1. Learning a lot, quickly
The thing that’s struck me over the first four games of the season (I’m writing this ahead of what’s sure to be an ugly game in Chicago) has very little to do with Joe Colborne’s production or Jiri Hudler continuing to be very solid in his role, or Sean Monahan’s notable improvement — even if he’s still being sheltered. Rather, it has been the Flames’ defense.
At times, they look fairly respectable, but those times can almost exclusively be limited to “When Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie are on the ice together.” Otherwise, things can get ugly in a hurry. I’d say it’s reasonable to assume that Jonas Hiller’s save percentage is a little lower than what most would have been able to reasonably expect in two games (seven goals against will do that) and you can say that a lot of his problem has been the play in front of him. But things have been a little more comprehensive overall when Karri Ramo has been in goal, as evidenced by his .934 save percentage. However, you must also consider the fact that he has really only been good in one game, against Edmonton. And everyone’s good against Edmonton.
There is, obviously, danger in drawing too many conclusions from just four games. We all know that. But this is about what any reasonable person should have expected. So yeah, defense has been the problem. And the worry is whether the Flames will be able to find any sort of solution not only this year, but going forward. Having Patrick Sieloff, or whomever, in the lineup a year or three from now doesn’t really pave over the issues at hand.
2. Giordano and Brodie still rule
And again, this team’s defensive problems (tied for 29th in CF% before Wednesday’s games began, at 41 percent, or minus-47) speaks to the overall issue pretty well. They’re not generating a good number amount of shot attempts for per 60 (44.51, 26th in the league) and they’re getting run over (64.06 per 60, also 26th) going the other way.
Which is why Giordano and Brodie being north of 58 and 55 percent, respectively, is so jarring. Giordano’s numbers break down at +64/-46, while Brodie’s is +63/-51. They eat the biggest minutes on the club by far, and against the toughest competition, and yet Giordano is sixth in terms of corsi events against (46, behind everyone but Rafa Diaz), and Brodie is for fifth (51, one back of Dennis Wideman, who’s played one fewer game).
Were it not for these two, this team would be 0-4, and it’s really that simple. An injury to one of them promotes someone — Wideman? Russell? — to the top pairing, and everything is going to fall apart. Look at a usage chart for defensemen with at least 60 minutes of even-strength ice time through Tuesday night, and you’ll see the Flames Nos. 1 and 2 compare favorably with everyone in the league not-named Zdeno Chara. This is not a coincidence or an accident. They’re going to be in the Norris conversation all year long, and especially Giordano, because he’s the one who keeps putting up points.
3. Dennis Wideman can’t be here
Hopefully one of the few times I’m ever going to find myself agreeing with Bob Hartley is that Dennis Wideman has to go. The contract is onerous, and the play isn’t even to what most teams would consider third-pairing standards. His benching last week was seen, somehow, as controversial, but the guy has been pretty bad at everything for so long that you can’t exactly hold the “coach’s decision” against the coach.
It’s generally agreed that something has to be done, but the question is pretty simple: What is it? Wideman has a no movement clause and has been given little reason to help the Flames out with any request they make of him. “You want to trade me where? All set,” is a thing I’d expect to hear him say often even if trade talks do pop up. Which you can’t legitimately expect.
Think of it from the other team’s perspective: This old, bad, expensive defenseman isn’t even playing well enough to crack the Flames’ lineup every night, and he’s beefing with his coach? Hard pass on that. Even if a lot of teams had room against the cap, you’d find this player to be a particularly difficult sell. And guess what? Without unloading several contracts that you might be able, in some circumstances, to consider even worse, even if you could find a taker, very few teams have the cap flexibility to bring Wideman into the fold. And the Flames would indeed need to take on bad deals, because jettisoning even half of $5.25 million in obligations would bring the Flames in danger of not meeting the cap floor.
Now, I know, it’s not exactly revelatory to say, “The Wideman contract is bad and the Flames are stuck with it until it’s over in 2017,” (and by the way: 2017!?!?!?!?!) but the situation is only going to get worse and Brad Treliving, saddled though he is, has to figure out something. Keeping him around is simply not tenable.
Not that I have any bright ideas of how to handle it or anything, either. It’s unfortunate that it’s Treliving’s mess to clean up, but here we are.
4. The Engelland contract is already awful
Speaking of bad deals, has there been a game yet (again, from the first four; he was thankfully out of the lineup last night) in which Deryk Engelland has looked like anything other than a No. 7 or even No. 8 defenseman on a National Hockey League team? He’s still getting the second-best zone starts on the team, but Hartley has been deploying him as a No. 2 in terms of quality of competition, and boy is he ever getting slaughtered.
All that pap from the front office in the offseason about, “We’ve watched him a lot and we think he’s underrated defensively,” is already out the window, four games into the 246 for which he is contracted. This guy is bad, full stop, and probably worse than a lot of us expected he would be. No Flames defenseman has been on the ice for fewer shot attempts for, or more against, and that’s really saying something. When you’re making Smid look halfway decent, there’s nothing to be said in your favor. He fights, does he? So does half the roster, and they don’t get anywhere near as buried.
If the usage charts are any indication, I think we can safely get through the next three seasons calling him “Deryk the Red” with little concern that he’d prove the moniker inapt.
This is an embarrassment for Treliving and Burke. And yet Hartley’s going to have to keep sending Engelland over the boards to justify the price tag.
5. Diaz needs more ice time
Given how bad literally everyone outside the top pairing has been for the Flames so far, then, the only reasonable solution is to give the last decent defenseman on the roster a greater role. I’ve said in the past that you’d need to use Rafa Diaz correctly — against middling talent, with semi-favorable zone starts — to get much out of him, but even if you put him out there across from the kinds of guys Engelland plays, he almost certainly couldn’t be worse.
Yes, it’s four games into the season and I’m advocating for Diaz to be the No. 3 defenseman. Largely because I don’t see the harm in it compared with everyone else’s contributions. The bottom four is so bad. So bad. We knew that going in, of course, but even minimal expectations have been defied here. This isn’t a four-game aberration, some bump in the road being experienced collectively. This is what happens when you have four No. 5/6 guys on the roster and necessarily have to give them more time than that. Unfortunate circumstance, but here we are.
If this keeps up for much longer — and how can it not — this is already a lost season. They went into Chicago last night 2-2, yes, but a romp over the Oilers and a lucky shootout win over Nashville isn’t a harbinger of future success. The fundamentals aren’t there in this team’s game to get them anything other than a Futile Five pick in the lottery, and even fifth from the bottom is starting to look like an unrealistic prospect.
Talk about demoralizing. Eichel here they come.