bubble by a wide margin. This year, they’re still among the leaders in argument subjects, but the debates are fewer and they’re less fierce.
People are still talking about the Flames more than most other teams – this in spite of the fact that the defending Stanley Cup Champions and President’s Trophy winners are currently on the outside of the playoff picture.
There are a few reasons for this. First, the Flames were expected to be in the running for Connor McDavid, not for a playoff spot. Second, their underlying numbers have been as awful as expected and they’re winning anyway. Third, they’re so, so, fun.
For those who don’t follow hockey or don’t pay close attention to advanced metrics, the Flames are a perfect case study for what effect the analytics movement has had on mainstream thought.
This is partially because we’ve seen the Flames before. Last year, the Flames were the Avalanche and the Maple Leafs. In 2011-12, they were the Wild. Before that, they were the Stars. There are likely many other examples of this – teams whose underlying numbers spelled regression that continued to win until an epic collapse of some sort – that analytics guys attempted to warm people about before anyone listened to them. All of these teams had poor possession numbers but relied on either unsustainably-high shooting percentage, save percentage or a combination of both. But by the time the Wild were winning in the face of terrible possession numbers, analytics had gained mainstream notoriety, creating a debate between the mainstream and the new-age stats people.
The difference with the Flames is advanced metrics have moved from mainstream notoriety to mainstream acceptance, partially due to the predicted collapses of the aforementioned overachievers.
The 2010-11 Dallas Stars started 29-13-5 before a 9-15-5 stretch ruined their playoff chances. The next year, the Minnesota Wild started 20-7-3, landing them in first place in the Western Conference more than one-third of the way through the season. That was, until an 11-28-7 stretch sent them flying out of the playoff race.
But, the 2013-14 season was different. Advanced stats were prominent to the point of being unavoidable. If you paid enough attention to hockey, you knew what the analytics guys thought of Colorado and Toronto. Both were worse than their records, both had terrible Corsi and Fenwick numbers, both relied on unsustainable shooting and save percentages and both were headed for an eventual fall.
The Avalanche didn’t garner as much attention as the Leafs did, which is the cost of playing in the center of the hockey universe. Stats guys and analytics deniers debated vigorously throughout the season, saying either Toronto was a legitimate playoff team or that they were headed for a downfall.
With less than a month to go in the regular season, it looked as though the deniers might win out. The Leafs had lucked their way into a 36-24-8 record and were holding onto a playoff spot. Toronto won just two of its final 14 games and tumbled to 12th in the conference. This season, after making no major additions in the summer, the Leafs are 15th and looking to rebuild.
This was different than the stats vindications of the past. Toronto is such a prominent hockey market and this happened so fast and so publicly. NHL teams, a few of which already employed stats gurus, started hiring them publicly and at a rapid rate. Edmonton and New Jersey both made major splashes by hiring two well-known statistical minds in Tyler Dellow and Sunny Mehta, respectively. The Maple Leafs may have made the biggest splash of all, hiring analytically-minded assistant general manager Kyle Dubas and the trio that ran popular hockey analytics site Extra Skater.
Local broadcasts started using Corsi, Fenwick and general shot attempt stats on air. The war ended. Anyone who continued to decry the use of advanced stats in hockey was standing against reason, logic and, now, popular thought. If teams, many fans and plenty of media members recognized the importance of advanced stats, the opposition was mostly powerless. These people no longer matter. Their concerns are no longer worth addressing.
That brings us back to the Avalanche, however. Unlike the rest of the aforementioned teams, the Avalanche’s luck carried them to a 112-point season and a division title. They bowed out in the first round of the playoffs, but that was hardly a disappointment (all the while they sported bottom five possession numbers).
Any stats guru worth his or her salt knew what was coming next. The Avalanche stumbled out of the gate this season and are headed for about a 25-point drop and possibly a last-place finish in the Central Division. See, we can know that a collapse will happen, but we still can’t know when.
So, what of the Flames? They sit one point out of a playoff spot with eight games remaining in the season. Unlike the Wild, Stars and Leafs, it doesn’t appear luck will catch up to the Flames this season. They may miss the playoffs, but there will be no grand collapse, no long, terrible stretch. No chance for the stat guys to gloat and tweet “I told you so.” (And it’s been totally understandable when that’s happened in the past.)
And that’s just fine. Unlike all the other cases, this is not a referendum on the usefulness of advanced stats. We know they’re worth using, that battle is over.
There’s nothing at stake. We, as a stats community have nothing to gain from a Calgary collapse.
So, go ahead, advanced stats community. Everyone from a novice to Rob Vollman - cheer for the Flames. Watch Johnny Gaudreau’s impossibly-smooth hands, watch Sean Monahan mature into a superstar, watch Jiri Hudler defy all logic to score 70 points. Cheer for them to beat out the defending champions for a playoff spot.
We all know what’s happening next year. Enjoy the unpredictability of this year.