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When having a discussion about the likelihood of the Calgary Flames making the playoffs, you have to start with the acknowledgement that it was never very likely.
The Flames are bad, as has been covered in this space before, but Mark Giordano was one of the few actual good players on the roster. He, along with defense partner T.J. Brodie, Jiri Hudler, Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and maybe one or two others if you really want to be generous have had actual good seasons by just about any measure. The rest of the club is a mishmash of guys who are average at best, but more commonly just bad or “bad but who have gotten every bounce to go their way” this season (here the hockey world turns its lonely eyes to Dennis Wideman, who somehow entered last night with 12 goals in 62 games and was one away from tying a career high).
So it's no surprise that, though they held a playoff spot following Tuesday's overtime win against lowly Philadelphia — in which they blew a 2-0 third-period lead — they were tied with the much better and quick-rising Los Angeles Kings for the final playoff spot in their division. Betting on the Flames to outpace the Kings over the last 19 games of the year seems a fool's errand, and indeed they entered Thursday's game with the Bruins with a less than 31 percent chance of making the postseason. Which sounds about right.
Their possession numbers, by just about any measure, are third-worst in the league ahead of only the pathetic Sabres and the pitiable Avalanche. They got every bounce to go their way for the vast majority of the season's early goings, which is why they sit now in a playoff spot rather than well outside consideration. And in spite of that, Giordano and Brodie are excellent.
The travails of this pairing are at least partially well-documented because of Giordano's Norris consideration both last season and this. They log the most minutes by far — about 25 per night apiece across these two campaigns — and play basically the toughest competition in the Western Conference. And by dint of the fact that they're the only actually good defensemen on the team (with all apologies to the stunningly overrated Kris Russell) they're starting so many shifts in their own zone as to be borderline unbelievable. We're talking 57 percent or so, and that's despite being the team's best offensive defensemen as well.
Giordano has already missed two games and entered Thursday night still just a point out of the NHL lead among defenseman; and unlike Kris Letang, Brent Burns, P.K. Subban, and Erik Karlsson ahead of him, doesn't really get much in the way of offensive help — the Flames' No. 2 center is Mikael Backlund who has a career-high of 39 points so, y'know. In terms of points per game, he was second. Brodie doesn't have the offensive numbers to back up what most people would see as a legitimate Norris candidacy (only 36 in 63 before that Bruins game) but everything has gone Giordano's way for two straight seasons, because he really is just that good.
So it really is a shame that Giordano is going to miss 20-something games for the second season in a row, and cost himself a matching pair of trophies as a consequence (and probably an Olympic gold medal). Letang or Shea Weber are almost certainly going to win — and if it's not Weber it will be an honest-to-god shocker — in his stead.
Consequently, any hope Calgary might have had of hanging around the playoff race is pretty much on the ocean floor already, because Giordano really is that much of a difference-maker.
The last two seasons, when he's on the ice the Flames have a corsi-for of 50.8 percent. It's not great or anything, but it's pretty solid for a team with that little talent. When he's off the ice, they're 42.9 percent. Basically he takes them from being the Maple Leafs to the Capitals. Which is an insane difference, especially when you consider it's basically facilitated by one player. (Well really, it's two players, because of how good Brodie is as well, but we'll get to that in a minute.)
Look at the Flames with Giordano and without the last two seasons. They're like two entirely different clubs, one of which is at least in competition for a playoff spot, and the other is a lottery team (these stats don't include last night's game).
So now the Flames are going to start logging a lot more minutes of “Giordano off/injured” because he's done for the year, and 21 games is a long time to miss the best defenseman in the league. You can therefore expect a lot more nights of 43 percent possession and goalscoring, which translates to a lot of losses. And given the way the Kings are only going to keep improving down the stretch, that means the Flames are going to — rather inevitably — finish outside the playoffs. They probably would have anyway, but at least with Giordano they might have had a vague hope of holding on to that cliff's edge by their fingertips. This injury is someone on steel-toed boots stomping down really hard on them.
Without Giordano, their Norris candidate who should have gotten legitimate Hart consideration as well, the Flames' playoff hopes are essentially nonexistent.
And the problem for the Flames is that either of these guys going down with an injury leads to a lot of problems in putting together a reasonable lineup. Calgary went out and grabbed David Schlemko on waivers to create something even remotely resembling an NHL-level D corps in Giordano's long absence, but even then, they continue to pair Brodie with a possession black hole in the guise of Deryk Engelland. Engelland is bad, maybe Calgary's worst defenseman, and giving him first-pairing minutes with Brodie is an exercise in seeing just how good a great player can be when so burdened. It compares with a similar a scenario in which Ryan Getzlaf gets hurt, and the Ducks replace him on their top line with Nate Thompson. Sucks for Corey Perry, but boy does Thompson all of a sudden look like he can play a little bit.
That's what happened in Tuesday night's game against Philadelphia: Brodie played like 40 percent of the 5-on-5 minutes Calgary had, the vast majority of which were with Engelland, and they got pummeled in possession (the Flames as a team were 37.8 percent), and after the game all that was talked about was, of course, how good Engelland looked. That's the kind of thing that's going to happen for basically the entirety of the season's remainder, and it's because Calgary doesn't think it has better options (Schlemko is an obvious better option, but let's see how long it takes them to figure that out).
Now, as for Calgary's chances of having a Norris candidate this season, they're basically out the window as well. Brodie is just as good as Giordano by my reckoning — and I watch a lot of Flames games — and the numbers basically bear that out.
Those on-ice numbers compare very favorably with Giordano's and his team suffers just as much when he's off the ice. That makes sense to some extent because Brodie and Giordano play basically every minute together when they're both healthy.
But look what happens when they are separated (albeit in some pretty small samples): Both see their possession and scoring numbers drop off a cliff because, and this is no real surprise, the guys they get replaced with or whatever reason are uniformly awful. Brodie has played about 21 games' worth of even-strength TOI without Giordano, but Giordano's done the opposite for only about 10 games. And yet these numbers are very similar overall:
Again, because Brodie's going to start logging a lot more “w/o Giordano” minutes, he's never going to win the Norris because it just doesn't work that way.
Voters are going to overlook the fact that he was saddled with some serious dead weight for the final 21 games of the season. They're not going to care that Giordano was seen as the offensive motor on that pairing, and that Brodie had “only” 35 points in 61 games playing stopgap for a Flames team this awful. He doesn't shoot the puck hard like Weber and he doesn't skate like the wind like Karlsson or Subban and he doesn't play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin like Letang, so his Norris chances are screwed too.
Not that there was much reason to be optimistic for either Giordano's or Brodie's chances even if they played the full 82 together. To some extent this goes back to that whole, “You have to be on a good team to win awards,” thing.
But in this case, it has nothing to do with the insipid “How valuable could they have been if the team didn't make the playoffs?” argument, and everything to do with asking two of the best soldiers in the world to fight a war in 2015 with muskets.
If this pairing were on a better-constructed team, we wouldn't be having this conversation, because one of them would win the Norris in a walk.
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