Defence was supposed to be an area of strength for the Flames in 2017-18. Perhaps, under a new head coach, it still can be.
If there’s one position the Flames seem unlikely to add to, it’s defence. They already have Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, TJ Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Brett Kulak, and Michael Stone. Then, there’s Rasmus Andersson pushing to become a full-time NHLer, and Juuso Valimaki and Oliver Kylington probably aren’t far behind, if at all. That isn’t even accounting for the potential addition of Adam Fox in the near future, all with Matt Bartkowski being the only unrestricted free agent of the group.
If anything, it would probably be in the Flames’ best interest to trade one of their defencemen for help in another position.
But there was the Flames’ defence under Glen Gulutzan, the most primary feature likely its strict adherence to left-right pairings, and then there’s what the Flames’ defence might become under Bill Peters. In Carolina, Peters had a collection of very young defencemen to work with, 26-year-old Trevor van Riemsdyk being the oldest of the group. In Calgary, he’ll have a much older, more experienced group (assuming the main six are all back, Hamilton and Kulak will be the only ones under 26), and one with that much more scoring power, as well.
Peters showed off extensive knowledge of the Flames’ roster as he was introduced to Calgary, in particular calling the top pairing of Giordano and Hamilton elite. Based on that, we should perhaps just assume they’ll be left together; after all, why mess with something clearly working?
Assuming Brodie is indeed playing for the Flames next season, then he could turn out to be the major wild card in this group. Under Gulutzan, Brodie floundered, playing to the left of right-handed defencemen Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland, Stone, and Hamonic. Under Bob Hartley, however, Brodie primarily played to the right of Mark Giordano – and they were extremely good together.
Perhaps that was a symptom of Brodie and Giordano being the only two defencemen on the Flames who could continuously be relied upon to play top minutes. That’s no longer the case, not now that Hamilton’s value has finally been recognized, plus the potential Hamonic once carried (and, for all we know, could still improve upon).
Is it an option to reunite Brodie with Giordano?
It’s difficult to compare underlying numbers for the Giordano-Brodie pairing with the Giordano-Hamilton one, because Hartley’s teams had extremely poor showings in their underlyings, while Gulutzan’s did not, and those factors are beyond a pairing’s control. We can, however, note that Brodie, with Giordano, always had a strong positive 5v5 CF% rel (from +2.00 to +9.54 over the seasons), and only just barely had a positive one with Hamonic this past season (+0.56).
Hamilton, meanwhile, has ranged from +8.49 to +10.51 with Giordano. They have been the better pairing, full stop.
Is it worth it to potentially downgrade the first pairing – even slightly – to elevate Brodie’s game? If things go well, maybe they could handle the bulk of the defensive zone starts, while Hamilton’s pairing could take more offensive zone ones, particularly seeing as how Hamilton is the Flames’ best offensive weapon from the blue line.
On the other hand, this does fall into “keep playing Lance Bouma with Mikael Backlund, because Bouma only ever looked really good alongside Backlund” territory. Sure, Backlund helped Bouma, but also, if Backlund played with stronger linemates – say, Matthew Tkachuk – then his game got that much stronger. Brodie isn’t as miscast as a top pairing defenceman as Bouma was as a top six forward, but the general concept still applies.
The risk is that the Flames nuke their elite top pairing for no positive results. The reward is their top pairing declines slightly, but they get a stronger second pairing out of it.
Though that’s a whole other question: who does Hamilton play with? Hamonic? A rookie? Either way, it’s almost certainly going to be someone he has no experience with.
What about mixing up the top four: Brodie with Hamilton, and Giordano with Hamonic?
This likely keeps Brodie on the left side which, if that really is the source of his struggles these past couple of seasons, doesn’t do anybody any good. On the other hand, in Brodie’s limited time with Hamilton – over 70 5v5 minutes a season – their results have generally been positive: +3.94 5v5 CF% rel in 2015-16, +6.04 in 2016-17, and -0.79 in 2017-18.
Maybe it could work, but it still leaves the Flames with a weakened top pairing. After all, Giordano and Hamilton have been elite together, and nothing really points to any other defenceman improving on that.
Could Brodie play on the bottom four?
Let’s think of a defence in which Giordano and Hamilton are the de facto number one pairing, but instead of considering the Flames as a top four group, their second and third pairings are on equal footing with one another. In this case, let’s magically handwave away Stone because he probably is the weakest member of the overall defensive group, and have Hamonic and Brodie as the two right-side defencemen in the bottom four.
That leaves a question: who fills the left-handed spots? Kulak for one, in all likelihood. The second could be Valimaki, or Kylington, or even Andersson if he can play the left side and we’re truly done caring about handedness.
Say what you will about Brodie, but if there’s one thing he can do, it’s skate. That could give a more offensively inclined prospect the green light to jump up into the zone – and if things go poorly, well, Brodie can likely get back fast enough to ensure things wouldn’t be a disaster.
Or, perhaps Hamonic could play alongside a Valimaki or an Andersson, while Brodie and Kulak man the blue line as a (hopefully) quietly effective duo.
All in all, Brodie’s value is perhaps the lowest it could be at this time. He’s probably still a good enough player to be able to fetch the Flames some sort of a return to upgrade in another area, but the Flames wouldn’t be selling high on him. And it’s not as though he’s chopped liver; Brodie, once upon a time, looked like a bonafide top pairing guy.
If the Flames want to see if they can get him back to his former glory under a new coach, then they’ve got a number of options.