[Editor’s note: Please everyone, give a kind welcome to the FlamesNation team to arii, who you may know best from her superb work over at Matchsticks and Gasoline!]
Everybody loves Mark Giordano – or at least, they should. The guy has all the makings of a great story: nice, humble guy who was never drafted, only to unanimously be chosen to follow up Jarome Iginla as team captain, become an All-Star, and be on the verge of winning the Norris Trophy.
And that last one would be a pretty big deal. Only question is, just how did he get to that point?
Something changed at the start of the 2013-14 season. First, he was named captain, which probably gave him a new surge of confidence. And second, he got a new defence partner: a 23-year-old former fourth round pick by the name of TJ Brodie.
Playing with others
Before we look at how Giordano and Brodie have played together, we should see how well they did playing with others. Here, we’re taking numbers from the 2011-12 season, as well as the 2013 half-lockout season: the two seasons played with Brodie (mostly) in the NHL, but not yet partnered with Giordano.
Let’s start with Giordano.
Over the course of the 2011-13 seasons, Giordano played more than 100 5v5 even strength minutes with four different defencemen: Scott Hannan, Jay Bouwmeester, Dennis Wideman, and Cory Sarich.
Here, we can see that Giordano performed better when separated from Hannan and Bouwmeester, but Wideman and Sarich put up better numbers when not partnered with Giordano. In this case, Sarich was the only one performing as a positive possession player, with a 51.0% CF over two seasons when not playing with Giordano.
Giordano did make Hannan and Bouwmeester better when they played together, but brought Wideman and Sarich down.
Giordano had a decent performance with his defence partners over those one-and-a-half seasons, although he never did manage to break even in corsi for over that time. His own CF from 2011-13 was 47.7%, although we should note he didn’t exactly get easy minutes, with a relative offensive zone start (ZSO rel) of -1.8%.
Now, let’s move on to Brodie.
Brodie also spent more than 100 minutes with four defencemen over the 2011-13 seasons, his first two in the NHL: Sarich, Wideman, Bouwmeester, and Derek Smith.
Unlike Giordano, Brodie performed better when separated from pretty much everyone he played with, and he was a positive possession player the entire time. Sarich, Wideman, and Bouwmeester all benefited from playing with him, as their possession stats increased as long as they shared the ice with Brodie. Smith – the defenceman Brodie played with the least of the four – is the only one this doesn’t apply to, but the difference isn’t even a full percentage point.
Brodie was a positive possession player from the moment he became a full-time NHLer. Over 2011-13, his individual CF was 51.1%. However, as a rookie and sophomore, he did have easier circumstances than Giordano, including a ZSO rel of 5.7% (e.g., slightly more offensive zone starts than the team average). This certainly impacted not only his performance, but the performances of those he played with.
His circumstances would soon change, though.
Together at last
From 2011-13, Giordano and Brodie only spent 37:20 minutes together.
From the start of the 2013-14 season to today, they have played 1,741:50 minutes together: quite the leap as they became the Flames’ new top pairing.
At first glance, Giordano and Brodie look pretty even. Giordano actually has the slight edge on Brodie – 46.3% CF to 45.5% – but that’s easily explained when looking at their relative offensive zone starts.
While Brodie was sheltered in his first two seasons, that has been far from the case since he’s been partnered with Giordano. Brodie’s ZSO rel now sits at -8.8%, while Giordano gets the slightly lighter load at -7.2%. Giordano’s possession numbers are better than Brodie’s because his zone starts are better, too.
Here’s the real takeaway from this, though: Brodie, at age 23, slid seamlessly into the top defensive pairing. His predecessor, Jay Bouwmeester, couldn’t make Giordano a positive possession player. In fact, Brodie is the only regular defence partner Giordano has had over the past four seasons who has pushed him above 50% CF.
Mark Giordano’s sudden All-Star and Norris-caliber success – had he not been injured last season and had mainstream media been more recipient to things like corsi and zone starts, he would, and should, have won the Norris – corresponds directly with TJ Brodie becoming his defence partner.
Seven partners, one fit
Let’s compound this by looking at both Giordano and Brodie’s most common defence partners from 2011-15. These are all guys the two have played more than 100 minutes with over the course of the four seasons.
Brodie is the only defenceman Giordano has passed 50% CF with. Brodie is the only defenceman Giordano has managed to be a positive possession player with, and this is while they’re both playing big minutes with difficult zone starts.
(It should be noted that the only other time in the past four seasons Giordano has been a positive possession player is when he’s gotten away from Scott Hannan. Away from Hannan, Giordano was 50.2%; with Hannan, he was 45.4%. Fun to note in light of the Flames’ playoff push: Hannan is a regular in the Sharks’ lineup, which, haha, what?)
Over the past four seasons, Giordano has made Brodie, Wideman, Smid, and Butler better players, but he has been unable to make the latter three positive possession guys.
Brodie has been a positive possession player not just with Giordano, but with Cory Sarich and Dennis Wideman as well. And while Giordano has approached the 50% CF mark when separated from most of his partners, Brodie has actually passed it every single time, the one exception being when he plays without Giordano.
He’s at his best with Giordano, though; just as Giordano is at his best with him.
Brodie has been a good influence on more than just Giordano, though. He’s made Sarich, Wideman, and Butler better players as well. Giordano and Brodie share Wideman and Butler in common, but their numbers with Brodie are greater than their numbers with Giordano.
All this is to say: Brodie has been making defencemen better ever since he entered the league as a 21-year-old. It’s no surprise that when he finally got partnered with another really good defenceman, the two have done nothing but thrive.
Brodie is seven years younger than Giordano
Mark Giordano is a very good defenceman, but it wasn’t until he was partnered with TJ Brodie that we saw his game go to the next level. Giordano and Brodie are arguably the best defensive pairing in the league, and by no means is it all Giordano.
Here’s something else to consider: NHL defencemen tend to peak around their late 20s and early 30s. Giordano is in his early 30s, and he’s fitting that bill to a tee. Brodie, though? Brodie is only just entering his mid-20s.
In all likelihood, Brodie is going to get even better.
This is going to be absolutely crucial as the Flames progress through their rebuild. By the time the Flames may be considered Cup contenders – probably a few seasons down the line yet – Giordano won’t be this effective, and Brodie will be the new number one.
And he’ll be a legitimate number one, too. From the second he became a regular NHLer, all he’s done is control the puck and make his (older, more experienced) teammates better.
So while all the attention is, very deservedly, on Giordano right now, keep an eye on his partner. He’s never been a passenger, and soon, we may see him overtake the driver – if he hasn’t already begun to.