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
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:
TJ Brodie with Deryk Engelland 9:20 ES: 18.75% CF
TJ Brodie with Rafa Diaz 10:30 ES: 62.50% CF
ARE WE FUCKING DONE HERE YET?
— ari (@thirtyfourseven) March 9, 2015
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?
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.
At the absolute least, it’s definitely worth giving Diaz and Brodie as much time together as Brodie and Engelland got.