The 2013-14 campaign is a year of transition for the Calgary Flames. Nowhere is it more apparent than on the blueline. The Flames welcomed a pair of new faces to their defence corps this year and gave more responsibility to the returning players.
Early on, head coach Bob Hartley has piled the minutes on Dennis Wideman and the second year Flame has responded positively. The top pairing of Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie continually receive the most difficult minutes and are asked to answer the bell. The response by the dynamic duo has been profound.
First off, let’s preface this by saying we’re not talking about two relatively unknown commodities that have burst onto the scene out of nowhere. Giordano is the team captain and perhaps the most recognizable face on the team. Yet, before the end of last season, he had never been utilized as a true number one guy. Brodie, on the other hand, has been on the rise since becoming a fulltime NHLer early on in the 2011-12 season. He also got his first taste of top pairing minutes in the latter stages of last year’s shortened campaign.
Their early season performance is still surprising, though because of the steps forward they’ve both taken in a very, very short period of time in their new roles. A good chunk of blueliners would take some time to be playing as high of a level as these two are, whether it be a few weeks or a few months.
With Giordano and Brodie, however, it has been apparent since the season opener in Washington that these two guys are the bonafide top pairing on this team.
First off, the offensive numbers will back it up, particularly in the case of Giordano. He’s already tied for second on team in scoring with two goals and six points in five games. Adding in Brodie’s two assists in the early going, the two have combined for eight points which is more than double the two other regular pairings on the team. But offensive numbers really don’t tell the whole story here, even if they paint a very positive picture.
The true impact of Calgary’s top pairing becomes more evident when you focus on how crucial their responsibilities are. If you’re so inclined, go back and watch a period or two from one of the five prior games the Flames have played and watch how Hartley utilizes these two. Giordano and Brodie have seen a steady diet of the team’s best players, more so than any other players on the team thus far.
When the Flames faced off against Washington and Columbus, it was slightly less evident, mainly because the Flames were the road team and Hartley wasn’t always able to pick his desired match-ups. That said, as much as possible, it was Brodie and Giordano on the ice when Alex Ovechkin was.
With Calgary’s recent three-game home stand, it was far more noticeable time and time again. It was the Sedin’s when Calgary squared off against the Canucks and then New Jersey’s top line boasting Elias and Jagr.
It’s only five games in, but Hartley is using his top pairing like any other top pairing league wide, and they’re performing commensurate to what’s being asked of them.
Don’t worry; I’ve got some compelling numbers to back it up.
Many of the advanced stats that are out there can be extremely misleading this early in the season. Most of the time, it takes 40 or more games truly get a true indicator when going by an advanced metric. When you look at the raw data, however, it can tell a pretty accurate story, especially when it lines up with the majority of eyes-on viewings.
Let’s use two pieces of raw data and compare them against one another. You may have heard of something called a Corsi rating. It’s a system of tracking players developed by Buffalo Sabres goaltending coach Jim Corsi. The rating takes the average of all shots for and against taken by all skaters on the ice when that individual is on. Basically, it turns into an offensive zone proxy. Plain and simple, a higher number means you spend more time in the offensive zone and a negative number means you’re spending more time inside your own blueline.
Corsi on its own can be very misleading, though, because it does not take situational play into account or quality of opposition. The latter has already been covered, so let’s tackle the former.
By tracking where a faceoff is taken along with who’s on the ice, we come up with a stat called “offensive zone start”. When calculated, it shows us in a percentage how often a player starts in the offensive zone. A higher percentage should lead to a higher shot rate, while understandably, more defensive starts makes it difficult to generate shots at the other end of the ice which typically leads to a lower Corsi rating.
When the zone start is low and the shot rate is decent, you can really start to get an idea of how a certain player, or in this case, a pairing can affect the play.
If you’re reading this and scoffing at all this number jargon, that’s fine, it’s not for everyone. But many NHL teams have positions created specifically to track analytics like this. Chris Snow, the Flames director of video analysis, is one of those guys. In fairness to Snow, what he covers is FAR more advanced than what I’ve just described. What he’s got going on would make a mind like mine explode, because it’s that in-depth.
So how does this relate to the defensive pairing at the centre of this conversation? Giordano and Brodie are currently leading the team with the highest shot rates on the team (identical -0.82 ratings). Next on the team are Wideman and his defence partner Kris Russell. The difference? Giordano and Brodie are seeing far tougher match-ups and far more difficult situations.
Of players who have played in all five games, Giordano has the second lowest offensive zone start at 40.8%. Brodie is fourth lowest at 44.0%, meaning that both guys are starting more shifts inside their own blueline than in the offensive zone.
Wideman and Russell, on the other hand, are at 73.3% and 74.4%. That’s not a knock on them whatsoever. In fact, it shows a coach playing to strengths, using Wideman and Russell in more offensively tailored roles while deploying Giordano and Brodie as a true shutdown pair.
Remember, these numbers are calculated at even strength, so powerplay and penalty kill utilization doesn’t factor in, as it gets even more specialized. What the Flames have right now is a luxury and the players in question have made it easy for Hartley to go about business the way he has, because they’ve all performed well.
In the end, I remain blown away by just how good Giordano and Brodie have played in the early stages of the season. The challenge for any top pairing defenceman is to do what these two have done every single night to the point where no one is surprised anymore. That’s the challenge placed on Brodie on Giordano over the next 70+ games.
The good news? All signs so far point to that being exactly what happens.