The Flames Have Been Doused: CGY Needs a Structural Breakout Overhaul If They Want a Playoff Spot in the North

The perils of north-south breakouts and tunnel vision

I tried to think of a Flames pun to start this article with, but my idea bank was burnt out. I just couldn’t find the spark I needed.

….It’s the best I could come up with. It’s been a long week.

After returning from an ODR last night, I tuned in to watch the second half of the Flames-Canucks game on Sportsnet.

I was mostly appalled at what I saw from the CGY side. Apparently I wasn’t alone in how I felt about the Flames’ play:

Even the players are feeling the frustration after a game in which they were outshot 46-18 by one of the leakiest defensive teams in hockey:

The common themes of frustration among analysts and players?

  • Too many turnovers

  • Not winning 50/50 battles

  • Not being able to string passes together

After watching back through the game, I came to the conclusion that this trail of common issues usually led back to how the Flames try to breakout:

To which I followed up with:

North-South Breakouts and Tunnel Vision

To put it bluntly, the Flames shoot themselves in the foot every time they try to breakout. They look to employ a strictly north-south breakout, which leads to the following tactical pitfalls:

  • All 3 forwards cutting the ice in half for themselves, which eliminates any and all lateral optionality

  • The 3-forward clump results in turnovers or the necessity to jam pucks up the strong side via chips or dumps

  • No effective weak-side D activation to provide an outlet for forwards who receive pressure on the strong side or through the middle

  • ‘Tunnel vision’ for the forwards, who, through no fault of their own, see no other options than to just cram the puck up the boards or dump it and chase

Take this scenario 30 seconds into the game last night. On a partial change, the Flames have ample time to make a play. Nesterov completes a pass to Dube up the strong side boards, which is fine, but pay attention to Chris Tanev, who stays pasted to the boards in the corner, rendering himself useless to his forwards and CGY’s breakout efforts:

Even if Dube had held onto this puck, he had nowhere to go. VAN had completely clogged the middle, and Dube’s linemates were stagnant in the NZ. If Tanev had sprinted up the weak side to provide an outlet, this entire scenario could be avoided by a quick cross-ice pass from Dube or a bank drop from Dube to Nesterov for the same.

If they’re not forcing pucks up the strong side with no weak-side D activation on partial changes, they’re slinging stretch pass-to-chip plays for their opposition to immediately breakout again with possession:

Their insistence on having their forwards cut the ice in half with no weak side outlet leads to scenarios like this, where Giordano flips an impossible-to-corral flip pass to a stagnant Johnny Gaudreau on the blue line, leading to an immediate turnover to VAN:

Had Andersson (CGY #4) taken a path straight back to the end boards in a reverse support position for Gio, it’s an easy bump back, reset and breakout with control. Instead:

  • Andersson fades to the weak side behind 2 layers of Canucks pressure, essentially rendering the Flames shorthanded

  • All 3 Flames forwards cut the ice in half for themselves, leaving minimal optionality had they even received the pass from Gio

Same story in the 2nd period. Andersson makes a pass when he’s got room to step out, Gio crams a pass into 3 CGY forwards who are within 10 feet of each other:

Their D recognition and communication just isn’t crisp either. Here, for example, Mackey sends a blind rim up the wall, and Lindholm fires a pass right into the VAN 2-1-2 forecheck. The better initial play would have been Mackey completing the obvious reverse play to Valimaki to gain the white ice on the weak side:

Through the neutral zone, it’s the same story. Here, Valimaki carries the puck up the strong side, and shoves a pass to a stagnant, covered Tkachuk on the blue line:

The funny part about this clip is CGY is perfectly positioned to run a change of sides that would allow them clean entry here:

  • Valimaki open pivot and drop to Mackey in a hinge play

  • Mackey quick up to Lindholm who’s fresh off the bench occupying the wide open weak side lane for entry

Turning back if you don’t like your look doesn’t seem to be an option for CGY D. There’s clearly an emphasis on ‘playing fast’ and getting ‘everything north.’

Here, for example, Nesterov literally has nothing up the strong side, but puts a weak bank off his backhand up the boards anyways instead of cutting back to reset. And again, Andersson is in a weak side position, but behind two layers of VAN coverage rendering him useless to his D partner:

Even Markstrom likes to get in on the fun:

Lighting a Fire Under your Defencemen

Many of the Flames’ breakout issues can be solved by activating their D more effectively.

The Leafs, for example, are one of the very best in the league at including their D in the breakout process to ensure they’re optimizing every single skater they have on the ice.

Take these clips as an exemplar. Toronto (against the Flames here nonetheless), encourages their D to sprint up the weak side lane to give their forwards and outlet if they’re pressured through the middle:

They also emphasize filling space as a D instead of sticking to conventional routes to give your Fs relief along the wall:

A Dwindling D-Zone

The Flames are producing okay to decent results from a process standpoint at 5v5 (50.85 CF%, 52.7 SCF%, 53.17 xGF%) but I think that could be more of a result of their top-end talent overcoming sub-optimal team tactics.

And while those process numbers appear solid on the surface, the accompanying results are not. Their 5v5 shots for percentage is 25th in the league at 48.08%. They’re also receiving the 3rd best 5v5 team save percentage at .938, and they’re riding a PDO of 1.022. They’re not producing enough SOGs and Markstrom is keeping the them in a lot of games they have no business being in.

Their defensive zone — in all likelihood as a result of their poorly structured breakout tactics — has been a mess, which doesn’t bode well for long-term success in a division as high-octane offensively as the North:

Pretty hard to have strong DZ results when you’re giving your opponents as many resets offensively as the Flames are when their breakout fails as often as it does.

If the Flames have any hopes of making the playoffs in the North Division, they’re going to have to burn down their current breakout structure and rekindle a new one that overcomes their current ailments:

  • Start activating weak side Ds properly to provide outlets for Fs or D partner

  • Encourage cutbacks from Ds and Fs if they don’t like their initial look

  • Emphasize filling space regardless of position and lateral movement to evade forechecking structures and converging D-men

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