What Happened to the Flames’ PK?

The Calgary Flames’ penalty kill has fallen from capable, if not among the top teams in the league at the time of this article, to among the worst in the league. Even though at the time of writing it, the Flames’ PK started showing underlying problems that were pointing to a collapse.

Coincidentally it happened, in spectacular fashion, and now they have to dig themselves out of a hole. The real surprise in all of this is the fall from grace as last season which saw them improve in traditional sense (PK%) and an advanced stats perspective.

A year ago Paul Jerrard preached and overhauled everything which seemed to have worked. Now it feels like everything has been forgotten. So, what’s going on? Let’s look at some mistakes, goals-against, system components, and results. We’ll use the first 20 games of the season and draw emphasis on the last stretch.

House Condemned: Structural Issues

First up, an egregious breakdown post-faceoff versus Detroit. This among 99% of the entire game itself was a three period tire fire that eventually ended. In this sequence we have two significant mistakes that feed off each other like a symbiotic relationship:

The first problem is the faceoff loss and the subsequent scrum which Anthony Mantha uses to his advantage. By getting position on Michael Frolik, he gives the Red Wings additional time to setup.

This inefficient route Frolik takes impacts Sam Bennett, TJ Brodie, and especially Michael Stone. If he went to the outside immediately post-faceoff loss, it would have given the Flames’ a fighting chance to possibly setup or force a pass or shot.

Instead, due to Frolik’s error, Stone elects to prepare for a shot block unaware Mantha has already gotten to a high danger area which Brodie and Bennett aren’t ready for. Structurally this is a minor component contributing to an overall mess in their own end.

Against Philadelphia we see one of the largest contributors to the struggles at 4v5: in zone formation, specifically passive-pressure versus direct-pressure formations or giving up when pressure is applied.

The Flames roll with their standard “top unit” against a Flyers’ power play that packs an explosive level of talent. With a failed clearing attempt off the faceoff, the Flames do get into formation quickly and start to press – almost going into a full Czech Press – but ultimately slink off back into a traditional wedge +1.

This is a common, costly theme this season that has crept up more and more recently. At various points, Frolik and Mikael Backlund have opportunities to really make it difficult for the Flyers, but fail to activate; specifically at these points:

  • Along the half-wall when the Flyers setup [Frolik]
  • The cross-ice pass that was bobbled [Backlund + Giordano]
  • Frolik and Backlund’s switch as the +1 in formation which leads to the point shot that eventually ends up as a goal

Errors in the two sequences led to goals or prolonged periods of defensive zone play; the latter can be utilized to take advantage of tired bodies and open seams more easily to create potential opportunities. Remember, as much as you’re working to prevent shots/goals it’s also a time management battle.

Similar sequences have crept up over the recent stretch that give pause and point to lingering underlying problems:

  • First Clip: A miscue by Backlund to follow his man in the high-slot after Frolik backs off direct pressure leads to a one-time shot. Frolik could have pressed a little more to angle off the play while Backlund needed to be in-sync with Frolik’s backing off
  • Second Clip: Brouwer as the +1 in triangle+1 forming as the play circles around the boards. As the pass across ice is made Monahan switches as the +1 as Brouwer transitions back and doesn’t get the inside on his man cutting in as a pass gets through resulting in a tip on net.
  • Third Clip: As Brouwer pursues the puck carrier, Bennett transitions into the middle of the slot as normal, with his stick ready in lane in the event of a pass; Brouwer backing off and Hamonic’s stick not being in the lane to prevent anything getting through to Anthony Mantha ends up in the back of the net.
  • Fourth Clip: Overly passive triangle +1 that even in the scramble in close proximity to the puck carrier fails to engage; the formation becomes misshapen as D1 (Giordano) is too far out leaving D2 alone; everyone is puck watching as Frk comes in backdoor.

On top of these problems, elements of the Bob Hartley-era penalty kill have started surfacing recently with the box formation rearing it’s ugly head again. This formation observation was something caught initially by Mike Kelly and there have been a number of instances recently.

While not a complete box formation, at times the Flames have seen their triangle +1 become distorted at various intervals to resemble a box/triangle +1 hybrid. Because of these structural issues, shot generation has been a facet of the Flames’ struggles while at 4v5.

A 3:1 ratio stands as the Flames use passive-pressure formations (triangle +1, hybrid, box) over the Czech Press or other high-pressure variants, which has led to the opponent generating shots:1

DZ Formation Times Used Shots on Goal Per Formation Missed Shots + Shots Per Formation All Shot Per Formation (Corsi)
Passive-Pressure Based 34 0.91 1.18 1.32
Czech Press / High Pressure 10 0.2 0.4 0.5

This was a measurable factor in their performance as shot suppression in majority of situations was nonexistent. Over the course the first 20 games this season we see a similar pattern emergence with their choices while in their own end:

DZ Formation Times Used Shots on Goal Per Formation Missed Shots + Shots Per Formation All Shots Per Formation (Corsi)
Passive-Pressure Based 89 0.75 1.02 1.21
Czech Press / High Pressure 39 0.36 0.62 0.77

The inability to commit to a more confrontational strategy or to stick with it when initiated is a costly decision for the Flames. Opposing power play teams take advantage of this and it’s inescapably troublesome because there’s been little said by the coaching staff on it.

Is this a coaching decision or players lacking trust in the system instilled by the coaching staff? Is this an overall adjustment made to play in front of Mike Smith? The questions with the shift and results are boundless among fans and media, but it feels all to glaring that the results so far are not conducive to long-term success.

Neutral Zone Formation and Entries Against: The Door is Open

It should go without saying – though it begs repeating – that zone entry suppression while shorthanded is a valuable component to countering power plays. This season has not been forgiving to the Flames in this regard. Most, if not all of the problems stem from a prolonged theme of system flaws.

The Flames’ strategy is undeniable at times and lacking in making it difficult to enter the zone with possession:

Forecheck Type Times Used Break Up % Carry-in Against % Dump-In Against % ZEFR Against %
Passive 1-3 91 17.58 73.53 9.89 43.48%
Retreating Box 59 13.55 76.27 11.86 45.76
Tandem Pressure 5 60 40 0 60
Same-Side Press 8 25 25 50 12.5

In the dire straights of the most recent ten games it doesn’t to be that far off from the aggregate. This is to say that the identified issue2 by Glen Gulutzan of neutral zone play and defending the line continues:

Forecheck Type Times Used Break Up % Carry-in Against % Dump-In Against % ZEFR Against %
Passive 1-3 28 25 71.43 3.57 39.29
Retreating Box 26 11.54 76.92 11.54 53.85

Adding one additional layer of granularity in terms of shot data per entry is painfully obvious: If you’re a team on a power play against the Calgary Flames all you need to do is get into their zone and the world is yours:

Entry Type Shot Per Entry Missed Shots + Shots Per Entry Total Shot Attempts Per Entry
Carried In 0.6 0.75 0.81
Dumped In 0.16 0.16 0.16

In tracking zone entries against, there have been a number of instances where attacking teams exploit an over zealous forechecker or utilize a carefully timed drop pass to create a seam to break in:

The drop-pass exploit of taking a passive 1-3 and turning into a retreating box on the fly is one of more prevalent maneuvers teams have been employed against the Flames during their struggles. Lanes open up giving the opponent a gateway into setting up or attempting to strike on the fly.

The Flames won’t be able to defend the blue line flawlessly every time, but they could could give themselves a fighting chance. By working on incremental movements to their gap control and timing, they just might bring this PK back from the brink of death.

So, is it all doom and gloom? Eh, Maybe? Maybe Not?

The PK has had some short glimpses of positive results – recently the second penalty kill versus the Capitals and even the Blue Jackets- that show they are capable of shutting down teams at times. Still, the team benefited early on from an inflated SV% thanks to Mike Smith; unfortunately it quickly cratered.3

Even with those limited glimpses of success, the team is not out of the woods yet. There are still lingering problems that need to worked out that can contribute to tangible on-ice results; many of which are systemic, but some are personnel based.

The blueline is still a mess and Brouwer, despite some recent looks, isn’t an optimal forward for this role any longer. Even more concerning – but we’ll dig into this another day – is the lack of penalties the team draws while shorthanded. Maybe it’s time we see Matthew Tkachuk get some PK time?

The Calgary Flames certainly aren’t the Carolina Hurricanes – no one does what they do shorthanded – but if they aspire to be similar then maybe they become a daunting penalty killing team. It’s a copycat league and if you’re looking to improve there is no place better to start than observing the Hurricanes.


  1. Visual provided by Micah Blake McCurdy. Support his work on Patreon.
  2. Post-game Quote
  3. This isn’t a footnote but it’s funny how predictable this part was

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