Play-In Preview #8: Calgary vs. Winnipeg

An Analytical Breakdown of the NHL's Play-In Round

How Flames stack up to Jets in potential playoff series - Sportsnet.ca

This matchup has been billed as one of the closest of the play-in round, with the Flames coming off an uninspiring season and the Jets sneaking in purely on the strength of their goaltending. Calgary hopes that their top line can shake off whatever kept them off the scoreboard, that their major advantage at the blueline can keep the Jets’ offensive weapons at bay, and that whichever goaltender they start can hold down the fort without becoming a liability. For the Jets, the hope is that they can hold on for dear life and let Vezina favourite and should-have-been Hart Trophy contender Connor Hellebuyck do the rest.

In this piece I’ll go through the two teams’ play-driving, offensive, and defensive stats before comparing their respective forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders. For information on the stats used, refer to this explainer article or visit EvolvingHockey and MoneyPuck. You can also read my previous previews of EDM-CHIPIT-MTLNSH-AZCAR-NYR, and VAN-MIN.

Playdriving

The Flames were a mediocre team this year in terms of their underlying numbers - 15th in expected goals for percentage, 15th in Corsi, and 15th in quality games. Not a team you’d generally get excited about picking in the first round. Fortunately for them, the Jets were an absolute tire fire this year pretty much everywhere outside of the net. They had the lowest expected goal differential in the league (yes, worse than Detroit), and got outplayed in an insane 75% of their games. Their goals for percentage is the only thing that kept them afloat, and is the only area in which they exceed the Flames. But Calgary gets this one almost by default. Winner: Calgary

Team Offence

The Calgary Flames were a pretty strong scoring chance-generating team that improved as the season went along. Their main issue was actually finishing any of those chances. Their shooting percentage ranked 24th in the league, depressing their goals for numbers to the bottom half of the league. With a bounceback from the snakebitten top line and maybe a few bounces from the fourth line they could be a strong regression candidate. In contrast, the Jets rode their shooting talent to a respectable goal total that almost covered up their horrible expected goal generation. They also took advantage of a top ten powerplay, which given the personnel on it should be sustainable. I take Calgary here because I think they’re more likely to regress to the mean in a positive way than the Jets are to maintain their insane scoring luck. Winner: Calgary

Team Defence

In the end, this is really what this series will come down to. The Flames are a firmly below-average defensive team, and haven’t been able to rely on their goaltending to consistently bail them out or even perform up to expectations. But the Jets are legitimately one of the worst defensive teams in the entirely league, propped up singularly by Connor Hellebuyck. Compare their expected goals against, ranking 29th, and goals against, ranking 12th. That should make it perfectly clear just how much Winnipeg needs their starter to maintain Hart Trophy-level play to stand a chance. Winner: Calgary

Forwards

When the Jets made a run to the Conference Finals in 2018, they did so largely on the strength of their forward depth. While they boasted plenty of talent at the top of the lineup, having players like Adam Lowry and Joel Armia to dominate possession in the bottom six was a huge advantage for the Jets. Now the team finds themselves average at best across their forward group, with a first line that puts up points but is simply incapable of defending. Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor ranked near the bottom this season in defensive stats like expected goals against and goals above replacement, far below the rest of the Jets’ forwards. A potentially promising second line is blunted by the presence of fourth-liner-at-best Cody Eakin, and the bottom of the lineup just doesn’t have the bite that it once did with guys like Lowry and Mathieu Perreault having seen their play fall off.

The Flames have a strong middle six, with an excellent second line that drives both scoring chances and goals and a suffocating defensive third line. The top line was a serious problem this year, as Johnny Gaudreau had a serious down-season, Sean Monahan continued his harsh decline, and Elias Lindholm’s previously strong defensive numbers took a hit. The fourth line can defend quite well, particularly Mark Jankowski, but is fully incapable of scoring any goals at all and struggles to generate chances.

I’m happier with the Flames’ group here. That second line is the best in the series and should wreak havoc on the Jets’ defence. Factor in Gaudreau potentially bouncing back from an anomaly season and it’s not tough. Winner: Calgary

Defencemen

This is a comprehensive win for the Flames. Acquiring Dylan DeMelo was a smart move by the Jets to staunch the bleeding on the right side with a reliable defensive player who is well-acquainted with playing in less-than-ideal circumstances, but Winnipeg’s blueline is a liability. The decline of Josh Morrissey is one of the main contributors to the team’s freefall since May 2018, and the team’s lack of depth is another.

Mark Giordano remains a dominant two-way presence on the Flames’ top pair, and TJ Brodie had an exceptional season at both ends of the ice. While Noah Hanifin hasn’t lived up to his promise (or arguably his reputation), Rasmus Andersson has been elite defensively for the past two seasons and is a huge advantage on their second pair. Finally, Erik Gustafsson is a liability defensively - one of the worst in the league in that regard - but a real asset offensively, while Derek Forbort is the inverse. They might be able to balance eachother out and comprise an effective third pair. Winner: Calgary

Goaltending

This one isn’t hard. Connor Hellebuyck was the league’s best goaltender in terms of his overall body of work, finishing first in goals saved above expected and second in save percentage above expected among starting goalies. He’s the only reason the Jets are here to begin with, and it’s not unrealistic to say that if the Jets win, it will be mostly because of him. David Rittich was okay this year, but he was still average overall, while Cam Talbot wasn’t that much better either.  Winner: Winnipeg

Conclusion

It’s hard to bet against a goalie who had as dominant a season as Connor Hellebuyck did. He has the talent to steal this series for the Jets singlehandedly, allowing them to weather the storm and win games on the strength of their powerplay and shooting talent. But a core tenet of how I understand hockey is that goaltending is a crapshoot, and relying on elite-level play is a recipe for disaster. These playoffs are almost a new season entirely, and very few goalies of the cap era have ever been able to maintain play at Hellebuyck’s level over two consecutive seasons. If he slips - even a bit - the Jets will come tumbling down. I don’t think the Flames are a team that can make a run, and if they make the 1st round I will likely pick whichever team plays against them. But I think they’re a safe enough bet to win this one. Winner: Flames in 4