Coming into this season, there was a lot of excitement about the Flames’ defence. And why wouldn’t there be? Not only did they already boast arguably the best pairing in the league, but they added a young player who looked to already be a top pairing defenceman.
It did lead to some discussion, though. How would Dougie Hamilton shake up the defence pairings? The Flames had a pretty established top four, but he was going to disrupt it for the better.
T.J. Brodie’s pre-season injury destroyed all of that, though. But now that he’s back, and hasn’t even missed a step, it’s time to re-explore the Flames’ options – as well as return to the pre-conceived notion that Hamilton absolutely is a top four defenceman.
Time to bring Hamilton out of exile
When Brodie was injured, the solution was obvious: put Hamilton on the top pairing with Mark Giordano. It was a perfect fit: he had top pairing pedigree, and he was a righty to go with Giordano’s lefty. It would be perfect, and the Flames wouldn’t miss a beat, basically like last season.
Except that didn’t work out. The two were horrific together, and finally split up.
It’s that split that ultimately resulted in banishing Hamilton to the third pairing, which he now occupies alongside Deryk Engelland. And playing sheltered minutes together, they’ve actually been pretty good.
Better than some other defencemen on the team, really. And if “always earned, never given” holds even an ounce of merit, Hamilton would start getting more minutes than some other players on his team.
Let’s take this time to remember just how well Hamilton performed in Boston. In his second and third years in the NHL, this is what he was doing (via War on Ice):
That’s why the Flames were so excited to get him. An extremely young defenceman was playing top pairing minutes, in top quality situations, alongside Zdeno Chara and faring extremely well. Even without Chara, though, he was still a high possession player.
But the adjustment period for Hamilton in Calgary has been very real. There are a lot of reasons for that: a new conference with a different style to play in, a new city to move to, a new contract to have to live up to, he’s still only 22. Take your pick. But there’s no denying things have settled down as of late.
Kris Russell needs to be out of the top four
We already know pairing T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano results in the best defence pairing on this team. It doesn’t exactly address the other issues plaguing them, though, namely the lack of depth following them up. Kris Russell and Dennis Wideman were sheltered all of last season and still the play went against them; the exact same thing has happened to start this season. They’re a pairing that can’t play together.
But swapping the default top four of yesteryear isn’t the answer.
Russell needs to be completely taken out of the equation.
To start the season, Russell has been horrific. His GA60 at 5v5 is the absolute worst amongst all regular NHL defencemen at 6.06 (next is Dennis Wideman, at 4.47). He has been on the ice for 22 5v5 goals against, and leads the league in both that category, as well as that of goal differential (-13). And this is all with +6.24% relative zone starts: he’s receiving easy minutes and absolutely tanking with them.
It’d be one thing if this was new, but it’s not.
Russell has been with the Flames since the 2013-14 season, which is when he first started getting top four defencemen minutes. And he has never been able to handle them. Despite always being sheltered, the more minutes he plays, the more inevitable it is the play goes completely against him. We’re just seeing him absolutely crater to start this season.
He needs to be taken out of the top four, and there’s really only one other person left to put in there: someone who we assumed, with good reason, would be there to begin with.
Brodie + Dougie = the pairing of the future?
Giordano never looked Norris-caliber until he was partnered with Brodie; who knows what Brodie does with Hamilton? But fact is, they’re two young players with a histories of playing through difficult circumstances, and succeeding. They’re both fantastic skaters, and they’re both still developing offensively, but already have 40-point seasons under their belts.
Partnering Hamilton and Wideman, two righties that have experienced suspect backchecking abilities, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Giordano and Wideman have looked decent enough together, though, and while they’re both offensively inclined, Giordano’s defensive abilities can help out Wideman more than most.
And although Brodie prefers playing the right side, he’s still a left-handed shot – and his skating is exceptional enough to adapt to pretty much any circumstance.
Giordano’s play is inevitably going to decline as he ages. Brodie, though, is 25; Hamilton is 22. They should still have several quality years before age, wear, and tear takes their tolls on them. It only makes sense to see if they should be together.
Since returning to the lineup, Brodie has been the Flames’ best player. True, it’s only been three games thus far, but the shift in the team’s play has been extremely noticeable. Their possession metrics have been at acceptable levels, but more consistently so since his return, and he’s brought elements of calm and poise to the backend.
And Hamilton is clearly too good for the third pairing. He’s thrived down there, but his talents are being wasted with the limited minutes he’s now getting. His confidence appears to be restored, and it’s time to put that to the test: by playing him with a player who should be able to support him.
One thing’s for certain: it couldn’t hurt any worse than insisting someone who has never performed well as a top four defenceman should remain in that position.