Thursday, August 08, 2013

11 Candidates To Lead the Flames In Scoring

One of the better discussions being had over cold beverages these days is who will lead the Calgary Flames in scoring in the 2013-14 season. It's an intriguing topic for a couple of reasons.

For one, it's such a new and fresh debate. Gone is perennial champion Jarome Iginla, who held that distinction for 11 straight seasons after finishing runner-up to Valeri Bure in 1999-00. Last year, it was only thanks to Iginla's departure to Pittsburgh that he didn't make it an even dozen. Instead, Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak shared the honours with 32 points. (Iginla finished with 33 points but 11 came during that failed 73-day experiment with the Penguins.)

The other fascinating angle is how unbelievably wide open the race is. By my estimation, there are 11 players who you could make the argument have a legitimate shot at leading the Flames in points next season. The expression 'a roll of the dice' has never been more true.

On Sportsnet960 radio the other day, I joined morning host Andrew Walker to discuss this topic and case in point, we only had two common names between our respective lists of the five most likely candidates to finish the year with the most points.

As there were way more talking points then I had time to get into on the air, here's the print version of my side of the conversation. Do you agree or disagree? Who would be your choice?

One Player Who Will Lead the Flames in Scoring

LW Sven Baertschi

The one guy that I see rising above all the others is Baertschi. Now I'm not expecting a large point total from him, mid-to-high 50s is where he'll likely end up but that may be all it takes to be the best on this crew this particular year. It won't be a runaway, there will be a peloton of players not far behind, but the title should belong to the young Swiss star, who will turn 21 the first week of October. It may just be the first of several in a row for Baertschi too, who is still a rookie by the NHL's definition and thus eligible this year for the Calder Trophy.

Why He Will Win It?
  • On the current roster (i.e. Not including Johnny Gaudreau), Baertschi is the Flames most skilled offensive player.
  • He's not bound for the third line. His role on this club for Calgary to have any hope of succeeding in the future will be as an offensive catalyst and play-maker. You can bet he will be given every opportunity to establish himself in this role this season, including a ton of power-play ice time.
  • While his confidence wavered early last year, that's not unusual for a young player. I see 2013-14 playing out more like how Baertschi's season ended (nine points in his last seven games, finished with a 7-game scoring streak) rather than how it began (1 point in first 13 games). 
  • While it's a huge stretch to say the Flames as a team will carry the slightest bit of momentum into this season based on the wins they picked up last April, the same cannot be said for Baertschi. I wouldn't underestimate the importance his individual success over those final four weeks will have on his psyche entering this season. 
  • He's motivated to succeed. Remember after Iginla was traded? Baertschi wasn't shy about stating his desire to become the new face of the franchise.
  • I don't envision him matching up against opposition's top lines. There are veterans on this club who are better suited for that and more likely to draw those difficult assignments.
  • This year the pressure is off. The team is going nowhere, everybody realizes that. This isn't a club that will be moving players up and down the lines and in and out of roles haphazardly in a desperate bid to win now. They're building for the future with Baertschi one of the most pivotal building blocks.

Five Others Who Could Lead the Flames in Scoring

LW Jiri Hudler
  • Why He Could... After piling up 96 points for Grand Rapids (AHL) as a 21-year-old in 2006, he played in the shadows of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in Detroit. Four years ago when he returned to the KHL, he had 54 points in 54 games to finish in the top 10. After last year playing second fiddle to Iginla. now he's got a chance to be the difference maker. He'll play top six, will see plenty of time on the PP. He's also very durable having missed less than 20 games to injury in six NHL seasons. A full training camp will also be beneficial after the difficulties Hudler faced last year with the passing of his father at the start of the season.
  • Why He Won't... It won't be because he'll be traded. With three years to go on his 4-year/$16-million deal, I don't see him going anywhere just yet although next summer, especially if he has a good year, expect to hear his name bandied about. The biggest reason I don't see him winning the scoring race is because I see Baertschi edging him out, it's that simple. That and Hudler's propensity to go through extended cold stretches offensively.

LW Curtis Glencross
  • Why He Could... He can flat out score goals, no question. Am I surprised? I was admittedly skeptical after his first season, and not yet convinced after his second year. But tip of the cowboy hat to him, he's sure proven he's an accurate shooter. With 80 goals the last four seasons, he has developed into a steady, reliable offensive weapon, not bad for a guy who was never drafted. Power play, short handed, late in the game, he'll be playing in all key situations this year.
  • Why He Won't... While he may very well lead the team in goals, he's not enough of a play maker to top the team in points. Think of it like this, Glencross has always played on other people's lines but has anyone ever played on his line? Also, there's much more to his value to this team than just the one end of the ice and this will include tough checking assignments when matched up against the opposition's top line.


D TJ Brodie
  • Why He Could... He's going to play a lot, much like he did the final month last year when he logged over 23 minutes per night. Included will be a lot of power play time because Brodie is the future quarterback and is already splitting those duties with Dennis Wideman. The last 10 games of last year, Brodie's six points was tied for second on the team behind Baertschi. His confidence and assertiveness skating with the puck seemed to grow with every shift last season. Beginning a two-year bridge contract, a stand-out season this year and you never know, that could ignite long-term extension talks by next summer.
  • Why He Won't... History. A defenceman has never led the Flames in scoring and there have been a couple great ones as you'll recall in Al MacInnis and Gary Suter. Closest was MacInnis in 1990-91, whose 103 points was one behind Theoren Fleury. MacInnis finished five points back of Joe Nieuwendyk the year before that. Even if the power play is the source of much of the team's offence, it will be very difficult for Brodie to get enough points to finish on top. Plus, he'll lose some points to Wideman.

C Matt Stajan
  • Why He Could... Did you know Stajan led Calgary with 23 even-strength points last season? After two seasons as every Flames fan's favourite whipping boy, Stajan staged a remarkable turnaround last year. He found his confidence, he was smiling again, and with his tireless work ethic he was the Flames most consistent forward over the 48 games. Hook him up with a couple skilled wingers, give him some time with the extra man (which was non-existent last year) and he could approach the 55 points he recorded with Toronto in 2008-09. Stajan is a pending UFA at season's end but he's the one guy I wouldn't be surprised to see Calgary sign to an extension if the trade market is weak and the team values him as a veteran centre who could help mentor all the young forwards on the way.
  • Why He Won't... While he's got decent offensive skills when he's playing with confidence, the most redeeming assets of Stajan's game are his defensive qualities. He's re-invented himself as a steady, reliable, responsible guy who is the consummate third line centre in my book. While he will see more power play time, it won't be substantial as the Flames have younger options they'll deploy ahead of him and without 5-on-4 time, his upside offensively will be limited .

C Sean Monahan
  • Why He Could... He led a bad Ottawa 67's team in scoring last year by a whopping 38 points, which slotted him in the top 15 in the OHL and he missed 10 games due to a suspension. He's shown offensive flashes every chance he's had since GM Jay Feaster called his name sixth overall in June  -- first at Flames development camp, then at Canada's World Junior evaluation camp. He's got a good shot and clearly has an above average offensive skill set. He also plays a position where opportunity to stick with Calgary the entire year is possible and his serious, determined approach to things so far shows he's not someone who is going to be sent down without a fight.
  • Why He Won't... Because there just isn't enough to be gained by the Flames to keep an 18-year-old hanging around a bottom-three team while also burning the first year of his entry level contract. He'll get a taste, it might be 4 or 5 games or it might be the maximum  nine, but then he'll return to the OHL where his season will consist of the World Juniors at Christmas and possibly some OHL playoffs if the 67's deal him to a contender. Monahan may think he's ready for the rigours of the NHL but doesn't every kid at age 18?  The grind of battling against all those big, rugged Pacific Division teams over six long months is not something he's come close to experiencing yet and there's no need to rush him. Plus, delaying by a year the onset of his next 'big' contract could also be a huge factor in a few years once the rebuild has turned the corner and the Flames become a cap team again.   

Five Others Who Won't Lead the Flames In Scoring

LW Mike Cammalleri
  • Why He's in the Conversation... With seasons of 80 and 82 points on his resume, he's the team's most accomplished offensive player on paper. Having just turned 31, he's on the other side of the so-called hill but he's tip-toeing down and there's still plenty of game left in him. You know he'll see a lot of time with the extra man where he racked up 15 of his 32 points last year. 
  • Why He Won't... He won't finish the season with the Flames, plain and simple. In the final season of a deal that carries a $6-million cap hit (and pays him $7-million in salary this year), I would be stunned if this pending UFA is still with Calgary come March. While he's being showcased in hopes the Flames can get a second round pick for him, he'll get his points and he may even be leading the team in scoring when he packs up his suitcase. However, it won't be a sizable-enough lead to last.

RW Lee Stempniak
  • Why He's in the Conversation... Stempniak was tied for the team lead in points last year and he's been a fairly consistent performer year-over-year (albeit agonizingly streaky within the confines of each season.) In 2006-07, his career-high 52 points placed him second behind Doug Weight for the St. Louis Blues scoring lead. He's also another guy that stays healthy. Going back a dozen years to the start of his U.S. college career, the only serious injury he's had was an ankle injury two years ago.
  • Why He Won't... For one, the 2006-07 season was seven years ago. Secondly, Stempniak is also a pending UFA and a very affordable one at $2.5-million. Stempniak does not have Calgary ties, he's not a Western Canadian kid, he's from New York and he's been dealt three times already in his NHL career. This season will be his fourth. 

D Dennis Wideman
  • Why He's in the Conversation... With his heavy shot, Wideman will be playing a bunch on the power play and as previously referenced with Brodie, that's where a lot of this team's goals will be scored. Wideman also has a 50-point season to his credit and that number isn't far off what the top point total will probably be for the Flames when this season ends.
  • Why He Won't... When he had that 50-point year with Boston, it was a high-scoring team and there were five other Bruins with the same or more points. Another roadblock is Brodie, who is seven years younger. Wideman will get a lot of points this year, I envision him and Brodie both being near the top of the team's scoring race, but they will end up cannibalizing each others point totals and in the end, neither will have enough to top Baertschi... or Hudler for that matter. For what it's worth, my money's on Brodie to edge Wideman by a couple points.

C Mikael Backlund
  • Why He's in the Conversation... He keeps getting better and is just now starting to play like the first round pick the Flames used to draft him 24th overall in 2007. Last year was his best year yet and this year he's in line for Calgary's No. 1 centre job which will give him two nice options for wingers. In short, there are a lot of things to like. Even his numbers in Sweden both before coming to Calgary as well as during the NHL lockout indicate there is still plenty of untapped offensive potential. 
  • Why He Won't... He's not your prototypical pure scorer. He'll see a lot of the opposition's top defence pairing which won't make for much real estate out there. He'll also find himself trying to fend off the opposition's top checking line a lot. Backlund is developing into a nice all-round player and while that increases his value to the team, it won't necessarily correlate to a massive increase in his point total. His goals and assists this season will certainly rise some as should be expected from a player that's 24 years old but it won't be enough to catch Baertschi. Although it wouldn't shock me if he comes pretty close and finishes top four. 

RW David Jones
  • Why He's in the Conversation... He's got more offensive skill than Flames fans realize and they will be pleasantly surprised. Last year's three goals in 33 games was the anomaly. With a top six role certainly possible, a 25-goal season isn't out of the question. In the three seasons prior to that, he rang up 57 goals in 172 games, a pace of over 27 goals per 82 games. 
  • Why He Won't... He's built out of a similar mould to Glencross in that he's a more of a shooter than a passer. Secondly, he's had an injury-riddled career and there's nothing to suggest this year will be anything different. While he was notching those 57 goals, he had just 41 helpers. He finishes plays, doesn't necessarily begin them, and while that's a useful attribute, it's not conducive to piling up many assists and being a legitimate threat for the team's scoring title.  

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