Flames Next Steps – Backfill the Blueline

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.


NHL Player Possession Stats | Extra Skater 2014-05-24 10-46-09

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

  • Lordmork

    I think about the most we can do is cross our fingers that both Smid and Wideman have bounce-back years. Smid is only 28 and Wideman had a better start to the season, so hopefully one of the two of them can return to the point where they’re a decent 3-4 guy.

    I hope we can find another diamond in the rough like Brodie, either in the draft or in our existing prospect base. Defence is the part of the prospect base that worries me the most.

  • PrairieStew


    I don’t think that Breen is an NHL caliber player either.

    But I do like what I have seen (eye test) at times from watching Billins and Cundari.

    I don’t suppose that there is enough minor league information to be able to show (even in general)where Billins and Cundari would have been on a graph like this last year in the minors?

    I know that you always want to “Take the Best Player Available” in the draft, but I have to wonder if the Flames don’t end up using three of their four second and third round picks on defensemen to try and improve the teams long term depth in that area.

    • SmellOfVictory

      “Best player available” is certainly a desirable strategy, but it’s more reserved for the first round as a strict rule, and as a guideline for the other rounds. Even in the 2nd round it’s such a crapshoot that “best player available” is pretty tough to determine, so I don’t fault any team for picking somewhat based on positional need after the 1st round.

      • Parallex

        Yeah, that’s basically what I think.

        To be more accurate I think by the time you get to the second round that “tier” of player talent is so large that you can basically just say “all else being equal pick the defenseman”. If there is in the evaluators opinion a significant talent gap then by all means continue to just pick the BPA but if the difference is so minor so as to be practically inperceptable then sure… draft for position.

  • piscera.infada


    How hard is it to be able to get this type of information for the AHL level of defensemen?

    I am of the belief that with the depth in the organization along with whichever Sam falls to us at #4 that the Flames will be looking at moving Baertschi at the draft.

    If we were to gather a dozen different AHL defensemen from different teams that would be reasonable trade targets in exchange for Baertschi (example would be Adam Larsson from the Devils) not that they all have to be one for one deals. But if we were looking at getting younger and improving the back end, who are at the end of the day the top 4-6 defensemen in the minors that we would want the Flames to target.

    They would need to be between 21-24. Be over 6’1″ probably to meet the Burke/Treliving criteria. And be at a point in their career where there is promise and potential (backed up by the numbers in the AHL last year) but also at a crossroads with their organizations because those clubs are not looking at the numbers.

  • mattyc

    Thanks Kent, great article as always.

    Maybe I’m a bit of a Wideman apologist, (I’ve been called worse!), but I wonder how differently we’d be looking at him if 1) He didn’t get injured and 2) His partner was Giordano or Brodie

    • The injury thing I have some time for. We’ll see how he plays next year.

      With his pay check and level of deployment, it almost doesn’t matter who Wideman was playing with – he should have at least been able to break even.

      His most frequent partner was Russell, who isn’t Brodie or Gio but isn’t O’Brien either. They settled at 47.9% possession. They were both worse away from each other, mostly because that meant they were playing with Smid, Wotherpsoon, O’Brien or Butler.

      Wideman and/or Russell would probably be fine 4th defenders, but they need a legit top-3 guy to float them. They are rapidly sunk by guys of Smid/Butler quality though.

  • PrairieStew

    I think a trade is likely to happen that shores up the defense. I don’t think a UFA is going to solve anything and here is why. Of all the UFA’s – our 3rd pairing guy Butler ranks 11th in TOI . While this is not a complete straight across comparable – it gives you a good idea what the previous teams thought of those guys. 5 of the 10 guys ahead of Butler are over 35 leaving Hainsey, Gilbert, Niskanen, Orpik and Quincey. I’d love to have Niskanen, might tolerate the rest but I think the chance of any of them coming here is slight.

    Younger guys with less ice time than Butler – who played on better teams include: Stralman, Fayne, Diaz and Meszaros

  • beloch

    Two Wideman’s showed up last season. The first, before injury, was a pretty good second pair defender. The second, after injury, was a hot mess.

    Smid was not notable for being the slowest guy on the ice in prior seasons in Edmonton. He was simply painful to watch skate this season. It’s quite possible he was playing with a lower body injury.

    Smid and Wideman are both players the Flames can reasonably hope to see improved play from next season. Wideman could be one of the second pairing defenders the Flames need. Smid might become adequate for the third pair. Those are fairly big maybes though.

    My preference would be to see one good second pairing defender brought in. If Wideman improves, you’ve got a second pair. If not, you’re not completely sunk. There should be at least one or two spots on the roster for rookies. The Flames don’t have any superstar blueline prospects, but they do have a few solid ones who are no worse than Brodie was a few years ago. At this point in the rebuild, and perhaps always, the Flames should try to balance performance with the development of rookies.

  • That Regher trade still smarts as do all the second round picks Sutter threw away for little or no return which could have netted us dome solid defensive prospects. We also were a bit unlucky with Erixon not signing with us. I agree a trade for a good defensive prospect looks likely.

  • Parallex

    Kent, I can’t say that I totally disagree with you on the assessment of those on the backend that have already played some pro games.

    But two names that I don’t think you should forget are Keegan Kanzig and Eric Roy.

    Kanzig is already signed. While I was unable to witness his game this past season in person, did see a couple games on the tube. I note that his plus/minus improved dramatically on a much improved Victoria squad (thanks Dave Lowry!). I did see him at the prospects camp last summer and was surprised at his speed, quickness and maneuverability for a man his size.

    Roy has a great shot and his stats did improve in the year after his draft year. He has the size, but I would consider him a bit more of a project.

    With five picks in the first 3 rounds, its probable that the Flames will find themselves in a position to add some quality defensive depth and acknowledge that that doesn’t resolve the near term need. And, surely, if he falls to fourth, young Ekblad would be a plus to have in Flames colors!

    • Parallex

      Kanzig? He’s a pretty huge longshot to ever be a meaningful NHL’er. All prospects are to a certain degree (top flight bluechip guys aside) but Kanzig can’t put up any points playing against physically undeveloped teenagers despite his size advantage…


      … if he’s as physically gifted as you say he is (speed, quickness and maneuverability for a man his size) he ought to be doing more at the Junior level. The odds are against him. I mean, I hope he makes it on actual skill at the position, but I would bet more that he either ends up washing out once he hits the pro levels or ends up going the Matt Pelech route and converts his game from defenseman to 4th line enforcer winger.

      • Byron Bader

        I thought this was a thread about defence. A player, and I submit a decent shut down guy, like Robyn Regehr didn’t put up huge offensive numbers as a junior and he didn’t turn out too bad an NHLer. And Regehr played on a potent offensive Kamloops Blazer team for his junior career. Victoria hasn’t exactly been an offensive powerhouse in the junior ranks, so damning the offence of a defensive defenseman on such a squad as Kanzig is, I suggest, unfair.

        My opinion of Kanzig is that he could, would, likely develop more along the lines of a Regehr than he would be an Al MacInnis, Gary Suter or even T.J. Brodie.

        • Parallex

          Regher put up 14 points his draft year vs. Kanzigs 7 and 32 in his draft +1 vs Kanzig’s 8 in his +1.

          The ’98 Blazers weren’t that potent vs. the ’13 Royals…

          http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/leagues/seasons/teams/0009951998.html http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/leagues/seasons/teams/0064312013.html

          … Regher was also a 1st round pick. I wager that if folk thought Kanzig will have the defensive chops that Regher had (plus an extra 3/4 nches in height + however many pounds of muscle… Kanzig is bigger then Regher is now to say nothing of 19 yo old Regher) they’d have ranked him higher.

          How many guys that produce so little as Kanzig at the CHL/Youth league level ever go on to have a meaningful NHL career? Sure, a few do, but the vast majority don’t. He’ll be an extreme outlayer if he ever becomes anything of note.

        • beloch

          Regehr averaged 0.268 pts/game over three seasons in the WHL. Kanzig has averaged just 0.087 pts/game in his three seasons in the WHL. Kanzig’s junior point generation is one third of what Regehr’s was.

          While it is true that point generation is not the primary duty of a shut-down defender, consider this: Most junior players are not fated to play in the NHL. Someone who will eventually play in the NHL should probably drive play against that kind of competition, especially if that someone is physically mature. Even if such a player starts in his own end every shift he should be finishing in the offensive end more often than not. If that’s happening, his team should be scoring when he’s on the ice. How does such a player make an impact without touching the puck often enough to at least rack up a respectable number of secondary assists?

          It is conceivable that a good defender on an offensively awful team might drive play without getting a lot of points. The Royals are average in terms of goal production, so what’s going on with Kanzig? (I’d love to hear from anyone who watches him play regularly.)

          After just a couple seasons in the NHL Regehr put up points at the same pace as he did in junior. That’s highly unusual. Regehr is certainly an exception to the rule that quality NHL shut-down defenders usually generate points at a good pace in junior. Kanzig will have to be an even bigger exception to that rule. It could happen, but the odds are not exactly stacked in his favor right now.

  • Parallex

    Ive posted this before but we really need to fill that #3 spot on the second pair… other wise wideman will continue to struggle.

    Smid Russell is a functional 3rd pair but to get the most out of wideman we need another top four D to shore up if not carry that second pair.

  • mattyc

    I agree with most of the assessment, but I do like smid and Russell going forward. I know smids stats are not glowing but I like the intangibles he brings. He’s tough, blocks shots, sticks up for his teammates. I think with the right partner, he could be an excellent 3rd pairing guy, although he’s paid as a second pairing. Russell has some offensive flair and always seemed solid to me. I’m not and have never been a fan of wideman. For all the Feaster supporters out there I thought it was one of his major mistakes signing him. Luckily we have lots of $ to spend, but in two years time when possibly calgary is competing, I think that salary is going to be a boat anchor. If I was treliving, I’d really look at moving up in the draft to grab ekblad. I think him and the maturation of seiloff and wotherspoon could make for a solid d in a couple years.

  • Parallex

    On Smid… I dunno. I swear I remember him being a decent blueliner. I gotta believe that something was wrong this past year and he’s due for a rebound. I mean his CF%rel took a severe nosedive last year. Something had to be up.

    • Byron Bader

      Perhaps one of the worst trades I can remember. It was like he lost a bet with Sakic and the loser of the bet had to put through a trade that was obviously ridiculous for one side.

      Great article, Kent.

    • piscera.infada

      Sure, the trade was horrible. On the plus side, I’m really glad I don’t have to watch Tangs aimlessly coast around the ice every game, all while moping like he just ran his dog over with a lawn mower. That dude was garbage.

        • piscera.infada

          Not apologizing for Feaster’s trade record at all (and I don’t like O’Brien or Jones either). It was pretty clear Tanguay didn’t want to be in Calgary any longer, and well, Sarich. I’m not sure what kind of return you were ever going to get for that gong-show of a package.

      • mattyc

        Jones has exceeded my expectations. And by exceeded I mean, at the time I thought “welp, that trade sucks, but Tanguay didn’t wanna be here and Sarich is donezo, and c’mon – how bad can david Jones be”. And then he was (bad).

    • mattyc

      It would be great to get Honka with our #34 pick, but is likely too optimistic given a Top 20 rating, along with Ekblad, Fleury and DeAngelo.

      Sanheim or McKeown would be great, particularly from a skill perspective. However if these two puck-movers are gone I could also see taking Mantha (or possibly Glover) as heavies at #34 as our next picks are #54, #64 and #83 and they’ll both be gone before 54.

      This will likely be the two most difficult picks to make. Treliving/Button and the scouting are under HUGE PRESSURE to get it right so the two 2nd rounders actually turn into Top 4 prospects at worst.

      As such am thinking they likely will focus on skill over size for the two 2nd round selections as development risk seems to be greater with larger size prospects.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    The fact of the matter is Brodie and Gio are our only top-4 dmen at the moment…

    Smid, Russell and Wideman are all boarderline 4’s but ideally 3rd pairing guys.

    Smid isnt as bad as he is being portrayed. In watching him I actually thought he had some good skills.

    His biggest downfall was he would handle the puck too much. Pairing him with a mobile defenceman should help..

    If I could build this defense (forgetting the intangables) I would have:

    Top 4: Gio, Brodie, + 2 upgrades

    5-7: Russell, Smid, Wotherspoon

    Trade Wideman

    I’m not gonna get into how I would do it but my point is I don’t think out pieces are all that bad they are just being played in roles they aren’t capable of.

    Russell and Smid are fully capable 3rd pairing guys, they just need a 2nd pairing to support them.

    • loudogYYC

      I generally agree with your thinking.

      Problem is there’s no supply available of Top 4 defenders available, or of reasonable age, skill level, or whether they’d sign with a rebuilding team.

      Gio & Brodie – Top 2 … check

      The two other pairs currently have Wideman, Russell, Smid & TBD. Plus we should have a 7th D with the team.

      Regarding trading Wideman on a D for D deal..likely pretty difficult given his contract, poor year, injury etc…?

      So…re-sign Butler..? Given extremely scarce supply given his age, experience and skill level he’ll likely get $3-$4M over 4-5 years as a UFA…?

      Bring in an older vet with 1-2 years left in him…possible?

      Focus on developing prospects and play ‘Spoon in the third pairing role? Rotate in 3-4 prospects in the #6-#7 spot throughout the year..?

      Will be very interesting to see how Treliving handles the D issues. Depending on what decisions are made the Flames defence may be so porous they won’t have to worry about a top draft position as it will come to them honestly.

      • DragonFlame

        I don’t think Butler has proven enough to garner 3 to 4 million a season over that kind of term. If there’s a team willing to pay Butler that much money, Treliving likely won’t have any problems letting him walk. It’s too much money for a place-holder.

  • mattyc

    re: drafting for position, for need etc.

    I’d always go whale hunting in the draft, especially after the first round. The goal of the draft should be to acquire players you can’t trade/sign for. It’s nice we’ve drafted guys like Nystrom, Bouma, Prust etc., but those guys are always going to be available every summer. Instead, like folks have suggested, since it’s a crapshoot, it doesn’t put you much further behind to draft a risky guy that could pan out, and then sign a 4th liner, while you lose out big once in a while if you take the reverse approach.

    I’d say elite talent is pretty much the only thing you can’t acquire, so I’d be trying to hit homeruns instead of trying safe picks.

    • PrairieStew

      I would also say that creating a strong bottom 6 isn’t as easy as some may think. Look at the Oilers. The bottom 6 on that team is an abomination, and players don’t want to go there. Acquiring useful players is incredibly important, and I think you can’t necessarily rely on that through overpaying in free agency.

      The thing I like about Calgary’s prospect pool right now is that we have a balance of potentially elite level guys, but also guys that have a high chance of playing on our 3rd and 4th lines in the future.

      Should you be drafting face puncher duds with high picks? (I like Kanzig but…) No, definitely not, that said you can’t just attempt to draft every semi-flashy guy and pray to god he pulls a Gaudreau. You need balance

      oh and @Krisjan

      never, ever, would I let Smid be a top 4, never mind a top 3 defender on my team. He is absolute cabbage

  • loudogYYC

    Not sure why, but every time I see Julius Honka I think MA Bergeron. He’s probably better than MAB, but by how much who knows.

    I really agree with this article. At this stage, D development or acquisition has to be priority #1. In the meantime, I’m hoping for this top 6 in 2014-15:

    Giordano-Brodie – Quincey-Fayne – Russel-Smid

    As long as ownership is ok with it, I think there’s more than 2 teams out there that would take Wideman at 50% off.

    • DragonFlame

      Not sure why, but every time I see Julius Honka I think MA Bergeron. He’s probably better than MAB, but by how much who knows.

      I can see why you’d say that (small offensive guy and all) but I really think that Honka’s defensive ability is severely underrated. I’ve been saying all along that whichever team ends up taking him will be very happy they did. We’ll see if I’m right.

  • DragonFlame

    Considering what we gave up for Smid, I think he’s a huge improvement over Roman Horak (who we got for defenseman prospect Tim Erixon, who didn’t want to play for Calgary). Horak and Erixon have a combined 135 games between them, and both spent the bulk of last season in the minors.

  • DragonFlame

    There’s a lot of negativity especially going to the prospects. I agree that Butler was horrible, same with SOB. Wideman should be traded to Detroit for next years 2nd, retain 20%.

    But most people thought Wotherspoon looked great and I agree. He played like veteran top 4 defenceman. Sieloff has been a good defenceman before his injury. There was talk of him making team out of camp. Agree with Kulak/Culkin.

    I think we have good short term D but long term needs help.

    My defence would look like
    Brodie – Giordano
    Smid – Orpik/Gilbert/Fayne
    Russell – McQuaid

    McQuaid or Boychuk will likely be moved for cap. Michael Stone would be great as well.