The Flames’ defensive pairing dilemma

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:59 am by Ryan Pike

The Calgary Flames are in a very unique position, and a very challenging one.

First and foremost, they’re lucky: they have three really good defensemen in Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano. Unfortunately, they also have a trio of defensemen in Jyrki Jokipakka, Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland who are more limited in what they can do than the good blueliners.

The challenge for the Flames this season is figuring out how to balance their strong players with their weaker ones in order to maximize their performances.

AT A GLANCE

Here are the six primary Flames defensemen, with even strength stats from last season. (Jokipakka’s numbers include his time with Dallas.)

Player TOI CF60 CA60 CF%
Mark Giordano 1478:45 54.57 54.53 50.0
T.J. Brodie 1333:18 54.00 54.86 49.6
Dougie Hamilton 1309:35 56.95 58.97 49.1
Deryk Engelland 947:52 49.94 60.39 45.3
Jyrki Jokipakka 812:12 52.67 54.08 49.3
Dennis Wideman 785:15 50.66 62.35 44.8

Clean Image for Blogs

The above chart can provide a bit of context: toughest assignments are top-left, easiest assignments are bottom-right. Giordano and Brodie get tough sledding, Hamilton and Engelland got moderately tough assignments, while Wideman and (even more) Jokipakka got easy minutes.

Obviously Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton play the most. Against the toughest competition, usually, too. And despite their tough sledding, the three best players at generating offense (highest CF60) are… Hamilton, Giordano and Brodie. And if you look at which players are best at suppressing offense (lowest CA60), it’s Jokipakka, Giordano and Brodie – and there are probably some sample size questions with Jokipakka based on his relatively short time in Calgary. (Hamilton is fourth-best at suppressing offense, for the record.)

If you’re Glen Gulutzan taking the reins of the Flames, the first decision seems somewhat easy: put two of your three best blueliners onto a pairing, and then try to balance things out from there. But whichever pairing you put together – Giordano/Brodie, Giordano/Hamilton or Brodie/Hamilton – you’re still going to leave one upper-crust defenseman to play with one of the, well, remaining guys. Matching up the right pairing together on the second unit is essential to success, because based on the drop-off between all of these players the third pairing could be really lean (and the success of the club probably depends on the performance of the top two pairs).

When they played together, how did the three potential top pairings stack up?

Pairing (2015-16) TOI CF60 CA60 CF%
Giordano & Brodie 890:02 54.27 54.56 49.8
(2013-16) 2697:23 54.48 51.89 51.2
Giordano & Hamilton 223:52 63.25 58.96 51.8
Brodie & Hamilton 152:34 55.45 51.13 52.0

When you expand the sample size by a season or two, to provide a longer-term glimpse at Giordano and Brodie, their possession numbers drastically improve to the point where all three pairings seem close to interchangeable. If all three are good options, it might be easier to choose which pairing to go with based on who the odd man out would be playing with.

Here’s a quick cross-sectional comparison of the “top three” with the “bottom three,” with the plus/minus figures being the Corsi percentage difference that the players get from playing with each other. (In other words: it’s the WOWY impact of throwing the players together.)

Giordano Brodie Hamilton
Engelland Eng +0.4
Gio -5.0
Eng +3.7
Bro -0.8
Eng +6.1
Ham +1.0

Wideman Wide +8.4
Gio +2.1
Wide +0.1
Bro -4.8
Wide +13.6
Ham +8.3
Jokipakka n/a Kevin -2.1
Bro -2.3
Kevin -3.9
Ham -3.5

The three pairings that make each other better are: Engelland and Hamilton, Wideman and Hamilton, and Wideman and Giordano. We’re immediately vetoing Wideman and Hamilton because they’re both right-shooting players and neither has significant experience playing their weak side, and because they have the smallest sample size together (just 78 minutes), likely because both of them are righties. Engelland is also a rightie, but he’s played both sides since he joined the Flames and seems reasonably comfortable doing it.

So that leaves the two remaining decent-looking options.

WIDEMAN & GIORDANO

If Wideman plays with Giordano, then Hamilton and Brodie are the top pairing and Jokipakka plays with Engelland. Here’s how Wideman and Giordano were together last season.

TOI CF60 CA60 CF%
Wideman & Giordano 130:22 56.15 52.01 51.9
Wideman apart 654.53 49.57 64.41 43.5
Giordano apart 1348:23 54.42 54.78 49.8

They’re defensively a bit worse than Hamilton/Brodie (with a slightly higher CA60) and offensively slightly better (with a slightly higher CF60), and fundamentally speaking it’s Giordano giving up a bit of offensive commitment on his part to help out Wideman defensively. (Engelland and Jokipakka also seem a bit shaky together defensively, though we have little-to-no data to back that feeling up in terms of how they’ll fit together.)

ENGELLAND & HAMILTON

If Engelland plays with Hamilton, then Giordano and Brodie are the top pairing and Jokipakka plays with Wideman. Here’s how Engelland and Hamilton were together last season.

TOI CF60 CA60 CF%
Engelland & Hamilton 177:05 67.09 67.09 50.0
Engelland apart 770:47 46.01 58.85 43.9
Hamilton apart 1132:30 55.36 57.70 49.0

If you’re a skeptic like me, that seems like an unsustainably high CF60 given that Engelland’s CF60 with everybody else is much, much lower. It also begs the question of whether Hamilton is an effective enough situational defender to make up for some of Engelland’s shortcomings (and whether Jokipakka can do the same for Wideman, albeit with much lower ice time and stakes).

FLIPPING A COIN

Presuming that Smid is on the shelf (and that the Flames don’t sign anybody else), there are basically two “best” combinations of pairings:

Giordano & Brodie Brodie & Hamilton
Engelland & Hamilton Giordano & Wideman
Jokipakka & Wideman Jokipakka & Engelland

Which combinations of defenders you prefer probably varies, but the scary realizations are as follows: the third pairing is going to be a bit of a question mark no matter what, and the deficiencies of whoever ends up playing over their head on the second pairing (either Engelland or Wideman) will probably negate a lot of the strengths of whoever they’re playing with.

In other words? Calgary has three really, really good defensemen on their team. But because of the other three guys signed to fill out the blueline, the team’s likely to have one strong pairing, one decent pairing, and one with some deficiencies. 

It’ll be another year of potentially tough sledding for the Flames beyond the first pairing. The silver lining is that Jokipakka, Wideman, Engelland and Smid all have their contracts up after this season, which should hopefully push those gentlemen to prove they can be contributors going forward… and will provide the Flames with a chance to seriously upgrade the bottom portion of the blueline group.