The Flames blue line has long been considered to be a strength of the team. Just two years ago, captain Mark Giordano won the Norris, and the team has iced some mobile, gifted defenders over the last few seasons.
Last year however, the offence from the backend seemed to dry up a bit. The most notable decline was from Giordano, who dropped from 74 points two seasons ago, to just 31 points in 60 games last season. But the captain was not the only blue liner to struggle to generate points. Gifted offensive players Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson both contributed only 22 points, certainly nothing to write home about.
Embrace the chaos
One trend that I noticed throughout the season, was that the Flames defencemen seemed relatively unwilling, or unable (within the system) to leave the point and move freely in the offensive zone.
Will And and his website IcyData.hockey provides a great look at the kinds of shots Calgary defencemen produce. Take a look at the difference in these shot charts from Mark Giordano. The first is from his Norris season in 2018-19. Note that all of the following charts only show even strength shots.
Notice here the amount of shots taken away from a small corner on the point. Giordano was all over the place this season, and was always jumping into the cycle and producing shots closer to the goal.
Contrast that with his chart from this past regular season.
Notice how much less activity there is deeper in the offensive zone. Rather than jumping into the rush, Gio was spending way more time stuck to the blue line. Again, there are times when point shots are very effective, but it seems that defencemen were hesitant to become a part of the offence.
It wasn’t just Giordano that saw this change. Look at the charts from Rasmus Andersson, a player who should be contributing offence to the team.
Here is the chart for 18-19.
Certainly less volume, but movement down the boards and into the tops of the circles. In other words, Rasmus was moving around and not simply staying on the point.
Then for 2019-20.
Notice again here how the concentrations are on the point. There does not seem to be much evidence of him jumping down into the zone and contributing to the attack.
Here is a good example of what that stagnance leads to. In this clip, Matthew Tkachuk has the puck along the boards, and is coming up towards the blue line. Travis Hamonic has a few options. He can stay where he is, which will theoretically give Tkachuk an outlet, but will not create any dangerous offence. If he chooses to move, he essentially has three places to go. The first is for him to roll towards the middle of the ice, which would give Tkachuk space and would set up a one timer for the right shooting Hamonic. The second is to cut towards the middle of the ice, taking his defender with him. And the third is to cut along the boards outside of Tkachuk, setting up a drop pass or fake.
He chooses to hold his position on the point. Obviously Tkachuk turns back early in this play, but there is no indication that Hamonic wants to move. The result is a relatively low percentage play from Tkachuk, who has nobody to pass to.
Other times, the pass gets to the defenceman, but a lack of willingness or ability to move in the zone results in relatively low percentage plays. In these two clips, Andersson gets the puck with time and space to make a play. While he takes a better option than simply wristing the puck towards the goal, Andersson opts for a somewhat lazy play, and simply slides the puck across to his partner. In both instances, the team takes a situation with time and space in the offensive zone, and turns it into nothing.
Here is the first:
Is this a bad play? No, not necessarily, and Oliver Kylington deserves some of the blame for not doing something better with the puck. But it is a good example of an opportunity with established puck possession, where the club can play five man offence. By not moving their feet, Andersson and other defencemen limit their own ability to create dangerous offence.
The second clip is very similar.
Another opportunity, another time when both defencemen stayed on the blue line and failed to create anything. No big mistake is made here, but nothing good comes from it either.
That is not to say that the team is not capable of being more fluid in the offensive zone. When they have really clear opportunities to do it, the defencemen can be pretty active. Andersson himself is pretty good at driving to the net, he just needs to do it more often.
Here is an example of how movement creates offence. In this clip against Carolina, Andersson cuts to the net, not only getting himself open, but creating more space for his teammates to create.
Playing with Mark Jankowski and company, his line mates were not able to find him streaking to the net. Johnny Gaudreau and the other skilled forwards are more likely to find those passes and turn these chances to goals. But the clip also shows the benefits to being active away from the puck. Andersson creates space for his teammates, and forces the defensive team to get out of their structure. There is a reason they are able to retrieve the puck off the boards, because the Flames are dictating the flow of the play.
That is exactly what happens in this play from the playoffs. Rather than staying on the point, Noah Hanifin jumps down the boards early. He doesn’t even get the puck, but he helps create a goal by: 1. Creating Space, and 2. Creating confusion in the defence.
One of the frustrating parts about this team is that they often make low percentage plays, or fail to put their best players in position to make the plays they are best at. Calgary has some really talented players up front and especially on the blue line, and creating a more cohesive and active attack will benefit the club.
This is the kind of offence the club needs to play more often:
Andersson carries his man through, which gives space to create, and Derek Forbort (who is also moving) gets a good shooting lane with a man wide open in front of the net. This is a play all of the Flames defencemen are capable of making all the time.
Goals were hard to come by at times last year, and the team will need to improve in these situations. Improved roster depth and some better play from the stars will need to help, but I would love to see this team embrace a puck possession, fluid style of play.
I would love to hear what you think! Check us out on twitter @thewincolumnblog and me personally @jdonville3 and let me know your thoughts on the team’s D-corps!
Photo Credit: Rich Lam / Getty Images