Flames’ Blue Line Faces Challenges with Loss of Giordano

When the Calgary Flames lost Mark Giordano to the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion draft, they didn’t just lose their captain. They also lost a top defenseman and an undoubted pillar on the blue line. The former Norris Trophy winner certainly struggled to start the season but really turned things around after new head coach Darryl Sutter took over. By season’s end, Giordano had proven he was still a legitimate top-pairing defenseman in the NHL and still a valuable contributor to the Flames.

The void left behind by Giordano remains a lingering question mark for Calgary moving forward. Heading into 2021-22, in which the Flames looked poised to be in the playoff picture in the questionable Pacific Division, it is unclear if the current personnel on the back end will be able to adequately handle the loss of such a highly impactful player. There is the stabilizing force of Chris Tanev, followed by a plethora of question marks of varying degrees.

Giordano Was Still a Top Pairing Defenceman

Tanev was outstanding defensively for the entirety of the 2020-21 campaign. Giordano struggled out of the gate at even strength and did not refind his form until about the midway point of the season. Tanev, however, does not touch every single aspect of the game. The former Flames captain does. Giordano was continually relied upon heavily in all situations in 2021. He produced steady results in tough minutes at even strength, was continually relied upon on the top penalty kill unit, and quarterbacked the top power play group.

Despite a rough start, Giordano’s contributions remained vital to Calgary in the entirety of the game. His abilities slighted faded, and his results were not Norris level over the most recent two NHL seasons, certainly, but they were still largely impactful in all situations. Replacing such a highly leveraged and utilitarian defenceman will be no small task. The current group has some serious work to do.

The Sutter Effect

Flames’ management and coaching staff are likely hoping to compensate for the loss of Giordano’s strong defensive presence by recreating it in the aggregate. Sutter’s smothering system and emphasis on defensive structure will provide a strong foundation. Calgary became one of the league’s most effective defensive teams at even strength after Sutter fully took the coaching reigns in March of 2021.

Under Geoff Ward5-on-5 MetricUnder Darryl Sutter
30.75 (24th)Shots Against Per 60 Minutes25.12 (3rd)
53.63 (18th)Corsi Against Per 60 Minutes45.58 (2nd)
2.25 (15th)Expected Goals Against Per 60 Minutes1.89 (4th)
5v5 Data from Evolving Hockey

While Giordano certainly helped drive these results, as he flourished following Sutter’s hiring, the structure implemented by the coaching staff will conceivably provide a solid baseline for all defenders. Proof of this concept is reflected in the fact that nearly all of the principal defencemen on the Flames’ blue line saw their on-ice results improve after Sutter took over as bench boss.

Expected Goals Against Per 60 Minutes Under WardSkaterExpected Goals Against Per 60 Minutes Under Sutter
1.74Chris Tanev1.51
2.22Juuso Valimaki2.04
2.73Mark Giordano1.73
2.27Nikita Nesterov2.04
1.85Noah Hanifin2.09
2.75Rasmus Andersson2.4
5v5 Data from Evolving Hockey

Only Noah Hanifin, whose season was cut short by season-ending shoulder surgery in April, saw his expected goals against rate at even strength increase. Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki, and Tanev all delivered improved rates in terms of allowing quality scoring chances. The hope will be that Sutter’s structured defensive system, which prioritizes puck possession, will guide the Giordano-less defensive core in the right direction. 

Tanev Will Be Relied Upon Heavily but Needs To Stay Healthy

Tanev is now the Flames’ default top defender and elder statesmen. The 31-year-old had one of the most remarkable and incredible bounce-back seasons in recent memory last year, and the Flames need his elite defensive results to carry over this upcoming season. Tanev was one of the strongest defensive players leaguewide in 2021 and will be relied upon to perform most of the heavy lifting in a shutdown role.

The concern is whether or not Tanev can remain healthy. The deeply defensive blueliner has never played a full 82 game season in his career. Due to various injuries, Tanev’s career-high in games played is 70, achieved back in 2014-15. While he managed to suit up for every game the Flames played in the shortened season, it wasn’t for lack of damage, as he sustained and played through a torn pectoral muscle and a rib injury. (from ‘Flames defenceman Tanev shrugs off injuries: ‘Everyone plays with something’,’ Calgary Sun, 05/21/2021)

Chris Tanev Calgary Flames
Chris Tanev, Calgary Flames (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Losing Tanev to injury for any period of time would be detrimental to the Flames. Depending on Tanev to not only maintain his impact at age 31 but to stay healthy while handling top pairing deployment over an 82 game schedule could be a risky proposition. 

Zadorov Will Bring a Physical Element, But There Are Concerns

The newly acquired Nikita Zadorov will also have to flex his defensive muscles. Zadorov plays a very one-dimensional yet effective defensive game. The physical and hulking Russian has been brought in to offset some of Giordano’s minutes. Similar to Tanev, Zadorov will be utilized in a shutdown role and as a suppressor of the opposition’s offence.

Zadorov will bring an element of physicality that Sutter will leverage to produce defensive results. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound defenceman’s ability to eliminate players with contact down low and clear the slot will be integral to Sutter’s system, which focuses on protecting the middle of the ice in the defensive zone. Zadorov has not been the most impactful player on the penalty kill and does have a nasty penchant for infractions, but they’ll likely utilize his defensive ability on the penalty kill unit as well.

He moves adequately for his size, but mobility could become an issue against the likes of Connor McDavid. The Flames need to address his poor discipline, or it will cost the team. Over the past five NHL seasons, Zadorov has had the worst penalty differential league-wide. He can’t kill penalties if he is in the box, and the Flames will be facing dynamic and lethal power plays of division rivals such as Edmonton and Vegas. Staying out of the box is critical.

Hanifin and Andersson Both Need to Assert Themselves

The best defence is a good offence. Giordano’s efficient puck-moving talent and ability to create sustained pressure in the offensive zone was a trademark of the Flames’ attack for years. While the Flames run their transition game heavily through their forward group, Giordano’s capability to drive play with possession, his active involvement in rush attacks, and support in maintaining offensive zone time are going to be sorely missed. Somebody is going to need to pick up the slack.

Noah Hanifin Calgary Flames
Noah Hanifin, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This is where the Flames need Hanifin and Andersson to shine. Hanifin’s results this season, alongside Tanev, were stellar before sustaining his injury. The 24-year-old seems the natural candidate to take over top pairing duties. He fulfilled the role with Tanev for a large share of the 2021 season and proved he could handle matching up against the opposition’s top players. Over the past three seasons at even strength, Hanifin only trails Giordano in terms of individual shot contributions, total points and leads all Flames’ defensemen in total individual expected goals over that time frame. The ability to be an offensive driver is there. The Flames are hoping he can pick up where he left off last season alongside Tanev to form a strong top pairing.

Calgary Flames Johnny Gaudreau Rasmus Andersson
Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau is congratulated by defenseman Rasmus Andersson (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Rasmus Andersson, conversely, struggled mightily last season and needs to return to form. Andersson earned himself a six-year contract extension after consecutive seasons of strong play. His emergence as a solid skater in all three zones earned him a top pairing billing to commence the 2020-21 season. He struggled with the role, and his on-ice impact sank significantly. Calgary is depending on him to find his way again as a two-way defender. In fact, his multifaceted skill set may be the closest equivalent in terms of what Giordano brought to the table. Using Corey Sznajder’s zone exit data, it is evident Andersson remains one of the Flames’ strongest defencemen in transition.

Skater5v5 Zone Exits With Possession %
5v5 data from Corey Sznajder

Andersson and Hanifin will be the most effective options to manage the point on the power play as well. While Andersson did earn the opportunity to run the top man-advantage unit last year, Hanifin could be the more impactful option. Spanning the last three seasons, Hanifin ranks second amongst defencemen, behind Giordano, in on-ice high-danger chances generated on the power play. Andersson and Hanifin will play significant roles in replacing Giordano’s play driving and offensive impact.

The Supporting Cast Needs to Step Up

It is no secret Darryl Sutter was not dazzled by Valimaki last season. Despite Sutter demanding more from his young defenceman, Valimaki had a relatively sound season. He finished the campaign with solid on-ice shot share numbers, posting a 54.30 expected goal percentage at five-on-five, good for fourth-best on the blue line.

Valimaki has the skill to not only anchor the third pairing but to play higher in the lineup, so Sutter will have to work with him to maximize his potential. Similarly, Oliver Kylington and Connor Mackey both possess oodles of raw skill, yet, neither got extended looks last season. The Flames could look to veteran Michael Stone, who actually solidified the third pairing in 2020-21.

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Stone remains an unrestricted free agent as of now but has been a player the Flames have turned to frequently over the years. General manager Brad Treliving could also turn to the open market for another depth defenceman. As of now, there are still concerns if the defensive depth will hold up over the entirety of the 2021-22 season.

Everyone Needs to Contribute

The Flames’ success without Giordano is contingent upon a structured game, internal growth, and the hope that Tanev stays healthy. Andersson and Hanifin are clearly the linchpins in this plan. Zadorov is a welcome addition to a Sutter-coached team that looks to smother the opposition physically, but he lacks foot speed, puck-moving ability, and overall offensive contribution. 

Valimaki will be expected to meet Sutter’s expectations in only his second full season, while the sixth and seventh skaters remain question marks. This group of blueliners has the potential to be greater than the sum of their parts, but losing a player of Giordano’s calibre will be difficult to overcome. It will be a challenge, certainly, but not an insurmountable task.

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