Whether they lose him short-term or long-term, the mere thought of being without Mark Giordano for any length of time is a terrifying one for the Flames. And it isn’t just because he’s the team captain. Or because he’s their most played player. Or because he’s been leading the Flames in scoring for most of the season.
Although all of those definitely play a massive part.
Fact is, losing Giordano would be a blow to just about every team in the league. But he’s the Flames’ best player, and his loss really stings that much more for them, because beyond him and his defence partner TJ Brodie, the Flames really don’t have much going for them. It’s a problem that’s become increasingly apparent as the season has gone on.
The Flames may very well have the best defensive pairing in the entire league, but after that, the defensive depth is just not there.
The minutes are not spread out
Throughout the season, Bob Hartley has distributed the minutes on the backend so that Giordano, Brodie, Dennis Wideman, and Kris Russell play the majority of the game, while some combination of Ladislav Smid, Deryk Engelland, and Raphael Diaz take the remaining garbage time. It’s a system heavily reliant on the top four. It also acknowledges that there’s no depth.
Look at how much time the Flames’ top four spends out on the ice compared to the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Vancouver Canucks (aka the Pacific Division teams the Flames are directly competing for a playoff spot against):
While the defencemen ice times for the other three teams more or less gradually slope down, once you leave the Flames’ top four it’s more akin to jumping off a cliff. The only other defender on that graph who comes close to the Flames’ bottom three in ice time is Jamie McBain, and he dresses only about half the time compared to his teammates.
The Flames really only trust four guys. They’re incredibly lucky that of the three players to play every game for the Flames so far this season, two of them are Giordano and Brodie. (The other guy is Sean Monahan, if you were curious.)
At least they score a lot
The Flames do have one of the NHL’s highest scoring backends. Between the top four, they have 140 points between them: 48 from Giordano, 37 from Wideman, 35 from Brodie, and 20 from Russell. They’re the only team in the league with three players in the top 20 for defencemen scoring. Considering how the Flames are the third worst team in the league at shot generation, that offence from the backend is important.
Engelland, Diaz, and Smid have a grand total of eight points between them. Part of this is, of course, due to their drastically reduced ice time. Then again, there’s a reason they don’t play many minutes. And even if they were promoted, the idea of any one of them being able to provide the level of offence the current top four has seems awfully unlikely. Engelland’s career high in points is 17, Diaz 16, and Smid 15. None of them are that kind of player.
The top pairing is the only one doing well
But ultimately, when you’re playing defence, actually defending is rather important. And while the Flames have a very clearly defined top four, it’s only the top pairing that’s actually doing a good job. Via War on Ice:
Nobody on the Flames is a positive Corsi player, but when you look at things relative to just the Flames, everyone outside of the top pairing is a failure. And considering how everyone outside of the top pairing plays easier minutes, that’s really not good.
Wideman and Russell not only play an inferior quality of competition, but they’re by far the most sheltered of the Flames’ defencemen, starting most frequently in the offensive zone. This should give their numbers a boost, but it doesn’t, as ultimately, they give up more shot attempts than they can create, even with the advantage of starting far closer to the opposition’s net than their own.
So even though the second pairing plays a fair amount of minutes, they’re nowhere near the quality of the top pairing. Imagine Wideman or Russell taking more starts in the defensive zone. Not only would their offensive numbers probably go down as they’d be forced to play in more difficult circumstances, but they’d probably bleed even more shot attempts against.
The bottom three defencemen don’t get quite the offensive zone boost the second pairing does, but they also play far, far easier competition in their limited minutes, and they still generally can’t handle it.
The Flames have one very, very good defence pairing that has saved their butts throughout the entire season. After that, it’s a disaster. And the Flames’ sheer lack of defence prospects outside of Tyler Wotherspoon only makes things worse.
So… hopefully Mark Giordano won’t be on the shelf too long. Because the season is essentially over without him.