Calgary Flames: Why Is The Defense Corps Not Defending?

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 7: Travis Hamonic
CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 7: Travis Hamonic /

The Calgary Flames are 4-2-0 to start the season. They FINALLY won in Anaheim. Their offense seems potent. They’re getting reliable goaltending. The power play numbers are top 15 in the NHL. So, now seems like a bad time to question the team. But, I’m gonna do it anyway.

Calgary Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan knows more about hockey than I do.

He knows more about the inner workings of the Flames.  He knows more about the players than I ever will.  Most importantly, he has proven to be a more-than-competent head coach for my favourite team, as the record this season brilliantly indicates.

CALGARY, AB – OCTOBER 7: Dougie Hamilton.  Has been on the ice for 47 shot attempts and 49 scoring chances so far this year (per Natural Stat Trick).
CALGARY, AB – OCTOBER 7: Dougie Hamilton.  Has been on the ice for 47 shot attempts and 49 scoring chances so far this year (per Natural Stat Trick). /

Given all of that, I would love the opportunity to sit down with him and ask why the most highly-regarded group of defencemen in the NHL is allowing so many shots on goal.  As of this writing, the Calgary Flames ranked 3rd in the league with an average of 36.3 shots against them per game.  That seems, to quote my favourite Vulcan, illogical.

Part of the speculative narrative surrounding the acquisition of Mike Smith was that he would improve upon past performance because he was playing behind an improved defence group.  Per Jared Clinton of The Hockey News:

"The argument could be made that the Coyotes dreadful defense has played a role in Smith’s poor performances. There is certainly some level of truth to that, too. Having an effective defense can help any goaltender shine….  Often, the Coyotes iced an inexperienced and frankly replacement-level defense corps that didn’t do Smith many favors, and it doesn’t help that the poor defense was supplemented by an equally inexperienced offense.Smith will, however, be coming to a Flames team that boasts a defense that is leaps and bounds more talented than the one he played behind as a Coyote. Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton alone showed more ability in 2016-17 than the entire Arizona defense corps. That’s not to mention an offense that has more depth, both in the top- and bottom-six, than the Coyotes boasted."

Smith has been great in front of 36 shots per night. But he really shouldn’t have to be. The combined acquisition cost for Dougie Hamilton and Travis Hamonic was 2 first round draft picks and 4 second round picks.  Surely, that must be worth 5 or 10 shots against every night!

As a group, the corps has been very good offensively. Led by TJ Brodie, the group has combined for 15 points so far this season. Unfortunately, this output has masked their defensive issues; none of them have fallen below a -1 so far this year. That’s a miracle, given the 6-0 blowout against the Ottawa Senators.

Related Story: Flames win streak comes to an end against Senators

Why is this the case? This is what I’d like to ask Glen Gulutzan. My only guess (and it is only a guess) is that it is systemic.  Gulutzan’s push-forward, possession style of play simply does not prioritize defensive play.  He is known to work special teams.  He was hired to combat his predecessor’s poor possession numbers, promising 5-man units in every zone.

Brodie would seem to be the best example of the best and worst of Gulutzan’s system.  With 6 points as of this writing, he ranks second in team scoring.  However, he is number one in the NHL with a staggering 68 shots against! His partner Hamonic, arguably the more defensively responsible of the pair, has had a single goal and seen 62 shots.

I love the offense. But, whether I’m right or wrong about the problem being Gulutzan’s system, Smith’s play against that many shots every night is unsustainable. Unless and until the Calgary Flames’ very talented, very expensive defense corps relieve some of the pressure on their goaltender, losses will inevitably accumulate.

I’m certain Gulutzan understands that.

Next: Calgary Flames Monday Roundtable: First Week of the 2017-18 Season

Better to get these issues ironed out now, rather than at the Cup Final.