While the Calgary Flames lap at the wounds left by a heartbreaking Game 4 and try to steel themselves for Game 5 of their first-round match-up versus the Dallas Stars, Geoff Ward needs to scan his lineup for deficiencies.
The third line? Crackles with energy every shift.
The penalty kill? Playing with absolutely farcical flair.
Between the pipes? This just in: a long-dormant goaltending deity descended from the hockey heavens and possessed Cam Talbot to dispatch nightly miracles on the Flames’ behalf.
The defence?
(…)
Right.
Through four games so far the Calgary defense has been shoddy, overall. Blown breakouts, disrupted passes, deserted posts, and unchecked risks have plagued, soured the play of all six rearguards. Whereas the Stars’ defencemen have consistently twinkled—see the dominance of Miro Heiskanen, deftness from John Klingberg, drive from Jamie Oleksiak, etc—the Flames’ blueline has been at times fragile, leaky, unreliable. Talbot confronts a vicious onslaught of shots every night. Simply put, the defencemen in red need to clean up their act, stat.
But which pairing would lead this recovery? Each duo has proven to harbour different weaknesses, different tendencies. According to their play so far this series, who can the Flames trust most to guard the blueline, the slot? Why them? How would they feasibly do it?
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Allow us to kickstart the conversation about the best (or, frankly, ‘least bad’) pairing so far, pinpoint the holes and highlight the positives to compare each duo… and pray from there.

Pairing 1: The veterans

Based on their play this series, the Norris Trophy winner from last year (a lifetime ago) and one of the swiftest, smoothest blueliners in the game may be losing their edge—one hates to see it, but Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie may be losing their edge. The kids are coming up from behind.
Giordano and Brodie eat the most minutes of all the defencemen, and their widespread usage in all three areas of the ice attests to the fact that the Flames expect them to thrive anywhere. But their even-strength possession numbers are in the red, subpar—and not even their storied offensive talents can correct this. A harrowing xGA (Expected Goals Against while they are on the ice, according to conceded shot quality) offers a theory (nourished by the concrete empirical evidence of High-Danger Chances Against): the Flames will get scored on more often than they will themselves score (indicated by a lower xGF) with these two at the helm. And they man the helm the most often.
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Though lacking compared to what they allow, the offensive production of this duo together has been the strongest of the entire Flames’ blueline. They boast the highest combined even-strength Goals For (GF) amongst all pairings and their presence generates more promising chances (xGF) than the rest of them, too. Even substandard production from Giordano and Brodie dwarfs the rest of the defencemen during your average stint in the offensive zone. And, to boot, one of these Goals For glimmers in retrospect as the tandem’s weightiest contribution to the series.
Brodie detonated a bomb there, but how many bombs have he and Giordano smothered against the Stars? They actually lead all pairings with a combined 20 blocked shots, so that is another comparative plus. Keep in mind, though: they do log the most minutes—a possible chicken-and-egg situation?
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But another superlative of theirs—mostly thanks to Giordano—is in penalties taken. A total count of five minor penalties issued to these two guys in only four games is already bleak, but the captain alone served four of them. As for penalties taken by the other defencemen? Not a single one, so far.
Since the Stars have converted on one of the power plays while he sat already, Giordano could be classified as a bit of a liability. And, unfortunately, his age seems to be invading his game a touch, too. Eighteen months ago, Mark Giordano looked sharper, faster. He stifled rushes and quarterbacked the power play. Since the NHL returned to play, he has appeared to be showing some preliminary symptoms of regression—and the logic checks out. To paraphrase Pink Floyd, the league is the same in a relative way… but Gio is older.
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Brodie, however, has been largely decent from the eye-test. Tidy outlet passes, cautious regroups, composed and measured shot attempts have defined much of his game. But aside from the goal in Game 2, his play has lacked real splash. Flames fans thirst for more splash.

Pairing 2: The young guns

In the Qualifying Round against the Winnipeg Jets, it was no contest. Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson were the best defence pair on the team, an immovable dam that shifted the waters forever in the Flames’ favour. Their Corsi was superb, their usage heavy, any defensive blunders invisible to the naked eye. But that was then.
Voila, now. After four games against the Stars, a summary of their stat-line is a litany of comparative worsts. Worst total Corsi percentage among all defencemen—they concede the most shot attempts compared to what the Flames produce during their shifts. Lowest GF amongst all defencemen. Lowest, thus worst xGF amongst all defencemen. Highest, thus worst xGA. An absolutely gruesome HDCF% that underscores how their ability to garner scoring chances comes nowhere close to offsetting the number of defensive blips (35 combined HDCA!) that have allowed them, so far. All the panache that dusted their possession game spotless against the Jets has lacked in this series, so they have struggled in both zones for the most part—barring the occasional game-clinching laser beam.
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And the 13 recorded giveaways between the two of them stain their already fairly blemished four-game resumé even deeper. Gustafsson and Derek Forbort (their analysis below), to compare? Only pegged for 5 giveaways combined, so far.
Where Hanifin and Andersson maintain their advantage over the other two blueline tandems, however, is in terms of physicality. Though the third-line holds the throne when it comes to clobbering the guys in green, Noah Hanifin has led all Flames defencemen through four games with 9 hits, followed by Andersson with 5. Now, those numbers alone deserve no applause. But seeing as nobody else on the blueline even approaches their combined 14 hits, the youths get a nod for them.
Headaches come to those who recall certain performances of theirs this series. Game 3, if memory serves, was the absolute nadir for the pair—Hanifin shanked some pucks for glaring turnovers, and the reckless pinches/erratic positioning provided by Andersson corrected none of the early bad impressions. The outplayed Flames scrounged themselves a win that night, but until the second pair reclaims their cool, it may prove a feat inimitable.
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Pairing 3: The newbies

Two deadline acquisitions, neither alike in nature. Gustafsson inherited Giordano’s slot as the defenceman on the first power play unit, whereas Forbort toils plenty of minutes on the penalty kill every game. United at even-strength, the offensive specialist and defensive stalwart play the fewest minutes of any pairing but still hit the ice often enough to shine or sink, depending on the game. Unfortunately, this series has resembled sinking for a swath of Flames so far.
To address the proverbial elephant plunked in the room by that table—yes, those are five even-strength goals against while Derek Forbort was on the ice through four games. Yes, the Stars have only scored nine even-strength goals at all. Yes, a third-pairing defenceman has conceded over half of the total even-strength goals so far this series. Yes, that is alarming.
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But what furrows the brow of certain fans out there is the fact that this pairing boasts the best Corsi count of all three on the Flames’ blueline. Not only does their percentage sail above the others (and kudos to Gustafsson for hurdling 50%), their edge comes from a higher count of Corsi For (so more shot attempts for during their shifts) across four games despite fewer minutes of ice-time. Now, their overwhelming number of offensive-zone starts explain that well enough—Forbort and Gustafsson nearly always kick off their shifts in a premier shot-quantity setting. And what their exclusive offensive-zone deployment reveals about the coaching staff’s trust in Forbort and Gustafsson is not exactly blurred, concealed, shrouded in mystery.
Admirably, their xGA is (somehow) low, too—the lowest of the three tandems. So, the rate at which Gustafsson and Forbort let dangerous shot attempts seep past them during their shifts actually eclipses those of Giordano/Brodie and Hanifin/Andersson. And yet remember the eight combined goals against—their defensive lapses are, in practice, the costliest, though the numbers project them to occur at a marginally lesser frequency compared with the other pairings.
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But they are the costliest.
And though their deployment gifts them plenty of shot attempts, these do not necessarily translate to goals—or even chances. Considering a CF of 56 and 58, respectively, an HDCF count of 7 betrays a majority of challenged, distanced, deflated, shot attempts. None of the pucks flung while these guys were on the ice have squeaked through to the net this series. Or almost none.
Imagine how much more their xGF would suffer had Forbort’s lob not bolstered it. As it stemmed from a rearguard who scores at a pace roughly similar to that of drifting icebergs and winded slugs, that goal was a highlight for the pair—and, realistically, one of the few so far this series. Gustafsson is the adept puck-mover who notched a single assist through four games, and Forbort—see the above elephant—has been lacklustre in critical moments. But hey, only five combined giveaways!
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Ultimately, some vacuous play, volatile spurts, and downright vile moments have muddled the hierarchy on the Flames’ blueline. No single pairing sweeps every category in terms of superior play. Flaws and fortes trail every stride from all six defencemen, though examples of the former have outweighed those of the latter versus the Stars. It is up to Geoff Ward, then, to cherry-pick the fortes, shelf the flaws, and restore defensive course as well as he can. And if one of these three pairings emerges as the spearhead of the revival, all the better for poor old Cam Talbot.