It started on Friday against the San Jose Sharks and continued Sunday against the Anaheim Ducks. It has been a long journey, but last game, the Calgary Flames forward lines were exactly what they should be. They were perfect. Now it is time to fix the D.
Glen Gulutzan has optimized the forward lines.
With Glen Gulutzan switching Kris Versteeg and Lance Bouma after Sam Bennett had a terrific performance against the Sharks on Friday, things finally look exactly how they should.
They have one of the best lines in the entire NHL in the Backlund unit, a trio that can take on the toughest match ups and drive play the right direction while being an offensive threat.
They have a dangerous scoring line with Gaudreau and Monahan playing at a high level for months, with Micheal Ferland being their perfect compliment.
The third line has bargain, utility, veteran forward Kris Versteeg lined up with Sam Bennett, one of the most talented players on the Calgary roster once again. But instead of their play being hampered by Troy Brouwer, they now have the underrated Alex Chiasson to compliment their skilled play.
Finally, they have put Troy Brouwer where he belongs. He is now on the 4th line, alongside another gritty player in Lance Bouma, centred by the responsible veteran Matt Stajan.
The forward lines are perfect for the players who are currently on the Calgary roster.
The Top-4 on D is looking swell as well.
Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton form one of the best top-pairs in the entire NHL. They are dominant in controlling play and they score at a high rate. They are a massive component of the team’s success and the Flames are very fortunate to have them.
The acquisition of Michael Stone has helped the top-4 as well. T.J. Brodie was looking like a shell of himself for the majority of the season, being tasked with dragging along Dennis Wideman or Deryk Engelland and it did not go well for him. While Stone is not a phenomenal player by any means, he plays a simple and effective game, especially in the fact that he is nowhere near as turnover prone as Brodie’s past partners. That has allowed Brodie to regain some confidence and given the Flames some stability on the second-pairing.
The only thing that can be done to improve the team now, is fixing the third-pair.
I am going to start this off by saying, I really like Deryk Engelland. He plays very hard, puts his body on the line for his team and has actually come along quite nicely in his time with the Calgary Flames.
Further, there are aspects of Matt Bartkowski’s game that are intriguing. He is an excellent skater and he can be quite punishing at times to opposition players in his own end.
However, when paired together, the Bartkowski-Engelland pair are an abomination. Since joining the Flames, Matt Bartkowski has posted a CF% of 44.8%, by far the worst among all Calgary defenders. Deryk Engelland is runner up, with a 46.4% CF%.
Together, things are even worse. As a pairing, they post a 43.9% CF. They are being dominated, while playing less frequently and facing lower quality competition than their teammates. In contrast, the Giordano-Hamilton pairing sits at 56.4%, and while Brodie-Stone have a 47.2% CF% which is definitely not ideal, it is not horrible and they are facing more difficult competition.
Even if you do not subscribe to the value in these numbers (you should, there is a reason they have become so prolifically used), the eye test will tell you a similar thing. Watch them routinely struggle to get the puck out of the zone, fail to pick up a dangerous player around the net and be victimized by the opposition. They are also nowhere near as close to a threat offensively as the other pairings. They regularly make mistakes that the other pairings do not and it costs the team.
Fixing the third pair seriously matters.
Some may think it is over the top to take such an issue with the third-pairing, but it is imperative that team’s do what they can to optimize their line up for every moment of the game.
Take last nights game, for example. Bartkowski (13:38) and Engelland (17:53) ranked 6th and 4th among Flames’ defenders in ice time, with Engelland’s ice time higher due to the penalty-kill. The pairing was victimized for 2 goals at even-strength, including yielding the late winning goal to Logan Shaw. On that play, Bartkowski was trying to generate some offense but whiffed on his shot, sending a Ducks rush the other way where Engelland just kind of sat back and did not take care of anything. Cross-crease pass, puck in the back of the net, game over.
Considering how match up driven playoff hockey tends to be and the fact the Flames are likely going to be the road team to start the playoffs, teams are going to exploit this pairing. Giordano and Hamilton could do an okay job dealing with Connor McDavid or Patrick Kane, but what about when the home team uses their last change to put those players out against Bartkowski and Engelland. They are overmatched as it is with relatively easy minutes against weaker competition.
In the playoffs, every shift matters. Goals are hard to come by.
What should the Flames do?
I cannot say for sure what would fix the situation, but it seems pretty obvious that new configurations should be experimented with. There are only 3 regular season games left, so Glen Gulutzan and Co. should be trying different players on the bottom pair to see how they fare.
I think there can be a case made for Deryk Engelland to remain in the line up. While he is not the most talented player, he can be reliable with the right partner. He also brings a serious element of physicality which is something that may need to be drawn upon should the Flames face a team like Anaheim in the first round.
Bartkowski on the other hand, does a lot of things that look nice, but the sum of it is some very poor overall numbers. He is a decent depth option should injuries occur, but he really should not be a regular in the lineup. He was playing in the AHL all season until the Flames signed him essentially to have someone to expose in the expansion draft. There is no reason he should be a fixture in the line up.
Who could be brought in to play? There are numerous options which include:
- Rasmus Andersson: A top prospect who has been with the Flames for weeks, but is yet to get into a single game. He is only 20 and needs to play. Definitely an inexperienced option, but it is worth a gamble over someone who has already proven to be below replacement level. However, he is a right-shot defender so either him or Engelland would need to play their weak side.
- Brett Kulak: He has not played for Stockton since March 1 due to injury. However, he has played well in the past with the Flames, especially alongside Engelland. He is probably the best option in the organization at this time. If he is cleared to play again, he should be getting right into the Calgary lineup.
- Tyler Wotherspoon: Did not show a lot in his extremely brief stint with the Flames this year, but has reportedly had a great season in Stockton. Could be worth a shot.
- Dennis Wideman: The nuclear option. Absolutely not an ideal choice, but the numbers do not lie. He has been better than Bartkowski this year.
The Flames have a legitimately good team, but they need to optimize it.
The Flames have played very well since a rough start to the season. They have a great shot against whoever they play in the opening round, but they need a full team effort and cannot afford to have weak spots. Every group except for the third-pairing is about as good as it can be with the players that Gulutzan has available to him. 3 games left before the playoffs, it is definitely time to try and fix it.