It’s been an interesting start of the year for Calgary. With the obvious caveat that five games is a relatively tiny sliver of action, it’s still worth going over some very early impressions of the Flames blueline and record through the early going.
– I think we can all agree that Calgary’s record of 3-2 flatters them. The club has been completely outplayed in aggregate and only goaltending and extra time that has them over .500. So far, only the Buffalo Sabres sport a worse per game shot differential than the Flames (-12.4). Even in the 5-2 victory over Edmonton, the Flames spent approximately 65% of the game chasing the puck. Then there was the recent win over the Blackhawks, featuring a 49 save performance from Jonas Hiller. Only three regular skaters are above water possession wise through five games: Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Paul Byron. Fourteen other skaters are double digit negative corsi players.
– The truth of the team is likely somewhere between their surprisingly decent record and their currently disastrous underlying numbers. The Flames are can’t really be this bad at 5on5, but they certainly aren’t going to benefit from Vezina caliber goaltending all year either.
– The one really good bit of news so far is the Giordano and Brodie pairing. The dynamic duo has picked up right where they left off last season and are, far and away, the team’s two best players. They lead the Flames in just about every conceivable category: points, possession, quality of competition, etc. So drastic is the “Brodano” effect that there is a visible shift in the direction of play when they leave the ice. Both guys continue to look like legitimately elite players, with Brodie in particular seeming to take another step forward in his development.
– Which brings us to the matter of new contracts. TJ Brodie is a pending RFA and Mark Giordano will be UFA after 2015-16. I asked the other day on twitter what people expected Giordano would be worth right now if he was to be re-signed. The common answer was about $7M/season on a long-term contract. We’ve discussed Brodie at length here previously and at this rate we can say it’s almost certain he’ll settle in north of $4.5M.
I’d happily pay between $12M for Calgary’s current top pairing, but the issue is going to be term with the captain. Giordano is 31 right now and will be 33 by the time his contract is up for renewal. That makes any sort of big dollar, long-term deal rather risky.
– Then there’s the rest of the Flames blueline, which outside of maybe Russell, is a disaster. As expected, Deryk Engelland has gotten his turn as a top-4 type defender and, as expected, he’s been eaten alive. Engelland has faced the third toughest competition on the team behind the big two (though he’s week back of both) and the result has been a -51.9/60 corsi (no exaggeration). I hasten to add that number could be much worse but for Engelland sitting out during the Hawks game (a contest which was the territorial equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals).
Obviously that terrible corsi rate is skewed by a small sample of games, but it’s clear by eye that Engelland is playing well over his head in a top four role. The 32 year old defender loses his check frequently in the defensive zone. He’s not quite quick enough for puck races, which means opposition players either beat him there or his only play once he arrives is a frantic puck rim to a sitting duck winger on the boards. Besides zone entries and exits, a good stat to track for NHL defenders would be “defensive zone puck rims”. I suspect the worse a player is, the more frequently he will resort to firing the puck along the boards.
– Dennis Wideman is the other problem skater on the back-end. Though he seems at times slightly more functional than Enegelland, there’s still a very wide gulf between his level of play and the size of his pay. There was some chance that Wideman struggled last year because of injuries, but so far this season it doesn’t look like a rebound is in order. I guess it’s a good thing the Flames don’t have cap concerns, because they are stuck with that $5.25M.
– Mark down Paul Byron as the biggest early season surprise. While he seemed to finally establish himself as a bona fide NHLer last year, the 25 year old winger has easily been one the Flames best and most consistent forwards so far. Byron’s speed and hands look above average and he’s driving the play north better than anyone not in the club’s top defense pairing. And that’s despite a zone start ratio of just 41.9%. If he had scored on at least one of his three break-aways so far this season we’d be hearing a lot more of his name around town I suspect. Maybe that Robyn Regehr trade wasn’t a total write-off after all.
– Let’s all take a moment to laugh at the Edmonton Oilers, but let’s also realize that there’s almost no way they are actually this bad (again) given their NHL low PDO of 91. Edmonton management and coaching has made some questionable decisions already this season, so the club hasn’t exactly iced the best possible roster, but at some point one of their goalies will start stopping the puck.
Of course, there also isn’t a team in the league that could afford this kind of start to their season, so it will be interesting to see what the big brains out there do in response to an increasingly angry and vocal fan base. It would be very Kevin Lowe of them to overreact to a spate of bad fortune and further sink an already flawed roster with some knee-jerk trade.
– Now for a little self-promotion. I recently appeared on the All the Kings Podcast to talk about advanced stats (what else), which you can find here. I’m going to appear on a series of these explaining different stats and the reasoning behind them, so stay tuned.
– Also, the latest Hockey prospectus annual is out, to which I was a minor contributor. I added new essays on the Flames and Oilers 2013-14 seasons, plus my two part series “An Outsiders Insider View of the NHL Stats Revolution” which originally appeared in this space. Follow the link to buy a .pdf version if you’re so inclined.