Mike Smith is making up for brutal play by Flames defencemen this season

Oct 20 2017, 11:38 pm

On paper, the Calgary Flames possess one of the top defensive units in the entire National Hockey League.

Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Dougie Hamilton, Travis Hamonic, Michael Stone.

But through the first seven games of the 2017-18 season, both analytics and the ‘eye-test’ are showing some major weaknesses in Calgary’s defensive game.

While many of these issues will likely see a correction as the season progresses, there is a chance Calgary’s blueline isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially in their own zone.

Now, not many hockey fans can make the argument that Giordano, Brodie, Hamilton, Hamonic, and Stone are bad players, full stop.

All five possess solid offensive abilities that often kick-start plays for the Flames’ forward group.

Since the 2014-15 season, Giordano (146 points, T-11th), Hamilton (139 points, 18th), and Brodie (128 points, 23rd) all rank within the top 25 blueliners in scoring.

Calgary’s defencemen have combined for five goals and 15 points through seven games this season, but have struggled to help out their new netminder in Mike Smith.

Smith ranks second in the NHL behind Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy in saves to start the year with 227.

While that’s a strong indicator of the former Arizona Coyote’s play to begin the season, the Flames have allowed the fourth-most shots per game at an average of 35.9.

That has included three contests where Calgary has allowed 40+ shots against, bringing Smith’s save percentage on the year to .930.

An impressive number to say the least, but that mark is well above Smith’s career average save percentage of .913 and a regression is likely to occur sometime over the next few months.

The Flames could be in trouble when that save percentage returns to a more normal rate if they continue to average over 35 shots against per game.

Possession numbers for Calgary also haven’t been spectacular, with Calgary sitting 18th in the league with a Corsi percentage of 48.5.

On Thursday against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Flames as a whole didn’t even reach possession numbers of 40%, relying on Smith to bail them out once again.

In terms of individual Corsi, which measures puck possession through shots, blocks, and misses at even strength, Calgary’s top defensive pairing of Giordano and Hamilton are possessing the puck more often than their opposition.

The same can’t be said for the Flames’ remaining defenders however, as Brodie, Hamonic, Stone, and Matt Bartkowski are all under 50% in Corsi.

Another reason for Calgary’s inability to limit shots early on in the season has been their constant parade to the penalty box.

The Flames have taken 40 penalties over their first seven contests, resulting in 91 total penalty minutes.

On Friday, head coach Glen Gulutzan said the special teams battles has dictated wins and losses even dating back to last year.

“When we won the specialty teams game last year… meaning we scored a power play goal and they didn’t, was 19-5,” said Gulutzan. “When we lose it, our record is 5-13. You can’t win if you’re going to spot somebody six power plays a night. You’re not going to win, it’s just not happening.”

Players like Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk have been visiting the penalty box the most, leaving Flames defenders to try and weather the storm shorthanded.

Gulutzan added while he’s not beneath sitting players for taking ill-advised penalties, it depends on how many penalties they draw from the opposition.

“Johnny Gaudreau, if he puts his hand on a puck in Vancouver even after we’ve taken five in a row, you’re not going to sit Johnny Gaudreau,” he said. “He’s drawn 35 penalties and taken one, he’s got a bank account. Some guys don’t have a bank account, and those guys that don’t have a bank account are going to sit on the bench.”

Moving forward, the Flames will look to tighten up their defensive systems and limit a lot of the puck cycling that teams like Carolina, Ottawa, and Vancouver have employed over the last few weeks.

Calgary will also need to improve on their defensive zone exits, with the team struggling with giveaways and icing calls from their own end of the ice.

Once again, this Calgary defensive core stacks up as a formidable opponent for the rest of the league and with 75 games left on the schedule, now is the time to prove that.

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