Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Call-up Nick DeSimone has brought stability to the Calgary Flames’ blueline
By Ryan Pike3 months ago
If there’s been one constant in the Calgary Flames’ lineup over the first 17 games of the season, it’s been churn among the club’s lines and pairings. Both among the forward group and the defensive tandems, head coach Ryan Huska has been constantly tinkering and toiling, looking for groupings that could find consistency.
For the blueliners, the key to consistent pairings – and some quite effective performances – over the past seven games has been American Hockey League call-up Nick DeSimone.
On Saturday’s edition of After Burner (on the FlamesNation YouTube channel), Danny Austin and Cami Kepke talked about how great DeSimone’s story is.
And they’re completely right. DeSimone’s a 28-year-old blueliner who’s spent a ton of time toiling in the AHL between stints in the San Jose Sharks and Flames systems. He got four games in with the Flames early last season, but has really grabbed hold of this recall with four assists in seven games. From a pure human side of things, you have to feel good about what he’s accomplishing after over 300 games in the minors.
But from a deeper hockey perspective, DeSimone has been exactly the type of blueliner the Flames needed to stabilize their pairings and halt the constant need for tinkering by Huska and his staff. He’s reliable in his own zone, knows the Flames’ system (and his own skills) well enough to know when to jump into the rush or the cycle play, and he’s been able to execute good plays at key times to help the team generate scoring chances.
When Dennis Gilbert was the sixth defenceman, the question posed itself: who should he play with? His tandem with Nikita Zadorov got crushed analytically, playing deep in the red in expected goals (38.0%) and high-danger chances (12.5%). So Gilbert had to play with Chris Tanev, which worked well (68.0% xGF and 78.6% HDCF) but essentially forced Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson to play together despite both of them having better partners on the team – Hanifin shines with Tanev, while Andersson and MacKenzie Weegar have been great in the past.
In other words: the need to shelter Gilbert with a strong defensive partner like Tanev created challenges for balance in the pairings, and combined with Andersson’s suspension, we saw a lot of different combinations of blueline pairings before DeSimone’s arrival from the Calgary Wranglers in early November. Eight different combinations were used for more than 20 minutes of five-on-five play, and groupings were frequently mixed around mid-game as the team tried to find three pairings that all worked well.
But DeSimone coming in and finding chemistry with Zadorov has created stability.
In the past seven games, just three pairings have been used for more than 20 minutes of five-on-five action: Weegar & Andersson (111:09), Hanifin & Tanev (100:21) and Zadorov & DeSimone (81:26). We’ve seen some different groupings after special teams shifts – usually Zadorov & Tanev and Hanifin & Andersson – but for the most part, the Flames have stuck to three regular pairings and they’ve all performed.
All three pairings have an expected goals percentage north of 50%. And a high-danger chances percentage north of 50%. In other words: all three pairings have seen the puck go towards the other end of the ice when they’re playing, which has been a big positive for the Flames and definitely helped the team generate more offensive zone time and play the style of game they want to play.
The Flames’ defensive zone play has not been perfect, and their blueliners have to own some of those outcomes. But the improvements the Flames need to make likely come from consistency and strong habits, and having consistent, reliable defensive pairings can be a big contributor to that.
For the past seven games, the Flames have had consistent, reliable defensive pairings. And a big reason for that has been DeSimone stepping in, playing seven games of really effective hockey on the third pairing, and eliminating reasons for the coaching staff to tinker with the pairings.
It’s only been seven games, but DeSimone has been a positive difference-maker for the Flames.
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