Calgary Flames

The Calgary Flames have big questions to answer on defence

Although there are still at least a couple months until the NHL season gets going, it feels as though the Flames have made many of their big roster moves for this season. With little space left under the cap and with little in the way of movement right now, the Flames seem to have finalized their group for next season.

While they made some moves at forward to bring in depth and have brought in a veteran goalie in Jacob Markstrom, the biggest question marks remain on defence.

Last season, the Flames started the season with arguably one of their strongest defence corps, and then went out at the deadline and brought in Derek Forbort and Erik Gustafsson. With Mark Giordano coming off of a Norris Trophy winning season, and Rasmus Andersson taking huge strides in his development, the Flames seemed off to the races on the back end.

However, Giordano was clearly not the player he was the season before, whether it was bad luck or Father Time claiming another victim, he was not as good as he needed to be. On top of that, Noah Hanifin has not developed into the elite offensive defenceman that was expected when he was drafted fifth overall in 2015 by the Carolina Hurricanes. Bringing in Gustafsson and Forbort was great for the Flames, but both were on expiring contracts and have since moved on to other teams. Oliver Kylington struggled to stay in the lineup prior to both of their arrivals, but did not feature in a game the rest of the season.

Here is how the Flames looked last season with total NHL games played in brackets:

Mark Giordano (894)T.J. Brodie (635)
Noah Hanifin (389)Travis Hamonic (637)
Erik Gustafsson (221)Rasmus Andersson (161)
Derek Forbort (275)Michael Stone (472)
Oliver Kylington (87)Alexander Yelesin (4)

As it stood, the Flames had a combined experience of 3775 total man games played on defence. They had a with a healthy breakdown of experience amongst their ten defencemen, with a nice mix of experienced veterans and young prospects.

Here is how the Flames’ defence breaks down going into this season (pairings not set)

Mark Giordano (894)Rasmus Andersson (161)
Noah Hanifin (389)Chris Tanev (514)
Juuso Valimaki (24)Oliver Kylington (87)*
Nikita Nesterov (132)Alex Petrovic (263)
Connor Mackey (0)Alexander Yelesin (4)

*Still needs to be signed

The experience on defence is clearly less than last season. Down by over a third in total man games, they simply do not have the same experience which leaves a number of key questions that remain to be answered.

1: How does the bottom pairing stack up?

While the Flames do not look as good, the top four of Giordano, Tanev, Hanifin, and Andersson seem to be penciled in going into next season. With his incredible play in Finland, Valimaki seems like almost a lock for one of the remaining two spots. That leaves the Flames with two open spots, and five guys who could potentially slot in.

The gut-feel would say Nesterov and Kylington are the guys who start the season in Calgary, assuming the latter is finally signed. Kylington has shown that he is too good for the AHL, but has struggled to get regular NHL time.

Nesterov is on a one year one way contract, earning a league minimum $700k per season. While he has not played in the NHL since the 2016-17 season, he put up 23 points in 53 games last season in the KHL with CSKA Moscow, and just served as their captain. If he can push Kylington to be better game in and game out, and come in and be reliable defensively in a compressed schedule, he may help solidify the Flames’ bottom pairing. The fact that he can play both sides of the ice also helps.

This leaves Petrovic, Mackey, and Yelesin all battling in the AHL for time on the roster, and will push Nesterov and Kylington to perform at their best. In what will likely be a compressed season, having players like Petrovic who can slot into NHL roles will be invaluable. We’ll have to wait and see if the bottom pairing can hold their own this season.

2: Which of the young guys can take another step this season

Without the experience of Gustafsson, Brodie, Hamonic and others, the Flames will be relying on their younger stars to take another step in their development. The Flames saw incredible growth from Andersson last season, who has quickly become a staple in the top four. He has been relied on to play tough minutes, and has been strong against other teams’ top guys.

The Flames have not gotten the same from Kylington, who needs to take another step forward in his development. Going into last season, the same questions were asked of Dillon Dube, who was too good for the AHL, but struggled to make an impact in the NHL. However, he took huge strides in his development last year and became a key piece in last season’s playoff run. If Kylington can take a similar step in his growth, the Flames will be a much better team.

There are numerous questions around Valimaki, who is coming off of a season recovering from a brutal knee injury. Players returning from time off from major injury usually take time adjusting back to the pace and physicality of the game. However, his production with Ilves in the Finnish Liiga has been incredibly promising. Some have gone so far as to say he is the best player in the league right now, not just the best defenceman. If he can translate this to the NHL, even if it takes him a handful of games to get up to speed, it will make the Flames’ defence much more sound.

While not as young as the others, there are still questions around Noah Hanifin and his development. Brought over from Carolina in the Dougie Hamilton deal, he was expected to become a bona-fide top four defenceman. While he has slotted in their now, there are still questions around his reliability, defensive positioning and ability to elevate his game. The Flames will be looking to him to take another step in his development to add stability to their blueline. He is fast becoming one of the more experienced guys on this young Flames blueline, and they will need him to take another step going into this season.

3: Has Father Time caught up to Giordano and Tanev?

Giordano’s game took a big step backwards last season. His offensive numbers cratered from 74 points to just 31, and he looked to be a step slower than others on the ice. If the Flames’ defence is to be as sound as it has been in years past, that starts with their captain finding a way to be better this season.

Tanev will be 31 at the start of the season, and has been one of the best defensive defencemen in the league over the last number of seasons. However last season, his numbers began to take a turn for the worse, and he struggled to shut down top guys the way that he used to.

Taking a look at his isolated impact (from Micah Blake McCurdy, @Ineffectivemath), the top column is his offense and the bottom is defence. In the top column, red denotes areas where the player created shots to be taken above the league average, not necessarily taken by the player himself. At the bottom, red is areas where the opposing team was allowed to shoot from.

Tanev is clearly a defensive defenceman, and the bottom charts being mostly blue shows this clearly. However last season on a strong Vancouver team, when he was on the ice, the opposing team was able to generate more shots relative to expectations. This is a step back from the previous few years. The Flames will be hoping that he can get back to his strong defensive ways of the past few years.

Looking to this season

There are a number of question marks on the roster this season, but each defensive pairing will have questions to be asked of them. For how long will Giordano be able to be a top pairing defenceman? Is Kylington a regular NHL defenceman? And many more.

This season will be a make or break year for the team. GM Brad Treliving has tried to keep the band together, opting not to trade any of their major pieces away this off-season. If the Flames are able to get their back end in order and answer some of these questions, they should be able to challenge for the playoffs.

Where do you think the Flames’ biggest questions lie? Let us know in the comments or on social media.

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