The new-look Flames defence, post-Mark Giordano version

For a while, the Calgary Flames had their defensive core figured out. Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie handled the main duties on the top pairing and Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell provided support to round out the top four. 

Then there was, well, the others: those deemed lucky enough to get maybe 10 minutes a game. They consisted of a rotation of Deryk Engelland, Ladislav Smid, and Raphael Diaz, until Smid got injured, apparently never to be seen again, and Engelland and Diaz took over full time.

It was their defence lineup. They found it all on their own. It was little and broken but still good. (Actually not really all that good, but they were winning games and scoring a lot so pretty okay. Gio and Brodie were the good ones, really.)

And then Giordano’s season ended prematurely, and the Flames have had to figure out a new defensive lineup for the remaining 20-ish games, with the potential for an extra four or seven or maybe even more.

The first move was to promote Engelland to the top four, replacing Giordano as Brodie’s partner. This was an extremely bad move.

The second move was to collect David Schlemko off of waivers, providing capable defensive depth for free. This was a pretty good move.

What had once been:

Giordano – Brodie

Russell – Wideman

Diaz – Engelland

Turned into:

Russell – Wideman

Brodie – Engelland

Schlemko – Diaz

Pro: Each pairing now featured a lefty and a righty, providing a nice bit of a balance to the back end.

Con: Engelland completely destroyed Brodie, pretty much dragging him straight down into the depths of hell. We’re talking a developing elite defenceman suddenly floundering with some of the worst numbers on the team thanks to a veteran signed to an inflated contract in part because of his “experience” and “character” and “hidden value” or whatever.

Con x2: Because Bob Hartley recognized that Engelland definitely can’t play 30 minutes a game like Brodie can, Russell and Wideman became the top defencemen. A world in which Brodie is available and yet not playing the top minutes is not a good one. This is the world we are currently living in.

Con x3: Brodie and Engelland have now played 67:59 together this season. And while not a big sample size, the results are, to say the least, incredibly alarming. Together, they have a CF of 28.9%. Apart, Brodie has a CF of 48.0%. Engelland’s is 42.0%.

Twenty-eight point nine per cent, guys. TJ Brodie. That’s unthinkable for him. Even as a rookie, he never dipped so low.

The thing is, Engelland isn’t even that terrible on his own. He isn’t that terrible with anyone else. Brodie and Engelland are just aggressively incompatible with one another, and yet have been defence partners for five straight games.

And then, a miracle

It’s Sunday, March 8, 2015. Brad Jacobs and Pat Simmons are in the midst of a tight gold medal Brier match. I will not stop talking about curling because that draw was awesome. The Flames are losing 4-0 to the Ottawa Senators after two periods. They have looked very pathetic and mostly bad.

They come out for the start of the third period. The very period the Flames have made legends of this season. In a seemingly hopeless contest, Hartley elects to start off by sending out Mikael Backlund, Mason Raymond, and David Jones. Brodie mans the blueline.

Diaz is beside him.

They play the entire third together, amounting to some pretty considerable ice time for one period. Not as much as Russell and Wideman, but pretty close to them, while Engelland and Schlemko are schafted. The Flames score four goals, the first coming when they were manning the blueline.

Now, how much of that third period comeback was the result of score effects, and how much the result of Hartley finally abandoned his Brodie-Engelland pairing, which had been consistently getting slaughtered across 14 periods? To reaffirm it with this tweet of mine, because it really can’t be put any better:

I swear because I care. Very deeply. Because Brodie and Engelland are a horrifically bad pairing.

Diaz and Brodie’s 16:57 played together this season is even less of something to go off of compared to Brodie’s ice time with Engelland. But. Together, we know they have a CF of 54.3%

Extremely limited minutes, but come on. Which pairing – and with Brodie being the Flames’ current number one defenceman, it’s an especially crucial pairing – do you place your bets on? As the coach of a bubble playoff team in a situation where it would be so, so much better to make it than to not by this point, and a blueline in extreme disarray thanks to an extremely unfortunate injury, which pairing do you at least try for the next five games?

Visualize it:

brodiediazengowowy

The coach has had an issue playing Diaz all season long. He’s had a couple of 15 minute games here and there, this one 17 minute anomaly, but for the most part, Diaz is left hugging the 10 minute mark. Until Hartley realized he needed a change, took a risk, and put the remaining right-handed defender with his best guy. And in those few moments, it paid off, big time.

Hell, simply keeping Brodie and Engelland apart would pay off, apparently, but there’s the added bonus that Diaz actually rose to the task. His 18:42 against the Senators marks a season high for him.

And it’s not as if Diaz can’t handle bigger minutes. He averaged 20:33 for Montreal back in the 2013 lockout season. Even playing on three different teams last season, he averaged 17:59 a game. Engelland’s career high is 16:09.

Diaz isn’t an ideal replacement, but he’s a capable one, which is more than we can say about Engelland.

The Flames have averaged 38.9% CF since losing Giordano. They’ve been extremely lucky to win games so far, but in all likelihood, it won’t keep up. If it doesn’t keep up, they won’t make the playoffs. For the good of the team, the Brodie-Engelland experiment needs to be officially over. After all, even if Diaz with Brodie was an anomaly and that period primarily the result of score effects, Diaz couldn’t be any worse.

… Probably.

At the absolute least, it’s definitely worth giving Diaz and Brodie as much time together as Brodie and Engelland got.

  • Burnt Offering

    Wow, Ari….

    Annointing Diaz as “the answer” after a single period in which Ottawa was hanging on for dear life and barely attempted a foray into the offensive zone is pretty desperate.

    I totally agree that Engelland is not the answer for Brody, but Diaz is a one dimensional offensive defenceman whose defensive zone coverage is way too weak.

    I am going to trust Hartley to find the right answer, he’s earned that right, but I think that we will find out very quickly that it won’t be Diaz.

    • TheRealPoc

      If Diaz isn’t the answer, but Engelland most definitely isn’t the answer either, and everyone else is on IR…

      It boils down to this: Engelland can’t act as an effective outlet for Brodie, which disables Brodie’s ability to solve problems/get out of jams in retrieval, breakout and transition. The traditional stay-at-home d-man as we know him is long gone – you cannot play at this level any longer without above average puck skills.

      And let’s end the notion once and for all of Engelland being defensively responsible; standing still in front of your net, while your partner busts his nads to cover 85 ft. of width to end defensive sequences, does not constitute sound d-zone coverage. Dude’s an oaf.

    • Greg

      Not sure if he’s anointing Diaz so much as pointing Engeland most certainly is not.

      I think you go with it and see if the small sample size indication holds up. If it doesn’t, you give Schlemko a chance. If that doesnt, well, you throw Wotherspoon in because (a) may as well finally give him a chance and (b) the playoff hopes would likely be done by then if both Diaz and Schlemko crash and burn just as badly.

      In which case, Hartley should also immediately run upstairs and scream at BT to “get me another f’ing defencemen before next season or I will gut you!”

  • T&A4Flames

    K, 1st, where the hell is Smid? Is be ever coming back? What is his ailment? 2nd, run with Briaz until they flounder and then try Schlemko with Brodie. Lets see if we have another Russell on our hands by giving this guy a shot with good players.

  • T&A4Flames

    Diaz is strictly a gap player that no one else wanted to sign other than Hartley who had a previous relationship with him in Europe. At the end of this season he is back in Europe as Flames will be upgrading their ‘D’…..

  • Lordmork

    The Engelland signing is IMO, the worst decision the team leadership has made. I think he’s a worse player than Diaz, except that he brings “toughness” which is why the team vastly overpaid for him. And he’s here for two more years.

    Please, let him and Brodie never touch the ice together again.

  • T&A4Flames

    The salaries of the defenseman on this team don’t reflect what each of them contribute. Diaz at 700k is one of the more realistic salaries,while Englland Smid and Wideman are overpaid.Gio Brodie and Russell are underpaid.

    There has to be a plan to straighten this all out.

    Lance Bouma is grossly underpaid!

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    This is what I would like to see happen, as soon as fiscally possible (staying above the cap floor):

    Bollig and Engelland swap positions (Bollig = D, Engelland = F), then they both get on a rocket ship to the sun.

  • Greg

    Also, as much as it would look like egg on his face, I would immediately have an increased respect level for BT if he bought out Engelland this off season. I doubt it would happen, but would speak volumes that the org, and himself, learned from their “size up” strategy last off season and are able to quickly admit and correct mistakes.

    Question: who should the flames target for a UFA dman this off season?

  • WildfireOne

    The fact that the last significant playing/injury instance we saw of Schmid was him taking a hit to head speaks volumes as to the protracted length of his absence (and the use of his #3 by another player indicates an even longer timeline to return).

    In other words, best guess is that he suffered a concussion with an ensuing post-concussion syndrome. If I recall correctly, Paul Kariya lost an entire year in his career due to it, and there’s many more examples…

    Again, just speculation without official word from the Flames

      • WildfireOne

        Hmm… I was looking at an image of Smid wearing #3, but you’re right — he was wearing #15 when he was hit this season. My apologies for the mix-up, looks like I have to change numbers on my Smid jersey after all.

        (I’m kidding, my jersey is actually #29 for my favorite player…no, it reads “Otto”)

  • Toofun

    Great article.

    Kudos to Wideman and Russell as well.

    Regarding Schlemko, I want him to be good and he might get there after a few games, but so far he’s had too many errors so he needs to stay on the 3rd pairing for a while yet. Oh and he can do shoot outs. I didn’t see that coming!

  • The Last Big Bear

    Engelland hasn’t been that bad on his own, not by the eyeball test anyways, but he has had catastrophically bad anti-chemistry with every other defenceman he plays with.

    I don’t know what it is. I honestly don’t think Engelland is that bad. He’s not that good either, by NHL standards, but he should be a perfectly adequate 3rd pairing guy. But for reasons I have yet to fully understand, every pairing that includes Engelland has been downright awful.

    I don’t want to fire him into the sun. That’s overstating the case a little, I think.

    But I can’t honestly say I have a *better* idea, either…

    • ChinookArchYYC

      The eyes have failed you my friend. Engelland’s is constantly a step slower than every other player on the ice. His play without the puck is depressing (and he plays without the puck almost exclusively). He caught flat footed and turned the wrong way, which turns into a goal, nearly every single game. Seriously, start counting how many scoring opportunities against he’s on the ice for. It’s depressing.

      Engelland makes me wish for Cory Sarrich, who also mad me crazy.

  • RKD

    Anyone but Engelland, I bet Wotherspoon would be much more compatible with Brodie. Brodie should be on the top pairing. Brodie and Russell would be a pretty strong pairing but then a Wideman-Engelland pairing would be bad. I would move someone up with Wideman and move Engelland back to the last pairing.

    • PrairieStew

      Part of Brodie’s struggle is adapting to playing the other side. All season he has been on the right with Gio. Playing with either Engelland or Diaz puts him on the left. Normally, I prefer the guy to be on his strong side for a number of reasons, but Brodie is the exception – he plays better on the right. Even Jay Bouwmeester struggled playing the right side, though having Chris Butler as his regular partner didn’t help.

      So I would again advocate for Russell (L) moving up to play with Brodie (R). I know that means splitting him and Wideman up, but it would also mean backing Widemans minutes back down a bit. I would give left shooting Schlemko a shot there; and even Wotherspoon as a second pair option; knowing that Brodie and Russel are playing 30.