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:
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:
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:
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:
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!
Kris Russell – A middling offensive guy, but below average defensive guy.
Ladislav Smid – not an NHL defender by most measures.
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:
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.
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.