Calgary Flames

Flames Sunday Census: Figuring out Calgary’s top-four defencemen

The Calgary Flames will be opening up 2021–22 without Mark Giordano on the roster. The last time the Flames were Giordano-less was during the 2004–05 season. To say the Flames will look weird without their former captain is an understatement.

Reshuffling the defence corps now means the top-four will be different. The absence of Giordano means the Flames will need someone else to play the heavy minutes the Giordano once did at even strength, on the power play, and on the penalty kill. Who’s going to take the responsibilities in stride and run with it? We asked, you answered.

The Flames top defenders all have question marks

The top-three is a given. It’ll be Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, and Rasmus Andersson. The combination of who plays where may be tweaked as training camp comes around as there are a lot of contingencies around the trio.

Will Hanifin be ready to go after recovering from shoulder surgery? Will Tanev recover from his broken ribs and torn pectoral muscle? Will Andersson rebound and get back on his trajectory of being a reliable top-four option or will he repeat his latest season and have abysmal results?

Suffice to say, the question marks surrounding the three of them are magnified as they won’t have the unquestionable Mark to lean on. Nevertheless, the Flames will have to find a way to fill in the gaps without their long-time defence stalwart and captain. As it currently stands, there are a few defencemen that can fill the gap.

Defensive options

Realistically, this is a two-horse (or two-Blasty?) race, as it will be between Juuso Valimaki or Nikita Zadorov. Unless training camp goes tremendously well for Oliver Kylington or Connor Mackey, there is virtually no chance either of them would take a second-pairing role for this season.

On top of that, there’s the outside chance that Michael Stone re-signs with Calgary on a one-year contract (as per tradition) and earns a second pairing slot given his exceptional season in 2020–21. Whether this happens remains to be known, but it’s plausible.

Erring on the side of realism, let’s compare the play between Valimaki and Zadorov to see what each player brings to the table.

Valimaki’s 2020–21 performance

As the Flames work with Valimaki in the offseason to piece together his next contract, he’ll want to show the Flames he’s worth it. Now that his entry-level contract is up, he’ll be looking for a raise that’s higher than his qualifying offer of $874K. Should he sign a two-year deal, it may come in around $1.65M AAV.

His latest season was rather unique, as he featured in a total of 68 pro games split between Liiga and the NHL. While his performance in the Finnish league was promising, his play for the Flames will middling and left a lot to be desired. He’ll play the upcoming season as a 23-year-old, so there’d be a lot on his shoulders if he’s to take up the second pairing responsibilities.

Per Evolving-Hockey, his NHL campaign was mediocre, where he posted above-average offence coupled with below-average defence.

Valimaki’s total games played pro-rated to 72 games over a 82 game season, so suffice to say he’s considered a full time NHLer moving forward. With limited special teams time on ice, his play was neither good nor bad in odd-man situations. However, his even strength play showed better than expected goals above replacement when it came to offence. If he can improve on his season, then it could be wise to give him a higher share of offensive zone starts to complement his previous results.

Zadorov’s 2020–21 performance

Playing with the Chicago Blackhawks for the first time in 2020–21 after being a Colorado Avalanche for most of his career, Zadorov played a strong defensive game coupled with a putrid offence. He comes to Calgary previously playing top-three minutes with the Blackhawks, only behind Connor Murphy and Duncan Keith.

Despite filing for arbitration, both Zadorov and the Flames are hoping to find a mutual outcome that comes with term. After all, the Flames traded away a 2022 third-round pick to acquire him. As per the NHL CBA, going through arbitration would lead to a contract of just one year in length, since Zadorov is a restricted free agent with his current contract expiring.

Should both parties aim for term, he could end up signing a multiyear contract that lands somewhere around the $3M range. No matter the outcome over the next couple of weeks should they settle prior to arbitration, Zadorov will most definitely be paid significantly more than Valimaki. By dollar value alone, slotting him in the top-four makes sense.

Again as per Evolving-Hockey, the 26-year-old defender does a fairly good job at exactly that: defending. Unfortunately, his offence brings detriment to his team and ultimately it makes him well below-average. However, if paired with say Andersson, having a defence-first partner could allow Andersson to find his bearings again. That alone would be worth it.

Looking elsewhere for help on defence

While the Flames’ top-four will be significantly downgraded without Giordano, the offseason isn’t exactly over yet. There’s still time to see about bringing on an additional player to really bolster the defence, but of course there are higher priorities in figuring out the forwards first.

However, the market for defencemen went absolutely wild this year, which makes sitting idle in defencemen signings and acquisitions potentially the best move for Calgary right now. If the absence of Giordano early in the new season forces the current defence corps to step up and deliver, then that’s not entirely unfavourable.

Hindsight might suggest that not solidifying the top-four could be a huge mistake, or it could show that a bullet was dodged in not overpaying this offseason. Only time will tell what the Flames’ front office will ultimately do and how the defencemen will perform.

Defence wins

The Flames are undoubtedly going to play a more defensive game in the upcoming season. Having Darryl Sutter behind the bench guarantees that. The team as a whole will be tasked with shutting down offence-first teams within the Pacific Division when battling against the Edmonton Oilers, Vegas Golden Knights, and Vancouver Canucks, but the 2021–22 Flames may genuinely be adequately equipped for the task.

How the top-four shape up on the blueline will have a heavy hand in whether the Flames will be successful in their execution, as things can go south quickly if Calgary’s top defenders are exploited. Optimising the pairings and building chemistry will bring dividends throughout the season.

The hope is that one player will clearly be able to step up and bring reliability and consistency to the top-four, while the top-three are able to find their grooves after recovering from injuries or on-ice struggles. It will take time before that can be determined as the Flames are forced to dive headfirst into the unknown ocean where Giordano awaits as the opposition for the first time ever.

Photo by Sara Schmidle/NHLI via Getty Images

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