How does the Flames’ defending compare to other high-scoring defences?

Generating points from the blueline is an important component of a successful team. These days in the NHL, the more players you have in on the offence, the better – and that includes defence. And as commenter “smith” pointed out:

What I find interesting is the bottom 10 teams [in defensive scoring] looks like it contains 8 or 9 of the worst teams in the NHL.

This comes from our look at just how impressive the Flames’ top defenders are when it comes to scoring points: they’re at the very top of the league.

Also important for defencemen? Actual defending. The Flames allowed the second-most goals against in the NHL at 5v5. Teams scored against them 168 times at even strength over the season; the only team worse than the Flames was the Edmonton Oilers (surprise!) who had 170 goals go against them at 5v5.

And as Brad Treliving was certain to emphasize in his post-season presser: that’s not just a goaltending stat, that’s a team stat. For as much as the Flames’ blueline has been great at putting points on the board, there was something fundamentally wrong with the team as a whole when it came to actually preventing goals.

So let’s take a look at how individual defencemen performed there.

For the sake of both the length of this post and my sanity, we’re only going to look at the individual defencemen on the top five most offensive bluelines in the NHL (as judged by groups of top fours; the list can be found in the link above). This is because while the main job of the defence is to actually defend, actually scoring is an important component as well. We want the best of both worlds.

To that end, the tables below will be ordered by corsi events against, fewest to most. Looking at just points against doesn’t necessarily give the full story – but seeing how often a defender prevents a shot attempt against his goalie should paint a clearer picture.

Numbers from War on Ice. Minimum 20 games played, excluding traded players. ZSO% is how often a player starts in the offensive zone versus the defensive zone; the higher the percentage, the more often they started in the offensive zone (i.e. easier playing circumstances). CA60 means “corsi events against per 60 minutes”, HDSCA60 means “high danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes”.

Nashville Predators

Player Games Played Average TOI ZSO% Points Scored CA60 HDSCA60
Seth Jones 40 19:39 57.62 11 44.09 8.35
Barret Jackman 73 13:51 56.92 5 46.56 8.82
Mattias Ekholm 82 20:15 48.75 35 46.86 8.20
Ryan Ellis 79 20:54 50.97 32 47.03 8.77
Petter Granberg 27 13:43 48.96 2 52.36 9.44
Shea Weber 78 25:23 50.90 51 55.28 7.46
Roman Josi 81 25:29 51.10 61 56.93 8.34
Anthony Bitetto 28 12:08 54.22 6 58.60 10.36
Average 50.96 8.72

Calgary Flames

Player Games Played Average TOI ZSO% Points Scored CA60 HDSCA60
Jakub Nakladal 27 14:11 54.97 5 48.92 10.33
Jyrki Jokipakka 18 17:54 48.54 6 51.13 10.18
Mark Giordano 82 24:47 46.92 56 54.40 11.52
T.J. Brodie 70 25:15 48.14 45 55.34 11.69
Ladislav Smid 22 11:35 48.82 0 58.70 10.19
Deryk Engelland 69 15:14 46.80 12 59.16 11.31
Dougie Hamilton 82 19:46 49.59 43 59.47 12.71
Dennis Wideman 51 20:37 51.23 19 61.63 12.90
Kris Russell 51 22:52 49.16 15 64.24 12.43
Average 57.00 11.47

Compare the names at the top of the Flames’ table to the bottom. The bottom are (mostly) the old group that should be on their way out; the guys at the top are the new blood coming in.

Consider the Russell-Wideman defence pairing; contrast them with the numbers a Jokipakka-Nakladal pairing should have. True, the latter play fewer minutes, but that’s why we’re comparing stats on a per 60 basis – and the Russell-Wideman pairing was, simply, not good. Even having Smid or Engelland in place is a downgrade from the potential a Jokipakka-Nakladal bottom pairing holds.

That leaves the Flames’ big three. Giordano, Brodie, and Hamilton scored the most points – and Giordano and Brodie certainly weren’t problems defensively (although Hamilton was one of the worst offenders for high danger chances going against them; perhaps a suggestion he could man a more sheltered second pairing for the time being?). In fact, Giordano and Brodie post similar CA60 numbers as Weber and Josi in Nashville, a top pairing on a superior team, with worse zone starts.

The entire Flames team still gets buried in terms of allowing high danger chances against, however. 

San Jose Sharks

Player Games Played Average TOI ZSO% Points Scored CA60 HDSCA60
Dylan DeMelo 45 13:37 55.73 4 46.72 9.36
Marc-Edouard Vlasic 67 23:08 44.05 39 49.35 7.36
Justin Braun 80 20:34 43.59 23 49.89 7.54
Roman Polak 24 17:49 48.96 3 51.71 8.54
Brent Burns 82 25:52 50.87 75 53.39 10.92
Paul Martin 78 20:44 48.48 20 53.78 10.97
Brenden Dillon 76 16:41 55.28 11 54.86 11.18
Matt Tennyson 29 10:31 60.87 4 57.01 13.68
Average 52.09 9.94

Dallas Stars

Player Games Played Average TOI ZSO% Points Scored CA60 HDSCA60
Jason Demers 62 20:52 49.45 23 52.96 11.27
Patrik Nemeth 38 15:37 47.17 8 54.23 9.24
Jyrki Jokipakka 40 14:30 55.77 6 54.84 11.86
Johnny Oduya 82 20:23 49.54 21 55.17 11.64
John Klingberg 76 22:41 51.61 58 55.20 12.85
Jordie Benn 64 15:39 54.61 12 57.43 11.09
Alex Goligoski 82 23:50 50.31 37 57.87 13.91
Kris Russell 11 24:02 51.67 4 58.78 10.77
Average 55.81 11.58

Russell didn’t spend a ton of time with his new team during the regular season; however, he’s still right at the bottom. His overall numbers have improved, but that should be expected with his playing on a better team; it still hurts, though, that relative to the rest of his teammates, he still allows more to go against him, even with relatively easier zone starts (although he limited more high danger chances against than most of his teammates). 

Jokipakka, meanwhile, appeared to get better with the increased responsibility he had on the Flames. However, just like with Russell, limited sample sizes must be stressed here.

Los Angeles Kings

Player Games Played Average TOI ZSO% Points Scored CA60 HDSCA60
Drew Doughty 82 28:01 56.91 51 44.58 9.72
Brayden McNabb 81 18:49 56.46 14 45.61 9.69
Jamie McBain 44 12:14 68.00 9 47.95 10.18
Christian Ehrhoff 40 15:10 59.79 10 48.35 10.67
Jake Muzzin 82 23:04 56.29 40 48.77 10.08
Rob Scuderi 21 18:07 50.54 6 51.26 10.06
Luke Schenn 43 17:34 53.97 11 59.00 9.40
Alec Martinez 78 21:09 49.56 31 60.41 9.67
Average 50.74 9.93

Putting it all together

Compared to their fellow high-scoring bluelines, both the Flames and Stars are well behind the standards the Predators, Sharks, and Kings set defensively. The Flames give up the most CA60 on average with 57.00, while the Stars give up the most HDSCA60 on average with 11.58 – though neither is far behind the other when one flips the categories.

Consider: the Kings gave up the fewest 5v5 goals in the NHL with just 126 surrendered, while the Predators gave up 143 and the Sharks, 134. This would give the Kings one of the best bluelines in the entire NHL: high scoring, but also, incredibly affective defensively.

The Flames, meanwhile, gave up 168 5v5 goals; the Stars gave up 156, sixth worst in the NHL. These are two teams that relied on high-scoring to get the job done, and their defensive groups had to play a role in that. Dallas scored more goals, though – and even though they didn’t have great goaltending, their team average was still a full .12 points above Calgary’s.

And for all the Stars gave up, they simply had the puck much more than the Flames did: 52.6% CF to 48.0% at 5v5. 

Only three players in this group saw more than 60.00 CA60 against them: Alec Martinez, Dennis Wideman, and Kris Russell (when on Calgary). Alex Goligoski and Matt Tennyson were the worst when it came to HDSCA60, but immediately after them were John Klingberg, Wideman, Dougie Hamilton, and Russell (when on Calgary). That’s far too many Flames right at the bottom of these categories.

How does this get fixed?

The Flames actually already appear well on their way towards fixing some of their defensive woes.

The simple act of exchanging Russell for Jyrki Jokipakka was an extremely productive move. If Calgary can find some way to ship out Wideman and play Jakub Nakladal in his place, then the bottom pairing is already that much better. And with Wideman, Deryk Engelland, and Ladislav Smid’s contracts set to expire after 2016-17, the Flames will be able to drop some of their worst defenders.

This does leave Hamilton as a potential issue, but for a couple of factors:

  1. He’s young, and chances are he’ll likely continue to improve.
  2. He scores a lot. Not that this necessarily makes up for defensive miscues, but he does bring more to the team than the other players who see a lot of shots go against them do.

Russell and Wideman were often placed together on a highly sheltered second pairing. If the plan is to continue using Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie difficult situations and have a sheltered second, then Hamilton is the perfect candidate to run it.

At this point, it’s really just a matter of shedding dead weight and allowing players to develop.

  • hulkingloooooob

    Nice piece…..curious to know how Dougie’s numbers changed (if at all) throughout the season. As many have commented on here before, the Dougie we got for the first 30 games was vastly different then the Dougie we got for the last 30-40, at least as far as the eye test goes. any more info you can share with us on this point? (all that to say i’m not too concerned with him).

    Oh, and nice numbers Naks and Kevin! i’m loving it!

    Also gotta say, as much as goals against is a team stat, I would assume the goaltending Nashville, San Jose and LA are getting must help their defenders numbers at least a little?

    • Greg

      I also wonder how his numbers change depending on who he was partnered with. He spent a large part of the season with suboptimal partners (and the first part failing an experiment with Gio).

      • KACaribou

        As interesting as those numbers would be, let’s not blame Dougie’s numbers on his partners. The young man was lost, completely, for much of the start of the season both offensively and defensively.

        But…

        He’s only 22. He’s not an alpha male like a Chris Pronger, so it took time for him to fit in and find his place on the team.

        He’s done that. The last half year he was a star, and has point-per-game potential I believe. But hopefully he pulls a Colborne and gains weight on his big frame and starts using his size to his advantage. Maybe then he’d quit coughing up the puck when he’s about to get hit. I’ve seen an improvement here too.

        He was a great addition and I look forward to him being a Norris candidate in the future.

    • Matty Franchise Jr

      I was going to reply “but he’s sheltered with OZ starts”, but there is only 1 guy on that defense with sub 50% offensive zone starts. Yikes. Preds only have 2. Flames only have 2 that are above 50.

  • KACaribou

    Mark this day on the calendar. Great article Ari! Meaning I am actually complimenting you, not that you haven’t had good stories before.

    I have been saying this all season, getting slammed by FN every time. I wish you’d come to my defense at that time Ari, with well constructed analytics like this.

    “And as Brad Treliving was certain to emphasize in his post-season presser: that’s not just a goaltending stat, that’s a team stat. For as much as the Flames’ blueline has been great at putting points on the board, there was something fundamentally wrong with the team as a whole when it came to actually preventing goals.”

    And so I repeat what I have said many times before: Flames give up more quality scoring chances therefore it is impossible for the GAA or save percentages of our goaltenders to be among the leaders.

    However the issue with the D-men doesn’t end at the D-men. It goes to the forwards, which forwards the D-men get paired with; it goes to the forwards’ intelligence and effort on the boards and clearing the puck; it goes to the forwards’ ability to move with the puck so it isn’t brought right back in; it goes to smart changes, where the team isn’t being caught in a vulnerable situation.

    No our goaltending has not been great, (though I think with proof with the above stats both Ramo and Ortio’s save percentages would have been even higher with better team D), but it certainly wasn’t the sole issue with the problem of not keeping the puck out of the net.

    And BTW: Russell haters make note of his average ZSO compared to HDSCA60 which is among the lowest on the Stars and lower than the vast majority of Flames D-man. In fact he is allowing 2 less quality scoring opportunities per 60 than Dougie. Love Dougie’s O, but he has to learn D.

    • EhPierre

      The problem is also with how Hartley implements his coaching strategies. Hartley’s strategies are all offense minded with having a stretch pass as they key go to move. With the stretch pass, that means one player (sometimes two) is always gonna be leaving our zone early so the opposition’s D will be free and able to pinch if there’s a bad clear around the boards.

      Watching the Flames play up and down hockey is fun to watch but it’s not helping our Defenders and goalies. We have a lot of offensive minded players in our team that are great skaters but we gotta implement a strategy that forces everyone to play meaningful defense.

      • KACaribou

        You bring up another contributing factor. But certainly many NHL teams have the same strategy, not just Coach Bob. It’s a matter of being smart on D, making your stretch passes hit the tape, and doing so when a mistake doesn’t jeopardize the team by creating a quality scoring chance against.

        I believe this will rectify itself with experience. We all have to remember we have a very, very young hockey team. Let’s just quit blaming everything on our goalies, and share in the blame where it is due.

  • OKG

    Blaming Hartley, or the defensemen is hyperbole. Yeah, our Dmen can be better especially the middle pair.

    But the real issue is Sean Monahan.

    Compare:

    Backlund 53.30 CA60 11.37 HDSCA60

    Monahan 57.97 CA60 12.75 HDSCA60

    Your 2C / future 3C can’t be your most effective center. Luckily Monahan will improve with experience and then be moved to Mark Jankowski’s right wing.