Reexamining the Flames’ defence

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:

Defenceman ATOI
Giordano 25:49
Brodie 23:56
Wideman 21:09
Engelland 19:23
Hamilton 19:05
Jokipakka 15:00
Kulak 14:46
Grossmann 12:37

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.

  • OKG

    Niedermeyer and Pronger did not play together either (the two best D on 2007 Ducks). Nor did Keith and Campbell (the two best D on 2010 Blackhawks). Nor do Vlasic and Burns (ostensibly the two best D on the Sharks).

    The whole idea of a #1D is a player that can carry his partner. Brodie carring Engelland and Giordano carrying Wideman is not ideal but has worked out. Jokipakka/Kulak do need to be Dougie’s partner on that bottom pair though. Gio-Wideman is a pair that resembles Keith-Seakbrook in many ways. Brodie-Engelland is no Campbell-Hjalmarsson but it is serving a similar role to shelter the Gio pair. Hamilton is probably going to benefit from playing third pair even if it hurts his minutes. I would prefer Wideman/Hamilton be swapped but I am guessing that will require Kulak to establish himself as the clear #6. And I would like Engelland and Jokipakka swapped for similar reasons but coach Gulutzan is an Engelland believer. Now, my preference would be:

    Giordano-Hamilton
    Jokipakka-Brodie
    Kulak-Wideman

    Overall though, if the pairings remain as they are, I will live with it. But we need Monahan to stop ppaying like a 3C and start playing like at least a 2C.

  • EhPierre

    I agree that Jokipakka and Kulak should be regulars on this team but I don’t think Gio and Brodie should necessarily be together like OKG points out. We don’t exactly have a great core of defenders; Hamilton is still young and although he is pleasantly being more aggressive with his hits, his defence game still needs be worked on. Gio looks like he’s lost his step over the summer, hopefully he gets back to how he usually plays his game. Brodie has been making turnovers that he wouldn’t have last year. Once again, I hope it’s just because of the systems/still getting used to the season. Putting Gio and Brodie together would make one great pairing, but it greatly weakens the rest of our defence pairings. After the expansion draft, Tre should really try focusing on getting another top 4 D, preferably a shutdown one because we really need one as our depth isn’t as great as we’d like to think

  • Cam Notlaw

    This comment is brought to you by Liquor Depot!

    Did anyone else feel drunk watching Engelland’s beautiful goal last night?
    If we play teams that do not have McDavid or Crosby every night, The Widedog won’t be exposed and he can be effective, like he was last night.

    The forwards have helped to prevent clean entries and actually helped get open in breakouts during the last two games.

    What I am saying is that if the Flames continue to execute GG’s ‘plan’, I won’t need a rum every time Wideman or Engelland are on the ice.

  • ronipedia

    Two things:

    To score in this league consistently you need to be dominant. Gio-Brodie are dominant. Together they got 100 points in a season. If you split them up, I don’t think you repeat those numbers. Dilution is not the solution.

    2. They need to be able to expose a D-man in the expansion draft who is signed for 2017-18, and right now they don’t have one. To me that means they need to re-sign Jokipakka for next year at least – or find somebody via trade. (Wideman at the deadline?) They have lots of time to do that, but it makes me nervous.

  • Parallex

    No, Kulak needs to stay up and here’s why…

    Engellend, Wideman, Smid are all off the books next year (as is Grossmann) and Jokipakka might be the expansion loss. That’s basically two regular dressing defenders that won’t be here (maybe a third in Jokipakka) along with a spare.

    There is not an NHL coach or GM that will dress that many rookie blueliners on a roster. None. We need Kulak to accrue NHL time (even just as a part timer to start) otherwise we’re going to see a GM free agency mistake(s). Coaches are slow to trust young defenders… even if Kulak is slow to draw in he’s still establishing familiarity and trust just by being with the team.

    • everton fc

      Agree.

      Wideman’s shot on the PP is needed right now [he may be saving Cameron’s job!:)] Perhaps this makes him trade-bait sooner, than later? But I can see the following working;

      Gio/Hamilton (Dougie needs veteran leadership. Still.)
      Brodie/Jokipaaka (Jokipaaka’s the stay at home, physical guy here. Though he’s still a 5/6 d-man at best).
      Engelland/Kulak (Because it works).

      What we’ll see, though, is Wideman in the top 4. Engelland will play most games. One of Kulak/Jokipaaka/Grossmann needs to go to the “A”. How do we keep Kulak from expansion – how do we get him exempt? Can we??

  • cjc

    I don’t think it’s the end of the world if Kulak sits a fair bit – he’s played 3/8 games so far, works out to about 30 or so on the season. Playing top pair in the AHL is nice, but that means less ice time for other D they want to bring along – Kylington, Andersson, Culkin etc.

    Kulak’s not going to rot if 6/7 D is his role. It happens to young D on good teams all the time.

  • EhPierre

    The only problem with Kulak is that if he plays 40 or more games this season, then he’s eligible for the expansion draft which Ik Tre hinted this year with Tkachuk, that they care more about the 40 game rule than the 9 game. So as good as Kulak is, he’s going to be scratched for half the season mainly because they don’t want to risk the chance of losing him at the expansion draft

      • everton fc

        100% certain of this? Not good, “if so”.

        What would be nice to look at – a list of all teams potential list of those they’ll expose to the expansion draft. How many players will Vegas be allowed to draft? What’s that #??

        • cjc

          CapFriendly has its own tool now, not as good as General Fanager’s was. I believe Vegas has to take one player from each team, so 30. Not sure if there is a requirement to take a certain amount of salary though.

          • ronipedia

            Losing Kulak is made even more unlikely because Vegas has to take a min of 20 guys with contracts in 17-18, and Kulak doesn’t have one.

            If the Flames extend Jokkipakka they probably take him. If they don’t, I think we’re losing either Bouma or Shinkaruk. c’est la vie.

          • T&A4Flames

            I’m very curious to see if they start with a young squad, drafting guys like Shink who are just about NHL ready and lose a lot in the first few years or if they try to get a fair bit of vets; guys over 25 and try to be competitive right from the get go?

          • ronipedia

            It would be a fun job to do, quite the challenge.

            My thoughts are they stick a little on the younger side – take RFAs who they’ll have control over rather than UFAs who probably have shorter contracts and might leave.

            Older guys with long term contracts are probably more likely the type of guys teams will protect, and if they don’t it’s cause they’re bad.

    • cjc

      I believe, as Kulak already has >2 seasons pro experience, that he is already eligible to be claimed. Whether LV will want to claim an unsigned RFA is another matter.

      The 9 game thing is irrelevant for Kulak.

      He will not count toward the exposure requirement unless he reaches 40 games AND gets re-signed though.

  • Stan

    I’m looking forward to next year when the bottom end of the roster clears our, but until then we have to work with what we are given. I wouldn’t mind seeing the following pairings:

    Gio-Hamilton

    Brodie-Wideman

    Jokipakka-Kulak/Engelland

    This gives us a solid top pair, with Gio able to help Hamilton in the D zone (his biggest weakness). Pairing Brodie with Wideman I think would work well as Brodie’s elite skating could help cover for Widemans lack of foot speed. Brodie is also a great distributor of the puck, allowing him to hopefully feed Widemans shot. The bottom pairing also looks solid, with Kulak and Engelland switching out depending on if we need size/toughness or quickness/puck moving in the lineup.

  • Just.Visiting

    I’m in the keep Gio and Brodie together camp, and I’d do that on the PP too.

    The Flames will undoubtedly have some injuries this year that will see Kulak picking up some extra games.

    At the moment, I’d look at rotating him into the lineup for at least half the games, as he doesn’t look at all out of place.

    I don’t understand the Grossman decisions at all, though, in the absence of any injury problems. To me, he’s an emergency guy to have on hand in the case of injuries or if someone needs a day off because of a personal matter or a flu bug, etc.

    Special shout out to DE on his goal last night. Perhaps he should be on the RW with JG if he keeps showing moves like that!!

  • Just.Visiting

    I should have noted this above…

    I’ve been noticing that the Flames defence seem to be down on their knees much more this year than what I remember from prior years.

    There’s something about what they’re doing that just looks really odd, and it seems to have them out of position a fair bit to my eyes.

    Of course, I could be 100% wrong on this…

    Anyone else noticing that?

  • T&A4Flames

    I was once solely against this, but, the cost to acquire aside, how would people feel about adding Trouba to the D core. Again, cost to acquire aside, the D core would be pricey but Trouba adds more of a physical, shut down element from the right side that we will lose when England’s contract ends this summer. Plus, Trouba will play top 4 and not be out of place unlike Engs.

    Gio- Trouba

    Brodie- Hamilton

    Rookie- rookie (likely)

    That gives a a good 2 way player on each of the top 2 pairs as well as a guy with solid goal scoring potential. Of course, the concern was and would remain having to protect 4 D and only 4 Fwd’s.

    • piscera.infada

      Sure, but what are you giving up for Trouba?

      I actually can’t think of a single workable package that doesn’t include Hamilton–which would be (at best) a lateral move.

      • T&A4Flames

        That’s why I said “cost to acquire” twice. That’s a whole different story.

        I doubt they would see Hamilton as the ideal trade piece anyhow. They are looking for a left shot D in return as well as other pieces likely How would something like Kulak to get it started sound. He’s a capable top 6 guy right now still on an ELC with lots of room to grow. It seems they are fine in their top 4 and could use a cheap contract player that has lots of room to grow. Obviously it would take a lot more.

        I was more interested in hearing what people thought about now looking at protecting 4 D and only 4 fwd’s as opposed if we somehow acquired Trouba to the 10 skaters that we all assume is the plan.

    • Parallex

      There’s two problems…

      1: Winnipeg’s “ask” is very high. It’s basically the same as the Hamonic situation, they’re willing to trade Trouba but they want someone like Trouba in return. Draft picks won’t cut it.

      2: Expansion draft. If we managed to somehow acquire Trouba without having to send back any of the Big 3 on defense we’d be forced to adapt the 4-4-1 protection method. So the acquisition cost would effectively be Trouba’s Return + our fifth best Forward (To Las Vegas).

        • Parallex

          Not in my opinion. Their ask will be high… really high, since I think Winnipeg as such a small market can’t afford to let young players demand their way out painlessly… Add that cost to losing our 5th best (as opposed to 8th best) forward and then add Trouba’s contract (which will be 6Mish range).

          IMO, without adding one of the Big 3, we’re likely talking Bennett + Wideman (to make cap $$ work) + ??? as a starting point, then add… say… Frolik to Vegas. To rich for my blood. I mean, it took Hall to pry Larsson out of NJ. I like Trouba more then Larsson and I can’t imagine Winnipeg will want to take a lesser package.

  • ronipedia

    Here is the Cap Friendly expansion draft FAQ, since guys are asking:

    https://www.capfriendly.com/expansion-draft-faq

    I also think Hamilton is just dandy. No need to put him with Gio or Brodie. Put them together, play Hamilton with Kulak or Engelland or Jokki, that’s a fine top four.

    I know it’s weird to think about, but I think Engelland has been acceptable.

    Corsica is unusable today, but I think the numbers back me up on both of those things.

    • flames2015

      Wideman replacing Hamilton on the top PP line and with them scoring, 2nd unit has had less time.

      Chicago and St Louis played both their top 2 lines between 20-24 mins, so we countered with either Gio or Brodie pairing.

    • Schmenkley

      Hamilton gets a lot of heat on here, and rightly so, but I think it is only fair to point out that we are talking about a what? 22 year old defender, that is learning his third defensive scheme in the last 4(?) years?

      Have a little bit of patience with this guy people, he is going to be reaally good, for a really long time.

      Stability and familiarity are everything with defensive pairings……..

      • everton fc

        And why it may be wise to pair him w/a veteran. Say Brodie. Or Gio.

        Makes total sense.

        I think Hamilton will be fine. Whether he can be a true 1/2 defender we shall see. I hope so.

        • Schmenkley

          Let’s let the next few games play out, and see what transpires before we start shuffling deck chairs again……

          Familiarity might breed contempt, but it never really hurt an NHL defensive pairing…….

          A two game win streak should be viewed in the same vein as a 1-4-1 start…..that being cautiously…..don’t start changing the input data until you know for a fact that it is warranted.

          This is a 22-23 year old defender that has PROVEN he can carry a liability, albeit somewhat shakily, and realistically, with our personnel/cap scenario, that is one of the only options at this time to be able to EFFECTIVELY manage ice time…..why not stick with the status quo for a bit?