The Calgary Flames had a difficult bench to manage last season.
Glen Gulutzan was lucky to find and leverage the now famous 3M line with Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk. That trio actually became one of the best hard minutes combinations in the league. Gulutzan was also able to lean on the Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton pairing to handle tough matchups at even strength.
After those guys, though, things got dicey in a hurry. Because of certain limitations and liabilities scattered throughout the rest of the roster, the Flames were often exposed by teams with quality depth or by opposing coaches on the road.
The good news for Glen Gulutzan is he should have better matchup options in 2017-18.
Before we start, let’s look at how matchups shook out for Calgary last year (chart courtesy @CrowdScoutSprts):
This graph shows the difficulty of opposition at home and on the road for each player in question. Further right means stronger opposition at the ‘Dome, while further up on the graph means tougher minutes elsewhere.
Let’s go through some of the key points.
- GG sensibly relied on 3M and the Giordano pairing at home, although Michael Stone and T.J. Brodie weren’t too far behind. No other pairing or forward unit really comes close in terms of having the coach’s trust on home ice.
- On the road, however, we can see just how much the Sean Monahan/Johnny Gaudreau line was targeted. This makes sense for a couple of reasons: that duo isn’t known to be defensively capable and most coaches like to send out the big guns against players they consider the biggest threat. Matching your stars against Monahan’s line gives opposing coaches the dual benefit of targeting the Flames’ best offensive players while also keeping their big guns away from Backlund and company.
- Troy Brouwer inches up closer to the top on the road as well. I don’t know if this is a blend of GG’s decision making or the bad guys targeting Brouwer, but hopefully, the bench boss can better shelter the big man moving forward because he’s a huge liability against quality opposition.
- As you can see, GG did what he could to keep everyone else out of the firing line. Everyone from Deryk Engelland to Matt Stajan was limited to third and fourth line competition as much as possible. That’s not uncommon for the bottom end of the rotation, of course, but there were… complications we’ll get into shortly.
Every good team in the NHL is top heavy to one degree or another. After all, It makes sense to lean heavily on your stars. Usually having heavy hitters winning their battles at the top of the rotation causes a ripple effect through the rest of the roster. A high tide raises all ships and all that.
To whit, one of the big benefits of having a line like 3M taking all the own zone draws and facing top competition should have been to make everyone else’s life easier.
Instead, most of Calgary’s depth players got smoked from a possession and scoring chance perspective. Sam Bennett, Troy Brouwer, Lance Bouma, Kris Versteeg, Deryk Engelland, Dennis Wideman, and Jyrki Jokipakka – they were all well underwater, despite mostly playing against other team’s depth guys.
Even the Monahan line was only able to barely inch up over 50% by these metrics, and that was with GG giving them as many offensive zone draws as possible. Again, the benefit of having a line like Backlund’s to take on more of the grunt work.
As a result of all this ineffective depth, GG had to engage in a sort of Sophie’s Choice when it came to matchups, especially on the road and specifically when it came to constructing five-man units: although he could combine 3M with Gio and Hamilton to send out against the big guns, it would leave the rest of the lineup extremely susceptible to attack. Calgary was especially exposed when a combination of their bottom six and bottom three defenders were ever on the ice together. In addition, the bottom three blueliners also tended to undermine the Monahan and Gaudreau duo.
For example, Gaudreau and Monahan had a 53.3% CF% together last season. That’s pretty good! However, that numbers drops to 47.3% when they skated with Engelland. If we add in Bartkowski, that number drops to a putrid 41.5%.
Things get pretty ugly if we start looking at just depth combinations as well. Brouwer plus Engelland and Bouma resulted in a CF% of 31% (albeit in limited minutes). If we take a look at just Bouma or Brouwer with Engelland, we get possession rates of 43.3% (Bouma + Engelland) and 43.0% (Brouwer + Engelland).
Similar things happen if we look at Sam Bennett. Overall, he was a 50% possession player last year. With Engelland? 47.3%. If we add in Brouwer, who was one of Bennett’s most frequent linemates, the trio’s combined CF% is just 40.4%.
You can go to Puckalytics and try this exercise yourself, but what you’ll find is almost any combo of certain bottom-rotation Flames results in a cratering of the team’s possession numbers.
It’s one thing for the support players to have less than impressive chance and shot results. That’s usually why they aren’t playing with the stars anyways. That said, ideally you need guys who can at least tread water in easier minutes, especially when you are absolutely burying one of your top two lines like GG did with Backlund.
Instead line matchups became a game of whack-a-mole for Gulutzan. Whenever Backlund’s line wasn’t on the ice, or when any other trio wasn’t supported by the Giordano pairing, it was generally panic time.
A couple of things will be different this year.
First, Troy Brouwer (hopefully) won’t spend three-quarters of the season undermining anyone in the top nine rotation. By the end of the year GG had banished Brouwer to the fourth line, which is where he should more or less stay for the duration.
Second, and more importantly, the Flames should have at least two defense pairings capable of handling harder minutes. With T.J. Brodie and Travis Hamonic, GG should in theory have another unit that can drive better than average results against top competition. This should make it much easier to send effective man units over the boards at even strength.
In addition, Stone and Brett Kulak (assuming Bartkowski is the club’s seventh defender) should also be able handle clean up duty from the third pairing, especially if Kulak’s limited results so far are indicative of the kind of player he can be in a support role (i.e. he was the only player to partner with Engelland over the last two season to manage a CF% above 50%).
The Calgary Flames were a dominant team whenever Giordano and Hamilton skated with the Backlund or Monahan line’s last year. Unfortunately, they tended to be well below average whenever their depth players skated together (or with any of the stars).
As a result, the Flames were an unfortunately unbalanced and top heavy club, leaving the head coach fruitlessly juggling lines and matchups to try to limit the damage of the bottom end of his roster as much as possible. Especially away from the Dome.
Although the forward ranks haven’t changed much, the complete overhaul of the blueline should make Gulutzan’s life much easier next year. If he can limit Brouwer to fourth line minutes, and if Hamonic, Stone, and Kulak can stabilize things from the backend, Calgary should be a much better even strength club in 2017-18.