Early on in the 2021–22 season, the Calgary Flames’ power play has struggled. Under the guidance of Kirk Muller for the first time after former coach Ray Edwards returned to his previous role in player development, the power play is not exactly off to a strong start to the season, scoring only three times on 16 attempts (21.4%). One of those goals was scored by the top unit and two by the second, though their latest one came with five seconds remaining in a game they were already going to win.
Their power play will surely improve as the season goes on, but that improvement relies on a key decision by Mueller that Edwards never had to make: which defenseman should quarterback the power play. After years of easily penciling Mark Giordano into that role, the team has a tough decision to make for the first time in a long time.
Candidates for the position essentially include any Flames defenseman at this point in the season. None stand out as obvious threats, although Chris Tanev, famous for defensive prowess rather than offensive, is a fairly easy candidate to cross off the list. Relied on so heavily at even-strength and on the penalty-kill, it makes sense to give him this time to rest.
Similarly, there are three at the bottom of the rotation to cross off the list. Erik Gudbranson, Nikita Zadorov, and Michael Stone are all fringe guys with little to no power play upside, leaving us with Oliver Kylington, Noah Hanifin, Juuso Valimaki, and Rasmus Andersson as options on the power play.
Calgary Flames power play defensemen so far
The two defensemen with the most ice time on the power play so far this season are Andersson with 13 and a half minutes and Hanifin with just under eight and half minutes. They have just one assist each to show for it. No other defensemen has played significant man-advantage minutes yet, though surprisingly it’s Tanev who’s third on the team with 1:55 on the 5v4 power play.
While having only a point each doesn’t mean Andersson or Hanifin are the certain source of the power play’s struggles, it’s not a bad place to make changes either, considering how little most Flames defenders have been able to play on the power play due to Giordano’s presence in the past.
With a sluggish start to the season, it makes sense to evaluate if they really are the best fits for that role.
Not exactly known as an offensive dynamo in the NHL, Andersson is a solid defender who struggled last season but should bounce back. He’s great with his puck on his stick and uses his frame to protect the puck well and drive the net. Despite that, he isn’t particularly creative offensively.
In his three full seasons in the NHL, from 2018–19 through 2021, he has only had a positive impact offensively once at 5v5 according to HockeyViz.com, and it was a marginal 1.2% increase in expected goals.
Using Andersson as a power play quarterback is not an entirely poor decision though. He has experience in the league, something valued by coaches, and a strong (if inaccurate) slap shot. On top of that, he has the elusive right shot that is so rare among Flames forwards.
Having a mix of left and right shots allows power play units to create one-time threats and attack triangles, an extremely important part of creating offense on the power play.
Much like Andersson, Hanifin isn’t a bad decision, but it might not be the best. With a career-high in points of only 33, and without any real evidence to suggest he will suddenly improve at this element of his game, its a bit of a mystery as to why the Flames have handed him a top power play role, aside from a reputation as an offensively minded defenseman..
He doesn’t have an offensive skill like shooting or passing that really jumps out as an offensive weapon. Still, he has power play experience like Andersson, and coaches appreciate that.
Last season, he played 36:13 on the power play, and the Flames outscored their opponents 4–1 in that time—a respectable result—although allowing a shorthanded goal against never reflects well on whichever defensemen is on the ice at the time.
More concerning is that when on the ice on the power play the team surrendered 1.54 expected goals against per sixty minutes of ice time, according to NaturalStatTrick—the worst mark on the team among defensemen. In the end, Hanifin appears on paper more or less serviceable as a power play option, and in practice the results have been just that. Serviceable, but not great.
Alternatives on the Flames’ power play backend
The two main alternatives are the young guns, Valimaki and Kylington. Both have shown tremendous offensive ability at every other level they’ve played. With limited success from the neither Andersson nor Hanifin as power play quarterbacks, it might be time to give one (or both) a look on the man advantage.
Now 23 years old, it’s getting time for Valimaki to be more than just a bottom pair player for the Flames. Part of that is on his own middling performance, and part of that is on the coaching staff for not putting him in a position to succeed regardless of who has been coach.
In the AHL he recorded 14 points in 20 games as a rookie. In Liiga during the pandemic, he was bar none one of the best in defenders in the Finnish league and scored a sizzling 19 points in 19 games. Success in minor leagues is no guarantee of success at the NHL level, but with offensive output like that its clear there is offensive upside that the team has not given a chance at the highest level.
Valimaki has played only 15 minutes on the power play in the NHL in his career and hasn’t recorded a point. Still, his passing and vision give him arguably the best skillset on the team for running a power play. Here’s a great example of both of those traits that could make him a great power play quarterback.
His vision and passing are not often seen from the third pairing, but are the strong suit of his game. In the next clip, he makes a great read to jump up into the slot and ends up scoring as a result.
With a bit more time and space, and the opportunity to play with the best forwards on the team, the power play could be the way to unlock his offense in the NHL.
It seems like Kylington showed up a new man this year in Calgary. After years of toiling in the minors and spending most of last year on the taxi squad, working on his defensive game, he has finally cracked the lineup and it looks like he could be there to stay, playing in the top-four with Chris Tanev.
Kylington has a talent very few Flames players possess: explosive skating. With the puck on his stick he can absolutely fly, and he has a dangerous shot, too. This clip from the preseason is a great example of his speed and mobility on the blueline as well as his wrist shot.
Considering his well-documented offensive prowess and his experience with Stockton’s power play, he seems an obvious choice for the role of quarterback. He has mobility to walk the line like no one less on the team, a dangerous shot, and his defensive deficiencies should be less important on the power play.
With his new role in the top-four, it may only be a matter of time before we see Kylington regularly starting the power play on the ice. The tricky thing is the need for consistency on the power play. If Kylington starts to struggle at even strength and Sutter removes him from the lineup, you’re stuck once again looking for a capable defenseman for the power play, and rebuilding whatever chemistry had been found.
No easy decision for Calgary
It’s not an easy decision by any means. Andersson and Hanifin haven’t been terrible, but the power play as a whole needs a shakeup, and neither have stood out positively either. Valimaki and Kylington have offensive upside that the team should look to exploit, but come with risks of their own.
Kylington is a smooth skater and an offensive dynamo in the AHL, and would likely be the best bet. His mobility allows him to get creative at even-strength already, the extra space provided by a power play could really allow him to show his talent at the NHL level. With Gaudreau, Lindholm, Monahan, and Tkachuk on the first unit already, the addition of speed on the blueline could make for a very dynamic top power play.
Making this change would give a young player who deserves a shot, that shot. It would also keep Andersson on the second unit, where he can provide a right-shot option already given by Lindholm on the top unit.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s better to take a chance on a young player who might excel than play a veteran who will definitely not excel in the same role.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
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