There’s no getting around the fact that last season was a big disappointment for the Calgary Flames. Many of the big money players and notable acquisitions had off-years. The team missed the post-season for the first time under Sutter as GM. The club boasted one of the very worst offences in the entire NHL.
Of course, there were a few enduring bright spots last year. In this post, the first of a series, we’ll look at perhaps the single best silver lining – the play of Mark Giordano.
For a club that has struggled to internally develop high level players, Mark Giordano is one of the most compelling stories in recent memory. Undrafted out of junior despite leading the Owen Sound Attack in scoring from the back-end for both seasons in which he appeared, Giordano was a walk-on tryout for the Flames. He was signed to an entry level deal and in his sophomore AHL season as a 21 year old, led the Omaha Knights in scoring. That’s the entire team (one featuring future NHLers David Moss, Eric Nystrom and Brandon Prust), not just the back-end. That season was the first real indication that the organization had stumbled upon something special.
Giordano’s road to the NHL was a rocky one nonetheless. He eventually made the Flames as a semi-regular in 2006-07, scoring 15 points in 47 games. There were both qualitative and quantitative indications that year that Giordano was "NHL ready" and poised to take on a more involved role for the club going forward.
The rest of the story is probably familiar to most Flames fans today. Giordano and his agent pressed for a one-way contract in the summer of ’07, while Darryl Sutter hoped to ink him to a two-way deal. Darryl signed journeyman veteran Anders Eriksson in response to the contractual impasse, stuffing Calgary’s blueline full of pricey regulars. As a result, Giordano accepted a deal from Dynamo Moscow of the then Russian Elite League and grew into their top blueliner, leading the team in ice time and scoring during their play-off run. He was also a feature on a Canada’s gold medal winning Spengler Cup club and was chosen as an alternate for Canada’s World Cup team in the summer of ’08. Sutter enticed Giordano back to the fold that off-season. He’s been a regular ever since.
Although some may consider 2008-09 his coming out party, Giordano really began to gain recognition this past year. Calgary’s point leader on the back-end (excluding late addition Ian White), Gio out-scored guys like all-stars Dion Phaneuf and Jay Bouwmeester. He also finished the year with a team high +17 and was third amongst blueliners with a per game average of 20:50 of ice. In addition, Giordano placed third behind Bouwmeester and Regehr in terms of SH ice per night (1:53), a hair higher than the likes of Cory Sarich (1:53) and Dion Phaneuf when he was a Flame (1:17). That latter stat speaks to Giordano’s evolving utility as an NHLer: although he’s cast mainly as an offensive threat, the Brent Sutter began to lean on Giordano a lot more from a defensive angle this year.
There are other numbers that speak well of Giordano and his effect on team mates and possession. Those analyses will be saved for later this summer, but the initial inquiries have all shown that Gio is a boon to his partners. His combination of swift skating, high-end puck skills, vision and intuition helps move the puck north and further investigations on the matter will no doubt bear this out.
Giordano added another tool his toolbox this season as well: aggression. Although not overly large, Giordano was a team leader in terms of hits (153) for the Flames this year and was never shy about initiating contact or sticking up for team mates. One of my favorite memories from 2009-10 was Giordano’s determined dismantling of Kings captain Dustin Brown, captured in this highlights package:
Outside of Regehr haunting Hemsky, Flames fans haven’t seen that kind of systematic intimidation by a single player in a long time.
Of course, Gio’s bread and butter is his offensive prowess. Fast, agile, and poised with the puck on his stick, Giordano’s ability to walk the blueline in the offensive end is sublime. His contributions from the point were singled out as one of the reasons Dion Phaneuf’s $6.5M contract suddenly seemed expendable. What’s more, Giordano is also skilled at rushing the puck:
There are some reasons to temper our expectations somewhat going forward – Gio has never been called upon to regularly play against high level competition, nor has he spent a lot of time starting from his own zone. The SV% behind him last year was an unnatural .936 and will likely fall back down to earth a bit this year.
That said, the guy is a pleasure to watch and a bargain at $850k. Giordano has developed from a seventh defender to a fixed and invaluable element of a strong back-end inside of three seasons. He figures to be one of the best guys who was never drafted in the league next year.