Calgary Flames

Flames Sunday Census: Top pairing options for Calgary

The Calgary Flames head into the 2021–22 season without their long-time defensive stalwart Mark Giordano. Not only has he been one of the Flames’ longest serving captains, he’s helped establish Calgary’s defensive corps as one of the best in the league for seasons on end. With his age being the deciding factor, the Flames left him unprotected and will now have to find ways to fill his absence. Who should step up to take his role on the Flames’ top pairing? We asked, you answered.

Calgary’s defence conundrum

Of course, the top pairing includes two players—and losing Giordano is obviously just one player—but the domino effect that it created for the Flames makes their situation on defence that much more enticing. The Flames have all sorts of combinations they can work with for the top pairing, and figuring out the right one earlier will pay off down the line.

What makes the most sense right now for the Flames’ top pairing deployment?

Hanifin and Tanev

Noah Hanifin played some quality hockey last season prior to his shoulder injury alongside Chris Tanev on the second pairing. Tanev was bar none the best defensive defenceman in the league last year. It makes a lot of sense to bring this duo back and lock them in as the definitive top pairing now given their results together. However, that’s contingent on both Hanifin and Tanev’s offseason recovery from their respective injuries being 100% and that the heavy minutes will be manageable.

This opens up options for solidifying Calgary’s second pairing and adds flexibility to the third pairing, where playing the six and seventh defenders on a rotation could be a preferred route. The Flames would hope that Hanifin can return to the peak form he displayed from last season while Tanev can still be a premier shutdown defender. The already existing chemistry between them makes this decision easy to execute both on paper and on the ice.

Hanifin and Andersson

Placing these two onto the top pairing comes with a high-level strategic play that relies on two factors. First, as aforementioned, Hanifin’s on-ice impact is back to where it was pre-inury. And second, Rasmus Andersson‘s on-ice impact is back to where it was pre-2021.

It’s no secret that Andersson had an atrocious year—and not to put any pressure on the defender—but the Flames outright cannot afford to see his performance being that bad again. And to be fair, it shouldn’t. His trajectory as a defender prior to last season showed no indications of the complete shift from being a high-impact defender to someone who looked like he was trudging through mud most nights.

Andersson will regress to the mean, and in his case, it means going back up to a much more respectable level of play. The trust to play on the first pairing could bode well for him, and he and Hanifin can focus on generating offence with the Flames’ best forwards while Tanev and his resultant partner can focus on shutdown defence.

Zadorov and Tanev

If Nikita Zadorov ends up earning top pairing responsibilities alongside Tanev, it would be a decision laced with Darryl Sutter‘s fingerprints. The Flames have made drastic shifts in their roster to bring in players who are more defensive than they are offensive. Putting Tanev and Zadorov together spells out an all-defence top pairing that could actually bring back dividends for the Flames.

Their playing style for this season is going to look different, that’s a guarantee. With such a heavy emphasis on defence, it wouldn’t be that surprising to see it starting with the top pairing. Zadorov, like Tanev, brings very little offence to the table, but he’s a formidable defensive skater. Couple him with Tanev and the Flames might put forth one of the best phsyical embodiments of “defence wins” by starting with their go-to guys.

Not only does this make sense from expected on-ice results, but as a complement to the argument above for Hanifin and Andersson, if the all-defence pairing eats up the most minutes, then the offence-driven second pairing would have good opportunities to strive away from the defensive zone.

Kylington and Tanev

This pairing is definitely a wild card pairing, and it’s not likely to come to fruition. However, there’s logic behind it. Oliver Kylington has looked good so far in the preseason, arguably the best he ever has. By pushing him right into the deep end (which in this case is filling the void left by the lack of Giordano), the Flames avoid shifting the defensive balance.

Kylington hasn’t featured in too many games and last season was no exception. He played just eight games last year compared to 48 the season prior. It’d be frustrating for him to see his young career flip flop so heavily, and earning top pairing duties out of the preseason would be motivating.

In reality, if this pairing comes to be, it likely would be as a second pair option rather than the first pairing. Kylington is poised to take his game to the next level and it starts with earning a permanent roster spot first. The Flames are quite high on this mantra and Kylington knows it.

The best offence is a great defence

The Flames are without any questionable doubt going to be much more focused on defence this season than any other season of recent memory. Watching the Flames will be different, their on-ice results will be different, and with any luck their end-of-season fate will also be different.

There is no hyperbole in saying that it starts from their top pairing. For all we know, Calgary will opt to rotate the pairing for games on end throughout the season until they find what really sticks. After all, there are still quite a few individual questions associated with each of the Flames’ defencemen. The only way to get answers is to see real hockey played and only then can the team truly determine what the best path is.

The Flames will have plenty of time in the early season to determine the team’s identity. The blueprint is there for them to be all-in on defence. Let’s just hope they can covert theory into practise.

Photo by Sara Schmidle/NHLI via Getty Images

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