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What is the future of the Flames’ defence?

The Calgary Flames’ defence has been a problem all season long – and swapping out Dennis Wideman and Jyrki Jokipakka for Michael Stone and Matt Bartkowski isn’t really a meaningful upgrade. (It’s actually debatable whether you could even call it an upgrade to begin with.)

We all know their top end is great; the only fault you can find in Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, and Dougie Hamilton is that Giordano is on the wrong side of 30. So it’s also a good thing that those three are the only defencemen the Flames have meaningful money committed towards beyond this season.

On the other hand, that means the Flames are going to have to make some tough decisions to fill out the bottom half of their defensive rotation for next season. On that note, Brad Treliving had a very interesting quote in Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts (#16):

“You’d like to have a big four on defence. We have (Mark) Giordano, Dougie (Hamilton) and T.J. Brodie. We’ll see who that fourth is, whether we bring back Michael Stone or it’s somebody else. Ideally, you allow for two kids, maybe one on the third pair and an extra. But the plan is to let them marinate. You don’t have to rush them, although it’s contingent on what we do here. What it gives you is options and depth. They can come and play here, or they give you the opportunity to find other things you need.”

I don’t think Stone is seriously being considered as a long-term top four option. I don’t have any evidence for that, but the way Treliving specifically says they need a big four, and then only lists three players as certainties – if he’s serious about having a genuine top four, it doesn’t sound as though Stone fits the mold.

It’s also worth mentioning that in Thought #17, Treliving wants to bring Deryk Engelland back, but a fourth defenceman takes priority.

What I want to focus on, though, is having two kids on defence.

The Flames have really only had one “kid” on defence this season: Brett Kulak, and he’s only played 21 games for the Flames this year. (I’m using “kid” in the loose sense: a relatively young player who has not yet established himself as an NHLer. I mean, Hamilton pretty much counts as a kid, but he’s played over 300 games, so not really.) The team may have kept a kid around this season, but they certainly weren’t inclined to actually use him on a regular basis.

So having two next season? That’s interesting.

How would it all work out?

First off, the Flames have options. Kulak has familiarity with this team. Rasmus Andersson is waiting to make his NHL debut, but the Flames must be keeping him up for a reason. Brandon Hickey will likely be getting a contract soon. Oliver Kylington has always been an intriguing possibility. And the Stockton Heat likely won’t have any shortage of defencemen to work with – they’ll still end up with two of those guys, plus Josh Healey, perhaps Adam Ollas Mattsson, and whatever other surprises are brought in (and maybe even Matt Bartkowski: the only other non-prospect defenceman signed beyond this season).

The question here is how do you fit everyone in at the NHL level?

Giordano and Hamilton likely remain as the top pairing. Brodie anchors the second pairing, alongside a mystery top four defenceman whose identity remains unknown at this time. (Going off of what Treliving is saying, it probably won’t be a kid, but you can always hope someone impresses so well that their hands are forced.) Then you have a kid alongside Engelland or Stone on the third pairing, and someone else in the pressbox.

If the plan is to let their prospects marinate, though, then I don’t understand why they would have a kid just sitting and watching; that sounds more like a Bartkowski job than one for someone who, well, still has potential.

But if the Flames can find their ideal top four defenceman, then if they truly do plan to have a kid actually playing next season, it sounds as though they have room for only one of Stone or Engelland.

Some questions

  1. Do you consider a team with Stone in its top four a legitimate contender? Do you feel the Flames currently have an ideal top four?
  2. If the Flames are unable to find a top four defenceman over the offseason, who do they go with? Is there a chance one of their prospects may actually be able to fill the role sooner rather than later, “marinating” them be damned?
  3. Will the Flames actually commit to playing a prospect? Outside of Matthew Tkachuk, who was taken sixth overall for a reason, we haven’t seen any evidence they would – whether that’s a comment on the actual quality of their prospects, or their hesitancy to trust them.
  • 1. Yes, and no
    2. Not sure I trust Brodie to mentor one of our younger prospects. I’d prefer putting him with Hamilton and have the more defensively responsible Giordano as a mentor for a young guy like Ras.
    3. They”ll have to do something with that glut of talent coming up, either trading one for a more established top-4 or moving one up. I go with the former, given the flexibility under next year’s cap.

    • piscera.infada

      I would say on number 2, Brodie-Hamilton sounds tantalising in the future, but you absolutely cannot argue the sheer dominance of Gio-Hamilton. You keep that pairing until you Gio needs to slide down, or the pairing goes awry for some other reason.

      With number 3, I would say the latter, as opposed to the former. This assumes Treliving is around for the foreseeable future (and please fire Burke into the sun, if he is what’s holding up a Treliving extension–as I’ve mused is my biggest fear in the past, but I digress…). I think Treliving learned this past off-season how fleeting cap-space truly is. Sure, they have some flexibility “this” offseason, but you do definitely have to factor in a Tkachuk extension in two years, new goalie contracts, a Backlund extension next offseason, a possible Bennett extension coming off a bridge-deal (assuming that’s the way it plays out), extensions to a young defenseman, and a Brodie extension in three years. Sure, some of those are contingent on management planning and many are a long ways off, but a “true number 4” is probably going to have to be signed with some kind of cap-hit and some kind of term attached. As easy as it is to say “build a big-four”, if I’m Treliving, I’m much more concerned with the operative word being “build” as opposed to “big-four”. Sure, it probably won’t be perfect next year, but I think you want to know what you have before you go whale hunting and potentially cap-strap yourself in the future.

      • TurkeyLips

        Fear not, both Treliving and Burke understand that delaying the ink on the next contract allows for more leverage should the playoffs impress. No way the GM behind the Flames’ league spotlighting success could be let go so haphazardly.

  • dontcryWOLF88

    Honestly, I think Brodie could have used another year under Gio’s wing. He still makes some bonehead decisions…despite his obvious skill. I understand why this went the way it did, with hamilton/ gio up top…and nobody can say that didnt work out. My one concern is that I dont think Brodie would be a good mentor. I think he tends to play to the level of his D partner, which is a bad trait to hold when bringing a new guy in to learn the ropes.

  • Greg

    If they’re looking for a UFA right shot D south of 30, the only option I see is Cody Franson, so I’m hoping they target him. Barring that, Michael Stone is probably the best option you’ve got.

    Unless they suddenly remember Brodie plays quite well on the right side. There’s a few more options if you are looking for a left side #4 D.

    The UFA market is pretty blah this year in general. I wouldn’t mind if they land Franson and spend the 1st to upgrade the top 6 RWer, then start letting kids fill in the holes in the back of the roster. Don’t see too many other options to move up into contender status this off season.

  • Justthateasy

    1. No, Stone is top six. No ideal top fourth​ at the moment.
    2. Maybe they’ll trade a bunch of prospects to get a fourth defenseman that they can be sure of.
    3. We’ll never know because they won’t play one their prospects. They would rather have him here doing nothing.

  • ronipedia

    No, I don’t think Stone is a legit top 4 guy. On a deep enough team, he could step in for an injury or suspension and do the job, but he shouldn’t be in that slot full time. The Flames need that number 4 dman in a bad way. That slot should play enough special teams and gets enough ice time to affect games.

    I suppose they go with Stone, but I’d like to see them try Kulak for a while. I think he’s done enough. However, with about 12 mil in defenseman salary coming off the cap, I don’t see why they couldn’t find a decent dman this off season. Should be top priority.

    People seem pretty high on the Flames defense prospects, but I wouldn’t bank on seeing too much of them. It’d be nice but Tre keeps getting guys like Bartkowski and Murray instead of playing prospects.

  • supra steve

    The “kid” in the #7 spot next season could possibly be Wotherspoon, the club’s expectations for him seem to be low, so what would it hurt to put him in that position to either sink or swim in the #7 D roll.

  • beloch

    If you look at the current Flames’ roster, the bulk of the best players were developed within the Flames’ system. There are some good acquisitions on the roster (e.g. Dougie Hamilton and Frolik), but they are in the minority. It wasn’t that long ago that this team couldn’t have traded their entire farm system for a bag of pucks! We’ve witnessed a truly spectacular turnaround in the Flames’ ability to draft and develop talent.

    However, it’s important to recognize that a big part of developing NHL talent is giving “kids” NHL minutes. There’s no way around it. Players need those minutes to make the jump. They can’t learn everything they need to know to be established NHL’ers in the AHL (or any other league). It’s easy to come up with those minutes when your team is in a rebuild and those kids are competing with some pretty awful NHL’ers. It’s a lot harder when your team is rolling. Would a player like Ferland have gotten the minutes he needed in “better” years? The Flames’ turnaround in developing homegrown talent may, at least in part, be a side-effect of the rebuild.

    What we’re going to see in the next few years is whether the Flames will fall into the boom and bust cycle that a lot of teams fall into, or if they can exert the discipline to make room for kids even when doing so sacrifices a few points in the standings. The Flames could probably do slightly better next season if they bring in a second pairing veteran defender to bump Stone down to the third pair and lock out any untested rookies. However, doing so will limit the development of players like Andersson and Kylington, and potentially hurt the team in the long-run. If the Flames want to make the playoffs every year for decades, they need to always be developing new players.

  • TheRealPoc

    1. Important distinction between “is Stone an ideal #4” (probably not) and “can you be a contender with Stone as your #4?” (…not necessarily false). For comparison, let’s look at the #4’s for the other playoff teams in the West (caveat: I’m using a bit of subjectivity here to pick the #4s, based on TOI & cap hit; all CF numbers are Score, Zone & Venue Adjusted @ 5v5, per Corsica):

    Anaheim: Kevin Bieksa – $4M AAV; 46.6% CF thru 1,153 mins
    San Jose: Justin Braun – $3.8M AAV; 48.1% CF thru 1,285 mins
    Edmonton: Kris Russell – $3.1M AAV; 47.0% CF thru 1,086 mins
    Chicago: Brian Campbell – $1.5M AAV; 48.4% CF thru 1,193 mins
    Minnesota: Marco Scandella – $4M AAV; 48.1% CF thru 1,000 mins
    Nashville: Ryan Ellis – $2.5M AAV; 49.8% CF thru 1,168 mins
    St. Louis: Joel Edmundson – $1.05M AAV; 48.5% CF thru 929 mins

    Again, this is only meant to be a proxy; you can debate a few of these #4 selections here, based on the roster composition changing (i.e. STL flipping Shattenkirk; CHI adding Oduya; ANA promoting Montour, etc.). But the underlying theme is that you’re hard pressed to find a team in this league that’s able to run out 4 *true* studs on the back end. Not a single blueliner listed above has their head above water using 5v5 ScAdj CF, yet over half of them are north of $3M/yr (TOI doesn’t come cheap).

    IMO, it is what it is. We’re in a hard cap league, where contenders are expected to roll 3 legit lines, enjoy .920+ tender play and still run out a true top four on the blueline. That adds up pretty quickly, and somewhere along the line, you need to make compromises on passable options that fit your overall salary structure. That’s Stone to a T – at a $2M cap hit for the rest of the year, who had previous top four experience playing with a Brodie comparable in OEL, it wasn’t an awful bet. For 2017-18 and beyond, I’m guess you can probably find better options, but looking around at the contemporaries in the conference, I really don’t believe Stone as your #4 precludes you from contending.

    (Quick add-on: Brodie & Stone were breakeven possession-wise through their first ~120 mins together, but have since slipped to 49.1% CF – again, score-adjusted @ 5v5 – thru 215 mins. This puts them a touch behind the Brodie-Wideman mark of 50.2% thru 623 mins. However, the Brodie-Stone pairing GF% – not adjusted – is currently sitting at 61.5%; contrast that to the Brodie-Wideman pairing GF% mark of 30.1%, it’s night and day. A whole whack of Wideman brain cramps ended up in the back of the net this year, and I really believe the second pairing – and as a result, this team – is better off with a partner for Brodie who appears far less prone to idiotic mistakes, especially as we get ready for low-scoring playoff hockey.)

    2. It looks like Gulutzan is pretty adamant on maintaining LH-RH balance – that approach has remained consistent throughout the season. Thus, it stands to reason that any potential #4 to play alongside Brodie will also need to be a RHD…or, at the very least, display an aptitude for playing the right side…which Brodie did for multiple seasons…and now I’ve gone cross-eyed…

    Anyway, back on track. Let’s assume Brodie remains on the left side of the 2nd pairing and Tre’s job is to find Gully a RHD option. If Tre can’t find an external option for the #4 role, the options are as such:

    – Resign Stone
    – Resign Engelland and move him up
    – Promote Rasmus Andersson after 1 year pro

    No, really. That’s it. Andersson, Kenney Morrison and Adam Fox (unsigned) are the only RHD options in the pipeline at the moment. I know Andersson is getting good reviews for his play this year, but what are the chances he gets immediately thrown into the fire as Brodie’s running mate starting this October? Highly unlikely, I’d guess. If the FO comes to the conclusion that Stone isn’t the answer as a #4, I fail to see any available route other than looking for external help.

    I wonder if Stone’s injury history & down year make him a reasonably-priced option to retain as a 3rd pairing guy and replace Engelland, however (assuming something like 1 year, $2.5-3M for Stone)? We’ve seen Kulak & Engelland work effectively together as a bottom pairing (285 min TOI together over the last two years, 52.0% S.A. CF, not bad…), but I wonder if you’re able to get even more out of a Kulak in that sheltered role with someone a bit more skilled like Stone beside him. Likewise, Stone might benefit from less taxing assignments and playing beside an elite skater like Kulak.

    Imagine this blueline for 2017-18:

    Giordano-Hamilton
    Brodie-Franson
    Kulak-Stone

    That’ll play, IMO.

    3. Assuming #4 is off-limits to Andersson as a rookie, and assuming Gio/Brodie lock in the first two LHD slots, you have Kulak/Kylington/Hickey/Wotherspoon (maybe) fighting for the #5 slot. I just can’t see anyone but Kulak getting a legitimate look next year, assuming he isn’t plucked by Vegas.

    But I don’t think the full complement of prospect d-men is intact by the start of next year. This team is ready to go big game hunting in the offseason and I’m interested to see which of the above kids gets dangled in a package.

  • Greatsave

    1. The Flames currently have an unideal top-4. Stone is borderline 2nd-pairing, although I’m willing to give him time to work his way back from his injury troubles. I don’t necessarily think that a team can’t contend with Stone on the 2nd pairing though. It will take a decent 3rd pairing so that the 2nd pairing doesn’t get overworked, but if there’s balance I think Stone can serve in the top-4.
    2. I’d be happy to have Stone back on a 50%-pay-cut prove-it 1-year deal. Give Andersson a chance too. There have been tons of rookie/young defencemen making impact around the league: Werenski, Hanifin, Chychrun, Ekblad, Carlo, Provorov, Gostisbehere etc. Having said that though…
    3. … none of the Flames’ D prospects have exactly dominated at the AHL level. I’m not sure they’re ready for a top-4 role if they aren’t putting up the numbers or the performances at a lower level. On that note, I wonder what their reason for keeping Andersson up is. Is it because they feel he’s close enough to challenge for a spot? Or (cue tin-foil hat) is it because they saw things in Andersson’s game in practices that concerned them enough to keep him around and away from Huska?

    I never used to be a Huska-doubter, but is it possible that Andersson has served as the Flames management’s litmus test to gauge his work in progressing prospects?

    • L.Kolkind

      I don’t see any reason to be a Huska doubter still. WW says he is bad and says nothing except Stockton’s record as proof. The team is placed right around where they should be when looked at on paper. They have a rookie as their #1 C and their top D pairing is composed of under 20 players. The team is extremely young and Huska has coached some of the best players in the league when he was coach of the Kelowna Rockets. Barie, Benn, Myers, Schenn, Severson, Sissons, and was the assistant coach when Keith, Weber and Comeau played for the Rockets. Saying he ruins prospects he is straight up false and proven to be wrong.

  • Atomic Clown

    Let me just start off by saying I love the commenters on this website (most of you guys). Sometimes, the depth and analysis in the comments is more than articles (still love all you flames nation writers 🙂 )

    To the point at hand, when you consider the number if holes the flames have to fill in versus the cap space available versus what we have in the pipes, it would be more prudent to spend money on acquiring wingers to play with Bennett than a top 4 dman. We have realistically: Andersson, Kylington, Kulak and Fox as prospects capable of making an impact in the NHL. Anyone else is just a replaceble plug (hickey hasn’t impressed me to make me consider him anything more). Of those, Kulak can step in immediately, but in a bottom 3 capacity. Andersson, with a proper partner, could step in as top 4.

    Forwards wise, yes we have about 5 former first rounders, but other than Jankowski (the irony 🙂 ) no one looks capable of having an impact in the NHL.

    And one final thing, the free agency pool this year is nothing special. If the Caps win the cup, I can see the re-signing Shattenkirk, which leaves Grandson as the next best option, and no thanks to that. If Oshie walks, I would like the flames to throw some good money at him, he would be a very good top 6 option.

    • Heeeeeere's Johnny!

      Please no on Oshie. He’s another 30+ guy with high risk of turning into an undesirable contract. With our D prospect depth we have to be able to find a decent 3rd line winger.

      • Atomic Clown

        Huge difference between Brouwer and Oshie. One is a seventh round power forward/grinder running inflated PDO’s and benefiting from playing with amazing players, the other is a very good player in his own right, putting up amazing numbers.

  • Brodano12

    Sign Cody Franson to a 3×3.5 deal to play with Brodie. He’s a legit top 4 big RHD who is solid defensively, decent offensively and has good possession numbers. Then have the bottom pairing be Kulak-Andersson, with Engo on a one year, 1.5 million deal on the bench in case Andersson has rookie struggles. Then, in 18-19, we bring Kylington up to play with Franson on the 3rd, with Andersson playing with Gio and Brodie-Hamilton becoming our top pairing. Finally, in 19-20, Fox arrives to replace Franson, and we have a crazy good d-core of Brodie-Hamilton, Gio-Andersson, Kylington-Fox. HNNNNNGGGGGG

  • Thunder1

    I think you missed an important fourth question, Ari. How many Norris Trophy winners did their best work on the wrong side of 30… your depth of knowedge astounds me. Gio is a GOD and every NHL

  • Thunder1

    I think you missed an important fourth question, Ari. How many Norris Trophy winners did their best work on the wrong side of 30… the depth of knowledge you show in your writing astounds me. Gio is a GOD and every NHLer would agree. If you have ever met the man, you know he is in better shape now than when he was 24. I wonder sometimes if all you do is count stats and ignore the game. Gio is a stud, he will be for many years to come and the best thing is he’s our mon capitain… get to know a player or two on the Flames and ask them if they are concerned he’s on the wrong side of 30 before you spout more drivel.

  • T&A4Flames

    If WPG is still looking to move Trouba (at his request) then I would consider moving Brodie (they wanted a LD to replace Trouba) and a prospect. Then try and sign Alzner. Top 4 of
    Gio-Hamilton
    Alzner-Trouba
    looks pretty solid

    The problem would be that Alznervis likely looking for a big payday and Trouba would be looking for more after next season as well. But, there’s a good balance of offence, defence, skating/transition and physicality in that top 4. But a $25mil D core is a possibility. Worth it?