Monday, November 14, 2016

Deryk Engelland: A Lighthouse on Defence, Standing out Amongst a Dark and Stormy Sea

If only the rest of the Flames blueline were playing as consistently as Deryk Engelland.

It's a statement that would have got you cut-off at the bar the last couple years, but this season, truer words may never have been spoken and it sums up what's been a disappointing start for a team in which there were greater expectations.

Steady but never spectacular... Wait, make that rarely spectacular.

But seriously, as the club's oldest player at 34 years and seven months, Engelland has played a simple, no-frills game all season. If the Flames were getting anywhere near that degree of consistency out of his much-higher profile and higher-paid colleagues like Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton and Dennis Wideman, this team would not be in the mess it finds itself.

"Probably the best start to a season I've ever had, for sure," said Engelland, when I asked him this weekend if he felt he was playing the best hockey of his career. "So far, I'm pretty happy with my game individually, but we've got to work on some things as a team."

No kidding.

At 5-10-1, the Flames wake up Monday morning as the owner of the league's worst record. Only Arizona has fewer points but the Coyotes hold two games in hand.

While plus-minus is a stat has its detractors and I get it, this is also a results-based business as they say. In this instance, that statistic seems to support what the eyeballs are seeing and that is a guy that has been Calgary's most consistent defenceman over the first 16 games.

A glance at how the Flames defence have performed at even-strength:
  • TJ Brodie - 16 gm, 18:48 TOI, 18 GA (-11)
  • Dougie Hamilton - 16 gm, 14:11 TOI, 16 GA (-9)
  • Mark Giordano - 16 gm, 18:12 TOI, 15 GA (-3)
  • Jyrki Jokipakka - 12 gm, 14:20 TOI, 8 GA (-3)
  • Deryk Engelland - 16 gm, 15:29 TOI, 7 GA (+8)
  • Dennis Wideman - 9 gm, 16:23 TOI, 6 GA (+3)
  • Brett Kulak - 8 gm, 15:14 TOI, 5 GA (+3)

No team has a greater negative goal differential than the Flames at minus-20 (Vancouver is next at -15) and yet somehow, Engelland ranks in the top 20 in the entire NHL in plus-minus (+8). It's astounding, really.

"He's gotten more minutes this year and he's ran with it," says coach Glen Gulutzan. "He's one of the guys that has taken what we've given him and gotten better with it."

Trust Breeds Confidence 

A word you hear all players -- young and old -- talk incessantly about is confidence and it's a frame of mind that can be elusive. When you have it, you play at your best, but when you don't, every shift becomes much more difficult.

"The last couple years, I've started the season playing 10-12 minutes per night. Coming in this season and being able to play 18-20 minutes right from the start, it's a big confidence booster and you ask anyone, confidence is a huge part of the game," says Engelland. "If you're playing with confidence, you're playing well and making the easy plays. If you're not playing with as much or maybe you're gripping your stick, you're trying not to make a mistake."

The latter is no way to play effective defence in the world's best hockey league.

"He's a mature NHL player," says Gulutzan. "He knows what his role is. He knows how to play within himself. When he doesn't, I remind him and it doesn't take him long. His ups aren't that high and his lows aren't that low. He's an evolved NHL player. He knows his role in the league."

Gulutzan, of course, knows Engelland from when he coached him for two seasons in the ECHL over a dozen years ago, back when he was fresh out Moose Jaw in the WHL.

"He was a guy that I knew his character," Gulutzan sayss. "There was probably a level of comfort with me with him. He's a real leader in our locker room. The style we're playing, he's played before. He's played in Pittsburgh and a lot of the things weren't new to him and he's hit the ground running. He's a guy that obviously we trust and we lean on for leadership."

Partner's Perspective

Ask someone like Brett Kulak, who has played beside him quite a bit, including most of his NHL time last year, and that same word comes up again -- consistency.

"He goes about his business the same way every day and it shows in his play," says the 22-year-old understudy. "His consistency is always there and you know what you're going to get from him every night and that's why I've thrived playing with him. I know we're going to be simple in our own zone, we're going to talk a lot and just play a hard game."

Twelve years apart in age, Kulak says he can learn a lot from seeing how Engelland -- 15th oldest defencemen in the league -- goes about his business.

"Just watching him, it goes back to his consistency and I'm sure he's learned that over his career. He never comes to the rink with the thought, oh I need to do way more than this or way more than that. He just trusts his own game and knows he'll just do the right things."

Goalie's Perspective

While they've only had a short time together, goaltender Chad Johnson enjoys playing behind Engelland because you know what you're going to get.

"It's just that simplicity in his game. Being in good spots," Johnson says. "It's the experience that he has that makes him consistent. If you have an older guy, you want him to be steady, relied upon, can play big minutes and kill penalties, block shots. He does that for us."

As to why he's been able to put together a solid season in a turbulent year in which so many other players are struggling, Johnson sees a guy that is simply playing within himself.

"He's consistent and as a team, you model yourself around the consistency in the way he plays. Not his style, obviously, it has to be your own way, but the way he brings that consistency and that focus in practice and you expect that steadiness from a veteran guy."

In contrast, Johnson says much of the rest of the team is almost trying too hard.

"When you're not having success, everybody pushes. Everybody tries to do sometimes too much," says Johnson. "For us, it's up in our heads, and making sure we're dialed into the details. What is killing us right now is little mental mistakes in either coverages or positioning and at the end of the day, the teams that make less mistakes will win hockey games, especially when they're in the area around the net.

"For us, the mental side is making sure we're dialed in every game, from start to finish, every shift, every play, making sure we're engaged and not trying to over-coach. Everybody wants to say oh we've got to do this, we've got to do that, these guys should be doing this, they should be doing that. It's hard not to just say control what you can control as an individual and make sure you're focused."

Future Gazing

If there's one thing we've learned lately is the NHL is becoming more and more of a young man's game where 30 seems to be the new 35. The league is faster now than ever before.

That makes it even more surprising that Engelland, not the swiftest of skaters, has been able to enjoy some modest success. We're still talking about a third-pairing calibre of player, but used frequently in a top-four role this year, he hasn't hurt the team. Far from it.

Going back to 2002-03, Calgary has only had three defencemen in the line-up that have been older. Included is their age in years and days (per Hockey Reference) as of their final game for the Flames: 

  • Bryan Marchment - 36 years, 351 days - Apr. 17, 2006
  • Adrian Aucoin, 35 years, 298 days - Apr. 27, 2009
  • Cory Sarich - 34 years, 253 days - April 26, 2013

When he appears in Calgary's next game, Tuesday night in Minnesota, Engelland will be 34 years and 224 days. He will pass Sarich by mid-December.

Playing the best hockey of his career, the pending unrestricted free agent come July 1 doesn't feel like he's near the end. Far from it.

"I'd like to definitely get a couple more years in, for sure. My body is feeling good, I feel healthy. If I can get (a contract), I'm going to take it," Engelland says.

With Las Vegas entering the NHL next season and that being his off-season home the last several years, I asked him if playing 'at home' had any allure.

"Either way you're going to play there," he says with a wry smile.

Fair enough. Whether it's as the home team or the visiting team, it's safe to say he would enjoy that opportunity.

Final Word

Engelland says he hasn't thought a lot about free agency, but admits it's always in the back of your mind. From listening to him talk, you can also tell that he's been paying attention to the last couple off-seasons and how the landscape for aging free agents has changed. The work for players his age isn't nearly as plentiful as it once was.

"At the end of the day, I just want to get a contract, no matter where it is. I don't want to set my sights on one place, and then you don't have anything and you're going on a PTO. My main goal is to continue to play well, and hopefully the contract will take care of itself."

He says there have been no talks with the Flames and that's not surprising at this early stage. But the way he's playing and in a season in which Ladislav Smid and Dennis Wideman also come off the books at year's end as well as there being a very real a risk of losing one of the club's young blueliners -- either Kulak or Jyrki Jokipakka in the expansion draft, Calgary could do worse for a presumably cheap, depth defenceman.

"That would be great, but right now. I'm just going to go day by day, playing my game, and trying to help us win."

It's the type of simple approach that right about now might be the best thing for Giordano, Brodie and Hamilton to try and inject into their own games. Heck, even the struggling forwards could learn something from Engelland's methodical approach. If Calgary's best players can get back to being their best players, the nice seasons being enjoyed by depth guys like Matt Stajan and Engelland could bode well.

"I've always believed on teams that I've been on that those kinds of guys are the guys that make the difference. The third and fourth line guys, the 5-6 d-men, that's where it matters," says Johnson. "Everybody has a top two lines that are pretty equal. You have other teams that have skilled guys like Johnny, they all have goal scorers, but it's the bottom lines, the guys that do the dirty work, that don't get a lot of recognition, who make the difference in winning hockey games."

The Flames quest to find consistency as a team continues Tuesday night in Minnesota. They're back at the Saddledome on Wednesday when the Coyotes come calling.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick -- both on the Flames 2016-17 season, and on what could be Engelland's final season in a Calgary uniform.

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.


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  1. Maybe Engelland isn't the lighthouse at all. Maybe he's the storm sinking his D partner

    1. Anonymous commenter dumps on Engelland. Insert 'surprise face' emoji. Well, I'm glad we've finally figured out what's been the cause of the poor play from Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton this year. That damn Engelland.

    2. I'm glad we've found common ground. An isle of hope, continuing with the ocean analogy.

  2. Even as someone who dislikes Engelland in a top four role, I don't know how you could complain about the Kulak-Engelland pairing. They have been perfect in their role for a second straight season now (Kulak got demoted unjustly last year).

    My only reservation is Engelland on thr first penalty kill unit. It has been killing us as he doesn't have great anticipation or quickness to react. Even with Dennis Wideman or Dougie Hamilton in that role, and we probably win a few games we have lost thus far (like the Anaheim one, where Getzlaf and Perry executed the same play on Engelland's side twice in the same game).

  3. I believe that your blog is the best sports blog of those that I know. It is very interesting.