How Do Calgary’s Defensive Pairings Shake Out?

This was an exciting summer to be following the Calgary Flames.

General manager Brad Treliving made a big swing at the NHL Draft, acquiring Dougie Hamilton from the Boston Bruins for a few draft picks. Fan excitement was high, as was anticipation from media types regarding just how much of an impact Hamilton could have on a pretty talented young Flames team.

With an eye towards exploring just how much Hamilton can impact the Flames in 2015-16, let’s dig into the possible pairings for the next season.

THE TOP THREE

Let’s be blunt here: the Calgary Flames now have three really good defensemen: Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. That’s two left-shooting defenders (Giordano and Brodie) and a right shot (Hamilton). The top pairing for the Flames, like last season, will be a combination of two of these players.

The good news is that leaves a really good defenseman to play in the second pairing.

THE NEXT TWO

Now, the next grouping is Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman. Russell’s a pretty effective defensive defender at this point, having set the NHL shot-blocking record by virtue of being in a position where he and Wideman were hemmed into their own zone a lot with the other team shooting pucks at them. Wideman’s a strong offensive player with defensive issues so when Giordano was healthy, these guys got a lot of offensive zone starts.

Unfortunately, Giordano went down and Brodie was paired with Deryk Engelland in the team’s second pairing. Because Engelland needed the help, they got most of the offensive zone starts and Russell and Wideman ended up with defensive starts. Nobody’s sure how good Russell is offensively because he’s had to carry Wideman and Chris Butler since he’s been in Calgary. At worst, we can presume that Hartley values both players equally, albeit for different reasons. Russell’s a left shot, while Wideman is a right shot.

THE REMAINING TWO

Finally, we have the dynamic duo of Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid. Engelland’s physical and was surprisingly competent with T.J. Brodie covering for him last season, but he’s probably ideally suited for a role where he doesn’t play a ton but is relied upon to physically wear down players along the wall. Ladislav Smid was another player of that ilk, though it’s yet to be seen how good he is after a couple pretty gnarly injuries last year. Smid is a left shot, while Engelland is a right shot.

There are a few different ways the pairings could get drawn up by Bob Hartley.

LEFT-RIGHT BALANCE

Some coaches like balancing left shots and right shots because it makes the transition game easier and players a bit less likely to bobble the puck when playing it off the boards – they don’t need to shuffle from their back-hand to their fore-hand, for instance.

If the Flames go for left-right balance, here’s how their pairings shake out:

  • Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton
  • T.J. Brodie and Deryk Engelland
  • Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman
  • Ladislav Smid

    I like these pairings because Hartley gets the benefit of keeping two pairings that performed fairly well during the playoffs and down the stretch together, while adding a really good pairing on top of them. You’re basically retaining whatever chemistry they developed last season, while rewarding them with easier match-ups.

    It’s also as close to a balanced attack as the Flames are going to get. One of the strengths of the Anaheim Ducks defensive scheme is that they were able to just rolling pairings last season without worrying too much about zone starts or match-ups. That meant that in the meat of the game, they could lean on their top pairing a bit more because their best players still has gas in the tank.

    Oh, and you get the benefit of a Norris candidate being paired up with the team’s shiny new toy. Presumably Giordano and Hamilton would get the top power-play minutes, while Brodie and Wideman would be on the second unit.

    Another option is putting Brodie with Wideman and Russell with Engelland, but Russell and Engelland together wasn’t great last season (39.9% CorsiFor together) and the experiment was abandoned very quickly. And I also fear that Brodie with Wideman would really drag Brodie down in terms of his ability to jump into the play (they had a 30.3% CorsiFor in limited even-strength minutes together last season). They work fairly well together on the power-play, but they also have a man advantage in that situation and I’d rather not make new pairings have to re-establish chemistry rather than just cash in on the work already done.

    TOP-HEAVY

    Let’s say that Hartley says “screw it,” and doesn’t want to have balance. He wants one or two pairings that can just wear down teams. With an aim towards having a couple epic pairings, here’s what I came up with.

    • Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie
    • Kris Russell and Dougie Hamilton
    • Deryk Engelland and Dennis Wideman
    • Ladislav Smid

    Giordano and Brodie were awesome together last season (48.9% CorsiFor) and can eat up a lot of minutes. Russell and Hamilton could be really good, particularly given Russell’s past experiences with carrying Wideman and Butler. It’d be cool to give him a chance to really excel with a high-end, well-rounded player.

    Beyond that, it’s basically just a grab bag where you choose two of the three. I think because of his offensive talent, you have to keep Wideman in the line-up as often as possible – he can still jump onto the power-play, where he’s quite valuable and productive.

    And in terms of Engelland (playing on the left side as a right shot) or Smid, I think it depends on which player shows more. If nothing else, rotate them depending on opponents. Until there’s an official indication that Smid is 100% medically cleared, you might as well just keep Engelland penciled in. (For what it’s worth: Wideman with Engelland had 25.0% CorsiFor, while Wideman and Smid together were 43.6% CorsiFor.)

    OH YEAH…

    It’s also worth noting that Tyler Wotherspoon is a left-handed shot, and he’s developing into a pretty decent stay-at-home defender. If they want to bring him along slowly, putting him on the left side with Wideman on a pairing that doesn’t get a lot of minutes but gets lots of offensive zone starts could be a nice way of doing that. If anything, that might be the ideal – giving the Flames a couple strong pairings and a third pairing with a young guy on the left and a guy with a cannon of a shot on the right.

    But that would probably also involve an injury or two to the defensive group – or a trade or two – and would probably render a lot of this discussion moot.

    AN IDEAL WORLD

    If I had the ability to play God and throw three pairings together for opening night against Vancouver, here’s what they would be:

    • Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie
    • Kris Russell and Dougie Hamilton
    • Tyler Wotherspoon and Dennis Wideman

    One of Engelland or Smid would be in the press box, the other would probably be traded somewhere else.

    THE PROBABLE WORLD

    Here’s what I think we get on opening night.

    • Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton
    • T.J. Brodie and Deryk Engelland
    • Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman

    Ladislav Smid is probably in the press box, Tyler Wotherspoon is probably in Stockton.

      • Parallex

        Hartley has lots of flexibility. He could stand pat with Gio/TJ,Wide/Russell, and Hamilton and whoever wins the job. Or he could go with the RD/LD concept going with Russel/Wides, TJ/Hamilton and the best RD that is left to play with Gio. or and the list continues. That is hopefully what the preseason is for.

      • DestroDertell

        This argument that we need to have one of Engelland or Smid in the top 6 is a sunk cost fallacy. They’re both terrible #6 – I doubt anyone’s expecting Smid to return to his better days – and this team needs a upgrade. Fortunately, I doubt Nakladal came here to spend time in the AHL and Schlemko is still available for some reasons.

        • wot96

          I don’t think anyone wants to keep both a healthy Smid and Engelland if there was a way of getting rid of them. But Smid has a no-trade clause, and Engelland’s contract is so bad the Flames would have trouble moving it even if they kept as much salary as allowed.

          The only thing either of these guys offer at this point is the ability to catch knuckles, and Engelland can throw some. Without these two, the Flames have three great and two reasonably good defencemen and that is a perfect opportunity to break in one or more “rookie” defencemen. If none of the rookies in our system can cut it, then Schlemko is there to fill in the gap.

          People are not counting on Smid and Engelland because the money would be wasted if we didn’t play them; People are counting on Smid and Engelland because they don’t see a way to get rid of them.

      • Deef

        Gio-Brodie,
        Russel-Wideman,
        Hamilton-Smid or Stockton’s Stud
        Engelland as a 7th

        Why break up the two pairings that got us to the playoffs? Don’t fix what ain’t broken! Let the new guys play their way into the existing pairings should they lose any of 2014-15’s awesomness.

        • AF

          There would be some who would think you mean Eng/Brodie as you second pairing but I’m pretty sure you are referring to TJ/Gio and Wides/Russell. The other day there was another article on our defence and I got quite chastised for being to hard England; the defenders of Eng’s recited his 20 minutes per game in the playoffs and his toughness and intimidation factor. I can’t help but look at his entire season, the first 2/3 of the season he was horrible and the last third including playoffs being paired with TJ he was at best adequate. I am sure the advanced stats guys would probably be able to support and old eye test guy with his stats. For his 20 minutes a game one has to remember who was playing behind him Diaz, Potter and Schlemko, All 3 are no longer with the team. Personally I would Schlemko over him but Hartley had his reasons. As for his toughness and intimidation if we needed that we would have kept McG as he was way more intimidating. The alternatives we have this year are significantly better than the ones we had last year(IMO). As far as toughness goes; from my defence I would prefer a guy who can lay a heavy body check and win battles on the boards and behind the net. Far to often I recall Eng’s being out hustled, out worked by smaller quicker forwards and losing battles with the more physical forwards. When he did win a battle for a loose puck far to often he missed with the outlet pass and we either lost possession or were called for icing and he would have to be on the ice for another possession. For this to happen as much as I recall suggests he needs to be replaced. Now if he comes into camp and is clearly better than any of the other defensive prospects then he can earn his position. I however see him playing he odd game when someone needs a rest, has the flu or a big bad meany that the Flames are worried about. Saying this I see him going the way of McG being sent to the minors at some time during the season; the only things that might prevent that would be a rash of injuries and the owners not wanting him to be paid nearly $3 to play in Stockton.

          • ChinookArchYYC

            I completely agree. I would only add that regardless of his pay, he’s a misfit on this team, especially in light of the fact that there are better options ahead of him as a 6/7th D.

      • AF

        Bottom line is that Engelland needs to go. Zero doubt in my mind and I’m sure most others, that Wotherspoon is already the better defender. Ditto Smid – cannot be brought back. Nakladal and Wotherspoon can compete against each other for the 6/7 spots.

      • ChinookArchYYC

        I’m feeling that the opening D lineup will be the Hartley screw it one:

        Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie
        Kris Russell and Dougie Hamilton
        Deryk Engelland and Dennis Wideman
        Ladislav Smid

        Some of you mention Morrison and/or Nakladal; likely the year with the Heat for them unless 2 or more injuries to the current lineup. T W Spoon will also likely be with the Heat. If Smid can’t go Flames re-sign Schlemko; you can’t have T W Spoon sitting in the press box – he needs ice time to develop. I am still hoping we see Spoon in the NHL full-time sooner than later.

      • The GREAT Walter White

        I listened to an interview with BT yesterday talking about Smid and this is more or less what he said; “Smid looks in great shape and the recovery from the surgey is showing great promise but it is unlikely Smid will be able to participate fully in training camp.” The Flames could sign Schlemko ( I would be okay with that) or they could allow the prospects to battle for that position (again I would be okay with that)

        • RedMan

          if any of the prospects are as good or better than schlempko, stick with the guys in the system. otherwise, for sure, go with Schlemko. The team is really giving mixed signals about Smid though, isn’t it? one day you here “looking and feeling great, ready for the new season”, then you hear, “may not be ready for training camp”

        • piscera.infada

          Care to elaborate?

          The beauty of this blog (or a blog, more generally), is just to provide a forum for discussion. Will most be wrong regarding what Hartley will do? Likely. Who cares though? Ask the questions, because it’s a fun debate.

          • piscera.infada

            The thing is, it’s not a debate. It’s a one-sided assassination of guys like Engelland. He never gets credit for the things he does well. If I had no idea about hockey and stumbled into this forum, I probably wouldn’t allow Engelland to hold my coat for me, let alone play on this team. So then I wonder, what must Hartely and the Flames organization see in him? If it’s so contrary to common sentiment, perhaps the righteous change behind the bench needs to be made. Wait a minute… didn’t that guy win the Jack Adams?

            • thumz

              The thing is is that we (I) are not saying Engelland isn’t a good person, nor that he didn’t fill an important role last year, and stepped up in a big way when Giordano got injured. He did all that and in addition is supposed to be a great teammate in the dressing room too. Agreed on all counts.

              The “issues” are two-fold. First, we still need to improve as a team to further progress towards the Stanley Cup and you usually do that by upgrading your talent while still maintaining necessary leadership and other intangibles that help a team win. As Engelland is one of our lower level D, backed up both in where he plays on the ice as well as advanced and other stats, he is one of the likely candidates to get moved out and hopefully replaced by someone better. Secondly, his salary seems a bit high versus the game he brings, and in this Salary Cap era you can’t afford to do that. That Flames are facing a potential $$s crunch next season and moving Engelland and replacing him with one of our cheaper, younger prospects would help with the $$s.

              Now what you are saying is partly true. Some people watch a player on the ice and see he makes mistakes that cost the team (EVERYONE makes mistakes), and start to focus on those things, forgetting that yes, he isn’t a top D, what did I expect? We all imagine players playing mistake-free and constantly winning and as a fan I think that’s an admirable goal. The team is trying to win, we should support that. But doing so respectfully without character assassination would be nice to see. Mostly it happens, sometimes not.

              Engelland has done a reasonable, no a good job in his time here. Can we improve by moving him out and giving a prospect a shot who may end up better? Probably, and we hopefully will see that happen. But in the meantime, respect. If he wants it to be here he’s going to have to ward off youngsters pushing for his job by playing better. If he can do it, great for us all. If he can’t best wishes for the future.

            • Toofun

              As coach, Hartley plays the guys he has. It’s the GM who gives him the team.

              In this case, the GM’s boss spent a ton of money on a guy many of us don’t think is very good.

              This puts the coach and the GM in a relatively delicate situation. It also puts a lot of negative pressure on the player who’s agent deserves a pat on the back.

              All of that “is what it is”. The question becomes who do you play? If you are Hartley, chances are you play the boss’s boss guy unless he proves to be significantly worse than someone else who you have sitting on the bench. He can’t be just marginally worse or sometimes worse, he’d have to be trainwreck bad worse.

              As bad as he was, we isn’t really any worse than the other choices for that spot. The solution most folks on this site have is to dress him and play him as few minutes as possible.

        • ChinookArchYYC

          I will never understand people like this. What exactly do you want from a blog/forum? If all you want to do is cheer blindly, go ahead. The rest of us are to debate and discuss.

      • thumz

        Most probably already know my take on our defensive group but I am going to post this again because, well…. I can :-}

        Hartley may start with Brodie Dougie to see if that jumps out as successful as Gio Brodie pairing did last year. If not, Gio Brodie will be reunited in short order. Reason, expectations are going to be much higher & Hartley knows he will need to win as many of the winnable games as possible early

        We also have some serious cap issues next year, depending on what UFA’s we want to keep going forward, especially if we have a successful year again. If I were BT, I move Wideman & be willing to sacrifice a decent B+ prospect to make sure the return is decent & the return I would be shooting for is a 2016 1st round pick. The 5.25 mill cap savings will instantly give us the flexibility to be buyers at the TDL if we are in the playoff picture for a rental & then allow me cap space to keep some of the UFA’s next July. Smid & Engellend may have some TDL value but if not, they both can be dealt with next summer when they only have 1 year left on their contracts. So that means we can see Russell with Hamilton or Gio in that 2nd pairing. Engellend & Smid will man the bottom pairing to start the year & chances are Smid may be an injury issue early they will allow 2 of Tspoon, Nakaladal or Morrison to scrap over the #6 spot & the #7 spot.

        That is just me, not that I want to run Wideman out of town but his value from such a good year last year & freeing up 5.25mill in cap space is huge. Last thing I want is to be faced trying to dump Wideman(if he regresses), Smid & Engellend contracts all at 1 draft & summer while trying to retain Russell, Hudler & one of our goaltenders & resign 2nd contracts for JG & Monny. Also, chances are Ferland is going to have to settle for probably a 1 way, 1 year 1.2 mill showmen deal & if he does, there is another important player we will need to resign who is in line for a big raise. Just because we can get through this year with our cap space doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start to be proactive clearing cap room now. Best deals are when you don’t need to make them.

      • thumz

        I think this is gonna be the year of Russell! Dude scored some points in junior and I feel we haven’t seen that part of his game yet by virtue of average d partners. Now with the Flames top 3 rocking, they could give Russell some favorable situations!

      • thumz

        In the same interview Hartley was talking about Bennett playing centre he mentioned he liked the group of D he had including the obvious 5 and Smid. He didn’t mention Engelland at all. I remember thinking it was interesting, wondering if it was a way to boost Smid’s potential trade value if he gets healthy or perhaps they do think highly of him. Only problem is I worry about the foot speed of a Smid-Wideman pairing.

        For me:

        Gio-Brodie

        Russell-Hamilton

        (Someone not named Smid/Engelland)-Wideman

        PP: Gio, Hamilton, Brodie, Wideman

        PK: Gio, Hamilton, Brodie, Russell

        I dont know how to get to this point as we seem to be married to Smid/Engelland for 2 more seasons.

        With a top 5 like that I would love to slowly develop a young Dman, that looks close, in the lineup. He could be sheltered and I feel like our system is moving away from Dmen like Smid/Engelland. Engelland is a good number 7 that can suit up against bigger teams but our d core needs to be mobile from top to bottom.