CALGARY, AB -- It’s a problem Bob Hartley isn’t at all opposed to. It’s not even one he’s necessarily looking to solve, either.
How does the Calgary Flames coach deal with all his defencemen?
“We have speed, we have size, we have toughness, and we have great character,” Hartley said of his riches on the blueline. “Those guys want to play, they want to be the difference. It’s fun. We have a bunch of guys who want to compete. They don’t want to watch the parade. They want to be part of the parade. That’s very refreshing. As an NHL coach, whenever you have good people in your organization that want to be at your best, well, we can only support them and that’s what we’re going to do with that group.
“This group of defencemen is just amazing.”
He’s not wrong.
Hartley’s options include Mark Giordano, who finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting despite missing the final 21 games of the regular season with a torn biceps tendon, TJ Brodie, who himself was judged the 18th-best blueliner in 2014-15, Dennis Wideman, coming off a career-high 15-goal, 56-point season that had him just two slots lower than Brodie, and Kris Russell, who also managed career highs in assists (30) and points (34), and set an NHL record for most blocked shots in a single season at 283.
The Flames will also add Dougie Hamilton to the fold, who like Giordano, Brodie, Wideman, and Russell, established a new personal best of 42 points (in 72 games) as a member of the Boston Bruins last season.
Toss Deryk Engelland into the mix, too. The 33-year-old stepped up to fill in when Giordano was lost for the final three months of the season.
“We’ve got a lot of good defencemen,” Russell said. “There’s going to be some competitiveness in camp and we’re going to be playing for minutes and earning some minutes here. I thought me and Wideman had really good chemistry last year. It’s a new year and we’ve got to make sure that we have a good camp. Show that we want to play in that top-four.”
Brodie averaged 25:12 per game last season, 11th highest in the National Hockey League. Right behind him slotted Giordano at 25:10. Wideman, at 24:38, placed 14th. Russell finished 22nd with 23:56. Hamilton clocked in at a modest 21:20.
Having minutes spread around will allow more, in less.
“I think that in the system we play we’re going to be even better because our defencemen getting on the ice with be fresher,” Hartley said. “Whenever you play a defenceman 30-minutes, well, it’s very simple: he plays every two shifts. If he’s stuck on a shift in your zone against a top line and you have a few icings and you’re under pressure, this guy by the time that he steps back on the ice, he’s still tired. If a defenceman is tired, he’s going to pace himself. He’s not going to jump in the play, and that goes against our DNA.
“That goes against our system. We want our defencemen to be on their toes, to be a part of the attack, so if we can keep our defencemen a little fresher, everyone will benefit from it.”
Hartley’s already started to tinker with potential pairings.
In the first on-ice activity at camp, Brodie and Engelland resumed their late-season chemistry as members of Team A (McDonald). Russell and Wideman, who spent the bulk of last season together, were matched on Team B (Nieuwendyk), while the newcomer Hamilton took reps beside Calgary’s captain on Team C (McCrimmon).
They’re far from settled, though.
“I think we’re going to have to learn to play with different guys in different situations,” Giordano said. “We’re excited. We’re looking forward to being a big part of this team. We had a lot of success last year and I think as a core, we got even deeper this year. Looking forward to how the preseason and getting into some games works out. I think we’re definitely a deeper group this year.”
And how Hartley juggles the grouping remains an unanswered question.
But not necessarily a difficult one.
“We feel, and you’ll see in preseason games, we’ll try a couple of righties on the left side,” he said. “The most simple answer that I can give you is we have three lefties and three righties. We try to figure out which lefty works with which righty and we have the perfect combination. We’re going to experiment all kinds of duos. It doesn’t mean that that’s what it’s going to be on October 7th [in the season opening game].
“We want to use the exhibition games to give us a real good idea of who is capable of playing which side and different partnerships.”