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The Calgary Flames Opening Night D-Pairs: Gross Negligence

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What was going on with the defense pairings last night?

NHL: Calgary Flames at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Giordano-Wideman

Brodie-Engelland

Grossman-Hamilton

Scratches: Kulak, Jokipakka

Above were the Calgary Flames opening night defensive pairings announced prior to the first game of the season, against the Edmonton Oilers. Crazy, eh? I just cannot figure out why.

What Was Wrong With It?

If you did not watch the game and are not familiar with the defensemen listed above, here is a quick rundown of what is wrong with these defensive pairings.

  1. Nicklas Grossman was in the line up: Why is Nicklas Grossman in the line up? I think it is safe to say most people were pretty surprised when the Flames offered him a PTO, but nobody thought they would actually sign him. He is a 31-year-old defensive defenseman, slow and has shown a significant inability to move the puck. When they did sign him, it still was quite odd, but it must have been for depth on the farm/if the Flames had serious injury troubles. But I do not think any rational person would have expected him to be in the opening line up, playing with Dougie Hamilton, against a fast, offensively gifted team like the Edmonton Oilers. Not when a very mobile defenseman who had a good training camp (Kulak) or a younger and more mobile defenseman who has experience playing with Hamilton (Jokipakka) were available to play instead. The fallout: Grossman helped the Oiler score a goal 1:10 into the first by passing the puck in his own zone, right to Leon Draisaitl whose shot was deflected past Brian Elliott. Less than five minutes later, Grossman tried to channel his inner T.J. Brodie (he has no inner T.J. Brodie) by rushing the puck up the ice, turning it over and leaving Dougie Hamilton to fend off a 3-on-1 by himself. Rough.
  2. No Kulak, no Jokipakka: Alluded to in the previous point, why would both of these guys be scratched? Seriously, it is baffling that neither of them were given the chance to play. Kulak in particular had a strong camp and is a good 2-way defender, why not put him in the line up. You want defensemen that can skate and move the puck against a team that can transition like the Oilers, why would you have 3 slow defensemen (Wideman, Engelland, Grossman) all in the line up to handle McDavid and Co.
  3. BrodaNO: Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie have formed one of the best defensive pairings in the entire NHL for the past few seasons. If you are trying to start your season off on the right foot, it might be best to go with what works, instead of saddling both players with partners who are significantly inferior to them. Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman were tasked with stopping McDavid. Giordano is completely competent for such a task, but Wideman was blown by many times. Wideman actually did have some solid moments in the game, but he played too much, against competition that was above what he should be regularly facing. Put him in a place to succeed. Brodie on the other hand, was saddled with Deryk Engelland. Not a knock against Engelland, but there is no team in the NHL that should ever play him on their second-pairing. If you are trying to stop a player like McDavid, maybe you should have Giordano and Brodie together, players that can help each other succeed, rather than having both players have to carry more weight to bring up lesser players. The only explanation I can think of was that Gulutzan wanted to have one of his top 3 defensemen on the ice at all times and thus split them into 3 different pairings. Unfortunately, such a strategy did not payoff this game.
  4. Wideman played slightly more than Giordano, Engelland played a bit more than Hamilton: Not really much else needs to be said here.

How Might a Good Line Up Look?

The sky is not falling, it was one game and there are 81 games to go. The real issue is the fact that this seemed like a bad idea from the outset and as it turns out, it was. Here is how the pairings could have looked:

Giordano-Brodie

Kulak-Hamilton

Jokipakka-Wideman

or

Giordano-Hamilton

Brodie-Wideman

Jokipakka-Kulak

or

Brodie-Hamilton

Giordano-Kulak

Jokipakka-Wideman

And so on.

The point is, there were many options that Glen Gulutzan had at his disposal for the first game of the season. He picked a really bad one. Why, we will never know. There are plenty of games to be played, plenty of opportunities to win games. But, you should be trying to win every game. Therefore, you should dress the line up that best helps you do that. It is hard to legitimately believe the Flames did that yesterday, let’s hope this was a strange, weird, one-off thing.

Credit where it is due however, the forward lines were terrific and I by no means take this one instance as a positive or negative indictment on Gulutzan, we need much more time for that.

Here were the pairings in practice today:

Giordano-Brodie

Jokipakka-Hamilton

Wideman-Engelland

Much better.