The Calgary Flames did not get off to a very good start this season. When the team struggled in the early goings, particularly their defensive zone, one player earned praise from president of hockey operations Brian Burke for his consistency. That player? Deryk Engelland.
Engelland’s a fairly divisive presence on the Flames blueline and has been since he was signed three years ago. Yet despite all this hubbub, he’s played every game this season for the Flames and has gotten consistent ice time and regular time on the penalty kill.
With Engelland’s contract running down and speculation rampant that he might head to Vegas (where he keeps an off-season home) on July 1, let’s take a quick look at what Engelland is, why the Flames like him, and why he probably won’t be back.
A simple role player
In a lot of ways, Engelland is a stylistic throwback to the blueliners of yesteryear – the Robyn Regehrs and Rhett Warreners of the Flames lexicon. He’s not a scorer. He gets zero power play time. He starts many of his shifts in the defensive zone. But his role is fairly simple: try to keep the puck-carrier to the outside, block shots and clear the zone, and essentially try to eat up the clock and set the table for the team’s more offensively-minded players. Based on the framing of this role, it’s probably not shocking to learn that virtually every player that plays significant time with Engelland sees their possession stats obliterated during their time together.
Perhaps because of this framing of his role, quite often I watch a game and note that I barely notice Engelland. He’s not the world’s most agile or mobile player, and his puck management isn’t amazing, but Engelland rarely embarrasses himself in his own end. When comparing Engelland’s work with that of healthy scratch Dennis Wideman and the departed Jyrki Jokipakka, statistically Engelland is as bad or worse than they are in terms of shot suppression, but how those multitude of shots are generated against Engelland seems to be a lot less stressful on his teammates. (This is also likely why Engelland gets penalty killing time.)
We effectively saw an endorsement of Engelland’s playing style over the past few weeks when the Flames added a pair of similarly-positioned defenders in Matt Bartkowski and Michael Stone. The messaging following their acquisition? Stability.
Low expectations, high offense
Engelland is a role player. Engelland isn’t an amazingly fleet-footed guy, particularly compared to Calgary’s top three defenders. Yet he’s shown that he’s usually good for a couple really nice goals a season, which are usually followed by exclamations of how shocking it is to see Engelland displaying nifty mitts or sweet dangles.
Engelland has shown that’s he’s actually pretty good when he jumps into the rush. He doesn’t do it often, which may be an indication that he knows that he’s Deryk Engelland, bottom pairing defender, and really has to pick his spots.
Let’s fight about intangibles
When you talk to “hockey people” about Engelland, they often rave about several things. He’s a leader, which is evidenced by him wearing the alternate captain’s A while Troy Brouwer was hurt earlier this season. He plays moderately tough minutes, playing against the opposition’s lesser lights but usually in his own end, and his usage usually translates to having to block a lot of shots and throwing his body around in an effort to knock the puck loose and clear it out. He also fights a lot, being one of the leaders in fighting majors during his three years with the Flames.
But when you look at the things that he’s praised for, they have almost zero impact on game outcomes but have shown to be fairly expensive to purchase in the open market. (A similar statement can be made regarding Brouwer, for what it’s worth.) Engelland comes by his meager offensive output honestly, as he’s not exactly being propped up by good linemates, deployments or special teams time. But spending nearly $3 million on a guy that spends a lot of time in his own end and only generates a handful of goals a year is hard to swallow in a cap system.
We’ve gone over the things that the Flames probably like about Engelland. His predictability and the attributes he brings to the table likely means that the club wants to retain him for next season. But that’s a scary idea, given that he’s 35 next month and plays a physical style (what with the shot-blocking, hitting and fighting that he does). Given that he’s had such a long slog to even get to the NHL, it’s a minor miracle that his body is holding up. It’s extremely unlikely that his luck will last another two or three seasons.
Beyond that particular concern about Engelland’s longevity, there’s another big one: the cap. The Flames owe fairly hefty raises to Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett after this season. Whether it’s Michael Stone or a free agent, the team needs a fourth defender. And they have zero NHL goaltenders under contract for 2017-18. Their cap space won’t go very far and it’s likely that pragmatic concerns about the cap alone will force them to go with less expensive options than Engelland.
Finally, in terms of the up-tempo style they want to play, the Flames may have internal options that are better suited for what they want to do. Engelland was well-suited for a rebuilding team that wanted to minimize damage against their lesser lights, and that’s what he basically was when they signed him. But on a team that has visions of contending in their heads bringing in more versatile and mobile defenders – whether that’s via free agency or promoting from the farm system – is probably their best bet.