Ever since Glen Gulutzan unveiled his defensive lineup for the Flames’ first game of the season, it’s been quite the discussion point. Before the game was played many were questioning it, while others wanted to wait and see where it went. When the game was played, it was bemoaned. After the game, it was bemoaned further still.
It looks like it didn’t take too long for the lineup to change, though. Because it’s been such a key part of the start to this season, let’s talk about it.
The old and the new
For game one, the Flames partnered Mark Giordano with Dennis Wideman, T.J. Brodie with Deryk Engelland, and Dougie Hamilton with Nicklas Grossmann. This left Jyrki Jokipakka and Brett Kulak scratched, and created a lot of confusion and panic among us off the ice (and then on the ice, when it was just plain bad).
Things are looking better now, though.
#Flames pairings are: Giordano-Brodie; Hamilton-Jokipakka; Wideman-Engelland; Kulak-Grossmann
— Pat Steinberg (@Fan960Steinberg) October 13, 2016
Instead of having a mishmash of bad players with good ones, the pairings look much more defined now. Giordano and Brodie are the top guys. Hamilton and Jokipakka are the second pairing. Wideman and Engelland bring up the rear, probably getting fewer minutes than everyone else but with a boon of special teams (powerplay for Wideman, penalty kill for Engelland).
Meanwhile, Grossmann isn’t likely to play. (Which means Kulak probably won’t, either, but we’ll get into that later.)
How to use them
In searching for an explanation for the bizarre defence pairings the Flames opened their season with, a theory has come up: Gulutzan, as the away coach, didn’t have the last change, so by splitting up Brodie, Giordano, and Hamilton, he would ensure he’d have one of his top three defencemen on the ice at all times.
Except that doesn’t exactly work out when all three of them end up partnered with someone almost guaranteed to bring them down.
Playing bad players with good players can sometimes elevate their play (just ask Mikael Backlund about this), but doing it across the board is a recipe for failure. Who was the Flames’ top pairing last night? If you go by ice time, it was Giordano and Wideman. Giordano is amazing, but I’m not sure if Bobby Orr or Nicklas Lidstrom in their primes could make today’s Wideman a top pairing guy.
Compare that to the new lines. Who’s the Flames’ top pairing now? It’s Brodie and Giordano. Who’s going to get matched against the opposition’s top lines? Brodie and Giordano.
And here’s the great thing with top pairing defencemen: even if you don’t have the last change, you can still get them out against the opponent’s top players more often than not, because these are the guys who are capable of playing 30 minutes a game if need be. Sure, there are going to be times when your less-than-ideal defencemen are out there against the opposition’s best players, but by ensuring you have one of them on the ice at all times, you’ve already guaranteed that.
If there was any lesson for Gulutzan to learn from his opening defensive pairings, it was this:
What about Kulak?
Looking at the new defensive pairings, they look significantly better. But I still have one complaint, because complaining is fun.
If Kulak is currently partnered with Grossmann, then it looks like Kulak isn’t going to play.
Now, this is an extremely premature complaint. If Kulak is up in the NHL, he needs to be played; otherwise, he could be honing his game by playing top minutes in the AHL, which is preferable to him sitting in the pressbox any day. But fact is, we’re only two games into the season so far; while memories of Bob Hartley’s treatment of Tyler Wotherspoon may be resurfacing, it’s a little early for that.
Particularly with the Flames set to play back-to-back games Friday and Saturday. It’s entirely possible we see Kulak draw in this weekend.
But it looking like he’ll be scratched for the first two games of the season is definitely something to keep an eye on. This is Kulak’s final year of being waiver exempt; he’s also an upcoming RFA. For both his sake and the Flames’, he needs to be playing.