Tuesday, September 03, 2013

10 Flames Storylines to Watch in Penticton

Let's be honest. Looking ahead to when the Flames return to being a perennial playoff team (i.e. not just squeaking in and exiting promptly in the first round) means looking at least two and probably three or even four years into the future. A sneak preview of who could make up some of the key components of a fully rebuilt 2016-17 Calgary Flames team will be in action this weekend in the sunny Okanagan at the Young Stars Classic rookie tournament.

The Flames are one of five NHL teams in attendance at the event, which is in its third year with Penticton as the host city. It was previously held in 2010 and 2011. This year, Calgary is joined by Pacific Division rivals Edmonton, Vancouver and San Jose. Winnipeg will also be there although the Jets are the one opponent the Flames will not face.

As shown by the huge fan turnout at the Flames Development Camp during Stampede week, July and September have become to Calgary what May and June mean to Bruins and Blackhawks fans -- the months to really get excited about hockey. For Calgary, this is when its young players take centre stage at development camp and rookie camp and that is where the hope for the future lies for all those in Flames Nation yearning to re-live 2004 or better yet, repeat 1989.

With the regular season less than a month away, the pre-season to come before that, it's time to get September going with some appetizers. Here are 10 storylines to nibble on as you follow the upcoming action from Penticton, which takes place Sept. 5-9.

1. North To Alaska

The recent addition of the ECHL's Alaska Aces into the Flames organization as a next-level-down minor league affiliate to the American Hockey League's Abbotsford Heat, gives Calgary increased options when it comes to developing and finding ample playing time for its burgeoning pool of prospects. One position that's particularly crowded is goalie where 33-year-old journeyman Joey MacDonald is joined by veteran European imports Karri Ramo, 27, and Reto Berra, 26, in the battle for NHL playing time.

Also in the organization and looking to make an impression are the Flames two goaltenders that will split the playing time in Penticton -- Laurent Brossoit, 20, and Joni Ortio, 22. Brossoit's stock has steadily been on the rise since being drafted in the sixth round in 2011. Meanwhile, Ortio has been playing against men in the Finnish Elite League. No, there won't be any decisions made after this short tournament but these three games are an opportunity for one of them to move ahead of the other on the depth chart. The second-best of the two come the end of September will want to invest in some warm Sorels as they'll likely be bound for Anchorage.

2. Future Constellations

I'm particularly intrigued to see the line combinations and who plays with who during this tournament. Seeing how the Flames emerging stars are aligned may just be a preview to combinations or trios to come down the road.

Markus Granlund and Sven Baertschi worked well together at development camp. Will they be reunited? Who will flank 2013 sixth overall pick Sean Monahan? Might the Flames try him with fellow first rounders Morgan Klimchuk and Emile Poirier, who conveniently play left wing and right wing respectively? On the blue-line, will we see top-end prospects Patrick Sieloff and Tyler Wotherspoon pair up and see what impact they can have as a duo?

Note: On Sept. 4, the Flames announced that Klimchuk will not attend the tournament and will be sidelined for 2-4 weeks due to an abdominal wall strain suffered during a recent WHL pre-season game with Regina.

3. Flames Development Camp, Part 2 - The Sequel

A quality that eludes so many young players is consistency. So important is finding a way to make an impact each and every game rather than ride the roller-coaster of highs and lows that typically happens with most rookies and wreaks havoc with their confidence. In this respect, I'll be watching to see if guys that stood out to me six weeks ago at WinSport can back it up with another strong showing. I'll have my eye on MonahanGranlund, Corban Knight and Sieloff as four of the bigger names looking to further establish themselves. I'll also keep a close watch on lesser known players who made a great impression on me in July, players such as Ryan Culkin, Turner Elson, Josh Jooris and even invitee Linden Penner,

4. Whose Ready for Prime Time?

Make no mistake, a better litmus test is still to come in the form of the seven pre-season games between Sept. 14 and Sept. 25 that will be played against bigger, older and more experienced NHL players. But, these three games should still provide a sneak preview to who might be ready to pull on a Calgary sweater when the Flames open the season Oct. 3 at the Verizon Center in Washington.

While Baertschi is virtually a lock, I'm particularly intrigued to see who stands out amongst the candidates to potentially play centre either now or next year. It's very possible that three of Calgary's opening four centres in 2014-15 will be playing this weekend in Monahan, Granlund, and Knight. What about Max Reinhart, where does he fit in? Reinhart played 11 games last season but due to injury was not able to fully participate in the development camp so he's got some catching up to do. For Reinhart, this weekend could be huge. Can he outplay Knight? That's one of several subplots to monitor.

5. Best of 'D' Rest

There's been a lot of hype and for good reason about Sieloff and Wotherspoon, who both signed entry level contracts with the Flames this summer. Likely destined for the OHL and AHL respectively for more seasoning, both will nonetheless be out to turn heads and change minds this training camp. But, what about the rest?

Three Flames defencemen are pending unrestricted free agents at season's end -- Kris Russell, Chris Butler and Derek Smith. Shane O'Brien is a UFA the year after. Opportunity awaits in the near future and I'm interested to see who else forges their way into the conversation. Culkin is a guy that really stood out in July and is sniffing around for a pro contract. John Ramage is a rare right-handed shot and as a college grad is older and stronger. Can he get himself into the mix? Looking further down the road, Brett Kulak is a player I want to see more of as well as 2013 fifth round pick Eric Roy.

6. Watching and Waiting for Keegan Kanzig

Victoria Royals defenceman Keegan Kanzig was the tallest player drafted in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, 13 pounds heavier than any of the other 210 players. With size like that, that's how you get on my radar. Given what this young man could become, I'll be keenly observing his development every chance I get and that includes this weekend. He's a project, for sure, and is a long ways away but I was impressed by how Kanzig played in development camp. For a guy 6-foot-7 and 240-plus pounds, he was more mobile and looked slimmer than anticipated and had one of the lowest body-fat indexes of any of the prospects when they went through the fitness testing at the start of camp.

7. Identity in the Making

Grittier and harder to play against. That, according to Flames General Manager Jay Feaster, is the mould in which he's trying to shape this Flames club and those qualities were a theme to some of his off-season dealings that brought guys like TJ Galiardi and O'Brien to town. But, for best results, a culture and team identity is something you need to nurture and grow within the organization and cannot simply be imported and those seeds of the future, if you will, are these players in Penticton. I'm not worried about Sieloff, he's the poster child for those abrasive qualities the organization is seeking but it can't be a one-man show. I'll be watching to see who else steps up this weekend and shows some sandpaper qualities.

8. True Measure of Greatness

One of the true measures of a player's greatness is how much better he makes others around him. Over to you, Sven Baertschi. A month shy of his 21st birthday, if Baertschi had played just one more NHL game he wouldn't be in Penticton as the general guidelines around eligibility excludes players who have played more than 25 NHL games.

Instead, he is here and with an opportunity to elevate the play of the others on his line. I'm curious to see who gets the cushy assignment of playing alongside Baertschi. Will his line-mates be able to elevate their game to another level and who knows, maybe there might even be some instant chemistry that could potentially spill over into the pre-season and maybe even the regular season. The leadership opportunity for Baertschi this week will exist in even greater form in the dressing room and off the ice too. At development camp, he told me that despite the pressures, guys still need to have fun and that's an area where he tries to lead by example. I get the feeling he'll be preaching that same thing this week.

9. Playing Shorthanded

When we look back at this year's tournament roster ten years from now, it may very well turn out that it featured several of the Flames 'stars of the future' as advertised. However, not to be forgotten are all the guys that aren't here.

As the hectic traffic on Calgary's roads this morning reminded us, school is back in and given the Flames affinity of late for kids playing U.S. college hockey, that means some of Calgary's finest prospects aren't going to be in Penticton. That long list includes goaltender Jon Gillies and 2012 first round pick Mark Jankowski -- both back in Providence already, getting ready for their NCAA season to start. Of course, Johnny Gaudreau is back at Boston College so he won't be there either. Also absent will be Kenny Agostino, Bill Arnold, John Gilmour and big, tall and ever-engaging Tim Harrison.

10. Poirier vs Shinkaruk, Round 1

Friday, Sept. 6 sets up to be the first of what is likely to be many meetings between Emile Poirier and Hunter Shinkaruk. Poirier, through no fault of his own, ended up one of Calgary's most scrutinized picks in the draft not so much because of who he was, but more so who he wasn't.

I recapped the wild adventure that was the Flames 2013 draft here. However, as a quick recap, the Calgary native Shinkaruk kept falling in the first round and to the astonishment of pretty much everyone, he was still on the board when it came to the Flames pick at 22nd. As shocking as that was, what followed was even more stunning to observers outside of Calgary's management inner circle as the Flames also passed on the hometown kid to select Poirier. Then, to put an exclamation mark on the sequence of events, Shinkaruk was plucked two picks later by arch rival Vancouver. Whether Feaster called the right name that afternoon in New Jersey will be a question asked for many years to come and the first chance for observers to over react one way or the other will take place in Penticton when the two prospects go head to head.

Rosters for Young Stars Tournament (Calgary and its opponents only)

San Jose

Flames Schedule (all games streamed live on www.CalgaryFlames.com)

Thu, Sept. 5 vs. Edmonton at 5:00 pm MT
Fri, Sept. 6 vs. Vancouver at 8:30 pm MT
Sun, Sept. 8 vs. San Jose at 6:30 pm MT

Note: I will not be attending the Young Stars Classic tournament as The Canadian Press is sending a writer from Vancouver to cover it. However, I will be following the tournament from a Calgary perspective and will be sharing updates and player reaction as it unfolds. Keep an eye on this blog and follow me on Twitter at @DarrenHaynes_CP for updates both this weekend, through the pre-season and right into the regular season.

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