The Flames organizational strength in terms of pure depth is the back-end. That’s a source of some comfort this summer, but italso raises a number of questions moving forward into the new season. Once Ian White is re-signed, the club will have 8 NHL defenders on one-way contracts (Bouwmeester, Regehr, Sarich, Staios, Giordano, Pardy, White, Kronwall) as well as at least one hopeful who could probably make the team out of camp (Pelech).
Should White score a $3.5M deal, Calgary will have about $22M committed on the blueline.
Here’s how things stand if nothing major changes between now and training camp –
Jay Bouwmeester – The team’s second most expensive player had a rough season last year. His offensive numbers plunged, in part thanks to a reduction in PP time, in part thanks to the team’s general inability to put the puck in the net and in part thanks to a career low SH% of 2.3%. Given his career average of 5.3%, I think we can assume an uptick in goals next season, even if he gets 2nd billing on the PP behind Giordano and White again.
Bouwmeester’s results weren’t exactly in-line with his pay, but there’s little chance he’ll be moved for cap space. The former Panther is young but has a long enough history of quality performances that it’d be foolish to pull the shute after a single off season.
Robyn Regehr – Reggie visibly struggled for the first half of the season, losing battles he used to win with ease and mis-reading basic plays. Some think it may have been a lack of chemistry with partner Dion Phanuef, while others posit it was a lingering knee issue. Whatever the cause, Regehr also had himself a less than ideal season and has found himself involved in a few trade rumors this off-season. Unless the return is a legit top 3 forward, Regehr obviously isn’t going anywhere.
A strange artifact of having two hard-minute guys on the team last year (who never played on the same pairing) was a parsing of the tough cimcumstances between them. For example, Regehr still faced the bulk of the top-end opposition last season, both with Phaneuf and, later, Ian White. Oddly, however, it was Jay Bouwmeester who got fed the most defensive zone draws on the club (463 – 90 more than Regehr’s 373). That’s precisely the opposite manner in which I would deploy Regehr and Bouwmeester, given their relative strengths and weaknesses. JayBou has a higher ceiling offensively speaking and has played top lines pretty much from day-one. He’s ideally suited for the gig Regehr got last year. On the other hand, Reggie has spent his whole career starting from his own end and excelling at it.
Both of these players will be on the team next year. They’re both still top-end defenders. However, I hope Brent flips the switch and plays each in a manner more in-line with his abilities.
Mark Giordano – One of the few true bright spots of 2009-2010, Giordano was often referred to as "the most improved player in the league" by a number of pundits. He began the season beside Bouwmeester but ended up on the third pairing with Cory Sarich to end the season. That said, his ice-time increased incrementally as the year progressed, including a bump in PP time once Phanuef was shuttled to the Leafs.
Giordano led the Flames blueline in a number of categories, including goals (11), points (30), plus/minus (+17) and corsi (+9.18/60). And while he ended up with pretty soft minutes and has yet to face the big boys consistently in his career, there’s evidence that Jay Bouwmeester’s results were the best with Gio by his side (read the comment section to the end).
Overall, Giordano was probably the best value contract on the team last year. He’s a guy entering his peak and, I think, could capably play in the club’s top 4 without much problem.
Ian White – As Robert Cleave pointed out in the White mock arb, the diminutive defender had a career year last season in terms of points, especially at ES where he placed 5th in the league amongst defenders. That said, keep in mind that White started around 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone in TOR last year, which will goose anyone’s offensive stats.
White looked fairly capable when he arrived, even though he played against the big boys with Reggie. There were times where he struggled a bit against the larger opponents in his own zone, but his mobility, compete level and vision helped him keep his head above water. Personally, I don’t consider him an ideal candidate for the role he played in a Flames jersey, but he’s good enough not to be a major liability should Brent decide to go that route again.
I wouldn’t expect White to repeat the offensive results he managed last year for Calgary and it might be a stretch to expect him to outperform his new salary (depending on what is). Even if he gets $3.5M, the dollars and value won’t be grossly out of line, though.
Cory Sarich – Frequently identified as the first of the club’s major "boat anchors", Sarich was originally signed to play with Regehr against other team’s top lines. It was a defensible move at the time, because Sarich had spent his time in T-bay doing the same thing and doing relatively well. He’s never been able to manage that role in Calgary, however, mostly struggling to keep his head above water whenever he’s seen the tough match-ups. Sarich began the season injured last year and then put up team worst scoring chance numbers when he returned and was skated with Jay Bouwmeester. Things turned aroud for him when he was dropped to the third pairing, especially when Giordano joined him.
Sarich remains a capable NHL defender who cans till lower the boom on guys with their head down now and then. Unfortunately, he’s paid way too much for his current role. While Sarich can be expected to step into the top 4 here and there when the need arises, it appears he’s far more comfortable as a #5 guy at this point in his career.
Adam Pardy – Despite being bumped to the pressbox by Steve Staios after the deadline, Adam Pardy had himself a decent season overall. The sophomore played in the softest minutes available last season (lesser opposition, lots of offensive zone face-offs) and his results were concurrently decent. He led the team in terms of possession (+10.41) and averaged more than 15 minutes per night. That’s all one can really expect out of a near minimum-wage defender playing in his second season.
Pardy doesn’t have a very high ceiling. Already 26, he’ll probably never grow into a top 4 defender. He’s good enough to play on the 3rd pairing and one the PK once in awhile and can provide value for his low cap hit. I thought he might be moved at the draft in order to make room for Matt Pelech, but as of now he remains in the line-up.
Steve Staios – Ostensibly acquired for his leadership at the deadline, the doddering former Oiler had a terrible year in Edmonton and things didn’t exactly turn around for him in Calgary. Baffling paired with Bouwmeester, Staios was in way over his head in the top 4 and ended up adding an extra -8 in the final 18 games to the -19 he arrived with.
Once upon a time, Staios was a capable enough defender, although he’s always been more will and compete than ability. He’ll turn 37 this July and is obviously beyond his best before date. His cap hit of $2.7M is perhaps the worst bet on the club in terms of probability of providing value and it’s an open question whether he’s any better than other options like Pardy or even Mat Pelech.
There’s little chance the Flames will be able to move Staios’ contract before the season starts. If I had to bet, I’d put money on Steady Steve ending up in Abbotsford come October.
Staffan Kronwall – A ‘tweener acquired to provide depth in both the AHL and NHL, we didn’t see much of Kronwall in the bigs last year. According to a Playfair interview, Kronwall was the farm’s best defender last season and that’s where I expect him to end up again, unless some significant injuries occur.
Matt Pelech – The former first rounder struggled with injuries last year, but did manage to return in time for the playoffs. The big defender has played out his ELC and is currently a restricted free agent. There’s a good chance he’ll be re-signed for a cheap number soon and will battle for a roster spot in training camp. Aiding his quest for an NHL job is the fact he’s no longer waiver exempt (as far as I can tell) and will be subject to to waivers should he be sent down or recalled during the season.
Clearly the Flames have some options and some decisions to make. The bottom end of the rotation is particularly crowded and given the club’s cap issues, one of Sarich and Staios will have to go away by either trade or demotion. Sarich being the superior of the two players, my preference is that Staios gets the boot, although the Flames could probably survive losing both, assuming the dollars go to improve the team elsewhere.