Thursday, July 18, 2013

Zero Downside, 79 Inches of Upside - My Take on Chris Breen

In bold, capital letters, the top line of the Calgary Flames News Release issued at 3:32 pm Wednesday afternoon immediately grabbed everyone's attention. "FLAMES SIGN DEFENSEMAN..."

But, the collective sigh from exasperated Flames fans immediately after was all you needed to hear to know that the name that followed was not TJ Brodie. Instead, it was Chris Breen.

Hey, we've all been there. It's Christmas morning, you've got one gift left under the tree, rectangular in shape, you're certain it's that new remote control dune buggy you were hoping for. You rip off the wrapping and open the box only to discover...  pajamas. They may turn out to be the best pajamas ever -- soft, comfortable, cozy, durable. But in that moment, with disappointment of what it wasn't still far too fresh, those pajamas didn't stand a chance, quickly anointed "worst present ever."

Perhaps this is the reason behind what I thought was a surprisingly high amount of criticism Wednesday after what I simply saw as a low risk, high reward no-brainer of a signing by Flames GM Jay Feaster.

10 Reasons Why I Like the Chris Breen Signing

1. That Kind of Size is Hard to Come By - In the last four NHL Entry Drafts, 843 players have been selected. Only two have stood 6-foot-7 or taller -- and half of those guys were drafted by the Flames. Yes, I'm talking about giant d-man Keegan Kanzig, plucked in the third round less than three weeks ago, who has already made a favourable impression thanks to his play at the team's recent development camp. The other is Dallas blue-liner Jamie Oleksiak, grabbed 14th overall in 2011, who made his NHL debut last year playing 16 games and is considered the second-best prospect in the Stars system behind Valeri Nichuskin. The point is that defencemen, who are that menacing in size, are very hard to find, so when you've got one, you hang onto him until the expiry date is reached.

2. Sale Pricing - $80,000 may seem like a lot of ch-ching if you're working part-time at Burger King, but in the context of a pro sports organization, Breen's two-way contract that pays him that amount in 2013-14 if he spends the year in Abbotsford is mere pocket change. In fact, his NHL salary of $577,000 that he'd earn for any time spent with Calgary is also right out of the bargain bin and just a smidge over the NHL's minimum wage of $550,000. Also, the contract is for one year so no big deal -- figuratively or literally.

3. Exhibit A: Zdeno Chara - No, I haven't lost it and please, don't you lose it by running away and taking this point out of context. Am I comparing the two players?  Absolutely not. What I will say, however, is that Chara was once a tall, gangly-looking kid playing junior hockey who couldn't skate very well at all yet 16 years later, you could say his career has turned out pretty good. Don't get me wrong, the odds of Breen becoming just a quarter of the player that Chara has become are extreme and would be like winning the lottery. But, if someone offered you a free lottery ticket, which is essentially what's happened considering the contract terms, why wouldn't you accept it, cross your fingers, and see what happens.

4. Young and the Restless - Breen is 24 years old. Is the window closing on a guy that age if he hasn't played a single NHL game yet? Sure it is. But it's not shut all the way yet, either. Remember the Flames have two 26-year-old goalies in Karri Ramo and Reto Berra whose NHL careers are just now getting started. (Yes, I know Ramo got in a half-season worth of games with Tampa Bay when he was 21 but this season can be considered the real start to his big league career.)

In case you haven't noticed, youth is in style around Calgary right now and while that could mean NHL opportunities for guys like Tyler Wotherspoon and Patrick Sieloff, they're only 20 and 19-years-old respectively and haven't played beyond junior. Defencemen often require a year or more in the minors to get acclimatized to the speed of the pro game. Breen has had that seasoning already and reportedly is a far improved player from when he made his AHL debut three years ago. Even if he ends up merely keeping a seat warm for one of the next wave of prospects coming soon, if Breen's presence with the Heats helps the Flames avoid rushing a 20-year-old to the NHL when injuries strike, that's pretty important, too.

5. Exhibit B: Hal Gill - Big 6-foot-8 defenceman Hal Gill was an 8th round draft pick in 1993. Considering the draft is only seven rounds now, you can essentially consider Gill an undrafted player just like Breen. Gill's debut in the NHL came at age 22 with his breakout season coming four years later at age 26. Had it not been for his season-ending shoulder injury, Breen's NHL debut would have come last year at age 23. A knock on Breen's game is his lack of offence. Well, Gill has scored 36 goals in 15 seasons so it's pretty clear he's not in the league because of his scoring touch. Yet, big Hal has found a way to be very serviceable, playing over 1,100 NHL games and 110 more in the playoffs. And at age 38 and currently with Nashville, he still has another year to go on his most recent contract.

6. Wax On, Wax Off - In his time with the Flames organization, nothing but good things have been said about Troy Ward, head coach of the Abbotsford Heat. The praise has come both from the players that have played for him as well as those within the Calgary Flames front office that work with him. At least around these parts, his legend as a quality teacher has grown to the point where you could consider him the Mr. Miyagi of AHL coaches and if that's the case, playing the role of Daniel Larusso is Breen -- albeit, he's a slightly taller version of Ralph Macchio. Three years under the tutelage of Mr.Ward is not a bad place to be learning how to play the game of hockey. And that first year when Ward was an assistant to Jim Playfair, he worked mainly with the defencemen, which meant a lot of one-one-one time with Breen -- "you must sand the floor, all the floor".  We know how Karate Kid turned out. With the right sensei, why couldn't Breen's journey have a happy ending too.

7. He's Got Some Fight in Him - First of all, lose the stereotype, despite his massive size this guy's not your prototypical goon, far from it. I see him in a similar light to big Dana Murzyn when he was with the Flames. As older fans will recall, Dana was a guy you expected to be a fighter just because he was a big dude. The good news is that with YouTube as my witness, Breen is far better with his fists than Murzyn ever was. Back in the day, George Johnson from the Calgary Herald once described Murzyn's fighting style as like watching a giant bear try and swat a honeypot out of a tree. Breen's a better pugilist than that and has shown he isn't afraid to drop the gloves to protect himself or his teammates. His fight card counts 13 tussles in his time at Abbotsford including seven last season. If, indeed, being bigger, tougher and harder-to-play-against is the new Flames identity in the making, Breen is certainly an option that fits that niche.

8. Sleepless in Abbotsford - If you're a father, you'll know all too well the challenging times that come with being a parent for the first time. If you add a second child within two years of your first, then you're really crazy and you're really in for a whole new world. I know firsthand the adjustment when a baby comes along and it is not easy. You're tired all the time, stressed. Oh, there are plenty of joyful moments along the way too, don't get me wrong, but teething, ear infections, gassy bellies, you become a human mechanic in no time that's on call 24x7.  Well, this has been Breen's life the last three seasons.

Breen has two young kids, one is just at or approaching three years of age while the other is less than one. Having a baby while you're in the NHL is one thing -- you just open your wallet and fly your wife and the baby to Hawaii whenever she, or you, needs a break. Or, you fly in your mother-in-law whenever and for however long you need, or you hire a nanny, or you go sleep in the guest house or your second apartment. When you're earning an NHL pay cheque, you have plenty of options that allow you to remain focused on hockey. When you're in the AHL making $52,500 per year, that's something completely different. You're watching for sales on diapers, cradling the baby in your arms while you wash the dishes as your wife takes her turn napping, there's no getting away from it. Oh, and by the way, during that same time, you're supposed to be 100% focused on doing everything you can to develop into an NHL player? Not saying it can't be done, just the degree of difficulty rises exponentially. So why not give a 'Dad' another year.

9. Deserving of a Chance - The bottom line is Breen's put in the time. He's reportedly improved in all facets of his game each year. His game has evolved where in the second half of last year, he was playing top four if not higher and logging a lot of important minutes. He's also became a key cog in the penalty kill and with all the shot blocking that is part of an effective penalty killer in this day and age, Breen makes for a pretty big wall of defence and I'm sure he's taken some vulcanized rubber to nearly every part of his body. When you're rebuilding, quality is often a by-product of quantity. Like the recent draft, the advantage of having three first round picks is the hope that two will turn out. Having 44 prospects at development camp gives you options that you don't have if you have 32 prospects there like in previous years, etc. Adding Breen to the growing pool of defencemen options for this upcoming season just increases the odds that the six that do emerge will be six that earned it. Competition makes everyone better.

10. More Jobs Coming Soon - With the recent acquisition of Kris Russell, Mark Cundari acquired last year, Chris Butler re-signing, Wotherspoon and Sieloff expected to get long looks during training camp, there doesn't appear to be any room left at the inn if you're a defenceman. However, with Russell, Butler and Derek Smith all UFAs at the end of 2013-14 and if Blake Comeau is fetching you a 5th round pick and Henrik Karlsson can get you a 7th round pick, it wouldn't surprise me if a couple of those guys at minimum depart Calgary in exchange for a draft pick at some point this season. Same thing for Dennis Wideman, who could potentially become a trade candidate. Knowing that opportunities will be forthcoming, and that injuries are inevitable, that depth chart of NHL-ready players can never be too long.

Final Thoughts

I won't get into assessing Breen's game as it stands right now because to be honest, I haven't seen him play enough. But when we do get a chance to see him on skates live and up close, whether that's at Calgary's main training camp or possibly the Young Stars prospect tournament in Penticton prior to that, I'd be shocked if he doesn't show enough to validate the very, very minimal investment the Flames made in him on Wednesday.

1 comment:

  1. Appreciate the sleepless in Abbotsford point.

    I have two kids the same ages as Breen and I can't imagine having to do what he does while helping take care of them. Setting the issues aside of raising kids on an AHL salary, I can't imagine what impact raising two children has had on the mental side of his game and his ability to prepare each night.