Tuesday, September 6, 2016

2016-17 Calgary Flames Season Preview | Part 2: Defence

Despite multiple analysts' projections placing them near the bottom of the NHL's standings, the Calgary Flames enjoyed an unexpectedly-successful season in 2014-15, which culminated in a trip to the second round of the playoffs and resulted in high hopes for the future. Instead, the Flames lost a step in 2015-16, falling 20 points from 2014-15 to end with a lowly 77 points, 10 out of a playoff spot.

Now, entering the 2016-17 season, the Flames have many reasons both to hope for the future, and to draw doubt from the past. The team has been historically poor analytically under the tutelage of coach Bob Hartley -- now that he's been replaced by former Stars coach and Canucks assistant Glen Gulutzan, how will the Flames respond?

Jonas HillerKarri RamoJoni Ortio, and Niklas Backstrom made up the Flames' goaltending tandem last season. None of these goaltenders hold NHL contracts for the 2016-17 season, which is indicative of their quality of play in 2015-16. Statistically, the Flames' goaltenders were the worst in the NHL last season, and Hiller was the worst player at his position. These four players have been replaced by Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson for the 2016-17 season, who both posted save percentages above .920% last year; however, neither have ever played more than 55 games in a season. Though they both have exemplary statistical records, will they be able to hold up over the regular season grind?

I'll attempt to answer these questions and more in this, my preview of the Calgary Flames' 2016-17 season.

Yesterday, we covered the forwards. Today, we’ll talk about the defence. On Wednesday, we’ll discuss goaltending, and lastly, on Thursday, we’ll discuss prospects and management.

The Calgary Flames had the worst defensive record in the NHL last season, letting in an atrocious 3.1 GA/G. This was mostly due to their goaltending woes, but also in part because of some defensive struggles. T.J. Brodie was injured for the first half of the season, and Dougie Hamilton took a while to really adjust to the Flames' system. These and other problems contributed to such an awful season defensively for the club.

Here’s my projection (or best guess) for the Flames’ defence pairings in 2016-17:

Mark Giordano - T.J. Brodie
Jyrki Jokipakka - Dougie Hamilton
Deryk Engelland - Dennis Wideman
Tyler Wotherspoon

Two-time All-Star Mark Giordano led the Flames' D in scoring last season with career highs in both goals (21 -- good for second amongst all NHL defencemen behind Brent Burns) and points (56). As Giordano ages, those totals should go down a little, but right now, he's one of the best defensemen in the game. He has elite puck-moving skills and great leadership capabilities, and, as the 2016 NHL Foundation Player Award winner, is a pillar in the Calgary community. The Flames' captain should have another banner year in 2016-17 as the Flames improve.
Projection: 16 goals, 39 assists, 55 points

As good as Giordano is, there may be another defenceman on the Flames better than him: T.J. Brodie. Brodie is a swift skater with a fantastic stretch pass, and at just 26 years old, he's still improving. The Flames improved considerably after Brodie returned from his hand injury in November of last year, and hopefully, having him healthy and in the lineup will result in a much better record in 2016-17. Say what you will about Johnny Hockey -- and there's a lot to say -- but there may not be a more important player to the Flames than T.J. Brodie.
Projection: 6 goals, 43 assists, 49 points

Acquired from Boston for a 1st-round pick and two 2nd-round picks at the 2015 NHL Draft, Dougie Hamilton took a while to come into his own last season. Faced with the prospect of adapting to a new Calgary defensive system, Hamilton played poorly in the first few weeks of 2015-16, frequently looking outmatched in his own zone. However, he picked his game up as the season progressed, and finished the year with career highs in both goals and points. The former 9th-overall pick is still only 23, and should form a top pairing with T.J. Brodie following the departure of Mark Giordano. For now, however, he'll likely continue to develop on the second pairing.
Projection: 11 goals, 36 assists, 47 points

Kris Russell was traded to Dallas for a King's ransom last season, with the package returning to Calgary including prospect Brett Pollock and a potential 1st-round pick. However, aside from the conditional 1st (which turned into a second as its conditions were not met), the most intriguing name in the deal was Jyrki Jokipakka, for two reasons. First, it's fun to say. But second, Jokipakka was a relative unknown at the time of the deal. A 7th-round pick of Dallas in 2011, Jokipakka has mainly toiled away from the spotlight either on the bottom pairing in Dallas or on the top pairing with the Texas Stars, their AHL affiliate. Thrust into a top-four position in Calgary, Jokipakka played 18 games and recorded six points. How did he do? Well, the reviews were mixed, but all signs point to the 25-year-old Jokipakka continuing to develop in the #4 defenceman spot next year.
Projection: 2 goals, 13 assists, 15 points

If you would have told me that Dennis Wideman would've followed his 15-goal 2014-15 season with a 2-goal 2015-16 season in which he was suspended for 20 games and sued by the NHL itself for cross-checking a linesman from behind, I'd have called you bizarrely specific in your predictions and would recommend counselling. However, along with some other twists and turns, that's exactly what happened to Dennis this past year. As he's entering the final year of his mammoth five-year deal in 2016-17, don't expect another 15-goal season... but don't expect a 2-goal year, either. Used correctly, Wideman is a dangerous weapon on the powerplay. He may not hit even 10 goals, but he'll be a scoring threat, for sure.
Projection: 7 goals, 27 assists, 34 points

Deryk Engelland's 3-year, $8.7 million contract was widely ridiculed when it was first signed in July 2014. This was a career bottom-pairing defenceman who was now receiving a fivefold salary increase over his previous contract. However, Engelland has found a niche in the Flames' bottom six. He brings grit and toughness to a defence corps often lacking in those two attributes, and manages to chip in the odd goal, too. He'll never be a huge offensive force, but Engelland is a sturdy #6 defenceman for this team.
Projection: 2 goals, 8 assists, 10 points

Tyler Wotherspoon has the #7 defenceman slot open for him, if he can take it in training camp. Recalled multiple times during Bob Hartley's tenure as Flames coach, Wotherspoon has received little-to-no playing time in only 26 games over the past three seasons. Under new coach Glen Gulutzan, perhaps he'll receive more chances to prove himself.
Projection: 1 goal, 6 assists, 7 points

Hampered by neck injuries since his arrival in Calgary, Ladislav Smid remains on the roster entering 2016-17. However, Smid is expected to be placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) prior to the season's beginning, and as such is unlikely to play for the Flames this season. Entering the final season of his contract, Smid may have played his last NHL game.
Projection: 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points

Finally, though they have not received contracts, there have been two names floating around as possible late-summer additions to the Flames: Kris Russell and Jakub Nakladal. Russell was a Flame until late February 2016 when he was traded to Dallas, but he has not signed a contract yet this summer as a UFA. There have been whispers linking him back to Calgary, so stay tuned.

Jakub Nakladal made his NHL debut late last season, and proceeded to become a fan favourite in Calgary. His scary eyes, his laser shot, his name... there are many fans who would love to see him back (points to signature).

The question is: where would these guys fit in? Do the Flames move Wideman, or push Wotherspoon back down to the AHL? Only Brad Treliving may know the answers. Until then:
No projections

(Again, for those of you counting, that's 45 goals from the defence. That totals 246 goals altogether for the club, which is a high figure, I know. These predictions are made with the belief that the Flames will finish second in the Pacific Division next year. But that's for a later article)

Check back tomorrow afternoon as I preview the Calgary Flames' goaltending. Again, I hope you enjoyed this, or at least have something new to talk about. If my grammar/math is wrong, please don't hesitate to tell me.

TL;DR -- Calgary is a city of 1.3 million people, and they watch the Flames who have defencemen on the roster.

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