Give TJ Brodie credit, because he’s completely flipped the narrative on his season. Following a couple difficult seasons on the left, Brodie was switched back to his more comfortable right side to start the 2018-19 campaign. The hope was Brodie’s return to the top pairing with Mark Giordano would help him return to form from three and four years ago. After some struggles to start, Brodie has restored faith in that coming to pass.
Brodie’s first 10 games didn’t do much to dispel the worries many had about him returning to the top pairing. He looked tentative with the puck and seemed to struggle mightily when forced to make decisions under duress. Brodie’s on-ice totals at five-on-five were somewhat telling, especially when looking at Natural Stat Trick’s high danger chances.
The on-ice totals backed up what most of us were seeing: Brodie was suspect defensively and wasn’t contributing much at the other end of the ice. It seemed to come to a head during Calgary’s awful three-game stretch against New York, Montreal, and Pittsburgh. Brodie was lambasted by Flames fans and it was pretty clear Giordano was the only defenceman playing at a top pairing level.
It wasn’t just outside eyes noticing Brodie’s struggles, either. Head coach Bill Peters moved Brodie off the top pairing at different times during the first 10 games, especially while the team was without Travis Hamonic. But, much like it has for Calgary as a whole, the 9-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 25 seemed to signal the start of a turnaround.
The Flames have played five games since their debacle against the Penguins and the results have been solid. After bleeding quality scoring chances at a league-worst rate through their first 10 games, Calgary has looked like a completely different team defensively. Brodie has been a beneficiary of that, sure, but he’s also a big reason why things have turned around so dramatically.
While Brodie’s possession metrics have spiked in line with usage, it’s the high danger chances that really jump off the page. He’s been on the ice for about one chance per game less over his last five outings, and the number is more telling when looking at the rates per 60 minutes. Brodie’s chances-against-per-60 has dropped from 15.02 over his first 10 to 12.09 more recently.
Visually, Brodie looks significantly more confident and has ironed out his hiccups under pressure, at least for the time being. He looks far more calm and measured in puck battles, and I’ve noticed him more engaged offensively, too. The high-danger counts above would suggest that’s not just confirmation bias.
Most importantly, Brodie and Giordano have performed like a top pairing over the last 10 days. In recent games, that duo has gone head-to-head extensively with lines centred by the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Nicklas Backstrom, and Jonathan Toews. More often than not, Brodie and Giordano have come out on the right side in emphatic fashion.
What we’ve seen of late from Brodie is a crucial development for the Flames. While he was struggling, the team only had half a top pairing, which made matchups difficult, especially while Hamonic was on the shelf. Rasmus Andersson had some nice stretches on Giordano’s right side, but at this stage I don’t think he’s ready to log 20-plus minutes on a regular basis.
In fact, if not Brodie, I’m not sure who is a natural fit to play with Giordano. Hamonic and Andersson are the other right-shot options, but they are slotted better below the top pair. Perhaps Andersson will be ready for that in years to come, but his underlying numbers would suggest top pair minutes aren’t for him right now.
If Brodie’s strong play becomes the norm, though, this shapes up really well for Calgary. Hamonic and Noah Hanifin have made up a pretty functional second pair, and they’re also interchangeable when it becomes necessary to juggle with Andersson and Juuso Valimaki. With Michael Stone as the seventh defenceman, the Flames look fairly deep on the back end right now.
In so many ways, Brodie is the key to that, because you didn’t get that same feel when he was struggling early on.