Better or worse: Defence

for-better-or-for-worse-christmas-6

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.

For better

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.

For worse

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.

Early verdict

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. 

    • The Fall

      @ChinookArchYYC

      I too do think that it would be great to maximize Wideman’s value, but Wideman and Hamilton are both right handed shots. However, I’d expect Wideman still to get power play time, either with Gio or Brodie.

      The depth of the blue line is just amazing to think about this year; I’m so pumped for the coming season. It feels like we’re tripling the number of elite defensemen on the club, considering that Gio was not on the ice during the entire run to the playoffs! As mentioned by Pat, Wideman and Russell will be playing the 4/5 positions as opposed to splitting top pairing minutes with Brodie/Engelland. Wideman certainly won’t be getting over 24 minutes per game, and as a result, won’t replicate his career year. But maybe Wideman can show that he is a useful depth defensemen that can be deployed with success in offensive situations. I sure do hope they can move that $5.25 million contact before next season, without having to give up much. That would definitely help alleviate the cap issues next season.

  • Parallex

    Yeah, obviously for better.

    There is, however, much work to be done… only now the work is subtraction rather then addition. Smid & Engelland: those guys have got to go (and the sooner they can be gone the better).

  • McRib

    The “worse” has to be that the Flames have almost 10% of their cap tied up for two more years on two defencemen that are 6-7 guys on nearly any team in the league.

  • Parallex

    Incidentially, pairings I’d start the year off with… Russell-Engelland, Giordano-Wideman, Brodie-Hamilton

    L/R balance + a puck mover w. Engellend + the young top 4 D get to start building familiarity.

  • TheRealPoc

    I’m not sure if this qualifies as nitpicking or not – because of who’s above the slot and what impact the slot actually has – but #6 on the depth chart is still a huge concern for me, to the point where I’m surprised it hasn’t been more adequately addressed.

    I don’t disagree with the current sequencing of the pecking order; both Wotherspoon & Nakladal need to earn jobs in “camp” (see: early season) if they’re to end up anywhere but Stockton, and it’s safe to label Smid a complete unknown at this point, because I’m not sure how anyone could have a clue what he’ll look like this season…although I highly doubt anyone’s holding their breath for a potential renaissance season. Seems appropriate they start as the 7th, 8th & 9th options on the depth chart, in some order.

    Which brings us to Engelland, who – as of August freakin’ 31st, 2015 – is still, quite clearly, the entrenched #6 on this depth chart. That is horrifying. By any metric or evaluation, he was unfathomably awful last year, and I’m not sure how his play in the Canucks & Ducks series brought anyone to a conclusion other than “he can’t play at this level.” He simply can’t. Not for 10 mins a night, not for 15, and certainly not for 20+.

    That final point is still salient for me, because Engelland was in the exact same position last year; it’s not as if he was a mid-pairing guy prior to slotting in next to Brodie for the stretch run – he was the clear #6/#7 who was thrust into an untenable situation. Even on a much more micro-level scale, you can plan on sheltering Engelland as much as possible night after night, but the threat of getting caught in a bad matchup always exists…just like the possibility of having to assume a much greater workload always exists. Injuries happen, circumstances aren’t static and guys need to shuffle around, perhaps even into roles & responsibilities way over their head. If you’re keeping Engelland as your #6, IMO, you’re not doing a good enough job of mitigating the risk of getting exposed badly on the back end, whether that be in the immediacy of a game or over an extended injury-ridden stretch.

    I understand the contract comes into play here as well, and the burden of that remaining $5.8M presents considerable difficulty when looking for a resolution. But again, we see the importance of not wasting a single roster spot in today’s era. It was tolerable last year, for a team that barely surpassed the cap floor threshold and wasn’t expected to compete. As we approach contending status again, this needs to be addressed ASAP.

    #SignSchlemko

    • KACaribou

      As stated by others in this thread, the importance of guys like Engelland, particularly when the Flames have such a young core, should not be downplayed. And certainly not to the extent that Poc and others portray it. Someone else said ‘run him out of town’. If this was so evident in his play, do you think he would have got a minute of ice time, let alone the 20+ he was averaging at the end of reg season and then playoffs? There is clearly something your simple minds don’t see when it comes to importance of guys like this.

  • MonsterPod

    I agree that Engelland is the D weakness, but I’ll swim upstream here and voice that I like the guy.

    There is still an element in this league where certain dudes get paid to mess with your best players and they need to be protected. You’ll see this in Edmonton this year no doubt.

    We have the lightest (and most adorable) player in the league in Johnny G. We also now have rookie Bennett who needs to be protected from things like that wicked shoulder-to-jaw shot Hamhuis leveled at him in the playoffs.

    I was surprised last year when Engelland worked Gazdic in a tussle. Then at one point against the Ducks in the playoffs, he had two guys — one in each hand — one of them the giant Maroon, and nobody wanted to mess with him.

    He was known as a great character and locker room guy when he was brought in, and I’m hoping Hartley can work with him on his deficiencies and help him improve, at least to the point he can be our #6/7, rotating into the lineup when we need some grit, like against St. Louis and the SoCal teams.

    Hamilton makes our D bigger, but overall our D is still small. Eng helps to offset that. We have the smaller guys who can fly, and mobility is more important than ever, especially under Hartley’s style. But Eng serves a different purpose, and personally, I’m glad he’s a Flame.

  • KACaribou

    Pat, what I think is the only regression component in this is one of Wideman or Russell will regress. I do not see how Hartley does not keep his elite top pairing together, that is money in the bank. So, the question shouldn’t be whether either Wideman or Russell regress but who would improve(not just not regress) between the two of them with Hamilton as their partner. My money is on Russell. Shift either of these guys down to the #5 spot & Engellends numbers improve slightly but Wideman or Russell regress significantly.

    I keep reading everyone wanting Schlemko. Tired of it because it just won’t happen unless some significant moves are made. No way you can bring in Schlemko for a 1 year, mill/year deal while Engellend & Smid making a combined 6.5mill are entering training camp & expecting to play with either Wideman or Russell on that 3rd pairing.

    I love our defensive group, we are just paying way too much of our cap on that bottom pairing.

  • Toofun

    I might be in the minority but I would put Wideman with Hamilton on the second pairing.

    It keeps Gio and Brodie as 1st pair and creates a very dangerous 2nd pairing. I didn’t love Wideman 2 years ago but he was clutch last year and it’s all about the effort he threw into the season. I think he’ll be great with Hamilton and build chemistry with him both on and off the ice (similar to the Gaudreau relationship that developed last year).

    Finally a 3rd pairing of Engellend and Russell fit each other better than Engelland and Wideman.

    • PrairieStew

      Right shooting defencemen are rare. Don’t think you’ll see the two of them together for that reason. If keeping a right left balance, which I think is important, then it’s Hamilton and Brodie – and feed them the tough minutes and top lines; and then Gio with Wideman playing in offensive role. Russell plays the third pair with either Engelland or Nakladal. Smid might go to Stockton for a while to get his game back. No real savings on the cap, but no chance he gets picked up o waivers either.

  • Toofun

    I’m surprised there hasn’t been more sign Schlemko posts. When the defence for this season come up it usually looks like a fan blog for a US network sitcom called Everybody Loves Schlemko.

  • KACaribou

    I will never figure out the hate poured over Wideman and Engelland.

    Wide-dog is a freak at getting the puck on the net through traffic.

    Engelland played 20 minutes a night when Gio got hurt and played very well. A very nice number 6 guy, and a tough guy among lightweights on D.

    I think we should be very grateful for what we have and appreciate that every D-man can’t be Bobby Orr but as a unit there aren’t many better if at all.

    Oh, and good article Pat!

  • The Fall

    Don’t think Engelland would be getting so much hate if his contract was 1/2 the current value. But it is what it is

    But let’s face it:
    he came out of the press box and picked up big minutes when asked;
    he actually helped the team make the playoff down the stretch;
    no, he wasn’t the reason the Flames defeated Vancouver; but
    HE ALSO WASN”T THE REASON THEY LOST TO THE DUCKS.

    Englland represents a depth player who has experience in playoff games against high-end competition. He was the only option last spring. The pool was pretty shallow.

  • Craig

    Let’s be clear here, Engelland did not help the Flames make the playoffs. Brodie, through some miracle, lifted the boat anchor Engelland onto his back and made him not look like a tire fire.

    We should all be praising Brodie for his effort when Gio went down, but for some unexplainable reason, Engelland get’s all the credit.

    I want him gone. I hope he get’s beaten out by Nakladal/ Morrison/ Wotherspoon.

    • RedMan

      I tend to agree with you. The arguements for Eng’s because of the two wrestling matches is over blown. Playing without Brodie he was to be blunt terrible. Playing with Brodie he was at best adequate. The argument that he played 20+ minutes during the playoffs is quite simplistic; look who was behind him Potter, Diaz and Spoon; do you think he plays 20 minutes a game with this group? At best he is our 7th d man who only dresses if Hartley expects trouble. He loses far to many 1 on 1 battles behind the net and misses far more outlet passes than he makes frequently resulting in icing calls. If he plays in your top 6 who do you him with? Brodie and bring his game down, Gio and bring his game down, Hamilton and his game down; I hope note. Playing him with Wides would make no sense or even with Russell. He cis not skilled enough to play on the PP and he is not quick enough to be really effective on the PK so when does he play?

      • RedMan

        Disagree with the tough crowd on Engellend. If we want to get right down to brass tacks, Gio & Brodie literally carried that whole defensive group for the 1st half of the year. Like many players on many teams, the intensity levels go up in the 2nd half. Russell & Wideman definitely upped their games. But it wasn’t much of a secret that it was Gio & Brodie that got that Hartley game plan rolling with the brand of hockey we got to watch. Gio’s injury forced Engellend into the 2nd pairing. Horrible scenario & as much as we already know Brodie is a stud, Engellend upped his game. Even yet, Engellend isn’t a 2nd pairing guy. Put him with Wideman or Russell or a very talented up & coming young guy & Flames are going to be fine back there on the bottom pairing for this year coming up. Next summer will be a different story. Engellend was signed as a bridge, maybe 1 year too long but his 2nd half & playoffs has given the contract some value. This team is still in transition, & I am curious to see how Engellend responds with a much deeper, stronger D group. Put a healthy Gio & Hamilton in the lineup against the Ducks & it’s a different series & Vancouver doesn’t win 2 games.

      • Craig

        If he was forced into the lineup, why wasn’t he burried on the 3rd pairing, getting minimal playing time? Look, i am not suggesting he’s a top 4 guy, all i am saying is that his toughness and intimidation still adds value. It indirectly gives our guys a bit of room out there. He is not pure goon either. He can actually skate decently, which in today’s NHL is a feat in it’s own because relatively speaking, the game has never been played at this level of skating. Similar to Ducks D, with all the talent and skill of guys like Vaantanen, Fowler, Lindholm, there is Clayton Stoner out there. Even as this game evolves to one of more skill and speed, the need for toughness still very much exists.

  • RedMan

    Top 7, clearly:

    Gio, Brodie, Hamilton, Russell, Wideman, Smid, Engelland.

    like it or not.

    everyone else rotates in for injurys to whatever hole they are covering, or rotates in and out of the press box, trading paces with Smid an Engelland.

    I don’t see it any other way… at least not until trades or an AHL demotion.

    I have no problem with the last 3 guys, except I want to see a couple prospects get a look