Finally, training camp was here and like an eight-year-old kid waiting for Christmas Day to arrive then bounding down the stairs at 5:15 am on Christmas morning to open up presents, excitement spread across Flames nation as Team McDonald hit the ice at 9 a.m. on Friday morning at WinSport.
In this town, where hockey talk has become a year-round pastime, finally the conversation could shift to something new as fans and media alike turned their focus to deciphering the groupings, the D pairings and line combos and wondering what it all meant. While at this stage in camp, it's like trying to solve the Da Vinci Code, it didn't stop the speculation from swirling around what the Flames line-up might look like when they take to the ice at the Saddledome on October 7 to open the season against Vancouver.
And for a puck-starved audience, hoo-boy did coach Bob Hartley ever give them something to talk about and fret about in the way the defencemen were divided up and then subsequently paired up for the drills and scrimmage.
Pair one? Makes sense.
Pair two? Makes sense.
Pair three? Wait, what? Brodie-Engelland?
Queue the widespread panic.
While some fans were in an uproar -- "They're ruining Brodie", "What are they thinking?", "This is stupid!", there was another segment that swallowed hard, reminded themselves that Bob Hartley just won the Jack Adams, then got busy rationalizing why a TJ Brodie and Deryk Engelland pairing made sense. e.g. Keep your rights on your right and your lefts on your left, put the new guy with your best guy, No. 7 and No. 29 were pretty good together last year, and yada, yada, yada.
However, I'm not buying it. Not for one minute.
I will buy everyone pizza if Engelland-Brodie are a D pairing to start the season. If everyone is healthy, no way can I see that happening.— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) September 18, 2015
Here are six reasons I'd be stunned if Brodie and Engelland, or 'Brogelland', end up being a couple again this year, despite being paired together and being fairly effective for the last couple months of last season.
1. Bob Already Said Don't Do What You Just Did
It's the warning that plays before most movies: "May contain scenes of violence and coarse language. Viewer discretion is advised." Well, two weeks ago, Hartley provided a similar warning about training camp when he essentially said, "Will contain a constantly-changing line-up. Do not resort to violence and coarse language."
In the interview I'm referring to, Hartley was in-studio at Fan960 radio, visiting with morning hosts Dean 'Boomer' Molberg and Ryan Pinder. He was asked about the club's defence pairings.
"I don't think that even as a coaching staff, we know the answer right now because at training camp, it's going to be fun because we're going to experience many combinations," said Hartley.
Then he talked about what he looks to achieve early in camp.
"We already laugh every day because when you look at our roster and you start looking at making teams for the first three days of camp, well obviously we want to split up the veterans in three different teams so whoever is going to be Dougie Hamilton's partner for those three days. In fans and media's mind, here's what they decided," said Hartley.
Well, he's wasn't wrong.
"You're going to see tons of combinations in the preseason games because not only do you want to try (different pairings), you want our d-men to get to know Dougie because you never know, we're always unfortunately an injury away from re-tooling our blue-line," Hartley said.
2. Differences With the Anaheim Model
The argument in favour of the Flames balancing all three of their pairings is it's what the Ducks did last season and they won the Pacific Division. Their model is one in which last season, the gap between the most-used defenceman and the least-used in terms of average time-on-ice was just over five minutes.
However, does that model make sense given the Flames personnel? Based on ice time allocation, the Ducks top three defencemen were Francois Beachemin, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen. Would you put that trio on the same level as Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton? I wouldn't.
I would suggest Anaheim deployed their pairings like they did because that's what made sense given their personnel. The top end isn't as good, the bottom end is better, and the result is a gap that isn't as big as it is with Calgary so an approach of equally dividing up the pie six ways makes sense for them.
There's one other flaw with that model if you're the Flames.
Rolling three pairs and keeping everybody more fresh has advantages if you are approaching this season with the expectation that it will consist of a couple months of post-season also, once the regular season is complete. However, that's a mighty presumptuous outlook if you're Calgary.
An approach that would be more prudent is play your best four defencemen (Giordano, Brodie, Hamilton and either Wideman or Russell) a lot and give yourself the best chance to just to make it back to the playoffs, which is far from a sure thing. The Flames were an exciting team all last year but we're not exactly talking about a dynasty quite yet. Calgary barely squeaked into the post-season.
3. No History of Balancing Ice Time
From everything we've seen and heard from Hartley historically, he is a guy that likes to ride his top horses and ride them hard. That's his top forwards, guys like Sean Monahan, Jiri Hudler. That's his best defencemen also.
Case in point, in late February when Mark Giordano got hurt, here were the average ice times for the two players we're discussing:
- Brodie - 25:07
- Engelland - 12:25
Brodie was averaging over twice as much ice time as Engelland and was right behind Giordano (25:10) for the team lead.
"The acquisition of Dougie Hamilton not only makes our team better, it makes our defensive core better because we will be able to distribute the ice time in a better way. Not in a more even way, because this isn't minor hockey, it's about winning games," said Hartley.
I'd interpret distributing the ice time in a better way, not a more even way, and Bob's remark of "this isn't minor hockey" as him saying he doesn't care about equal ice time. His priority is playing guys in the right situations and that's not Engelland up against other team's top lines (see next point).
4. Thwarts Ability to go Best on Best
One of my favourite Engelland moments last season was his epic 3:22 shift in the Flames series-clinching game 6 win against Vancouver. Remember that one? What a sequence. If you don't recall the 'shift from hell' as I described it or even if you do, I captured the moment right here and it's definitely worth re-visiting.
That kind of thing can happen with Engelland. Let's not forget that when he hit the free agent market at age 32 in the summer of 2014, he was coming off a three-year deal that paid him an annual average value of $567,000, which was just slightly above the NHL's minimum salary. He was making that little money while in his 'prime' for a reason.
Engelland is the guy you want to shelter and keep away from opponents top lines while Brodie -- one of the Flames best defenders -- is exactly who you want on the ice against top lines. Well, you can't have it both ways if they're together, so which is it? Either way, increase Engelland's responsibilities or diminish Brodie's, you're hurting the hockey club and that's another reason why Brodie and Engelland as a pairing is counter-productive.
Giordano gets a lot of attention and for good reason, but make no mistake, Brodie is no slouch just along for the ride. As good as Giordano has been for Brodie, I'd argue Brodie has been just as good for Giordano. Brodie got Norris votes last year and I'd expect him to get even more this year.
When all was said and done last playoffs, it was Brodie that led the team in average ice time at 27:07. Even over those first five months when Giordano was playing, Brodie was right behind him in minutes logged per game. Giordano was at 25:10 compared to Brodies 25:07.
5. Brodie Prefers the Right Side
The other thing with the old left-right thing is as simple as it is in theory, Brodie actually prefers the right side, despite being a left shot. The right side is also where Engelland plays.
"In a perfect world, left-right is a great combination but let's remember that there are some defencemen that prefer playing their off-side," said Hartley. "There are lots of lefties that love to play to play the right D and some right D that play the left side."
Brodie is one of those guys and when you have a player the calibre of Brodie, who has a preference, which he's stated in the past, you have to think that carries some influence also.
6. Russell is a Pending UFA
I like Kris Russell a lot, I like how selfless he is on the ice, his leadership qualities off the ice, and feel he plays hockey with a determination and courage that embodies what the Flames are all about.
However, the reality is he's coming off his best NHL season and his value will may never be higher. Given the over $17 million the team already has committed to Brodie, Giordano and Hamilton for the next several seasons, and with the young forwards that are coming up on needing huge raises, you have to wonder if the team has enough cap space to afford to pay Russell the $4 million or thereabouts he's probably seeking right now in an extension.
General Manager Brad Treliving has said before that with guys that are pending UFAs, you have to make a decision on them. Are you going to try and extend them, or do you look into trading them to try and recoup some assets? Maybe this camp will determine Russell's fate. If the team cannot find a workable dollar figure for an extension, do they keep him and just run him out until the end of his contract and risk losing him for nothing, or do they try to trade him right now?
That could come down to how well wild cards like Ryan Wilson and Jakub Nakladal play in training camp as well as the health of Ladislav Smid. With a big camp, Tyler Wotherspoon could put himself in the mix also.
Russell's departure would leave Wideman to join the big three and would leave Engelland on the third pairing with one of the above more economical options for a third pairing. It's just smart business to not have too much money tied up on your third pairing so as popular of a player Russell has become, this could happen.
Engelland was a real nice story last year. He stepped up big time in a time of crisis and performed better after being thrust into a top-four role than anyone could have expected (and many will ever acknowledge). Make no mistake, his efforts played a key role in helping the Flames make the playoffs for the first time in six years.
However, that was then and this is now. This is not a crisis, it's far from it. Giordano is back and Hamilton has been brought in. An average of 10-12 minutes per game from Engelland is just fine.
Resorting to a combination of Brodie-Engelland when you have a no other alternatives is one thing. I hate seafood but when I'm starving and there's no steak or chicken on the menu, I'll nibble at some fish. But when I'm at the Cattle Baron Steakhouse like the Flames are at this moment, I'm sure as heck not ordering halibut.
For me and what I'd do, I'm not sure you drift away from that combination that was so good of Giordano and Brodie. This keeps Brodie on his preferred side. Hamilton gets either Russell or Wideman, whoever earns the top four spot and the other plays with Engelland on the third pairing. Maybe Russell and Wideman switch back and forth between that spot. I realize that means two right-shooters on either the second or third pairing but sometimes the bigger priority is just getting the best players on the ice most often.
We've all seen Brodie's game take off the last few years. He's well on his way to being one of the NHL's best defencemen. The idea of not having Brodie in your top four and logging 23-25 minutes per night is absurd and with Hartley's focus on winning, I can't see the coach viewing it any other way either.
By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.
- Training Camp Begins: Breaking Down the 2015-16 Flames Training Camp Roster - So who are all these guys? In this helpful overview, I break down who's who in the zoo by going through the 64 players and categorizing them to help you better understand the options the team has, possibilities the players have and the decisions that need to be made. (Sept. 17, 2015)
- Flames Rookies Win 5-1 over U of C: Six Quick Thoughts on Six Prospects - At WinSport, the Flames rookies were the better team. Includes analysis and/or quotes about Pavel Karnaukhov, Ryan Lomberg, Mason Marchment and Oliver Kylington. (Sept. 17, 2015)
- Eight Penticton Storylines Revisited - What Did We Learn? - As a final wrap on Penticton, I looked back at the eight storylines I had identified heading into the tournament and with each, added some thoughts around what we observed and what we learned. (Sept. 16, 2015)
- Rising Fast: Andersson's Journey from Swedish Kid to a Top Flames Prospect - Before departing Penticton, I sat down with Rasmus Andersson to talk about what it was like playing pro hockey in Sweden at age 15, and how quickly his career has taken off. (Sept. 15, 2015)