The Calgary Flames came into the season with a lot of uncertainty surrounding their defence corps. Now that they are 14 games in, there’s enough data and observations to make about the team and one thing looks pretty clear: Darryl Sutter has turned the Flames into analytical darlings, and there is a sense of buy-in to the system from every skater. Among the defencemen, their usage has all varied with the absence of Mark Giordano. Whose results on the ice have been the most surprising? We asked, you answered.
Defensive standouts for the Flames
There have been a total of eight defenders playing for the Flames so far this season: Chris Tanev, Rasmus Andersson, and Erik Gudbranson have played all 14 games so far, Noah Hanifin‘s missed one game due to injury, Oliver Kylington has been scratched one game, Juuso Valimaki and Nikita Zadorov are taking turns on the pressbox carousel with seven and nine games played, respectively, and Michael Stone has suited up for one game.
Between them, there were expected results and some a lot less expected. For starters, the consistency in Chris Tanev‘s game was arguably the least surprising. Given how well he played last season he would have needed a big drop off in his on-ice results to turn any heads at all, but he’s been quietly effective. Likewise with Hanifin, his on-ice presence has looked good as well and it isn’t surprising to see him getting the results he’s gotten either.
On the flip side, there are a handful of defenders whose on-ice results have definitely been surprising, and that’s the question we’re turning to the polls to answer.
Before we get to the results, check out this promotion and get yourself a piece of must-read Flames literature!
Bearcat Murray is a Hall of Famer and iconic member of the Calgary community. In a new book, Bearcat shares stories and experiences of his journey from Ol’ Potlicker to Flames legend. Preorder your copy with promo code “WINCOLUMN30” to receive 30% off! Click on the image above to be taken to the Triumph Books shop to get the Bearcat Murray book!
The rise of Oliver Kylington
Spending most of his season last year on the taxi squad, Kylington played just eight games, putting up one assist along the way. As he entered training camp, his play looked different—it looked good at a level no one has seen from Kylington before. The question as the calendar turned from September to October was whether Kylington’s preseason was the real deal or if it was just a string of good games that would sandwich mediocre regular season results?
As it turned out, it was the real deal. Kylington has spent most of his time on a pairing with Tanev, but the smooth-skating Swedish defenceman is even outperforming his partner. Kylington leads the Flames defencemen in scoring outright with nine points—and is tied for 20th in the league among defencemen.
His advanced metrics are on another level right now too. Let’s see how he ranks at score-and-venue-adjusted 5v5 play among defenders with at least 100 5v5 minutes, courtesy of NatrualStatTrick.com. Kylington’s Corsi for is 59.30%, good for fourth in the league behind Connor Clifton, Mike Reilly, and Evan Bouchard; and his expected goals for is 60.45%, good for sixth behind Dmitry Kulikov, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Charlie McAvoy, and Hadyn Fleury.
So Kylington is top-5 and top-10 in the league in two major advanced stats when looking at defencemen. If that isn’t a meteoric rise to glory, I’m not sure what is. Without a doubt, his performance has been the most surprising, and it’s been so for all the right reasons.
Gudbranson’s redefining his career
Gudbranson came to the team with Calgary being his sixth team in four seasons. He’s stuck in a spot in his career where his services are desirable by many yet no one exactly presents a strong case of wanting to retain them for long.
The Flames signed the 29-year-old in the offseason and it came as a big surprise in itself as it was a signing that cost arguably too much and would inevitably push the wrong players down the depth charts. However, Gudbranson got to work right away and has slotted in as a dependable third-pairing option. He’s yet to sit out for a game, and at this point, a scratch would be undeserved.
His whole career has been muddled with awful on-ice impacts to be frank, yet he the best hockey not just of his own career but possibly among bottom six defencemen bar-none right now. Constantly switching between Valimaki and Zadorov as his partners, Gudbranson has been solid at playing defensive hockey.
The results really are surprising for Gudbranson as his only other good performance was when he played with the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2018–19. All other instances of Gudbranson has played has shown him as having a negative impact on this team.
Right now for Calgary, it seems like the city was the change in scenery he needed as his results have been surprising, and like Kylington, it’s for all the right reasons too.
Valimaki’s odd usage
For the Finnish defender, his usage has been baffling. Valimaki’s come out recently to voice his frustrations with how he’s been scratched for half of the Flames’ games so far. For a player at his calibre who has also shown steady improvements to his game, it’s his usage in particular that’s been surprising.
As mentioned, the Flames are rotating Valimaki and Zadorov in the lineup. To make this explicitly clear: the Flames are a better team with Valimaki playing than with Zadorov. Not to fully pump Valimaki up, cause he’s hasn’t necessarily been as good as the rest of the Flames’ defensemen, but Zadorov has been noticeably the worst skater. Who’s to say that if Valimaki got more consistent ice time that his play wouldn’t improve either?
Valimaki is clearly the best available option right now. Scratching him at the exchange of Zadorov is akin to shooting oneself in their own foot. Zadorov’s just too big of a detriment to his team, whereas Valimaki isn’t nearly as bad. To better illustrate this, here are the Flames’ defenders 2021–22 goals above replacement, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com.
Clearly, both Valimaki and Zadorov could be better, but Zadorov is much worse for the time being and it will start costing the Flames standing points throughout the season if it hasn’t already.
Andersson’s rebound season
It can’t be overstated exactly how rough Andersson’s 2020–21 season was. Everything that could have gone wrong for the defender really did go wrong and it was one of the worst seasons by any defender in recent memory.
One of the biggest things the Flames were banking on was that the shortened season performance was a one-off campaign for Andersson and that his true capabilities were several echelons higher than what he had to show for 2021.
Thankfully, that’s exactly how this season has panned out so far. Playing most of his 5v5 minutes alongside Hanifin, the duo have looked good together. They’re reliable and are getting results. This pairing has been on the ice for 11 5v5 goals for and just three against.
Not only that, but Andersson’s taken the duties of eating up the most minutes per game. He leads the Flames with nearly 320 minutes of ice time over 14 games, whereas Chris Tanev follows with 291 minutes. Hanifin is third on the team with 282 minutes in 13 games, so even if he played an extra game, it still wouldn’t match Andersson.
The Flames needed this version of Andersson now more than ever, and they’re relieved to see that he’s back on his trajectory. Slotting right in as a #1 defender and performing all those duties beyond an acceptable standard after the season that he had, that’s a surprise to say the least.
The Flames are one of the best defensive teams in the NHL right now. Of course, getting to best-in-league status in any category is hard enough, but doing so for complete defensive dominance—that requires a full team effort.
They’re getting that right now as a team, and a lot of it can be attributed to just how well their defenders are playing so far. As it stands, Kylington’s impact has been the most surprising, and it’s nothing but good news for the Flames.