The Flames’ defensive pairing dilemma

The Calgary Flames are in a very unique position, and a very challenging one.

First and foremost, they’re lucky: they have three really good defensemen in Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano. Unfortunately, they also have a trio of defensemen in Jyrki Jokipakka, Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland who are more limited in what they can do than the good blueliners.

The challenge for the Flames this season is figuring out how to balance their strong players with their weaker ones in order to maximize their performances.

AT A GLANCE

Here are the six primary Flames defensemen, with even strength stats from last season. (Jokipakka’s numbers include his time with Dallas.)

Player TOI CF60 CA60 CF%
Mark Giordano 1478:45 54.57 54.53 50.0
T.J. Brodie 1333:18 54.00 54.86 49.6
Dougie Hamilton 1309:35 56.95 58.97 49.1
Deryk Engelland 947:52 49.94 60.39 45.3
Jyrki Jokipakka 812:12 52.67 54.08 49.3
Dennis Wideman 785:15 50.66 62.35 44.8

Clean Image for Blogs

The above chart can provide a bit of context: toughest assignments are top-left, easiest assignments are bottom-right. Giordano and Brodie get tough sledding, Hamilton and Engelland got moderately tough assignments, while Wideman and (even more) Jokipakka got easy minutes.

Obviously Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton play the most. Against the toughest competition, usually, too. And despite their tough sledding, the three best players at generating offense (highest CF60) are… Hamilton, Giordano and Brodie. And if you look at which players are best at suppressing offense (lowest CA60), it’s Jokipakka, Giordano and Brodie – and there are probably some sample size questions with Jokipakka based on his relatively short time in Calgary. (Hamilton is fourth-best at suppressing offense, for the record.)

If you’re Glen Gulutzan taking the reins of the Flames, the first decision seems somewhat easy: put two of your three best blueliners onto a pairing, and then try to balance things out from there. But whichever pairing you put together – Giordano/Brodie, Giordano/Hamilton or Brodie/Hamilton – you’re still going to leave one upper-crust defenseman to play with one of the, well, remaining guys. Matching up the right pairing together on the second unit is essential to success, because based on the drop-off between all of these players the third pairing could be really lean (and the success of the club probably depends on the performance of the top two pairs).

When they played together, how did the three potential top pairings stack up?

Pairing (2015-16) TOI CF60 CA60 CF%
Giordano & Brodie 890:02 54.27 54.56 49.8
(2013-16) 2697:23 54.48 51.89 51.2
Giordano & Hamilton 223:52 63.25 58.96 51.8
Brodie & Hamilton 152:34 55.45 51.13 52.0

When you expand the sample size by a season or two, to provide a longer-term glimpse at Giordano and Brodie, their possession numbers drastically improve to the point where all three pairings seem close to interchangeable. If all three are good options, it might be easier to choose which pairing to go with based on who the odd man out would be playing with.

Here’s a quick cross-sectional comparison of the “top three” with the “bottom three,” with the plus/minus figures being the Corsi percentage difference that the players get from playing with each other. (In other words: it’s the WOWY impact of throwing the players together.)

Giordano Brodie Hamilton
Engelland Eng +0.4
Gio -5.0
Eng +3.7
Bro -0.8
Eng +6.1
Ham +1.0

Wideman Wide +8.4
Gio +2.1
Wide +0.1
Bro -4.8
Wide +13.6
Ham +8.3
Jokipakka n/a Kevin -2.1
Bro -2.3
Kevin -3.9
Ham -3.5

The three pairings that make each other better are: Engelland and Hamilton, Wideman and Hamilton, and Wideman and Giordano. We’re immediately vetoing Wideman and Hamilton because they’re both right-shooting players and neither has significant experience playing their weak side, and because they have the smallest sample size together (just 78 minutes), likely because both of them are righties. Engelland is also a rightie, but he’s played both sides since he joined the Flames and seems reasonably comfortable doing it.

So that leaves the two remaining decent-looking options.

WIDEMAN & GIORDANO

If Wideman plays with Giordano, then Hamilton and Brodie are the top pairing and Jokipakka plays with Engelland. Here’s how Wideman and Giordano were together last season.

TOI CF60 CA60 CF%
Wideman & Giordano 130:22 56.15 52.01 51.9
Wideman apart 654.53 49.57 64.41 43.5
Giordano apart 1348:23 54.42 54.78 49.8

They’re defensively a bit worse than Hamilton/Brodie (with a slightly higher CA60) and offensively slightly better (with a slightly higher CF60), and fundamentally speaking it’s Giordano giving up a bit of offensive commitment on his part to help out Wideman defensively. (Engelland and Jokipakka also seem a bit shaky together defensively, though we have little-to-no data to back that feeling up in terms of how they’ll fit together.)

ENGELLAND & HAMILTON

If Engelland plays with Hamilton, then Giordano and Brodie are the top pairing and Jokipakka plays with Wideman. Here’s how Engelland and Hamilton were together last season.

TOI CF60 CA60 CF%
Engelland & Hamilton 177:05 67.09 67.09 50.0
Engelland apart 770:47 46.01 58.85 43.9
Hamilton apart 1132:30 55.36 57.70 49.0

If you’re a skeptic like me, that seems like an unsustainably high CF60 given that Engelland’s CF60 with everybody else is much, much lower. It also begs the question of whether Hamilton is an effective enough situational defender to make up for some of Engelland’s shortcomings (and whether Jokipakka can do the same for Wideman, albeit with much lower ice time and stakes).

FLIPPING A COIN

Presuming that Smid is on the shelf (and that the Flames don’t sign anybody else), there are basically two “best” combinations of pairings:

Giordano & Brodie Brodie & Hamilton
Engelland & Hamilton Giordano & Wideman
Jokipakka & Wideman Jokipakka & Engelland

Which combinations of defenders you prefer probably varies, but the scary realizations are as follows: the third pairing is going to be a bit of a question mark no matter what, and the deficiencies of whoever ends up playing over their head on the second pairing (either Engelland or Wideman) will probably negate a lot of the strengths of whoever they’re playing with.

In other words? Calgary has three really, really good defensemen on their team. But because of the other three guys signed to fill out the blueline, the team’s likely to have one strong pairing, one decent pairing, and one with some deficiencies. 

It’ll be another year of potentially tough sledding for the Flames beyond the first pairing. The silver lining is that Jokipakka, Wideman, Engelland and Smid all have their contracts up after this season, which should hopefully push those gentlemen to prove they can be contributors going forward… and will provide the Flames with a chance to seriously upgrade the bottom portion of the blueline group.

  • freethe flames

    Quite frankly playing both Wideman and Engelland every night worries me. You have also left out the real possibility of one of Kulak or Spoon beating them out.
    Using your pairings what would people think of these options:
    Spoon(Kulak)/TJ
    Gio/Wides
    JJ/Hamilton

    The good thing is that all of them should be healthy and at camp and GG should be able to use the preseason to get a handle on things. The best part of none of our top 3 defenders being at the World Cup is that GG can figure it out.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Your first flip of the coin seems to be the most reasonable approach. Why split up one of the most effective D-pairings in Giordano & Brodie? They get the big and important minutes. Hamilton & Engelland get the 2nd pairing time, with the endgame being to pump Engelland’s trade value at the deadline. Wideman and Jokipakka get heavily sheltered minutes, with Wideman also getting lots of PP time to pump up his trade value.

    Finally hope and pray it’s enough, particularly since this defensive group’s contributions to overall offense cannot be understated.

    • FlamesFanOtherCity

      If we are re-signing Nak, then I think you can look at the following:

      Gio-Brodie (nuff said)

      Kevin-Hamilton (helps Dougie on shot supession)

      Spoon-Nak (solid defense with some offense)

      Extras: Wideman and Engelland

      Let’s be realistic here, neither Wideman nor Engelland really belong. Both are on their way out. Use them as extras, possibly send down Engelland to help the kids for some time.

  • knappsacked

    Gio-brodie
    Jokipakka-hamilton
    Wotherspoon/kulak-nakladal
    Engallend/wideman

    Or

    Brodie-hamilton
    Gio-nakladal
    Jokkipakka-spoon/kulak
    Wideman/engallend

    Likely? No… We will lose nakladal.

    Realisticly?

    Gio-brodie
    Jokipakka-hamilton
    Engallend-wideman

  • Hockeyfan

    Looking at the lineup bums me out, DW will be a hindrance this year. hope Gulu sits him half the time, or if he is playing well and not getting pegged by the refs every game, he can be traded come Jan.

    Gio, DH –
    TJ, DW/Engs/TW –
    JJ, DW/Engs/TW

    • Baalzamon

      I maintain that this is the best option. Giordano is still the best defenseman on the team, so logically he has the most ability to elevate a sub-standard partner. Brodie-Hamilton is still a good first pairing, which alleviates the concern of not having Giordano there.

      Of course, if Gulutzan does implement a more structured system (and that structured system is good), Hamilton’s results with the Bruins suggest that this all may be moot. He was ridiculously good in his last year in Boston.

      • Jumping Jack Flash

        I seem to remember hearing that Gulutzan has coached Engelland so he will be given every opportunity to make the team, don’t be surprised if his role improves under the new coach.

    • Aadvarkian Abakeneezer

      I agree. The guy is 33 years old, one season removed from a career year and yet if he was a free agent this summer he’d probably never get an NHL job again.

      He knows that as well as everyone else does, so I’d expect he’s been a bit of familiar face in his training facilities of choice this off season.

  • Skuehler

    So despite having 3 great defensemen, our defence as a whole projects to be average.

    Add in above average goaltnding, average offense and a whole new coaching regime…

    Leaves one thinking the playoffs are definitely not guaranteed this season.

  • MonsterPod

    This situation is a product of the expansion draft where we can only protect three D. If the Flames were to make a splash and trade say, Player X for Travis Hamonic, then that solid D in the 4 spot would be snatched by Vegas.

    This year they have to roll with more expendable guys. I’m hoping Wotherspoon or another prospect displaces someone and bolsters the bottom half.

    Good news is we won’t be the only team in this predicament.

  • hulkingloooooob

    I say try both your options depending on the opposition.
    I’m curious though if you think the forwards playing with these pairings has an impact on their level of success?

  • OKG

    My personal preferences:

    Giordano-Brodie

    Jokipakka-Hamilton

    Kulak-Wideman

    or

    Brodie-Hamilton

    Giordano-Wideman

    Wotherspoon-Nakladal

    But I know the team will try to force Engelland because “Toughness” and Kulak/Wotherspoon/Nakladal’s inexperience” on us. Even though we know just how bad Engelland-Wideman really is.

  • Macindoc

    Brodie-Hamilton
    Gio-Wideman
    Engelland-Jokipakka

    What this does for the PP: 2 pairings with good to elite offensive potential and R-L pairings for better offensive zone retention, not to mention someone fast enough to get back if the zone isn’t held; GIo-Wideman can be the top PP pairing, giving the Brodie-Hamilton pairing a bit more rest so they can focus more minutes on 5-on-5 and the PK. Furthermore, having a L-R pairing on each line opens up many more possibilities, on the PP in terms of lanes, and the defending team won’t be able to key on Gaudreau.

    What this does for the PK: speedy, possession-driving top pairing that can recover pucks and clear the zone; you can pair Gio with Engelland for the 2nd pairing if you want; still very serviceable, especially for a 2nd pair (or pair Gio with Jokipakka, but that’s two L shots).

    What this does for 5-on-5: Brodie-Hamilton pairing can handle most teams’ top lines and drive possession, and being the 2nd pairing on the PP, they can take a few more even strength shifts; Gio and Wideman won’t be quite as good possession-wise, but will get the easier match-ups; 3rd line still a tire fire but at least has a L-R match to hold the zone, and Jokipakka should not be as much a possession anchor with Engelland as Wideman and Russell were.

    What this does for each player:

    Brodie: improved possession, increased 5-on-5 production and similar or slightly reduced production on the PP due to playing with a partner with a R shot (but on the 2nd PP pairing).

    Hamilton: huge improvement in possession and production due to a significantly upgraded partner.

    Gio: slight drop in possession and 5-on-5 production due to having a less proficient partner (but also somewhat easier match ups), but top time on the PP and a better match of L and R shooters on his pairing should result in comparable overall point production.

    Wideman: massive increase in possession and production due to being paired with a possession driver instead of a production anchor (like Engelland or Russell) and being on the 1st PP pairing. Getting production approaching his career highs (aided by the contract year motivation), traded at the TDL for a 1st or a top RW prospect (OK, maybe that’s a bit pie in the sky, but a guy can dream…)

    Engelland: playing with Jokipakka should improve his possession over either Wideman or Russell.

    Jokipakka: sorry, but we’ll try to limit your 5-on-5 minutes with Engelland and give you offensive zone starts only (maybe paired with Engelland’s R shot the pair of you can hold the zone better).

  • Deef

    Playoffs have proven you dont really need to have your last pairing defense on the ice if your other pairings have their edurance levels up.

    Therefore, keep Wideman and Engelland together on the bottom pairing (if you have to keep them at all). Put Wideman out on the PP to give someone else a rest. Put Engelland out when things are gonna get rough. And put either out for a few shifts when were up by 2 or more goals.

    That should even out enough so that you’re not bagging your top 4 over the course of the season.