When one reads about the Calgary Flames and their much-vaunted defense, typically the names that come up are captain Mark Giordano or the newly acquired Dougie Hamilton. Push further, and the highly paid Dennis Wideman —a stalwart on their power-play— is often mentioned. But ask anybody that’s spent time around the club over the past few seasons about who their most important defender is and a surprising name emerges: 25-year-old T.J. Brodie. Well, it’s surprising until you consider Brodie’s immense impact and importance to his hockey club.
Calgary’s fourth round selection in the 2008 NHL Draft, Brodie began his professional career rather quietly as a third-pairing defender on an early season audition in 2010-11. The most noteworthy thing about his initial National Hockey League appearances was that he wore Mario Lemieux’s famous No. 66, much to the consternation of Flames fan message boards. His first two seasons saw Brodie split time between the NHL roster and the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat before landing a full-time job on the Flames to begin the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. From there, his stock began to skyrocket. Brodie has quietly progressed from a young third-pairing defender with tremendous potential into a dynamic, resourceful blueliner that helps create offense for his club.
Now in his fourth full season in the NHL, Brodie has arguably surpassed his mentor, Giordano, as the Flames’ best blueliner and has quietly become a true Norris Trophy contender.
- Brodie had two goals and 14 points over 47 games. Playing sheltered minutes on the third pairing against third liners (usually with Dennis Wideman) he had a 50.1 percent Corsi For. His performance as a 22-year old earned him a promotion.
- Giordano had four goals and 15 points over 47 games. He was playing on the top pairing with Jay Bouwmeester as part of the Flames’ final grasp towards the playoffs. His Corsi For was 47.5 percent, not great, and it seemed like the team’s minutes-eater needed some help.
- Brodie and Giordano played the majority of this season together. By no shock, they both scored at a higher rate. Brodie had 31 points in 81 games and Giordano had 47 points in 64 games, earning himself a spot in the Norris race when he returned from an early season injury. Both players were good possession-wise (51.5 percent for Brodie and 53.4 percent for Giordano, in terms of Corsi) against top-line opposition. Brodie’s ability to spring forwards with stretch passes through the neutral zone became a focal point of the offense towards the end of the season as the Flames went on a strong run following the Olympic break.
- This was the season where Flames coach Bob Hartley looked at what worked when Brodie and Giordano were on the ice and expanded it to the entire team’s attack. Stretch passes? They became the norm, along with defenders joining the rush. The team also saw what it would be like without Giordano late in the season and through two rounds of the playoffs; thanks to Brodie playing a ton with depth defender Deryk Engelland, they actually weren’t bad.
- Brodie had 41 points in 81 games and Giordano had 48 points in 61 games, again primarily against high-end opposition. Their possession games took a step back, with Brodie at 45.4 percent and Giordano at 48.4 percent.
- The importance of Brodie was really underscored early in the season as the Flames played without him in October. To be blunt: it was a disaster. The Flames were lousy in their own end, couldn’t generate offense and the season was basically sunk by the time Brodie came back at the end of the month. The good news is that his return really brought a sense of calm and relief to the team, as players no longer handled the puck as if it were a live grenade in the defensive end. In addition, Brodie’s ability to play the left or right side of the ice came in handy, as it allowed the coaching staff to use the team’s depth defenders strategically and really lean on Brodie on special teams situations.
- So far this season, Brodie has 41 points in 58 games and sits third in the entire NHL in even-strength scoring by a defender. Giordano sits seventh on that list, and has 43 points in 67 games. Both players are roughly even in the possession game, Brodie at 49.8 percent and Giordano at 50.6 percent Corsi For.
WHY BRODIE’S BETTER
The overriding strength of Brodie’s game is his intelligence and adaptability. He has the hockey sense to pick up holes in coverage and force a stretch pass through a narrow gap in the neutral zone, but he’s also adept enough to notice when the gaps aren’t there and skate the puck up himself. Giordano’s got excellent situational awareness as well, but his tendency is to roll back to the defensive end and wait for coverage to realign or he’ll skate the puck up to center ice and then dump the puck in. Brodie has better foot-speed and uses it to maintain puck control and create offense.
On the whole, Giordano’s a defender that’s more attuned to finishing offensive chances — he’s got a tremendous shot — but is prone to turnovers, while Brodie doesn’t have the killer instinct of his mentor but is a better all-around blueliner and puck distributor. The difference between their two recent lineup absences is this: Giordano is a difference maker who will score goals at key times, but Brodie’s a huge calming influence on the ice and makes his teammates better and enables them to score the big goals when the chips are down. You need both types of players in order to win, but one is arguably more important to have if you are forced to choose. Would you rather have a guy that scores goals or a guy that allows several teammates to score goals?
This is the first season of Brodie’s newly minted five-year contract worth $4.65 million each season and the last season of Giordano’s contract that pays him $4.02 million. It’s also the first season Brodie might out-score Giordano (he definitely will on a per-game basis), and given the 32-year-old Giordano’s age, it’s likely that the focus of the club’s blue line will continue to shift towards Brodie as Giordano’s new contract (which pays him a team-high $6.75 million) rolls along.
Brodie received a single third-place vote in last year’s Norris balloting. By all rights, he should begin to receive significantly more recognition as he continues to progress, particularly if his improvement brings the Flames back to postseason contention.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.