The dog days of the summer are coming to a close, and the 2019-20 season couldn’t come any sooner. With just over a month remaining before training camps get underway, the Calgary Flames’ roster looks to be somewhat set. Barring the results of the Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane contracts, the Flames should just have enough space to fit everyone under the salary cap. Another move may need to be made, but nothing has happened yet and rumours have cooled off.
What can be said is that the Flames will be returning to the ice with one of the stronger defensive corps in the NHL. Led by the reigning Norris trophy winner Mark Giordano, the rest of the back end will most likely be comprised of T.J. Brodie , Noah Hanifin, Travis Hamonic, Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki, and Oliver Kylington. All seven played significant minutes last season, with the likes of Andersson, Valimaki, and Kylington taking major strides in their prospective NHL careers. It would be wise to assume that Bill Peters and his coaching staff will be using a combination of these seven defensemen come opening night, and maybe newly acquired Brandon Davidson as well should they need a little bit more cap flexibility.
The real question is how exactly the Flames will choose to deploy their defenders. Although there are some obvious choices for pairings, it may be worthwhile for the team to explore different options after a disappointing playoff appearance in the Spring. How should the defense look come October third?
Setting the Stage
To determine the Flames’ best defensive deployment, we will use 2018-19 5v5 pairing stats using Natural Stat Trick’s Defensive Pairs tool. Of course, this analysis will only include the top seven players listed above and their stats with each other, excluding their performance with other defensemen who are no longer with the organization. If the corresponding pairing did not register a particular statistic together due to lack of playing time, that cell is blacked out.
Looking at this past season, there were two obvious pairings utilized more than others. Giordano-Brodie and Hanifin-Hamonic were two pairings that both played more than 1000 minutes together over the course of the season. After the top four mainstays, things drop off quickly. The Andersson-Kylington pairing played the third most minutes together, with just over 307 minutes. That is followed by Hanifin-Andersson at 192.4, Andersson-Valimaki at 158.7, and then Giordano-Andersson. The Flames were fortunate to be relatively healthy on the blue line last season.
What is important to note is the context for some pairings noted in the proceeding charts. There may be some pairings that show extreme promise, or even absolute train wrecks, but under an extremely small sample size it must be taken with a massive grain of salt. That’s not to discount them completely, but a pairing like Andersson-Hamonic, who played a mere two and a half minutes together, has to be investigated further with additional playing time for a level of accuracy to be achieved.
In terms of offensive zone starts, the majority of the higher utilized pairings settle around 50.0%. There are a few pairings, such as Valimaki-Andersson, that do benefit from a higher proportion of offensive zone starts compared to the rest of the team, which isn’t unexpected for a completely rookie third pair. Although not a make or break when determining ideal pairings, it does provide additional context.
The Flames in general last year were a positive possession team, posting a CF% of 53.8%, good for fifth in the NHL at 5v5. This was driven by strong possession numbers from their back-end. The best numbers came from the Andersson-Hamonic pairing, but again, this was during two and a half minutes of ice time together. The same can be said for the Hanifin-Valimaki pairing, who also posted a +60.0% CF%, but played a mere four minutes together.
Where we reach the real strength is the Giordano-Brodie pairing, which posted a CF% of 57.7%. The pairing that spend the most time together arguably contributed the most to the team’s strong possession numbers. In fact, Giordano on average contributed positively to his partner’s CF%. There’s a reason he was selected as the league’s best defenseman.
The most interesting player when looking at possession is Andersson. With Giordano, in 156 minutes of ice time, the pairing posted a strong 56.8% CF%. With the other five defensemen, Andersson posted sub 50% possession ratings; aside from with Hamonic. His best deployment may be alongside the captain, which was explored by Peters last season with a high degree of success.
In terms of SCF%, a few more interesting pairings arise. The Giordano-Andersson pairing makes another appearance with one of the best SCF% together at 58.0%. The same can be said for the Valimaki-Andersson duo, who at 56.1% make one of their stronger showings. Both pairings did an excellent job at generating scoring chances compared to their counterparts.
The most interesting pairing displayed here has to be Hamonic-Brodie. A decent sample playing together for 44.3 minutes, the pairing was able to post a 57.9% during that time. Although an odd combination, with Brodie playing on his natural left side, the duo could make for an interesting experiment with Brodie as the puck carrier and Hamonic as the stay-at-home.
Moving towards the high danger chances, the stats get a little harder to decipher.
Some pairings, in their limited ice time, were not on the ice for any HDCF, causing them to be removed from the comparison. Additionally, pairings such as Valimaki-Hanifin and Brodie-Kylington cause the scale to be a bit more spread out.
That being said, we once again go back to the Brodie-Hamonic pairing, who impress again with a 62.5% HDCF. This ranks as the best among pairings, when excluding the positive outliers. Although they may not seem like an offensively minded pairings, they did play well together in limited usage.
We also see strong numbers from the Giordano-Brodie and Hanifin-Hamonic pairings, which comes as no surprise.
As we move into expected goals, the same notable pairings arise yet again. Brodie-Hamonic and Giordano-Andersson both rank at the top, excluding outliers, while the Giordano-Brodie and Hanifin-Hamonic pairings rank in the higher percentile again.
The Flames have the ability to roll a combination of these pairings, and still have the opportunity to generate as much offense as possible when looking at last year’s numbers.
Based on the evidence presented, the Flames have a few options at hand:
Giordano – Brodie
Hanifin – Hamonic
Valimaki – Andersson
This is almost the no brainer option for the team. Based on the sample sizes seen from last season, there is no doubt that these pairings can and should work together. The top four were seen at or near the top across the majority of categories. When looking at the third pairing, there is no doubt Andersson is the guarantee. His numbers with Valimaki are better than with Kylington, therefore giving #8 the edge.
Now what if we make things interesting:
The “Give it a shot”
Giordano – Andersson
Brodie – Hamonic
Valimaki – Hanifin
Although a bit of a leap, this could be worth exploring. Giordano-Andersson showed promise together on the ice last season, which is backed up in their underlying numbers. Brodie-Hamonic also showed a ton of promise that could be worth exploring at the start of the season. This does come with a bit of caveat, as there would be two left handed defensmen on the final pairing. This has worked well with Giordano-Brodie, so why not give it another chance?
Remains to be seen
There is always a chance that one of these seven are moved before the start of the season, with Brodie being a potential victim via trade due to the salary cap system, but it’s more likely than not the defense corps that will start the season with the Flames. Even if Brodie is moved, the Flames would still be able to roll out three strong pairings based on this analysis. In that scenario, the most ideal parings based on this analysis would be:
Giordano – Andersson
Hanifin – Hamonic
Valimaki – Kylington
This still leaves two lefties on the third pair, but with their limited impact, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem for the Flames.
The team may stick with the deployment seen at the end of the season, but with a wealth of options at hand there is always the chance for improvement.
Photo by Gerry Thomas via Getty Images