Pop quiz time from the Stampede City.
Who's been the Calgary Flames most skillful, reliable, influential defenseman over the past month and change?
Think it's Dion Phaneuf? Jay Bouwmeester
? Robyn Regehr?
None of the above. It's Mark Giordano
The 26-year-old from Toronto is no longer flying under the radar in Cowtown. He's simply too good to play second fiddle on an enviable defense corps that sent three members to the Canadian 2010 Olympic orientation camp last summer.
Simply put, Gio is a gem.
"I don't think its been the last little stretch, its been from the get-go," Brent Sutter, coach of the 23-12-5 Flames said. "There's three things that he brings to the game that are really important.
"No. 1, he plays with energy. No. 2, he can skate. And No. 3, he moves the puck. And when you have those things, it's intelligence. He's been a rock-solid guy for us. We need him to be, and he's got to continue to be that (way)."
The 6-0, 203-pound Giordano, who spent two seasons of major junior with OHL Owen Sound, was picked up by the Flames as a free agent more than five years ago.
After a promising 2006-07 season, when he scored seven goals among 15 points in 48 games for Calgary, Giordano bolted for Russia and a winter with Dynamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League.
He returned for 2008-09, but a mid-February shoulder injury and subsequent surgery ended his season prematurely.
Recognition has finally begun piling up at his locker-room stall this season, thanks in part to Cory Sarich
's broken toe. When Sarich was sidelined due to injury on Nov. 23, Giordano started shouldering a bigger load -- his average ice time, in minutes, has grown from the high teens to the mid-20s and earning more responsibility.
Under these circumstances, he's flourished.
"Even when he first started here with the Flames, before he went over to Russia, you could see the potential that was there," says Charlie Simmer, the former Los Angeles Kings great who performs colour commentary for Rogers Sportsnet, the Flames regional TV broadcaster. "His biggest attribute is his skating ability.
"Each game, he's gotten better and better. His skating gets him in the play, and he's got some confidence handling the puck," Simmer continued. "Defensively, he's able to get himself in a good position. And offensively, once the transition happens, Brent Sutter wants his defense to jump up into the play. He does it with confidence . . . and experience too, now. He's not gambling anymore."
These days, Giordano plays with authority and coolheadedness.
He's been a minus player in only two of the Flames past 28 games; he'll hit the release valve almost unerringly with the correct play under pressure in the defensive zone; he controls the offense masterfully from the opposition blue line; and he'll throw his weight around with the best of them.
Just ask Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown, who bore the brunt of four teeth-rattling bodychecks from Giordano in a Dec. 17 game at Calgary.
"I get reminded a lot if I try and do too much, so . . . usually, your first play is your best play, and I just try and keep it simple. If there's nothing there, get it out of the zone and start over," Giordano said. "At this point, for me, it's about being really solid in the defensive end.
"If the coaches can trust you, you're going to get minutes. If they can't trust you in your own end, you're not going to play," adds Giordano, who's currently paired on the Calgary blue-line with Bouwmeester. "My offensive instincts are there, and I don't think they're going to go away. But that's where I want to learn and grow as a player defensively."
Thursday night against Edmonton, it was Giordanos offensive prowess -- a third-period, power-play bomb from the blue line that was tipped by Curtis Glencross
for the eventual winner -- that lifted the Flames over the Oilers, 2-1.
The assist gives him 16 points, including four goals, through 40 games, and that's just one point back of Phaneuf and Bouwmeester for the Flames production lead among defensemen.
"His quickness has always been there, as far as his decision-making," says Simmer. "I think now he's making the sound, responsible decisions, and those are the ones you're really noticing."
The Flames go for their fourth straight win, and the Northwest Division lead, on Saturday with a home date against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"Mark's a highly skilled defenseman great puck mover, quick skater, able to make those little plays," says fellow Calgary blueliner Adam Pardy.
"You see it a lot when he's got the puck on the blue-line, making those quick little moves, taking quick steps and beating the guy. That creates a lot offensively," adds Pardy. "And that hasn't taken anything away from his defensive game or his defensive capabilities. He's still making great plays defensively, and he's not getting beat."