Following the recent injury to Noah Hanifin, Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter didn’t mince words when describing who needed to step up and fill the absence. Sutter told the media that the team’s young defencemen need to step up, and pointed to their poor play as a reason why Calgary is on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs.
It was certainly a bold statement from the bench boss, though not altogether surprising given his comments to the media on Johnny Gaudreau and other Flames stars in recent weeks. Since taking over again, Sutter has shown no hesitation in criticizing his players in front of the press.
Tough love or unconstructive criticism?
But was Sutter right about the defence? While some of the performances from the blue line have been disappointing, many would point to the team’s struggling stars and lack of offensive depth before looking at the back end. Let’s look into the 5v5 numbers to find out.
The Flames as a team
Most of Calgary’s defensive metrics are pretty decent this year. Calgary is seventh in the league in five on five shots against per sixty minutes, allowing 28.08 shots. They are dead even in the middle of the league in five on five goals against per sixty, giving up 2.41 goals. Most impressively, the team is 5th in expected goals against per sixty minutes, as they only allow 1.96 expected goals per sixty minutes.
On the penalty kill, the team is 12th in the league, stopping opponents just over eighty percent of the time. In short, it does not seem that defence in general has been this team’s problem, especially when you consider the blowout losses that occurred at the end of the Geoff Ward era which would have inflated some of the goals against numbers.
If there is one guy in this group who really hasn’t lived up to expectations, it is probably Rasmus Andersson. The big Swede came into this season and solidified himself on a pair with Mark Giordano that figured to be the top pair this season. The results have been disappointing. According to Natural Stat Trick, Andersson is second last among regulars in CF%, coming in just above water at 50.14%. His expected goals percentage is well worse than that as well, as he currently sports a 46.87% xGF%.
One of the problems with Andersson’s game is that the offence has yet to truly translate at the NHL level. Visually, Andersson has a booming point shot, and I was excited to see him play on the first power play unit for much of the first half of the year.
Despite the big minutes on the man advantage, Andersson has contributed just four goals this season to go along with thirteen assists. On the power play, he added just a single goal and five assists, not nearly the numbers you would hope for. For whatever reason, Andersson’s polished puck skills and high velocity shot just don’t seem to contribute much real offence.
Another troubling development this season is that Andersson had his highest ever number of giveaways per sixty minutes, while recording his lowest number of takeaways per hour. According to Evolving Hockey, Andersson gave the puck away 2.17 times per sixty minutes, while taking it away just 0.7 times. Giveaways and takeaways at the NHL level is not a perfect stat, but significant disparities like this one are cause for concern.
With his offence and defence both suffering, it is fair to say that Andersson has struggled this season, though the extent to which the season can actually be blamed on him is certainly debatable.
Juuso Valimaki started the season with lots of hype, and has played significant minutes throughout the season. While he has made some incredible plays with the puck, especially in the offensive zone, he has also been mistake prone in the back half of the ice.
On the season, Valimaki has a 52.71 CF%. His expected goals ratio is also strong, as the Flames are responsible for 53.43% of expected goals when Valimaki is on the ice. In high-danger chances, Valimaki is even stronger, coming in at 54.08%.
It was disappointing for the rookie to only have nine points through the first forty four games of the season. Since March 1st, Valimaki has registered just one goal and one assist, not what the team would have hoped for out of a guy who displayed some serious offensive chops earlier in the season.
Valimaki has not had the season that many thought and certainly hoped he might have, but has played mostly with a mediocre partner in Nikita Nesterov, and has posted pretty good possession numbers. The offensive production hasn’t been there, but again, putting the team’s struggles on his shoulders seems like a stretch.
Oliver Kylington and Connor Mackey
A lot has been made about the recent play of Michael Stone, which has been a nice late season development for the Flames, and for a player with a history like Stone’s. But the real story there is that none of the young crew of blue liners who were expected to push for ice time this season really made a strong impact.
Kylington had a bizarre start to the season, coming late to training camp because of visa issue. He has only gotten into six games thus far, registering one point. Connor Mackey played in just three games, joining Kylington in the one assist club.
The sample sizes make it difficult to make meaningful observations based on their possession numbers. It is not about what these players did, but rather what they didn’t do. Neither of them showed enough to secure more than a cup of coffee on a team that has struggled for most of the year. If you were to ask both of these players, I bet they would tell you themselves that the year has been disappointing.
The youth aren’t all to blame
It would not be fair to suggest that the young guys are the only ones who have struggled. Mark Giordano has certainly not had the season we have come to expect from the former Norris winner, and Nikita Nesterov was not the answer on the third pairing.
We need to read Sutter’s quote closely here. The failure of the young defencemen to develop certainly looks to be one of the reasons, and not the only reason, why the Flames are out of the playoffs. Even if they weren’t terrible, the young blue liners failed to really take the next step, and their development would have really helped the Flames, especially offensively.
When it’s all said and done, it is but one of the many problems this team faced this year. I would argue that general lack of resilience (especially during Geoff Ward’s tenure), a weak power play, lacklustre play from Monahan and Tkachuk, and failure for most of the forwards to score reliably were all equally if not more detrimental to the club this season. Maybe better play on the back end would have solved some of these problems, but maybe better play from some veterans would have helped the young guys at the back too.
In the NHL, the best teams bet on talent. The guys mentioned above all have that in spades. Calgary would be wise to not overreact this offseason, and give these guys more chances. The ceiling for this group remains high, even if the results weren’t there this year.