Flames’ Issues This Season All Stem From Goaltending

Jacob Markstrom has now been a starter in the NHL for six seasons. He played three with the Vancouver Canucks before joining the Calgary Flames and is now playing in his third season for this team. He has had some ups and downs, but in general, he is one of the best goaltenders in the league and a big reason for the success or failure of the team.

Goaltending wasn’t supposed to be an area of concern for the Flames, but it has been a big reason why the Flames are losing games. Neither goaltender has been good this season regardless of the strong play in front of them.

Markstrom’s Up & Down Flames Tenure

In his first season with the Flames, he took nearly a season to settle in and the team missed the playoffs. As a starter, Markstrom put up a 2.66 goals-against average (GAA) and .904 save percentage (SV%). That won’t generally help a team get into the postseason and it didn’t in this instance. The following season (2021-22), the goalie bounced back in a major way to the level he was at in his final season in Vancouver, a Vezina-calibre goaltender.

Jacob Markstrom Calgary Flames
Jacob Markstrom, Calgary Flames (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Markstrom finished fourth in voting in his final season with the Canucks before then finishing second last season. His numbers this season are far worse than they were in his first with the Flames. It may be cause for a bit of concern, but the team should also have patience. Though he bounced back before and should do so again, the Flames can’t afford to lose a season with this team they have because of poor goaltending.

All Signs Point to the Issue Being in Net for Flames

It comes down to Markstrom’s play in the crease. After the Flames’ game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he said, “if you look strictly at the numbers, I’ve got to be better.” Considering how the team has driven possession and seemingly given Markstrom and Dan Vladar every chance to win, it’s the main cause for the team’s struggles.

Related: 4 Scoring Forwards the Flames Should Target in a Trade

The Flames have won just two of the past 10 games and Markstrom has a GAA of 3.06 and SV% of .887. The SV% is more concerning because he’s generally had a higher GAA than the average elite goaltender since he’s played on a team like the Canucks who gave up lots of shots. But his SV% has always been strong. The netminder averages .911 in his career, which includes this season in which it has been brought down. His SV% from the first two seasons in Calgary was .915.

Markstrom is right with his comments on his game and the team’s game saying, “I’ve got to step up here. We’ve got a great team, and we’re playing good, and we’re throwing a lot of pucks on their net. Pucks are going to find a way into their net, and I’ve got to keep them out.” He has a minus-6.1 goals saved above average (GSAA), the lowest in his career since he just entered the league as a member of the Florida Panthers in 2012-13. According to Evolve Hockey, the Flames’ starter ranks 64th in GSAA in all situations with a minus-6.46. He has managed to record only three quality starts in his first 13 starts while his backup has added one in three starts. That’s a horrible 25 percent this season while Markstrom and Vladar combined for 60 percent last season.

To support the statement that the issues stem from the net, here are key numbers that show how the Flames drive possession and play, but can’t get a save. The team controls 55 percent of the shot attempts and 51 percent of expected goals at 5-on-5. This means they shoot the puck more. The Flames are not only ranked fourth in the NHL in shots per game (36.3), they also have the fourth-lowest shots against per game (27.6). As Markstrom stated, the goals will come for the highly talented Flames and they did put up six goals against the Los Angeles Kings two games ago. But with 27.6 shots against per game and 3.38 goals against per game as a team, the Flames rank last in the NHL with a team save percentage of .877. Another reason that emphasizes the problems in net is the Flames rank in the top 10 in expected goals against per 60 min (2.53). That’s a wide gap between 2.53 expected goals against and 3.38.

Vladar Took a Step Back

Vladar had a solid rookie season for the Flames after he had five games of prior NHL experience. He was Markstrom’s backup, starting 19 games and appearing in 23. He put up a 2.75 GAA and .906 SV%, which is acceptable for a rookie. His record was 13-6-2, so the team succeeded with him in net regardless.

Dan Vladar Calgary Flames
Dan Vladar, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This season he has taken a major step back. Though Markstrom has started the majority of the games and a larger portion of the blame for the Flames’ 7-7-2 record can be put on him, Vladar is 1-3-0 and has a GAA of 3.33 and a SV% of .881. Both are worse than Markstrom’s, but his sample size is smaller. Vladar’s GSAA is also poor (minus-2.4). Backup goaltender’s jobs are to be able to give the starter breaks when needed and play well in the midst of struggles. A good backup will play the second half of back-to-backs and generally against weaker teams. His record is expected to be fairly positive on good teams and a good backup will have solid numbers to go along with that.

With the play of Vladar now, my wonder is if they should have used him as trade bait when teams were in need of a goaltender. Dustin Wolf is in the American Hockey League (AHL) and looks NHL-ready. The goaltending of the Flames can’t get much worse than it is right now. The team is giving both Markstrom and Vladar every chance to succeed by keeping shots and high-danger chances to a minimum. It’s up to this tandem to figure things out in order for the Flames to return to being a team opponents dread to play against.