You have to go back to 2012 to find the last time Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano was not on the top defence pairing. Since then, “Gio” has been a staple on Calgary’s back end and has been one of the premier defenders in the league. Now in his 14th season with the organization, he can no longer keep up with the Scotia North Division’s finest.
Rasmus Andersson was drafted in the second round by the Flames in 2015 and has developed season after season since and now finds himself on the team’s top pair. After finishing his career with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League in the spring of 2016, he moved on to the American Hockey League with the Stockton Heat. In just two short years, became a mainstay in Calgary’s lineup during the 2018-19 season when he played 79 games.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed like it would be a seamless transition, and the two would take on heavy minutes as the team’s top defenders. That has not happened. The pair have struggled against elite competition; Giordano looks like he’s taken a step back, while Andersson has struggled in a bigger role. Hope is not lost, but shuffling the defence pairs is needed for both players to get back on track.
A quick preface before moving on as this article will be full of numbers. I have referred to: Corsi For (CF%), expected goals for (xGF%), and high-danger chances against (HDCA). Corsi for is how many shot attempts are made for and against while a player is on the ice and then converted to a ratio. xGF% is a little more complicated, and a fantastically detailed explanation can be found here; it comes down to shot quality that can predict goals for and against. High-danger scoring chances are shots that have had a historically high percentage of going in.
Time Has Come for Giordano
“Young and fresh” was the catchphrase Giordano confidently coined after making his Norris Trophy acceptance speech at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas. It was fitting at the time, as he became just the fourth player 35 or older to win the trophy, but he was playing like a 25-year-old that season. He made incredible backchecks that could catch players on partial breakaways.
During parts of the 2019-20 season and for most of this season, Giordano has looked his age. He has made many noticeable mistakes that are uncharacteristic of his playing ability and have led to chances against. Per Natural Stat Trick, he is in the bottom 20 players in the league in terms of HDCA amongst skaters who’ve played 200-plus minutes.
In two seasons, Giordano’s age has finally caught up to him. He is no longer the best defenceman on the team, and given his time on the ice, he has been actively hurting his team. It may be a tough pill to swallow, but it is time to use him in a lesser role.
New Kid on the Top Pair
During parts of last season, Andersson found himself playing minutes on the top pair for the first time in his career. Since the departure of long-time Flame T.J. Brodie to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Andersson has been the permanent replacement on Giordano’s right side. This season, he hasn’t been up to the task as his numbers are some of the worst on the team’s defence. Per MoneyPuck, the pair are seventh last in xGF% among defence pairs to have played more than 200 minutes together with a 42.1xGF%.
Like Giordano, Andersson is in the bottom 20 skaters for HDCA. His situation is somewhat different from his partner’s as Andersson has been playing more minutes against a higher quality of competition for the first time. He has played 40 or more minutes against seven forwards in the division and has a CF% above 50% against just two. In 45 minutes against the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, he has a CF% of 34% and 38% respectively.
After taking substantial steps forward each season since his draft year, Andersson has struggled in his new role. He has had success this season against the opposition’s middle-six players, posting a CF% above 50%, so he may need more minutes against less elite competition to be successful.
Hanifin and Tanev Surprise
Chris Tanev was one of the Flames’ two major signings during the offseason, and many would say he has outperformed expectations. At 31 years old, he is having a renaissance season, putting up some of his best numbers in CF%, xGF%, and HDCF%. Tanev and Hanifin have been a rock-solid pairing for the team and one of the best pairs in the league. Per MoneyPuck, the pair have the fourth-highest xGF% in the league among defence pairs who’ve played more than 200 minutes together with a 59.5xGF%.
Hanifin has complemented Tanev’s style of play through 37 games, and they are Calgary’s best pairing in both the eye test and on spreadsheets. Both players have played 100 or fewer minutes away from each other, and both have seen a dip in CF% and xGF% when separated. The pair have also suppressed elite competition posting CF% and xGF% numbers over 50% against Connor McDavid, Matthews, and Marner.
A Promotion and Shuffling Needed on Defence
The Flames season has only 19 games left on the schedule, which leaves head coach Darryl Sutter little time to remedy the situation. The immediate and obvious decision is to move Tanev and Hanifin up to the top pair, eating heavy minutes against the best players in the division. Even just a shift in minutes for Giordano and Andersson could help them regain some confidence, playing against lesser opponents than they’re used to.
Splitting the pair up may be the long-term solution, allowing Andersson to play with Juuso Välimäki, while Giordano may be best suited to finish the final year of his contract on the third pairing. The two have only played 29 minutes together this season, but the numbers suggest they could mesh well. Välimäki has actually boosted Andersson’s xGF% when the pair plays together, which could make for an effective second pairing.
Another option could be playing Oliver Kylington and Andersson together. Andersson likes to pinch in the offensive zone and has had success with it. If he fails, Kylington is an incredible skater with the ability to bail out any defenceman in that situation. The duo played over 300 minutes together last season and came out at near even in terms of CF% and xGF%.
After Monday night’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the Flames’ chances of making the playoffs have become incredibly slim. It may be time for Sutter to start doing some experimenting to see what he can get from his defence. Through 37 games, we know what has worked and what hasn’t. Outside of Hanifin and Tanev, it’s time to start mixing up the pairings and try new combos to see what players fit certain roles.