As sure as the sun sets in the west and slow drivers camp in Deerfoot’s leftmost lane, the Flames will roll into the season sporting a top-four defensive pairing of Dougie Hamilton with Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie with Travis Hamonic.
The third blue line pairing is still up for grabs. It’s a virtual lock that Michael Stone will serve as half of the unit. But who will they pair him with? Every preseason game has felt like an episode of The Bachelor where gap-toothed men audition for a spot on the main roster.
It does no good to guess who will play with Stone without looking at what kind of player Stone is.
Michael Stone Will Be Around for a While
To put it plainly, the Flames should not have re-signed Stone for three years. It isn’t that he’s skated badly since Calgary acquired him from the Coyotes last season (notching six points in 19 games) but, on a $3.5 million per year contract, he’s a log jam preventing younger talent from escaping Stockton.
Stone can be useful offensively despite lacking the speed and agility of a Giodarno or Hamilton, scoring 102 points in 343 games, or 0.29 points per game, compared to 0.51 for Gio. Stone isn’t shy about using his body, averaging a little over two hits a game for his career and makes up for his cement skates with good positioning and takeaway skills.
He isn’t particularly good at retaining puck possession though. His Corsi For percent was 6.2% below his teammates during his 19 games for the Flames and only 42.7% of faceoffs occurred in the offensive zone during his shifts.
As long as Stone is on the Flames, he will remain a fixture on that third line — his price tag demands it though his skillset cripples a climb higher up the depth chart — stunting the growth of the younger defensemen listed here.
Brett Kulak Is in A “Prove It” Year
The Flames re-signed Kulak to a one year, two-way deal in August. The Flames drafted Kulak in the fourth round (105th overall) of the 2012 Draft and it appears — if I’m reading the contract correctly — that this is a “prove it” year for the Edmonton native.
He played in 21 invisible games in 2016-17, posting three assists and 12 penalty minutes. He played in only nine games previous to 2016-17, blanking out on the scoresheet. He’s still young, at 23, but doesn’t appear to have anything to offer the main squad.
When it became clear Dennis Wideman intended on going all ‘Red Wedding’ on the notions of productivity and competence, the Flames staff gave Kulak every chance in the world to crack the lineup. It seems he’s failed.
Can Matt Bartkowski Make Strides?
Bartkowski is easily the most experienced blueliner on the bubble. He’s a 29-year-old depth defenseman whose been kicking around the league for seven seasons, logging 235 games for the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames.
Bartkowski has 44 points (6G, 38A) and 153 penalty minutes for his career. He was a seventh round pick (190th overall) by the Florida Panthers in the 2008 NHL Draft and has, at the very least, lived up to his draft position. The question is can he do more?
Although he closed out the preseason strong and carved himself a spot on the Calgary Flames, it’s unlikely Bartkowski is anything more than a dependable stick who can bolster the main roster when a starter is injured. His skating, mobility and determination are enough to keep him on the fringes of most rosters. But, like Michael Stone, it comes at the expense of youth development
Rasmus Andersson Isn’t Too Big Anymore
Nobody has ever denied that Rasmus Andersson has the talent to be a good NHL defenseman. The knock on the 20-year-old Swede surrounds his conditioning — or lack thereof. General Manager Brad Trevlian grumbled about the shape in which Andersson attended training camp before the 2016-17 season. This camp, after working on strength and conditioning in the offseason, Andersson arrived this season looking decidedly less jowly.
He scored 124 points (21 goals, 103 assists) in 131 OHL games over two seasons for the Barrie Colts. Andersson moved up to the Stockton Heat in 2016-17 and scored 22 points in 54 games with a plus-13.
There is no question Andersson will turn into a valuable scoring NHL defensemen in the future. While I do think he ends up on the roster this year he will likely start the season in Stockton.
Andersson will command a top-four spot soon, but his time isn’t now. I imagine he’ll be sent down before the weekend is out.
Bartkowski will fill the sixth defenseman slot, Kulak the seventh and Andersson will have to wait his turn. Hopefully, his turn comes soon.