Why do most of the media refuse to get it? (Calgary vs. Edmonton)

By IJay Palansky

NHL teams have finally bought into hockey analytics, so why is it that most of the media remains oblivious? As just one shining example, Sportsnet recently ran an article headlined “Flames and Oilers Heading In Opposite Directions.” That headline was pretty much the only thing the article got right, and even that was accidental.

Calgary and Edmonton are indeed two teams heading in opposite directions, but it’s not the directions the author and most other people think.

The writer predictably contrasted Calgary’s surprising 12-6-2 start with Edmonton’s disappointing 6-11-2. The article marveled at Calgary’s “character” and “courage,” ever-so-delicately declaring that “Calgary has more guts than a killing floor.”

The writer proclaimed that 20 games into its “rebuild” Calgary has accomplished more than Edmonton has in 5 years.

Tune in to the talk shows and it’s tough to find anyone who isn’t on the on the Flames’ bandwagon. On the day the article ran, Sportsnet’s power rankings had Calgary 8th and TSN’s had them 10th. Both had Edmonton 28th.

So my question is this: Are the big boys of hockey media so set in their reliance on their almost mystical explanations for things they can’t explain (Confidence! Momentum! . . . ) that they’re ignoring the most basic numbers that matter, or is their fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of hockey so ingrained that they just can’t see past it?

Obviously wins and losses are important. But if journalists are going to definitively proclaim the resounding success of one team’s “rebuild” and dismal failure of another’s, they should at least know enough to realize that just 20 games into a season, wins and losses are a seriously unreliable measuring stick.

In this respect hockey’s a lot like poker. Both are games of skill, and in the long run the best player/team will win. But whether you want to call it “luck” or “randomness” or “variance,” as anyone who’s ever been beaten by a 2-outer on the river can tell you, in the short run factors other than skill often tip the scales, especially in a league with as much parity as the NHL (as we described in our November 6 article).

Fortunately, analytics gives us much better metrics for gauging performance. Twenty games isn’t a huge sample, but there’s enough to get a sense of what’s going on.

And what’s going on is that, despite its uncanny ability to give up prime scoring chances with disturbing regularity, Edmonton is a better team than Calgary. Don’t get me wrong, nobody’s going to confuse the Oilers with a good team, and they probably make more glaring errors than any NHL team that isn’t located on the shores of Lake Ontario. But if you gave them average goaltending they’d be almost respectable.

As of the date of the Sportsnet article the Oilers’ Corsi For % of 50.4 was almost 7 points higher than Calgary’s (43.7), which ranked third worst overall. Calgary had a shot attempt differential of -205; Edmonton’s was +59.

While shot metrics alone never tell the whole story, there’s no universe where a team with a CF% of 43.7% through 20 games has been better than a team with a CF% of 50.4%.


Flames and Oilers Team Stats (2014-15, 5v5, as of 11.20.14)

 Edmonton  Calgary
CF% 50.4 (16th) 43.7 (28th)
PDO 97.4 (29th) 103.3 (3rd)
Corsi For/60 55.7 (13th) 47.5 (29th)
Corsi Against/60 54.7 (17th) 61.2 (28th)
Save % .901 (28th) .927 (11th)
Shooting % 7.3 (20th) 10.6 (1st)
Def Zone FO% 30.3 (12th) 35.7 (29th)
Off Zone FO% 30.6 (23rd) 26.5 (30th)


Calgary’s much better record is mostly explained by its PDO (a common measure of “puck luck” consisting of save percentage plus shooting percentage) of 103.3, which was third highest in the league. Edmonton was 29th, at 97.4. As we explained in our October 30 column, high PDOs are sustainable – if you have off-the-charts talent like the 1983 Edmonton Oilers. But the Flames aren’t even the 2014 Oilers, let alone the 1983 edition. Still, through 20 games Calgary somehow managed to put up the very best 5v5 shooting percentage in the league, at 10.6%.

Hands up everyone who thinks that’s gonna continue.

Finally, speaking specifically to each team’s rebuild, Edmonton’s CF% is 2.7% higher than last season’s, whereas Calgary’s is 2.6% lower. Somebody needs to explain to me where all those “guts” and “courage” and “character” are reflected in those numbers.

Much like the Leafs’ early success last season, Calgary’s start this year is smoke and mirrors.

Perception is a funny thing. Many journalists (and coaches, and fans) have a hard time separating results from actual performance, probably because they don’t realize just how big a role randomness/luck plays over a 20 (or 40 or even 80) game span. Hockey analytics can go a long way toward explaining what’s really going on by providing substance and insight that aren’t limited to the tired and trite hockey clichés that many people in the hockey establishment still treat like inviolable truths.



  1. December 5, 2014    

    I'm all for everything you guys do -- wondering though if there are other metrics worth looking at that could paint a more nuanced picture here. Full disclosure: I'm a Flames fan, so take it with a grain of salt. But after 27 games, I'm not convinced that there isn't more going on here than just luck.

    For example, I'm curious to know your thoughts on measures like penalty minutes. Calgary currently has the 2nd fewest times shorthanded in the league. Surely this maps onto the number of quality scoring chances the team gives up (which is a good thing because their PK% is near the bottom of the league). And although there is certainly luck involved in who gets called when, coaching and discipline also play a role in limiting the number of penalties taken. On the flipside, Calgary is near the top of the league (7th) in terms of time on the power play (5-on-4 at least), which in my totally non-professional opinion equals more good chances to score (they're 7th in PP%). What kind of work has been done on analytics that capture these kinds of ratios?

    Point being, as a fan I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether there are other metrics that could be worth looking at to find a middle ground between those who say that analytics don't matter, and those who say that it all comes down to Fenwick, Corsi, PDO, and faceoff percentages. I have no doubt that the Flames are overperforming due to a combo of luck and desire; but I also think there could be some additional insight hidden in some of the numbers not addressed here, and that this may actually *be* a good team, and not just seem like one.

    BTW I'm happy to be proven wrong -- I was totally prepared for the Flames to tank this season, so this is all just bonus stuff anyway.

    Thanks! x-posting to the Star...

    • IJay Palansky's Gravatar IJay Palansky
      December 5, 2014    

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You are absolutely right that the picture I painted is high level and there are all kinds of other numbers and considerations one would want to look at if you wanted to get the answer exactly right. Scoring chances, distribution of shooting percentages and shot totals, line combination effects, score effects, etc., etc. If we had more space in the newspapers our articles run in then I'd look at the factors you mention and others as well. That said, many of the points you raise are similar to the ones raised by Avalanche fans (apologists?) last year, and as many in the analytics community predicted, they've come right back down to Earth this year. I guess the good news for Flames fans is that the Avs managed to run hot and defy the gravity of shot differentials for a full season!

      • December 5, 2014    

        Thanks for the quick reply.

        Here's hoping it holds until at least the second round of the playoffs. Would love to see one of the Western powerhouses fall to the Flames Anomaly!

  2. Tim's Gravatar Tim
    December 5, 2014    

    You may need to re examine your criteria, especially in light of the Flames continued success. What your precious logic/analytics cannot comprehend is the shift in tactics that the Flames have employed. No other team has activated their defense the way the Flames have. In many situations it is this 5 man unit that overwhelms the opposition. I think you need to go back to the drawing board instead of offering up lame justifications for your analytics, they don't capture this team any better than they would have the Stampeders 6 pack offense back in the day.

    • IJay Palansky's Gravatar IJay Palansky
      December 5, 2014    

      Yeah . . . no. Let's break this down. There are basically two ways a team can generate more goals than its opponent: (1) outshoot them, and (2) have better quality shots. Whatever "situations" Calgary's "5 man unit" has "overwhelmed" the opposition in would be reflected in their CF%. Calgary's CF% is 29th in the league right now at 43.5%. That's not bad it's awful. CF% is usually a reasonable proxy for game flow, and the flow has been significantly against Calgary. There's just no other way to interpret the fact that Calgary's opponents' CF% is 13 points higher than Calgary's. Which leaves us with the possibility that the Flames' shots are better -- i.e., have a higher probability of going in -- than their opponents. Is it impossible that the Flames have discovered some system that allows them to do so despite having a pretty ordinary (at best) set of offensive talent? No, it's not impossible. But I'd be willing to bet a whole lot that that's not what's going on here. I'll issue a public apology if the Flames maintain a 5v5 sh% above 10% all season. Not. Gonna. Happen.

      Last year the Avs were 25th in CF% -- at 47.0% and their justification was that they got better shots than their opponents. That was a team with a lot of high-end offensive talent, so it wasn't absurd to think that maybe that was possible. But as most (including Yours Truly) predicted before the season, that justification was more wishful thinking than anything else. Believe me, I get wishful thinking -- I'm a Leafs fan. But believing that the Flames have discovered some magical formula for converting shots into goals isn't based in reality. And yes, that's "logic/analytics." And when it's done correctly it's got a pretty damn good track record relative to the "if you just watched the games you'd realize that the numbers are wrong!" crowd.

  3. Dan's Gravatar Dan
    December 6, 2014    

    I saw an interesting stat today regarding the Flames. Despite a 2-13 stretch last Dec when Giordano was injured, the Flames have earned 98 points in the last 82 games. So they are currently approaching a full season of playing at about 110 point pace. That's more than just puck luck. Advanced stats are interesting but there's more to it than a few data points. For one thing, you just have to watch a few games to realize that the Flames score a lot of goals really quick once they get possession. I'd like to see a stat around that. What's the PDO for a team that moves faster up ice than the other team can get back to defend ? I bet the other goalie isn't stopping 90% on those fast rushes. Conversely, if the team has control for a long time, the other team has plenty of time to collapse in and limit the quality of the scoring chance, even if the that team does get a shot on goal. I bet a team that plays like that will have a lower PDO. Like I said, they're interesting numbers but I get the feeling is pretty half baked at this point.

  4. Andy's Gravatar Andy
    March 8, 2015    

    Ijay, I assume you'll do a follow up article at the end of the season to explain the stats of both teams. So far Calgary is not listening to you, being 3rd in their division and all. (Mar 8, 2015)

  5. John's Gravatar John
    March 12, 2015    

    It looks like this analysis didn't pan out for you - Calgary holding on to a playoff spot and Edmonton last in their conference

    • John's Gravatar John
      March 12, 2015    

      In regards to the media - their job is to keep people watching so negatively talking about how calgary sucks while their still winning over talking about the "comback kids" as they they like to call them this year works out better for them

  6. Andy's Gravatar Andy
    April 10, 2015    

    Any chance you can readdress this story, seeing as how the Flames are in the playoffs now and the oilers are out?

  7. john's Gravatar john
    April 22, 2015    

    Seems the media was right

  8. Andy's Gravatar Andy
    April 27, 2015    

    Again, please write another article as to what happened to the stats and why the flames are on to round 2. Please predict that the Ducks will win based on stats, that seems to help the flames.

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