The blueline of the Calgary Flames was one of the most overwhelming positives to come out of the 2014-2015 season. Lead by captain Mark Giordano, Calgary’s defensive group scored a lot, blocked a lot of shots, and impressed observers and pundits league wide. By and large, that group is back again, and to make matters better, the Flames also added an impact player in late June. So how much better should Calgary’s blueline be this year?
Much like yesterday’s post on goaltending, we’ll take a look at the good and the bad before coming up with out preseason verdict. When talking about this Flames defence, however, I think most will agree that the pros far outweigh the cons.
Dougie Hamilton. When you add a player like Hamilton to the fold, you’re going to get better. When you add that player without giving up anything on your active roster, the impact becomes even greater. June acquisition of Hamilton from Boston makes Calgary’s blueline instantly better right now. The fact he’s only 22 is probably even more important, because he’ll be a core piece for years to come.
Hamilton was one of Boston’s best defencemen last season, if not their best. In just his third professional season Hamilton lead all Bruins defenders with 42 points, a total that tied him for fifth on the team overall. Averaging 21:20 of ice time per game (third on the team), Hamilton finished with Boston’s best possession numbers among defencemen.
His 54.91% Corsi for rating put him ahead of the likes of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, and he did while still seeing plenty of defensive responsibility. Hamilton played on one of the top two pairings all season long, and started 46.9% of the time in the offensive zone. There was no sheltering or protecting at all, and Hamilton still had success. The fact he was 21 only makes the feat more impressive.
More depth. Hamilton’s addition also has a rather large trickle down effect. First off, the Flames now possess one of the league’s most impressive top three with Hamilton joining Giordano and TJ Brodie. The options with those three and how they are utilized are numerous. Do you keep Giordano and Brodie together like they were last year as one of the league’s top pairings? What about playing Brodie with Hamilton? That would give Calgary one of the league’s most promising pairings for years to come. It’s fun to think about.
Almost as important is what this could do for the second and third pairings, and specifically for Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman. While both had really strong years offensively last year, I still believe they played in slots a little over their heads. To me, both Wideman and Russell are best suited for 4/5 roles on the blueline. Well, the good news is, that’s exactly where they’re going to play this year.
Progression. We already mentioned that Hamilton is just 22 years old, while Brodie is only 25. Both are under contract for the long term, and both look to have a lot more in store. We’ve seen Brodie develop and mature in front of our eyes, but it was only last year that the rest of the league saw just how much of a gem the Flames have on their hands. Every single year since turning pro we’ve seen Brodie take significant steps, and I don’t see that trend stopping for at least the next few years.
Hamilton falls into that same category, with even more time in front of him. Now, eventually every player peaks or plateaus, but even if Hamilton is close to doing that, he’s still a heck of a player. I’m not convinced he is close to peaking, for the record, but my gauge on his development year over year isn’t as strong because I haven’t seen him play every single game.
Regression. We talked about this in yesterday’s post about goaltenders, and I also think it applies to a few members of Calgary’s blueline. Giordano is coming off two straight years of being a Norris contender, but he’s had both of those years over the age of 30. Does he take another step forward next year? Hell, with this guy, who knows and I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone if he does. But maybe he does flatline or take a small step back. It certainly wouldn’t be totally out of the question for that to happen.
I look more towards Wideman and Russell for this one, though. Much like Gio, Wideman had a career season last year at the age of 31. History would suggest we don’t see another year of 15 goals and 56 points. Wideman has been offensively productive throughout his career, with seasons of 46 and 50 points in the past, but age is always the great equalizer.
The potential for Russell to regress isn’t based on age, but more so on what we saw last year. The blocked shots debate was a heated one last year when it came to Russell, but it was also a valid one. No one is saying he wasn’t courageous or important in blocking his NHL record 283 shots. But that also means he spent way too much time in his own end. In fact, his 42.95% CF rating was second worst on the team among defenders while getting more favourable matchups and shift starts than the likes of Brodie and Giordano. If that happens again, I don’t think things go as well for Russell this year.
The #6 guy. Calgary’s top five is pretty set, regardless of who takes steps forward or steps back. What isn’t set, however, is who the final piece of the top six is going to be. Deryk Engelland probably has the leg up to start, and I guess that’s not the worst option in the world. I’m not a huge Engelland fan, but I do think he’s a better option than Ladislav Smid. I think that specifically because we have no idea what Smid is going to look like after missing a large chunk of last season. In fact, at this point, we don’t even know if he’s going to play.
If I had it my way, the Flames would re-sign David Schlemko and have him as their number six guy with Engelland as the seventh. But Schlemko remains a free agent, so continuing to beat that drum seems silly at this point. Maybe Jakub Nakladal or Tyler Wotherspoon make meaningful pushes, but as it stands right now, the glaring weakness for me on the blueline is the sixth guy.
Better. This is a pretty easy judgement to come to, because it’s hard to see how the Flames won’t be better on the back end next year. Yeah, the regression we talked about might come into play, but I think it’ll be counteracted by the trickle down effect of adding Hamilton to the fold. Calgary boasts one of the league’s most impressive bluelines and it should be a large strength for them again next year.