The Calgary Flames should consider a defensive shakeup

There have been a lot of storylines for the Calgary Flames so far this season. From the new top line with Lindholm as the centreman, to Sam Bennett trade request, to the surprising excellence of the newly formed Noah Hanifin/Chris Tanev paring, each one has caused waves across the fanbase. However in this, one seems to have slipped through the cracks a bit; the story of the Flames struggling top pair.

The Flames entered the year excited about their freshly redesigned defensive group. Rasmus Andersson had established himself as a legitimate top four defender, ready to take on an expanded role. Tanev was brought in, expected to play big minutes in a shutdown role, and be an upgrade over Travis Hamonic. It was hard to see Mark Giordano‘s longtime partner TJ Brodie leave, but the proven success of Giordano and Andersson as a pairing made the transition more palatable for fans.

On top of that, if the dark fear in the collective nightmares of Flames fans came true, and Giordano proved himself unable to continue acting as a top pairing defenseman, the team would also have the option to slide him down the lineup to play with Tanev and have others take over the heavier duties, specifically Hanifin, who has also had success with Andersson in the past. Despite the excellence so far of Hanifin and Tanev, it might be time to split up the pair and explore the possibility of moving Giordano down the lineup.

The top pair problem

To accept the idea of splitting what has arguably been the league’s best pairing so far this season in Hanifin and Tanev, its important to take a look at just how much the Giordano/Andersson pair has struggled. With the help of a useful chart from Evolving Hockey, here is a look at how the two have performed so far this season.

Obviously, the two are struggling, albeit in under 140 minutes played for each of them. Still, that’s a lot of red ink. In an 82 game season, maybe the team can afford to leave the duo as is and hope they return to their form from previous seasons, but with just 56 games total and already ten gone by, how much time can the team afford to lose hoping for a return to form? With Giordano’s age, is a return to form even likely?

The fix

On the other hand, Hanifin, the team’s second best option on the left side, is playing the best hockey of his career. He and Tanev are the talk of the town, only allowing three even strength goal against while on the ice so far this season. So far in his career, Hanifin has never really lived up to his billing as a future number one defender, and with already nearly four hundred games under his belt, it seems an unlikely time for him to take a sudden step forward in development.

That being said, there has never been a better time to give him the opportunity. Giordano is nowhere near his Norris form, opening up a spot as the top left defenseman on the team for the first time since Hanifin arrived in Calgary, and it comes at a time when he’s playing the best he ever has. He should be given the opportunity to take the top job and run with it. If he does, great. If he doesn’t, the team is not in any worse of a position than they were before.

Considering the Flames have two defenseman exceeding expectations early and two who are struggling in their top four, it seems logical to suggest swapping partners to spark the struggling players. If you’re not sold on breaking up the strong shutdown pairing the team has found that’s understandable, but there is really very little risk to trying it out. The worst that can come of this tweak is a reversal, back to the way things were. The best that can come out of it is two elite defensive pairings, and even if it doesn’t work that well, if only one of the two can find their game from last season the team will benefit greatly.

It will be worthwhile later in the season to have two strong pairs, rather than to be relying on Hanifin and Tanev down the stretch. A look at the statistics put up by a pairing of Hanifin and Andersson last year show they can be successful together. All data below is taken at 5v5, score and venue adjusted, courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.

PlayersTOICF%HDCF%xGF%Off. Zone Start %
Hanifin/Andersson391.4052.1655.7452.2443.16

With unfavourable zone starts, the duo was above-board in possession, high danger Corsi events, and expected goals. Considering the numbers from current Giordano/Andersson pairing, this pairing could be a clear improvement if they can keep last year’s form.

Other Options

Andersson and Giordano need a shakeup, and putting each of them with the two defenseman playing the best seems like a good way to help both players find their game. But, if it seems too risky to break up the extremely strong second pair, the team could at least explore options to help Giordano and Andersson find some confidence.

The two are currently leading the team in time on ice per game among defenseman, and playing against other team’s top players. The results have not been good, but the pattern persists. Ward should consider lowering the minutes Giordano plays to see if it helps him play at a high level. While minutes should be less of a concern for the younger Rasmus Andersson, this may help his partner excel again.

Along those same lines, the coaching staff could also make an effort to reduce the number of minutes the two are facing against opposing top lines, matching them instead against easier competition. At very least, the easier competition should lessen the defensive risk the duo currently poses when on the ice.

The other option, and the one the Flames are most likely to take, is to just ride it out. The team has only used six defenseman all season, and at even strength have had the exact same three pairs play the vast majority of minutes together. Ward seems happy with his defensive pairings, and doesn’t look poised to make any substantial changes, likely preferring to wait and see if the Giordano/Andersson pairing takes off, hoping for a return of their past success.

Whatever happens, the team will need three strong pairs to have success. Hopefully if the top pair continues to struggle, the coaching staff makes some adjustments.

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