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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Glen Gulutzan loves shot-balanced defensive pairings

When Glen Gulutzan became the head coach of the Calgary Flames prior to the 2016-17 season, everyone braced for big changes. Aside from making a few tweaks to systems and deployments, Gulutzan didn’t exactly throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater compared to what Bob Hartley did as coach. If something worked, Gulutzan seemed content to stick with it.

One big thing he’s largely avoided is playing left-shot defensemen – such as Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie – together in a pairing, opting almost exclusively for pairings with shot balance. Left-shot players have almost entirely played the left side, right shot players the right side.

Is this the “right” move?

The theories

We spoke to Gulutzan a couple weeks back after a practice about his preference for left-shot/right-shot pairings.

I like to have lefty-righties because it spreads the ice out a little bit more. You can sling the puck east-west better, which helps create space in transition so I like that. I think it’s easier in the offensive zone to move the puck east and west and to shoot off the walls and direct. So I think it creates a little bit more offense. I don’t know if it helps in breakouts at all. I think there’s a benefit for an off-side guy coming around the net on his forehand, so I don’t think it helps us there, but I think it spreads the ice out a bit offensively through the neutral zone and offensively in the offensive zone.

An analysis by our friends at Hockey Graphs suggests that it should also help with breakouts and transitions. Speaking with a few NHL scouts, playing with shot-balanced pairings should also help with denying opposition zone entries off the rush. The logic behind it is that if you’re a left-shot defender defending an entry on the left side, you can more easily (a) protect passes from the middle of the ice with your stick in your right hand while (b) using positioning to angle the puck-carrier towards the boards and force a dump-in. If you’re a right-shot defending a left side entry, you lose the ability to angle as easily and to protect the mid-ice passes.

Possession-wise, the aforementioned analysis by Hockey Graphs suggested that it does make a big difference. (See all that blue for left/right pairings? That means a positive difference compared to left/left or right/right pairs.)

courtesy Hockey Graphs

Hockey Graphs’ analysis concluded that “… pairings made up of at least one defenseman playing his off-side generally fare worse than left+right handed duos.”

Most common usages

Per our friends at Dobber Hockey, who track such things for fantasy purposes, here are the 10 most common defensive pairings under Bob Hartley in his final season as Flames head coach (2015-16):

  1. Mark Giordano – T.J. Brodie (left/left)
  2. Kris Russell – Dougie Hamilton
  3. Mark Giordano – Dougie Hamilton
  4. Deryk Engelland – Dennis Wideman (right/right)
  5. Kris Russell – Dennis Wideman
  6. Deryk Engelland – Dougie Hamilton (right/right)
  7. Mark Giordano – Deryk Engelland
  8. T.J. Brodie – Dougie Hamilton
  9. Mark Giordano – Dennis Wideman
  10. Tyler Wotherspoon – Jakub Nakladal

The most-used pairing was a lefty pairing, while half of the six most used pairings involved a player playing on their “off” side. Here’s the same rundown, but for Gulutzan’s first season in Calgary (2016-17):

  1. Mark Giordano – Dougie Hamilton
  2. T.J. Brodie – Dennis Wideman
  3. Jyrki Jokipakka – Deryk Engelland
  4. T.J. Brodie – Michael Stone
  5. Matt Bartkowski – Deryk Engelland
  6. T.J. Brodie – Deryk Engelland
  7. Brett Kulak – Deryk Engelland
  8. Jyrki Jokipakka – Dougie Hamilton
  9. Mark Giordano – T.J. Brodie (left/left)
  10. Mark Giordano – Dennis Wideman

Prior to Travis Hamonic’s injury this season, all 10 of Gulutzan most-used pairings were all shot-balanced. (The injury caused Gulutzan to use a lefty/lefty pairing of Kulak and Bartkowski for a couple games before reverting to a shot-balanced pairing by swapping Rasmus Andersson in for Bartkowski.)

Some results

In theory, Gulutzan’s reliance on shot-balanced pairings should (all things being equal) lead to better possession stats. While the Flames have played a more puck possession based style of game regardless of defensive pairings – and so it’s tough to separate the impacts of player usage and playing style – they have seen increased possession numbers when you compare the 10 most-used pairings from Hartley’s last year to Gulutzan’s first year.

  • Hartley’s most-used 10: 48.1%
  • Gulutzan’s most-used 10: 50.7%

Hartley had two pairings with worse possession numbers than Gulutzan’s worst commonly-used pair: Bartkowski and Engelland were 44.8% together in 2016-17, while Engelland and Wideman were 37.8% and Russell and Wideman were 43.5%. (Gee, I wonder what the common thread was there?)

If you’re a skeptic, I’ll point you to the “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy: the entire Flames roster went from 48.4% Corsi For to 50.5% from Hartley’s last year to Gulutzan’s first. It’s impossible to claim that the shot-balanced defensive pairings were the reason for the increase, but it’s hard to argue that they didn’t help a bit based on the performances of the pairings involved.

  • Rudy27

    Agree that this is a good analysis. But there are always exceptions to a rule. Sometimes you just have to listen to your gut, or look at the statistics specific to the player in question.

    • supra steve

      I know that Brodie played great on the right side when he played with Gio. So was he good because he was on the right side, or was ge good because he was beside Gio? It is becoming clearer to me that Gio was the catalyst to Brodie’s elevated play. In much the same way, Hamilton’s play improved when placed beside Gio.

      Is Gio/Hamonic next? If so, how would a Hamilton/Brodie pair perform?

  • Off the wall

    I play on a recreational team (old timers 40-60) and I know it’s much more difficult to play your off wing as opposed to playing your handed side.
    Accepting passes, making transitional plays and stretching out the opposition all makes sense when you factor in game speed.

    Not that I’d know anything about a fast game, we’re older and slower. But even then, it makes all the difference. I can’t imagine having to play at their level and having fractions of time to get it right the first time.

    When your opponent is on you right away, I believe the ability to react quickly is imperative. Bobbling passes is more frequent when your accepting it on your off- hand, or backhand for that matter. I don’t care if you’re a pro or not, it still happens. Mitigating those errors are (part of) the coaches job.

    If pairings L-R even eliminate one scoring opportunity in a game, then it’s probably the best option.

    It makes sense to try and get the best opportunity

      • Off the wall

        One thing I forgot to mention.

        We have a better record than the Oilers, in that we’re over .500. We’re not supposed to keep track, but I’m a stickler for win- loss ratio. (4W- 2L) but you didn’t hear it from me.

        Even the oldest guy on the team has a point. Also, I’m not supposed to keep track, but I can’t help myself..

        • BringtheFire 2.0

          “We’re not supposed to keep track…”

          Oh, OTW, they’re an important divisional rival. Of COURSE you’re supposed to keep track. For example, the Fall astutely pointed out that with losses from key divisional rivals we’re first in the Pacific. Then, in general conversation, someone COULD say; “What’s up with Edmonton? I thought we’d be duking it out with them but only Arizona is worse!” Then someone ELSE could say; “Chia shredded the group in the off-season, so that’s that.”

          Just talkin’ hockey, man, just talkin’ hockey.

  • Ringadingdongdandy!

    Interesting article thanks! One disadvantage I can see of playing same side as one shoots is that it makes it harder to defend a forward driving to net from wing if the winger gets even a half a step on the defender. Try reaching to poke with Left hand (as a right shot) as a player drives from your right- as soon as you do you are off balance. I have seen our D (especially Brodie) get beat wide with attackers making it right in front (not forced to short side shot) and I think it is partly this factor. I think this can be avoided by body positioning and early stick attack but once the attacker gains the corner even a bit, as a defender you’re toast. Certainly as defence you want to protect the centre of the ice but maybe this is an adjustment period for a guy like Brodie who (still accustomed to off wing) positions himself to allow the wide attack, perhaps misjudging the ability to defend it with a stick.

    • PrairieStew

      If you defend with two hands on your stick, the play to the outside is defenced well. If your stick is in the middle, as a defender you will be forced to pivot a half step sooner, opening up a drop pass.
      The advantages of strong side stick for defenceman are far more numerous than they are for forwards. Keeping the puck in at the point, flatter angle for glass and out in your own zone, short side clear when you are facing the glass in your own corner and probably most importantly, on your side of the ice your body is on the defensive side of the puck when playing it in your own zone. The last one is important, if the puck skips over your stick or your shot hits a shinpad, if you are a left shot on the right side of the ice you are instantly out of the play; if you are right handed you still have defensive position.

      • Ringadingdongdandy!

        My comment is not to be construed with saying shot/side matching is bad but there are subtleties to it and some things are more challenging- there are no D to D one timers possible from the point for one example. I do think there are more advantages than disadvantages to shot/side matching but players do need to play (position themselves) somewhat differently to minimize the disadvantages. I’d love to see stats on how often Brodie was beat wide when playing his off side versus ‘on’.

  • Parallex

    Okey… but here’s the problem: Gulutzan believes in it’s benefits to the exclusion of other important factors. Remember early last year? When we had a bad defenseman on the ice for 100% of the game because… L/R Balance! Nic Grossmann playing games because… L/R Balance! I mean jesus… we once saw “Dennis Wideman Top Pairing Defenseman” because… L/R Balance!

    I think Glen Gulutzan is a good head coach… but don’t try to bullsh!t me into buying his fetish-like pathological adherence to L/R balance is actually a good thing.

    • BringtheFire 2.0

      “Okey… but here’s the problem: Gulutzan believes in it’s benefits to the exclusion of other important factors.”

      I totally agree. But I also notice that eventually-and I mean eventually-he does relent and make changes.

      • Parallex

        Well… I’d say that he will relent and make changes on MOST things (Brouwer off PP/Brouwer to 4th line/Kulak over Bartkowski etc. etc.), If he didn’t I wouldn’t call him a good head coach… but L/R balance isn’t one of those things.

        Brad Treliving has paid a 1st round pick, two 2nd round picks, and a 5th round pick (along with a shade over 7M dollars a year) to appease that particular predilection of his head coach.

  • Avalain

    So, besides the contents of this article, there are some things to consider when talking about moving Brodie back to his off side. First, Brodie is being groomed as our 1st line left D to take over when Gio inevitably declines. On top of that, I strongly believe that while he may still be better on the right side at the moment, he has a higher ceiling on the left side. So he has to learn to play on the left. So what? I’m confident that he can do it.

    Moving him back to the right side is a short term fix that could hurt his long term development.

  • HAL MacInnis

    Always having a right/left balance on D is ideal. However, I wonder if having it mixed up is not as bad as it sounds. I mean, I remember when Klitschko got his ass handed to him by Sanders (a southpaw). It was Wladimir’s most embarrassing fight ever. When Brodie played with Giordano, Brodie could have been catching guys off guard with the side he was carrying his stick on as well. Just food for thought.

  • Derzie

    Getting best out of your players plays to their strengths. This is Exhibit A on not doing that. One of the main reasons why I am so down on GG. Good coaches adapt to the players they have to some degree. We have a pretty good team. Why not make it better by using Brodie correctly?