Since his arrival, one of the major refrains from president of hockey operations Brian Burke is that the Calgary Flames need to get bigger. That’s not to say that the Flames are chock-full of skill at the moment, but Burke’s approach – mirrored by new general manager Brad Treliving – has been to surround the skilled players with some “beef.”
Flames coach Bob Hartley equates it with having a cop patrolling the highway rather than just a speed limit sign; you’re likely to see fewer cars speeding when they see the squad car around issuing tickets.
One of the additions to the Flames in the off-season was Brandon Bollig, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the draft for a third round pick. The Blackhawks were at the cap ceiling and the Flames wanted some size on the bottom line. Bollig fit the bill for both sides, but his first half-season with the Flames has been a bit un-even. After playing all 82 games for Chicago last season, Bollig has been a healthy scratch seven times over his first 41 games in Calgary.
A good deal of it may have to do with adjustments. Obviously, Calgary plays a different style of game than Chicago, and let’s face it, they’re at a different level of development than the Blackhawks, and this is the first time in his career that Bollig has been traded. For his part, Bollig has gradually become more of a contributor in Calgary, settling into a similar role as he filled in Chicago – starting a lot of shifts in the defensive zone, getting out-shot by the opposition, and eating up the rough minutes to open up time for the skill players by using his physicality.
Finding the right balance of physicality is arguably what’s allowed Bollig to have his best stretch of the season; for instance, his big hit on Anze Kopitar in Calgary’s pre-Christmas game in Los Angeles drew a retaliation penalty, allowing Calgary to score a goal and ultimately win the game. Little instances like that are an example of the element that Bollig provides that arguably was absent in the past – and that the organization hopes he can bring on a consistent basis.
“I think it’s a matter of keeping it simple and playing physical,” said Bollig of his recent string of strong games. “I know why I’m here, I gotta play that role and bring that element to the game. And like I said, playing physical and playing well defensively, and it’s been working out and we’ve been getting a lot more playing time.”
Bollig isn’t a favourite of the Corsi and Fenwick crowd, partially because he’s not relied upon as a skill player and partially because his situational deployments – against better players, paired with fourth liners, usually in the defensive zone – don’t tend towards good traditional or advanced stats. For his part, he notes that a lot of how he measures success in games is minimizing his own mistakes and triggering them in others.
“It’s definitely a game of mistakes, and it’s a game of minimizing those mistakes, and you know, that’s been key lately, is not making too many and when you do make them, recovering and getting back to even keel and getting back on the offensive,” said Bollig. “Like I said, our line’s really clicking right now, so that helps, and you almost take your mind out of it and play the game how you kind-of grew up playing it. Everyone knows what got them here, and when you keep it simple and rely on your skills, that typically helps.”
Last season, Bollig primarily played with Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith. More often than not this season, and typically when the team is healthy and playing well, Bollig has been teamed with Matt Stajan and Lance Bouma in a line that’s been deployed very similarly to how Bollig, Kruger and Smith were used last season. So far, when controlling for differences between the teams, his advanced stats are actually quite similar to how they were in Chicago albeit slightly worse – his CorsiRel is -6.7% this season compared to -5.6% last season.
But regardless of the statistics, Bollig knows his role is to play physical and knock the opposition out of their comfort zone. He notes that the key to being successful in a fourth line role such as his is finding the balance between being a physical presence and taking up residence in the penalty box too often. Not being physical enough could result in a game or two in the press box as a healthy scratch.
“Absolutely there’s a line, especially this day and age where things are called so tightly and there’s a lot of power plays, and every team has a really good, dangerous power-play,” said Bollig. “So, there’s definitely a line and you’ve got to figure out where it is and not over-step it and put your team in the box at a disadvantage, but also you’ve got to walk the line and get the other team off their game.”
So far this season, Bollig has taken roughly as many penalties as he’s drawn. Now that he’s shown he can be an effective role player in Calgary, the key for Bollig will be consistency – both in terms of being able to stay in the line-up and being able to cement himself as a key component to the team’s progression towards becoming a playoff contender. With how evenly matched the NHL is nowadays, an effective fourth line could be a huge asset for Calgary moving forward. With players on their AHL farm team like Ben Hanowski and Michael Ferland hoping for a shot, it’s up to Bollig to prove that he’s the man for the job of making life miserable for the other team.