The Flames are in a bit of an odd situation when it comes to their defence.
You have a clearly defined top three: Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton. The latter is still coming into his own, but all three are capable of being 50+ point guys, if everything works out. It’s a very solid foundation to build on.
Then you have a clearly defined bottom three: Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland, and Nicklas Grossmann. They may have their own individual strengths, like a nice shot or physicality, but they tend to get exposed more often than others.
And then there are two guys in the middle: Jyrki Jokipakka and Brett Kulak. They aren’t or may not become go-to guys, but they aren’t liabilities, either.
All of this has led to a number of interesting defence combinations just eight games in.
So, how do you arrange these guys?
If you go by average ice time per game early in the season, you get it partially right:
Giordano is at the top, with Brodie a close second. Grossmann is obviously at the bottom. He had a disastrous game against Edmonton, and while he wasn’t responsible for anything particularly bad against the Blues, that was in part due to how the rest of his team was able to bail him out. His lack of ice time, in general, is telling.
Keep in mind, though, that special teams do skew these somewhat. Hamilton and Wideman’s ice time is skewed by the powerplay, while Engelland’s is skewed by the penalty kill. (Giordano and Brodie are skewed by both, moreso Giordano, which just further points to their status as the top two defencemen.) Jokipakka and Kulak are more the victims of lack of special teams time than anything about their abilities.
This would seemingly point to what should be the Flames’ top pairing from the get-go: Giordano and Brodie. They play the most minutes, and for years have been two of the most reliable players on this team. Having them broken up doesn’t make much sense.
That still leaves five players for four spots. Hamilton and Engelland appear to get two of them by default; they, along with the top two, are the only defencemen who have played all eight games so far.
Here’s where things get tricky.
Wideman’s biggest – arguably, only – asset is his shot. He’s often a defensive liability, but at the same time, he has half of the Flames’ powerplay goals, and the only other defencemen the Flames have who can properly match his shot are Giordano and Hamilton. Jokipakka and Kulak can’t offer what Wideman can.
On the other hand, they can offer something Wideman can’t: more consistently steady, reliable play. The fact Jokipakka has already been scratched for two games this season strikes me as wrong; I can’t recall anything particularly egregious he’s done, certainly not on the level of Grossmann, who has replaced him on both occasions.
But then, what about Kulak? He’s 22 years old, and quite frankly, he needs to play. This is the final year of his entry-level contract, and his final year of waiver-exempt. He would get top pairing minutes in Stockton, which is probably better than sitting in the pressbox; however, when he does play, he looks like he can handle the game at the NHL level.
In a possible additional wrinkle, the Flames only have three defencemen signed beyond this season – Giordano, Brodie, and Hamilton – and those are the three they’ll likely be protecting for the expansion draft. Everyone else will probably be fair game to be potentially taken, including RFAs Jokipakka and Kulak.
Not everyone is going to play every night, we know that much. But there should be a general basis to fall back on.
I would submit the following:
Giordano – Brodie
Jokipakka – Hamilton
Kulak – Engelland/Wideman
At least for the time being. If Kulak needs to sit for some reason, then both Engelland and Wideman could draw in; if Kulak proves to be getting better, then he could move up into the top four. Depending on if the Flames think they’ll need their powerplay guy (Wideman) or penalty kill guy (Engelland) more, either one could draw in on any given night.
This doesn’t look like it’s happening, though. If Engelland is to be a staple in this lineup, and Wideman’s powerplay goals are going to see him get more time, then maybe the solution is to send Kulak down so he can play, and bring Tyler Wotherspoon up. The Flames would appear to value Kulak more than Wotherspoon, so having that asset actually continue to play would probably serve them better, while Wotherspoon’s presence still keeps the Flames near the cap, and should be able to provide steady enough bottom pairing play for whenever he may draw in.
Basically, there are three things I’m not liking about the defensive arrangements, which are still changing, even as we go further into the season and the Flames appear to be figuring it out:
- Giordano and Brodie not together
- Jokipakka not being a regular
- Kulak not playing
The defence is probably going to look very different next season. While this season has renewed purpose, the main goal needs to be focused on what’s going to benefit the team in the long-term. So far, we aren’t seeing too much of that.