Breaking down the Flames’ defensive pairing decisions

Aside from Brian Elliott’s early season meltdown and the fact that Brad Treliving managed to get Johnny Gaudreau back in red and gold before the season opener, the biggest surprise so far for the Calgary Flames has surely been the uneven play of their defensive corps.

While goaltending emerged as the Flames’ central issue last season, most believed the club had enough depth on the blue line to put together a strong rebound campaign if given a decent option in net. The presence of well-known names like Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton certainly aided in that perception.

But that hasn’t been the case in 2016-17 as the Flames’ back end has stumbled mightily out of the gate — a surprise that undoubtedly helped Elliott open the season in such an underwhelming fashion.

Much of the group’s worrisome play can be traced back to head coach Glen Gulutzan’s decision to balance out his pairings instead of relying on the formerly dominant duo of Giordano and Brodie. And Gulutzan’s insistence on switching things up frequently over the first month likely hasn’t done much to allow his defenders to settle in either.

Despite this instability, Calgary has been gifted with some strong early play from at least a couple key names.

Giordano has thus far dodged the slow start he showcased last season. Through the first month, the captain is leading his club in average ice time (playing over 25 minutes per game), blocks (25), takeaways (eight), and is tied with Gaudreau for the team lead in total shot attempts (44).

Dougie Hamilton has impressed so far as well, leading the team’s rearguards offensively, with six points and 13 hits. He’s also been the club’s most effective shooter from the blue-line, sitting just below Giordano with 40 shot attempts, but managing to get 65 percent of those shots through to the net – most among all Flames rearguards, and far above Giordano’s 47.7 percent.

Brodie and veteran Deryk Engelland have flown under the radar somewhat in 2016-17, but the pair have emerged as the most defensively sound for the Flames up to this point – despite Engelland finding himself in a few inglorious moments.

25 OCT 2016: St. Louis Blues leftwing Robbi Fabbri (15) and Calgary Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie (7) watch the puck during a NHL game between the Calgary Flames and the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)

25 OCT 2016: St. Louis Blues leftwing Robbi Fabbri (15) and Calgary Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie (7) watch the puck. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)

The pair have allowed the fewest scoring chances against per 60 minutes, posting a mark of 6.6 in 64 even-strength minutes together.

Brodie and Engelland have also been the only duo not mired in penalty trouble, posting a team-best penalty differential (which measures the penalties they’ve drawn against the penalties they’ve taken) of plus-four.

Giordano and Wideman have been Gulutzan’s most-used pair thus far, skating for 72 even-strength minutes together. But pairing the team’s best blueliner with the one of the club’s biggest defensive liabilities (Wideman boasts a team-leading seven giveaways thus far) has proved to be a less-than-ideal strategy.

While Giordano has been succeeding individually, his pairing has allowed the second-most shots-against per 60 minutes compared to the rest of the Flames’ regular pairing experiments (29.2) while managing the second-fewest shots-for per 60 minutes (25).

These sample sizes are still small, of course, but they do suggest that Giordano and Wideman may be, at the very least, not the ideal top pairing for the Flames. Though you may not need statistics to believe that to be true.

While the Flames currently rank seventh-worst among all NHL teams in regards to goals-allowed per game (with a mark of 3.44), they’ve been a middle-of-the-pack defensive club overall, allowing the 15th-fewest shots-against per game.

They’ve certainly tightened things up as of late, allowing two goals or fewer in three of their past four games.

However, given the strategy Gulutzan is employing in regards to his pairing deployments, there’s still plenty more to be desired. But the problem is simply that Wideman and Engelland have proved troublesome when left alone.

In more than 230 even-strength minutes together last season, the pair posted a team-worst Corsi For percentage of 37.8, and allowed the second-most shots-against per 60 minutes of all Flames pairing combinations (31.7). The worst mark in this category belonged to Wideman and Kris Russell.

That being the case, Gulutzan is forced to either allow Giordano and Brodie to pair up while handcuffing Hamilton to one of Engelland or Wideman, or simply mixing up the whole group to find some sort of middle ground.

Opting for the latter option is proving expectedly subpar, however. The Brodie-Engelland pairing, for example, has been decent defensively but very uneven when it comes to offensive contributions. They’ve added three goals-for so far, but not through a sustained offensive effort, as they’ve also posted the fewest scoring chances per 60 minutes of the different pairing options, at just 1.9.

If the Flames can keep limiting their opponents offensively moving forward, there’s a good chance Gulutzan stays the course in regards to his current pairing decisions. However, sooner or later his team is going to run into offensive performances that can’t be contained by uneven pairings like the ones Calgary is currently housing.

And not having the customary offensive contributions of Giordano, Hamilton, and Brodie – the latter of which is currently seeing his scoring prowess limited by his role – will most definitely exacerbate the situation.

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