Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s an NHL hockey team that’s not all that good according to the numbers, yet somehow keeps winning. The stats guys say that it can’t possibly continue, that we’ve seen this movie before, and that history tells us the ending won’t be happy. But others aren’t so sure, wondering if maybe, just maybe, this is the team that’s figured out a way to beat the system.
Unless you’re brand new to hockey, you have indeed heard this one before, and you’ve heard it more than once. Four years ago, it was the Dallas Stars. The year after that, it was the Minnesota Wild. Last year we had two teams, the Colorado Avalanche and the Toronto Maple Leafs, offering different interpretations of the same role. All of them seemed to be defying the numbers. All of them eventually crashed back down to earth.
This year’s overachiever is the Calgary Flames. Heading into the season, they weren’t expected to be very good. And 73 games in, they haven’t been — at least according to many of today’s most-used stats, which rely on proxies for puck possession to determine which teams are most likely to experience sustained success. The more you have the puck, the more you should win. It doesn’t always work out that way in the short term, as factors like goaltending, special teams, and just plain luck can get in the way. But wait long enough, and your possession numbers catch up to you. They always do. We’ve been down this road before. We know what’s coming. We’ve seen it all before, over and over again, for years.
So why do this year’s Flames seem like they’re different?
Let’s start with the numbers. By now you’re sick to death of hearing about hockey’s new wave of advanced stats, most of which aren’t especially advanced at all. The new thinking has redefined hockey analysis, invaded NHL front offices, and started showing up in even the oldest of old-school media coverage. At a basic level, those numbers tend to focus on possession rates, a relatively new approach that turns out to tell us plenty about a hockey team.
And what it seems to tell us is this: A team’s possession numbers are just about the single best predictor we have of future success. If you woke up from a coma three-quarters into an NHL season and were forced at gunpoint to pick the teams with the best chance at winning the Stanley Cup using only one stat, you’d want a look at the possession numbers. Ideally, you’d want those numbers to be for even strength and in close situations only, or even better, score-adjusted. Those are important distinctions, but to keep things simple, we’re just going to lump everything together as “possession” today. Possession numbers typically predict the future better than anything else — better than goals scored or allowed, better than shooting or save percentages, better even than wins and losses. A big part of that is that possession numbers tend to be much more consistent than other stats, which rely on smaller sample sizes and can fluctuate wildly from game to game and from week to week.
So possession tends to equal wins. Which you’d expect, when you think about it — a hockey team that can maintain a 55 percent–45 percent edge in possession is like a baseball team that gets 11 innings at bat while the other team gets the usual nine. That’s an enormous advantage, and while it wouldn’t translate into a guaranteed win every night, over the course of a long season you’d expect it to add up.
And in most cases, it does. For example, if you’re the sort of fan who looks at possession numbers, you weren’t remotely surprised when the Kings won the Stanley Cup as an 8-seed in 2012, and you barely blinked when they did it again as a 6-seed last year. And you knew that the Stars, Wild, Avalanche, and Leafs were all headed for a fall, even as their fans insisted they were for real. A basic understanding of possession stats is the great spoiler alert of hockey fandom.
All of which brings us to this year’s Flames, one of the worst possession teams in the league. They sit 28th in score-adjusted Corsi, and the only other team in the bottom third that’s even close to a playoff spot is doing it on the back of a goalie who’s probably going to win MVP. And it’s not just the fancy stats that point to the Flames being a bad team. On paper, they don’t have a ton of talent, and their best player and captain, defenseman Mark Giordano, was lost for the season last month.
And yet, numbers be damned, Calgary just keeps winning. A team that everyone expected to contend for last place overall is instead right in the thick of the playoff race in a very tough Western Conference. After one month, it was a cute early-season plotline. After two, it was getting into Cinderella territory, a fun little story that nobody really took seriously. You couldn’t even say the Flames were counted out, because that would imply that anyone had ever counted them in.