Random Thoughts: The 2015 Blueline

Training camp has finally arrived and we can start talking about the Flames depth chart for the season. Calgary’s blueline got a big infusion of talent with the Dougie Hamilton acquisition, but took a couple of (extremely) minor hits with the loss of depth guys David Schlemko and Raphael Diaz. That means there are a few ways the defensive pairings could shake out. 

Here’s how I think things will shake out. Or would, if I was Bob Hartley. 

Breaking up TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano might make sense.

I know. Hear me out. 

We know Giordano and Brodie are a great top pairing. But they are also two left handed defenders on a team that needs at least one left hander to anchor the second pairing with RH Dennis Wideman. 

Wideman has a very particular skill set – one that privileges offense while lagging on the defensive side of things. He needs someone to stabilize things south of the redline. To wit:

DefendersNHL

 

Via Travis Yost’s recent article.

If you can’t quite make that out, Dennis Wideman has been one of the worst defenders in the league at preventing shots from the slot and crease over the last few seasons. That accords with his HERO Chart results as well:

WidemanHERO

For those unfamiliar, the “CA60” stands for corsi against per 60 minutes of ice. Wideman’s poor rating here indicates the opposition tends to get a lot of pucks on net while he’s on he ice. 

Fortuantely for the Flames, they also have one of the best in the league at denying shots in TJ Brodie. If you look at the four quadrant chart above, you’ll find him the bottom left (the best bit) all by himself. Furthermore, here’s how his Hero Chart balances out Wideman’s:

BrodieHero

Brodie is a shot denial machine, but not as effective offensively. By paring the two, you might be able to boost the scoring of one while limiting the defensive short-comings of the other. 

Which brings us to…

Russell and Wideman must be broken up. 

This contention is considered blasphemy in certain corners for the Flames fandom. After all, Wideman and Russell were the plucky top pairing down the stretch when the Flames made the playoffs and knocked out the Canucks in the first round!

It’s true, but the reality is they outscored their problems by skating with one of the hottest lines in the NHL at the time (Gaudreau, Monahan and Hudler) and the two of them positively haemorrhage shots and chances against when they skate together. On top of all that, every other pairing on the team had to be completely buried at even strength just to (try) to keep Russell/Wideman afloat:

WidemanRussell

This chart shows the Flames regular defenders from last year. They are organized by quality of competition (y-axis) and their ratio of offensive to defensive face off zone draws. The colour of the bubble represents the rate at which that player yielded shots against per 60 minutes – meaning the deeper blue, the more shots the player gave up. 

As you can see, Russell/Wideman were off on an island by themselves when it comes to offensive zone starts. Even Smid and Engelland had tougher zone starts. Nevertheless, Wideman (67.51/60) and Russell (67.03/60) had the worst corsi against rates on the team by a fairly wide margin. The only other guy within spitting distance was Deryk Engelland (65.32/60), who is a third pairing guy who started way more frequently in the defensive zone. 

To put Wideman and Russell’s shot against rates in perspective, the Flames gave up over 9 shots per 60/minutes less with Mark Giordano on the ice last year – and he played much, much tougher circumstances. 

The Rusell/Wideman duo is a chaos pairing. They spend a lot of time dodging rubber in their own zone and have to hope they can out-block and out-score their defensive issues. They also place a huge burden on the other pairings because they have to be much more carefully managed at ES because of these issues. 

Break ’em up. Move Brodie down to help Wideman and bump Russell down to the third pairing. 

The Flames 3rd Pairing is scary. In a bad way. 

Even if Russell gets bumped down the depth chart, Calgary’s depth options on the blueline are fairly unpleasant. Like “everyone else is below replacement level” unpleasant. To the Hero Charts!

RussellHero

Kris Russell – A middling offensive guy, but below average defensive guy.

SmidHero

Ladislav Smid – not an NHL defender by most measures.

EngellandHero

Engelland – definitely not an NHL defender (ignore the points stuff – Engelland’s rates are somewhat pumped up by frequently playing forward during his time in Pittsburgh. Remember this numbers are being compared to average rates for defensemen, which skews the results here). 

Notice not one of these guys can deter shots to a meaningful level. It makes combining them into any sort of useful pairing a big challenge. 

The Flames have other options in the kids and hopefuls – Tyler Wotherspoon, Jakub Nakladal, Brett Kulak, Kenny Morrison, to name a few – but they are all unknown commodities at the NHL level at this point. There’s no guarantee any of them are any better than the options listed above. 

What about Ryan Wilson?

Ahh yes, the wild card. He doesn’t have a contract yet, but Wilson is the one guy on a PTO who offers some hope in the Flames training camp. The 28-year old has only played 31 NHL games over the last two seasons due to injury issues, so we don’t have a lot of recent data on him. Prior to that, though, he was a useful middle rotation option. Here’s his results from 2012-14:

wilsonHero

Those are nice numbers. If Wilson is indeed healthy and able to garner a contract from the Flames before the start of the season, he seems to be a good depth option for the club. 

The depth chart we’re left with is something like this (in an ideal world):

Giordano – Hamilton (top pairing, toughest minutes)

Brodie – Wideman (second pairing, offensive minutes)

Russell – Wilson (third pairing, take on what’s left)

Smid, Engelland (insert when injuries occur)

It’s extremely unlikely things will begin like this, but perhaps Hartley will be pushed in this direction as the season evolves. To start, we may have to sit through Smid with Hamilton type experiments for awhile. 

PuckTalks Reminder

PuckRegionalPosterCGY

As many of our regular readers are probably already aware, I will be appearing at Puck Talks Live this evening at the Pint with a collection of Calgary hockey talking heads, including Pat Steinberg, Eric Duuhatschek, Eric Francis, Roger Millions and George Johnson. The event is just an informal chat about all things hockey. Kinda like having a beer, except I’ll have a microphone. 

Tickets for the event are available here. BONUS – You can use promo code “thepint” for $5 off the ticket price.  

  • mk

    A further “this might sound crazy” thought: what about pairing Giordano with Wideman, and Hamilton with Brodie. Allow Hamdie (Bromilton?) to get tougher minutes and d-zone starts. Give Gioman (Widano?) more chance to use their offensive tools.

    The gist of my question: to balance skills or to specialize pairings?

  • Burnward

    I was honestly shocked to see those numbers from Ryan Wilson. I assumed he was more of a depth type player in Colorado before his injury issues started. If he’s healthy, he could be huge for the bottom pairing. Despite Russell’s poor Corsi against, his ability and willingness to block shots is key for keeping the puck out of our net.

  • Burnward

    I don’t think anyone actually thought that Wideman and Russel should stay together. Because that would mean either Brodie or Hamilton would have to play on the third line (or Brodie play with Engelland again) and that’s just ridiculous.

    I think having Russel play on the second pairing with either Hamilton or Brodie makes much more sense then Wideman. He’s unquestionably a better defender then Wideman and has played quite good despite never having a good partner. If Russel could play with Brodie or Hamilton I think he would be a great defender and his smooth skating would great with either of them and their play style.

  • DestroDertell

    I agree with pretty much everything but I don’t think you should’ve used CA60 to prove your point about Russell/Wideman. It leaves a window for people to argue that it’s inflated by blocking lots of shots.

    Russell’s high-danger chances, fenwick events and scoring chances against have been horrendous since he joined the flames. Same is true for Wideman but at least 1) he’s excellent at generating events on offense, unlike Russell and 2) his overall possession stats were A LOT better before being paired with Smid/Russell while playing under tougher circumstances.

    • DestroDertell

      “This contention is considered blasphemy in certain corners for the Flames fandom. After all, Wideman and Russell were the plucky top pairing down the stretch when the Flames made the playoffs and knocked out the Canucks in the first round!

      It’s true, but the reality is they outscored their problems by skating with one of the hottest lines in the NHL at the time (Gaudreau, Monahan and Hudler) and the two of them positively haemorrhage shots and chances against when they skate together. On top of all that, every other pairing on the team had to be completely buried at even strength just to (try) to keep Russell/Wideman afloat:”

    • hulkingloooooob

      haha. indeed. they couldn’t, or…..did they? anyone who watches these guys play know how clutch Russell is and how much he’s improved since joining the flames. no his numbers are not amazing, but he’s never had a consistently good partner. i’d love to see him with one of the top three. i think a season of that and you’ll all be singing the russell tune. i for one love the guy. i feel like he did for wideman what brodie did for big E. in other words prop him up. give him a decent partner!

      • JumpJet

        I think we are in the minority around here. Also have noticed BT has not really mentioned Wideman either. We have a huge decision to make on whether Russell is our #4 Dman going forward. I think you have to go with Russell & maybe Gio in that 2nd pairing & see if he can elevate his game. I think he did to some extent at the end of last year & in the playoffs. Either Wideman or Russell will be moved by the TDL, depending what happens in the 1st 40 games. I can see Russell signed for the next 4-5 years but I don’t see Wideman extended after his 2 years are up. That should probably assist in the decision making as to who gets the first chance to shine with one of our fab 3.

        Smid will probably start the year on LTIR

        • Derzie

          Ryan Pike at Hockey Writers projects:

          DEFENSE:Projected pairings:

          Giordano – Brodie;
          Russell – Hamilton;
          Engelland/Smid – Wideman

          I could live with that…And Ryan Wilson as the 7th D-man with Smid on LT Disability.

    • DestroDertell

      Yet they ended up making the playoffs. I wonder why?

      First 14 games after Giordano was injured:

      Goaltending (Hiller + Ramo): 92.6 ES Save% – 16th in the league over that spam

      Record: 7-7

      Next 6 games:

      Goaltending (Hiller): 95.2 ES Save% – 3rd in the league over that spam

      Record: 5-1

      As it turns out, goaltenders can cover up a lot of mistakes.

    • mk

      What a ridiculous comment. The Flames accomplished both of those things last Spring with Russell-Wideman as our top pairing. Even if you’re in love with stats and their unproven inherent assumptions, you shouldn’t be so blinded as to totally ignore reality just because some stats tell you so.

  • DestroDertell

    Its funny I routinely don’t here Denis Wideman’s name mentioned whenever Treliving speaks. For that reason and others, including personal preference at least as it pertains to the Flames cap future, I see at some point THIS SEASON Wideman being traded for a cheaper third pair defensemen.

  • DestroDertell

    Not sure how the pairs will work out but I don’t see anything to disagree with the pairs you have set out. But I also don’t think any set of pairings will last the game.

    I think that later in games the better teams are going to get a fairly steady diet that involves one of Gio, Brodie or Hamilton playing either with one of the other big three or with one of the bottom three, dependant on who the other team has on the ice. I.e., I think Hartley will shorten his defensive bench, especially if there are injuries and the bench includes Smid or Engelland.

    I also think Hartley will try and keep his big three fresher, to the extent that he can, for the hell that will be 3 on 3 overtime.

  • Reidja

    Kent, it could be constructive tonight to bring up these facts about Russell’s game with the MSM guys. The risk of course is in being dismissed as the detached stats worshiper.

    The narrative of Russell being such a character, shot blocking, gritchart guy is too ingrained for my liking. The Fan960 guys were talking about a raise to $4MM per a couple of weeks ago. I hope BT can avoid the emotion fueled myopathy that seems to be driving folks into endorsing what would probably be another bad contract for a depth defender.

  • everton fc

    Russell is a 5/6 d-man. He has shown he can log “bigger minutes”, which makes him valuable, as he can serve a purpose when someone is down and out. Which is where his value lies…

    But, Wideman is probably best as a 5/6 d-man himself. What about Hamilton w/Wideman? Or Hamilton w/Russell? Unless they want Gio w/Hamilton, which, to me, is putting all your eggs in one basket. You keep the pairing of Gio and Brodie together, I think. Though Brodie with one of Russell or Wideman might also work (more likely Brodie w/Wideman).

    Maybe Russell/Wilson will work? And what to do w/Smid, Engelland? (I think they’ll try and move Smid, and hold onto Engelland. Not saying I agree). Aaron Johnson may end up in Stockton to replace Potter. Makes sense.

    • Parallex

      I don’t think anyone ought to cherry pick evaluation standards if someone wants to use CF or FF as a comparative tool that’s fine but you have to use it universally and not just select it out for Russell.

      Although it doesn’t really help his case much anyways… amoung D-men who played 300+ minutes Russell was sixth amoungst Flames D-men in FF% while having the highest % of offensive zone starts.

    • DestroDertell

      Russell’s Fenwick%Rel in the past two years: -2.45. This ranks him 6th out of the 10 defensemen who played 300+ minutes for Calgary during that spam.

      The four defensemen below him are Butler, O’Brien, Smid and Engelland; below average #7-8 Dmen on most teams.

  • everton fc

    I would be careful with the Hero Charts, they’re easily skewed by context.

    Look at Russell’s Hero Chart from 2011-2013 and all of a sudden he’s a top pairing defenseman in CF% and Primary P/60

    Look at Wideman’s Hero Chart from 2008-10 and all of a sudden he’s nearly Mark Giordano out there.

    Look at Smid’s Hero chart from 2010-12 and he’s a very competent defensive #4

    Look at Deryk Engelland’s Hero chart from 2011-13 and… he’s.. an NHL defenseman.

    What we know is that the pairings from last year, other than Gio/Brodie, were a disaster. We also know Dougie Hamilton should pull up whoever he’s paired with. Beyond that I don’t think the Hero charts tell us a whole lot.

  • beloch

    Here’s an opinion from off the reservation:
    Could Rasmus Andersson play in the NHL this season?

    Yes, he’s far too young to be ready for the NHL. I know. But what if he is ready?

    Andersson is 8 months younger than Aaron Ekblad. When Ekblad moved up to the NHL, Andersson joined Ekblad’s former team and took over his top pair duties. Offensive production is obviously not the gold standard for telling when a defender is ready. However, on the same team and in the same place in the lineup, Rasmus Andersson (68 pts, 0.895 ppg) outscored Aaron Ekblad (59 pts, 0.881 ppg).

    As we all know from last season, Ekblad wasn’t just merely ready for the NHL. He was an impact player to the extent that he beat out Gaudreau for the Calder. Could Andersson be anywhere nearly as good if he plays in the NHL this season?

    Ekblad is obviously a special player and Andersson probably isn’t going to be as immediately successful. However, Andersson got off to a great start at Penticton, where he looked more ready than anyone else, including guys like Kenney Morrison who, given the competition to sign him last year, is well thought of even for someone four and a half years older than Andersson.

    Rasmus Andersson probably isn’t ready, but he might be. It will be interesting to see how he performs at camp and in the pre-season. There is a distinct possibility that he’ll shock everyone and bump a veteran into the press box for game #1 of the regular season.

    • mk

      Interesting thought. It makes sense that this would be a good way to break rookies into the d-core slowly: give them easier 3rd pairing minutes for a bit before dropping them into a top-4 situation.

      As much I thought Kylington/Morrison/Nakadal would be there ahead of him, Andersson did impress at the prospect tournament. As you said, his offensive chops are up there – what about the rest of his game? Anyone have a good read on the other aspects?

    • SmellOfVictory

      Burning two years off of Rasmus’ ELC would be irresponsible, we have no need for an Offensive RHD and he won’t be a likely upgrade over Wideman/Hamilton as a 19YO IMO.

    • JumpJet

      I’ve been wondering this too. He is a right shot, so slotting him with Russell on the third pairing could work (along with Kent’s other suggested pairs).

      If Andersson really is ready Hartley and the Flames better stick to their “earned never given” mantra.

  • SmellOfVictory

    Kent, I agree with your pairings, however $ 6.75 million spent for two guys either playing the 7d spot, or sitting in the press box is hard to digest.

    Here’s hoping some other team is in desperate need of a d-man early on.

  • JumpJet

    I’m one of those who like the Russell/Wideman pairing as a third pairing. The issue is who else palys with the big three? If someone can win that job from Eng’s and have chemistry with one of those guys that’s three effective pairings. If one of wide’s or russell plays witth the big 3 then things will be different. let the battles begin.

  • Derzie

    Russell Wilson. Easy nickname 🙂 That said, I like the logic of your arguments. Engelland should roll into the bottom pair when we play chippy teams to keep the peace a little. He’s bad at hockey but the Nurse/Ras bit reminds us that for every Lady Byng prospect there lurks a thug.

  • mk

    The only question I have is how can advanced stats account for all the of variables that exist when playing professional sports?

    Who one plays with as a D partner, as a linemate, or even as a 5 man unit (6 including goalie), as well as who one plays against has a drastic affect on ones advanced stats.

    I understand that these things are still considered when evaluating the numbers but sometimes I still think the bigger picture is lost on some…

    Don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to dismiss these stats, I just think they are a tool in a toolbox. At the end of the day results are gospel, not complex, underlying numbers.

    I get and agree with the practice but I’m sick of comparing the stats of a guy against another guy who was played in completely different circumstances!

  • Burnward

    Steinberg, Francis, Duhatschek, Millions, Johnson and then Kent Wilson.

    One of them isn’t like the other…an actual journalist with credentials.

    Kent – You just wrote an entire article on who should play with eachother only talking about Corsi…you completely failed to bring in all the other variables into the equation that should be taken into consideration and once again used a narrow minded single approach only looking at Corsi. This is not how the real world works, nor the game of hockey. This is the very reason the attempted stats movement will never have full-on credibility/traction, it refuses to acknowledge all other components of player evaluation.