An early assessment of the Calgary Flames’ defensive pairings

Following the offseason and the departure of Mark Giordano, the Calgary Flames defence entered unknown territory, and it was looking like it would be one of the weaker parts of the team. Now that there is a bit of a sample size between the preseason and first two games, let’s break down how the defence has fared so far.

In order to ensure the pairings listed are comparable, each pairing must have shared at least 30 minutes of playtime together at 5v5 in the preseason and 20 minutes in the regular to be included below. Of course, the data is limited, but it at least gives a starting point to see how the new-look defence corps is doing. Data is from NaturalStatTrick taken at 5v5.

Preseason pairings

PairingGPCF%SCF%HDCF%xGF%
Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin349.3761.3571.4364.35
Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Andersson530.7728.0016.6720.60
Erik Gudbranson and Oliver Kylington245.3136.1125.0037.00
Chris Tanev and Oliver Kylington567.3978.9557.1477.84
Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov456.7639.3958.3358.45

Regular season pairings

PairingGPCF%SCF%HDCF%xGF%
Erik Gudbrandson and Juuso Valimaki274.0087.5090.0086.05
Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin262.1266.6750.0059.29
Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov244.2350.0040.0034.20

What’s working for the Flames defence

Right off the bat, it’s easy to see what’s going right. For starters Erik Gudbranson has been playing much better alongside Juuso Valimaki than he was when playing with Kylington during the preseason. Valimaki moved around a lot during the preseason and didn’t stick in one truly meaningful pairing throughout it.

But this matchup with Gudbranson seems to be working for the best of both of them as they’ve managed to be our strongest statistical pairing of the first two games, which is definitely a surprise so far. There’s zero chance these two will keep these underlying numbers going for long, but they currently boast the highest expected goals for and lowest expected goals against total as a pairing, meaning they’ve been good in both ends of the ice. If this trend continues at even a fraction of this absurdly great start, then this is a pairing no one expected yet will pay huge dividends for the Flames.

Andersson and Hanifin have also spent the majority of their time playing together. With both their regular season and preseason play being somewhat consistent. They’ve seen an increase in total scoring chances while on the ice but have seen a decrease in high-danger chances and actual goals between the preseason and regular season. They’ve also seen some improvement as a pairing compared to what they did together last year, which is good to see at this early stage of the season, especially for Andersson. You can also expect this pairing to maintain their early success far more than the previously mentioned pairing of Gudbranson and Valimaki.

What’s not working from the backend

This is simple: Nikita Zadorov.

Zadorov has brought down each of the pairings he’s played serious minutes on. Tanev and Zadorov have easily been the worst pairing on the ice in the regular season. These two also didn’t perform well in the preseason together, and seem to have only gotten worse over time.

With how poor those two are playing together it seems odd that Sutter has chosen to keep Tanev and Zadorov together at all. Tanev and Kylington worked much better together in their five preseason appearances. Yet, Kylington has once again been relegated to the bench.

Flames fans have long been asking for more of Kylington, and while his time in the preseason with Erik Gudranson didn’t do him any favours, it seems like it might be the right move to try pairing him with Tanev again. It’s been an uphill battle for Kylington to get regular icetime, but the stats truly back up the fact that he deserves it this season more than ever before.

Dealing with the defence

Despite this rocky start for Tanev and Zadorov, the Flames have so far looked decent behind the blue line as a team. It’s gone better than most would have expected, and Calgary turned a suboptimal situation into a respectable outcome so far. That said, there’s more optimization left that can be done, but at least the defence is a lesser area of concern than it once was prior to the start of the season.

The Flames have a couple of pairings that have worked well so far, and one that doesn’t at all. Better yet, the solution to the problem seems obvious and we’ll find out soon enough if Sutter feels the same way. If the defence continues playing at this level, winning games should come a bit easier as soon as the Flames figure out how to finish on the other end of the ice.


Photo by Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports.

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