In the functional toughness article we looked at the bottom-end of the Flames forward roster and found the club could improve things just by skating NHL caliber skaters on the 4th line. That’s not quite true of the Flames blueline – none of their current guys are quite sub-replacement skaters like Brian McGrattan or Kevin Westgarth – but there’s no denying Calgary is grotesquely top heavy and lacking in depth once you get past the noteworthy TJ Brodie/Mark Giordano pairing.
If the Flames are to climb their way out of the NHL basement, they will likely have to excavate and backfill their bottom half of their back-end at some point.
As mentioned in the previous article in this series, the primary aim of every rebuilding team is to acquire elite talent. Unfortunately, that sometimes blinds the club’s decision makers to incrementally improving the roster in less obvious ways. The result can be an indefinite rebuild as the GM frantically tries to plug holes in the dam, even after they’ve drafted all their future superstars.
Exhibit A: The Edmonton Oilers current blueline woes, which helped inspire this article. Last year the Oil were supposed to take the next step, but instead found themselves in the familiar position of dreaming about the NHL entry draft by mid-January. A not insignificant contributor to their struggles was their near-league worst defender depth.
If the Flames retain TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano, they won’t be facing the same sort of conundrum down the road, simply because they’ll have a better than average starting duo. Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that the club’s current options beyond the top pair (and maybe Kris Russell) are fairly abysmal.
A brief explanation of the usage chart for those unfamiliar –
The y-axis represents quality of competition. The higher up a player is, the tougher his competition. The X-axis represents zone start ratio, with the far right representing a higher ratio (ie; more offensive zone starts, or an easier starting position).
The colour of the bubbles symbolizes possession as per the key at the bottom. Blue equals a positive possession rate, while red equals a negative one. Finally, the size of the bubble represents average ice time for the player. That means the bigger the bubble, the more ice he gets per game.
– The contrast between Gio/Brodie and everyone else is stark. Nobody saw tougher competition or less offensive zone starts than them and they advanced play far better than any of their blueline brethren. Of course, to some degree this is a consequence of the two best defenders playing together most of the time (leaving the rest of the crowd to amplify each others’ short comings), but it’s highly suggestive that nobody on the rest of Calgary blueline could at least tread water despite Bodie/Gio taking the tough sledding.
– Chris Butler and Ladislav Smid had perhaps the second toughest draw behind Brodie and Gio. They faced mostly second tier competition but they also saw a lot of own-zone faceoffs. They also got beat up by those circumstances, particularly Smid who has slid from a competent middle rotation defender over the years into a guy a good team would relegate to 7th defender status.
The erstwhile Oiler is certainly tough and willing to throw himself in front of slapshots, which garnerd him some fans in town, but the truth Smid is slow, not particularly good with the puck and has next to no offense. His reputation outstrips his utility, especially if he continues his rapid decline.
– Chris Butler is Chris Butler. I wrote that it was time to ditch Butler earlier in the year when he and Shane O’Brien were putting up some of the worst possession rates in the league from the third pairing. He improved from horrible to merely bad by the end of the year, so there’s that.
Butler goes through periods where he looks like an NHLer, but unfortunately he can also be rapidly overwhelmed, particularly when he has to anchor the pairing (like he did with Shane O’Brien). The one good thing you can say about Butler is that his circumstances weren’t buttery soft given how often Hartley started him in his own end. That said, his WOWY (with or without you) rating this season, was absolutely abysmal. Just like last year.
Similar to Smid, Butler is a guy you don’t want playing much more than 3rd pairing minutes if your team is to win anything. I don’t even know if the Flames should bother to re-sign him to be frank.
– Way over on the right side of the screen is Dennis Wideman. As you can see, he had the easiest minutes of any regular defender on the team and still couldn’t stay out of his own end. These are bad results in isolation, but horrible when considered in light of his $5.25M/year contract. He has 3 years left on the deal and if the Flames weren’t struggling to meet the cap floor he’d be a buy-out candidate.
Wideman has looked competent during certain portions of his time in Calgary, so there’s some chance his struggles were idiosyncratic/injury related and he might bounce back at some point. If not, his deal is a boat anchor which the club will more or less have to ride out.
– Shane O’Brien – not an NHL defender. Demoting him was the right move.
– Kris Russell straddles the line a bit. He’s relatively young, mobile and has some offense to his game, so he can be somewhat useful. That said, he doesn’t advance the puck all that well either, so ideally he should be played in a sheltered role. Russell’s possession numbers were severely harmed by playing with Chris Butler this season as well (his most frequent partner at 462 even strength minutes) – the pair had a 39% corsi rate together, which is enforcer-level bad. Another illustration of how almost any combination of the Flames current bottom-4 blueliners isn’t a good one.
The Way Forward
The Flames organization has a lot of potentially useful hopefuls bubbling underneath up front, but it’s a completely different story on the back-end. With the graduation of Brodie, the franchise is very short on guys who can push for a steady job in the show any time soon. Tyler Wotherspoon got his cup of coffee this year and mostly got creamed (corsi rate of 40%) although there were flashes to suggest he could have a future in the league, at least as a depth option. His will be a longer apprenticeship, however, and he’ll also have trouble finding his legs surrounded by the likes of Butler and Smid.
After Wotherspoon, it’s all question marks and longshots. Chad Billins, Chris Breen and Mark Cundari are likely AHLers for life, while Jonh Ramage isn’t a prospect of note at this point. Pat Sieloff is a totally unknown commodity after having his season wiped out by injury. The former second rounder has only played 47 hockey games in the last two seasons, meaning his development may have been irreparably derailed.
Ryan Culkin and Brett Kulak will take their first pro steps this coming season but we won’t know for awhile if they’re, say, John Negrin or TJ Brodie. Brodie is the exception, so there’s a non-trivial chance they are the former rather than the latter.
As a result, there’s no obvious help coming from the farm system any time soon (absent Aaron Ekblad falling to Calgary in a few weeks). Luckily, there is no impetus for the club to improve the blueline depth immediately since the Flames aren’t going to compete for a cup in 2014-15, but Treliving and Burke would do well to keep their eyes on the UFA and trade markets, just in case a useful top-4 guy happens to surface. If Calgary escapes the summer with a Tom Gilbert type bargain signing, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Of course, the real goal is to have a quality, established rotation of defenders in a few years time when the club is ready to play for the post-season again. Success will look like a player usage chart with more than two big blue bubbles and active roster sheets that only contain Smid or Butler’s names when a bunch of other guys are injured.
Flames Next Steps Series
- Backfill the Blueline
- Find Functional Toughness