Glen Gulutzan has a handful of challenges ahead of him as the new Flames coach.
Perhaps no single obstacle is as big as the bottom end of the Flames blueline rotation. Brad Treliving has so far been unable to clear out any of the clutter from positions 4-6 on the club’s back-end, leaving his new bench boss with an unsightly mix of aging players who all have the same problem: they can’t defend.
To crystallize this problem further, we’ll concentrate on Dennis Wideman. At $5.25M, Wideman is expensive. He still has some offensive chops, but his defensive game is rapidly swirling around the bowl. In the proper circumstances, Wideman could probably be an asset for at least one more year, but beyond that, you need two very obvious things: shelter at even strength and a partner who can do the defensive heavy lifting.
The first is possible. The second is the problem.
So Many Shots Against…
Let’s first establish that Wideman does indeed struggle defensively. Last year, he and Kris Russell had the very worst total shots attempts against at 64.20/60 and 63.42/60, respectively. If we look at Wideman’s corsi against rate plotted in a standard distribution and radar visualization, it becomes clear just how much rubber he surrenders at even strength (via Corsica Hockey):
Keep in mind this is total shots against – meaning a high positive number is bad.
I added in Wideman’s assist and point rates from the last two seasons against his various relative possession and expected goals against stats for the sake of contrast. As you can see, Wideman is above average when it comes to scoring, but gets run over south of the redline.
Tied to Anchors
Aside from his own deteriorating defensive abilities, Wideman’s other problem in Calgary is his frequent defensive partners also tend to have the same issues.
In the last two seasons, Wideman has spent over 1,800 even strength minutes with three guys: Kris Russell, Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid. Here’s how he fared with each and cumulatively (via Puckalytics):
That is putrid. Each combo gets hilariously outshot, posting corsi against rates worse than the worst teams in the NHL. Altogether, Wideman + Smid or Russell or Engelland managed just a 42.7% corsi ratio, giving up 500+ more shots against than they generated.
However, here’s what happens when we stick Wideman with better players:
We’re only talking about 335 minutes total here, so sample size alert.
Nevertheless, you can see the drastic difference playing with good players has on Wideman’s results (with the very strange exception of TJ Brodie). Even with Brodie + Wideman struggling together, the overall effect is an improvement in shots for, a drop in shots against and vastly improved corsi ratio as a result.
So there’s two options to manage Dennis Wideman:
1.) Play in the top-4 with one of Brodie, Giordano or Hamilton
2.) Play in the bottom pairing with one of Engelland, Smid (if not injured) or a kid (Wotherspoon?)
In the first scenario, you either split up the Giordano/Brodie pairing or put Wideman with Hamilton, forcing one of them to play his off-wing since both at RH shots. Neither seems ideal.
In the second scenario, Brodie and Giordano remain together, Jokkipaka skates with Hamilton in the top-4 and you give that collection of defenders the lion’s share of ice time all night. Wideman plays with Engelland (both right shots again, though he did play on his off-hand side a bit last season), Smid or a kid and you try to shelter them from any kind of quality competition.
If you’re thinking “there’s no good answer” here, you’re right.
Calgary’s blueline corps was one of the most top-heavy in the league last year and that’s not going to change any time soon. the new coaches have the option of trying to squeeze a bit more juice from the Wideman contract by playing with a good partner all year, but that risks undermining the top-4 rotation.
On the other hand, Wideman has been crushed defensively when playing with many of the Flames third pairing options, so moving him down the rotation effectively means giving the top-3 guys 27 minutes a night and praying.
Whatever happens, it will be relief when all this bad money comes off the books next summer.