Tweaking the defensive pairings after the Dallas loss was a bad move

The Calgary Flames made a perplexing tweak in their lineup over the weekend.

After a close 4-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, powered by some offense generated off the stick of rookie blueliner Brett Kulak (and finished by some kid named “Johnny Gaudreau”), the Flames shuffled their defensive pairings. Then they lost 4-1 to the New York Rangers on Saturday night.

The results itself weren’t all that surprising when you take a look at historical performances from Flames’ defensive pairs.

GOOD PAIRS

Here are the top defensive pairings used by the Flames from 2007-2016 in terms of Relative Corsi percentage 5-on-5, with a minimum of 150 minutes played together. Data from our pals at Corsica Hockey.

Player 1 Player 2
CorsiRel%
Deryk Engelland Brett Kulak +8.19
T.J. Brodie Cory Sarich +7.46
T.J. Brodie Mark Giordano +6.05
Adrian Aucoin Dion Phaneuf +5.08
Cory Sarich Derek Smith +4.59

During their runs together, these pairings were better than the rest on their teams. Your eagle eyes probably noticed that two of these pairings are currently available to the Flames: Engelland/Kulak and Brodie/Giordano.

Let’s head to the other end of the spectrum…

BAD PAIRS

Same parameters for the data, except the other end of a fairly long list of pairs:

Player 1 Player 2
CorsiRel%
Deryk Engelland Dennis Wideman -11.20%
Adrian Aucoin Jim Vandermeer -10.36%
Jordan Leopold Dion Phaneuf -9.38%
T.J. Brodie Deryk Engelland -9.33%
Chris Butler Kris Russell -7.59%

As you can see here, two really bad pairing options are available to the Flames right now, too. And both of them involve Engelland, who has the auspicious honour of appearing on both the best and worst pairings lists in the contexts that we’ve defined.

THE CHANGES

THURSDAY’S COMBOS

Giordano – Brodie
Jokipakka – Hamilton
Kulak – Engelland

SATURDAY’S COMBOS

Giordano – Wideman
Brodie – Engelland
Kulak – Hamilton

Let’s review briefly:

  • The Flames had a set-up of pairings that included two of the best pairings performance-wise that they’ve had in the last decade. They also had Jokipakka/Hamilton, who were clunky but not historically terrible.
  • In an effort to improve the power play, Glen Gulutzan swapped out Jokipakka for Wideman.
  • As a consequence of swapping in Wideman, all three defensive pairings were broken up. In addition, Brodie was moved from his right side (where he historically seems to perform his best) to his left side and re-paired with Engelland, reuniting one of the worst pairings in recent memory in terms of performance.

Heading into a match-up with a very strong Rangers club, Gulutzan arguably took his five remaining defensemen and took them out of their comfort zones (the pairings they had been in for a bit) and out of the pairings that had historically the best performances and, therefore, the best chances for success.

The Flames did end up performing well on the power play and scored their first goal since Oct. 25 with the man advantage, but was it worth upending the apple cart at even strength? If Wideman had to be inserted, it probably would have made a bit more sense to put him on his weak side with Hamilton and give them sheltered minutes rather than dismantle pairings that had already demonstrably worked well together.

    • McRib

      GGs player utilization this season has made Bob Hartley look like a genius (which isn’t saying much because outside of Patrick Roy, Hartley was the worst coach in the league last season in that respect), but our player usage has been utterly baffling this year. When GG has something that works he breaks it up (Jokipakka – Hamilton, Kulak – Engelland, etc) and when something clearly isn’t working (Chassion) he refuses to change things up. Honestly at this point GG should just do the opposite to what he thinks is right.

        • McRib

          How in the world can you get any worse than this (we currently lead the league in losses)? Pittsburgh started winning Stanley Cups when Engelland left that franchise, people can defend him on FN all they want, but at the end of the day you are only as good as your worst players.

    • dontcryWOLF88

      What confuses me immensely is that GG has been sold to us as a coach who pays attention to the fancy stats. Yet, it seems he doesnt even do that…? Maybe he makes up his own stats? I just dont get it. At all. Its like even he cant decide what kind of coach he is.

    • McRib

      “As you can see here, two really bad pairing options are available to the Flames right now, too. And both of them involve Engelland, who has the auspicious honour of appearing on both the best and worst pairings lists in the contexts that we’ve defined”

      Deryk Engelland is approaching Cory Sarich levels for me in terms of most frustrating Flames in recent memory. It’s almost unexplainable, there are games where Engelland looks like a very effective (almost elite) third pairing physical shutdown defender, but other games he just gets absolutely killed all game and he looks like an ECHLer. I don’t know why Kulak and him work so well, but more of that please. Just roll with it and don’t ask questions, don’t even ankowledge what is happening and why.

      I will never even pretend to have Engelland figured out, but I would attribute it mostly to him playing over 15 minutes a night. Anytime he plays 18+ minutes he just looks gassed and he has severe trouble trying to interpret incoming plays and the breakout. Regardless of everything I like my defenders to be more consistent and am looking forward to seeing a Kylington or Andersson (or both next year) on that third pair next season.

    • jakethesnail

      It appears that GG’s mission is to do something totally different than what Hartley did, even if it means losing every game!

      Aren’t the possession stats better than last year? With a downward slide in performance/results?