Despite how pleasantly surprising these 2014-15 Calgary
Flames have been, there’s a lot that isn’t quite ideal right now. Being down 0-1 to
the Anaheim Ducks in the second round of the playoffs isn’t ideal. Being
blown out 6-1 by them also isn’t ideal.
But probably most of all, Mark Giordano not being able to
play is not ideal.
Not having Giordano around means multiple things:
- The Flames lost their best player.
- The Flames lost half of their top defence pairing.
- TJ Brodie can no longer play on the top pairing.
- TJ Brodie has to play with an inferior partner.
- That inferior partner is Deryk Engelland.
- Being elevated to the top four means Engelland has to play more minutes in harder circumstances.
- Engelland is not particularly great at hockey, so more of him isn’t good.
- Instead of being elevated by Giordano, Brodie is brought down by Engelland.
- Ultimately, the Flames’ defence is nowhere near as strong as it could be.
When Giordano went down, Bob Hartley immediately selected
Engelland as his replacement. The Flames have now played more than two months
with Brodie-Engelland as their second pairing.
It has not worked out.
Even though there appears to be another option.
At a glance, it looks obvious. Brodie is substantially
better with David Schlemko than he is with Deryk Engelland; the numbers go from
disastrous to impressive. Not only that, but Engelland himself is better when
he isn’t with Brodie.
There are a few reasons for that: zone starts and quality of
competition. By playing 20 minutes a night on the top four as opposed to 10 or
so on the bottom pairing, Engelland is put in a position where he has to face
better opponents more often. Because Brodie plays at an elevated level,
Engelland is forced to match his competition, and he’s not the kind of
defenceman who can do that.
Zone starts play a massive part, as well. When playing with
Brodie, Engelland’s OZone% is 32.1; when he played away from him, that number
jumps to 43.2.
Simply put, Engelland out of the top four is an Engelland in
a position to actually potentially succeed, rather than being thrown to the
wolves and praying Brodie can help keep him above water. (He cannot. Nobody can. Not even Gio.)
It should be noted, however, that these are regular season
numbers, and therefore, when comparing Brodie with Engelland and Brodie with
Schlemko, they’re very, very skewed. For example, when Brodie started shifts
with Schlemko, their OZone% was 40.0. The Brodie-Schlemko
pairing has been more sheltered than Brodie-Engelland.
Time is the really big skewer, though. Brodie spent 332:01 even
strength minutes with Engelland over the regular season, and just 18:52 with
Schlemko, so we understand more about Brodie with Engelland than the alternative.
Why not Schlemko?
Considering how disastrous Engelland’s numbers are with
Brodie, context be damned, why wouldn’t you try someone else at some point?
Right now, Schlemko is the only reasonable option. Tyler Wotherspoon is too
green for top four playoff action, and every other possibility is either
injured or Corey Potter. (Do not play Corey Potter.)
Schlemko’s most common defence partner this season was
Raphael Diaz, with 140:11 even strength minutes spent together on the Flames’
bottom pairing. They were a positive possession pairing at 52.30%, but again, as the bottom pairing, sheltered, with an OZone% of 48.4.
After Diaz, Schlemko’s most common partners were Zbynek
Michalek and Michael Stone, with approximately 70 even strength minutes spent
Michalek is a pretty good defenceman, so of course,
Schlemko’s numbers with him are better than his numbers with Stone. There’s
just one other important number not included there: their OZone%.
With Michalek, it was 58.6; with Stone, 52.8. This is where
we have to take into account the Arizona Coyotes, despite their worse record,
were a better possession team than the Flames: 48.6%, compared to 44.4%.
This also generally meant better OZone% numbers: 49.3 compared to 45.3. When you have the puck more, you get more shots on net, you have more opportunities for offensive zone faceoffs.
A dual partnership
So, why not Schlemko? Because while the numbers he posts are good, he posts them in incredibly sheltered circumstances, and needs a good defencemen alongside him to do it. He hasn’t played tougher zone starts. He hasn’t really played in top four situations.
Here’s the thing, though: we already know he thrives in reduced circumstances. We know that Engelland is struggling.
From the first round playoff series:
And then Engelland was on the ice for five of six goals against the Ducks. The Ducks are a significantly better team than the Canucks, so Engelland playing top four minutes against them is something of a massive concern.
At the same time, there’s no evidence that Schlemko’s numbers could sustain in top four time.
But… there’s no evidence he’d be any worse, either.
And the Engelland experiment, despite going on for two months now, is clearly not working.
Schlemko already occasionally plays with Brodie. Why not just play him more? Split Engelland and Schlemko’s time down the middle. It’s an odd circumstance to be in, but the Flames really only have three properly functional defencemen, and even that much is debatable. So break up the fourth man minutes.
Or, if we’re at the stage of giving Wotherspoon more minutes now – he played 14:32 against the Ducks, with most of those minutes coming once the Flames were already down 6-0 – just try replacing Engelland with Schlemko flat out for a game.
Because while the options are few, it’s not as though Engelland is the only one.