Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flames Training Camp 2013 - Ten Fearless Predictions

With the obligatory off-ice medical testing in the books, Calgary Flames main training camp is underway in earnest with 55 players -- broken into three groups named after ex-Flames (McDonald, McCrimmon, Peplinski), hitting the ice at WinSport for the first time on Wednesday, Sept. 12.

Camp will run through the end of September, leading up to the declaration of Calgary's 2013-14 season-opening roster. In contrast to last year's lockout-shortened sprint, this year's camp will provide ample opportunities for jobs to be won and lost. During the next two weeks, the Flames will play seven pre-season games. The NHL regular season opens on Tuesday, Oct. 1 with Calgary kicking off its 82-game haul in Washington on Oct. 3.

Here, in no particular order, are my predictions for what I think will (or could) shake down over the next few weeks. I was a B student in school so I'll be happy with a mark of 60 or 70 percent -- although I'm striving for better. We'll take this up in class next month and see how I did.

10 Fearless Predictions for 2013-14

1. Giordano Named Captain - Of all the predictions on my list, I'm more certain of this one than any other. There are other candidates for the job -- Mike Cammalleri, I suppose. A case could be made for Curtis Glencross. But for me it's a no-brainer, it's got to be Mark Giordano, a good soldier for this club since he became a fixture on the blue-line in 2006-07.

Make no mistake, it certainly won't be an easy role for the soon-to-be 30-year-old (his birthday is opening night), especially the post-game chin-wags with the media to dissect the latest loss. However, he plays the game the right way, with a 'heart on his sleeve' blend of grit and determination, and is a respected voice off the ice. So, add me to the long list of people declaring Giordano the worthy successor to Jarome Iginla.

2. Granlund Opens the Season with Calgary - The message being trumpeted by the team -- be it GM Jay Feaster or head coach Bob Hartley, is that at this camp -- far more than any other camp in recent memory, there is genuine opportunity with jobs available to be won. If that's indeed the case, it's not a huge stretch to think that a guy that would be a front runner to win one of those jobs would be Markus Granlund, who has been the best and of the youngsters so far this summer -- his body of work comprised of the Flames Development Camp in July and the Penticton Young Stars tournament last weekend.

Right now, the pecking order down the middle consists of Matt Stajan then Mikael Backlund or vice versa -- depends on who you ask. Although TJ Galiardi has also been shifted there to start camp, there's a well-documented opportunity for a couple of young men from the bevy of young centres the organization has in camp to step up and start the year in the show.

Stajan is 29 and he's a pending UFA. While he was Calgary's most consistent forward last year and sure, elevating him to a second or even first line line role this season would be the logical move if you're trying to win now, that doesn't make long term sense. This club needs to identify a couple bona fide top line centres and auditions should start as soon as possible.

Sean Monahan looks like he's on his way to being one of those guys but for me, it makes more sense for him to return to junior (see below). Enter Markus Granlund. Unlike Monahan whose entry level contract can slide a year, Granlund's ELC starts ticking this season no matter what. Granlund is also two years older and has also been playing against men already having spend the past two seasons with Helsinki in the Finnish Elite league. Granlund's got loads of talent, he's shown that, and he's been a level above most of the prospects he's played against so far. Perhaps the time is now to see if he can continue to perform at hockey's highest level.

3. Calgary Will Win Twice as Many Games in September as They Will in October - Similar to the rookie tournament in Penticton, the upcoming exhibition games is when the up-and-coming players hit the ice for the Flames, and against similarly-aged players from other organizations, September is the month in which Calgary will be most competitive. Expect the pre-season to play out similarly to the games in Penticton where with genuine NHL employment opportunity on the line, Calgary will play a high tempo and very competitive brand of hockey. In their seven pre-season games, expect four Flames victories and a waffle cone full of optimism. 

Unfortunately, waffle cones are brittle and will break easily when you apply pressure. When the calendar turns to October, the reality of life in the big, tough Pacific Division will set in and will do so in a hurry. Surprise wins will happen when we least expect it, but if you take a look at the 12-game grind Calgary starts off with in October, recording a modest three victories is still going to be a tall order. Here's how the opening month unfolds:
  • A tough opening night in Washington is followed by a trip the next evening into Columbus where Calgary has never had success in the past -- and that was when Calgary was good and the Blue Jackets were not.  Now Columbus is good and the Flames... well, you know.
  • Next is a three-game home-stand that brings Torts and the arch-rival Canucks to the Saddledome, followed by the Canadiens and the Ilya Kovalchuk-less Devils. The New Jersey game looks winnable but if you at all three games together, four points is overly ambitious with three a more realistic goal.
  • A five-game road trip follows and while it will be good for team-building, hotel pranks, five-star accommodations and delicious steak dinners, the reality for this outfit is the first three stops -- Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles, are going to be killers. Then you head to Phoenix on the back-end of a back-to-back and wrap up in Dallas, which has never been a very friendly building.
  • October closes at home with a second chance at Ovechkin and the Capitals before the new and improved Maple Leafs and their legions of supporters arrive en masse at the Saddledome on Oct. 30.

4. Cundari Cracks the Top Four - He's been trapped behind one of the best and most stacked blue-lines in the NHL for three years. Mark Cundari was finally freed from St. Louis last year when he was part of the package obtained by the Flames in exchange for Jay Bouwmeester. Cundari promptly played nearly 25 minutes in a nearly historic NHL debut and quickly settled into a partnership with rising Flames star TJ Brodie.

Cundari is not overly big at 5-foot-10 but he plays the game like he's 6-foot-4. He's hard-hitting and has an abrasive style that will put him in the good books with new President of Hockey Operations, Brian Burke. Brodie, Dennis Wideman and Giordano are three locks to make up the top two pairings. While veteran Shane O'Brien would be a good option to round out that quartet, expect Cundari to sneak in ahead of him as one of camp's pleasant surprises. 

5. Monahan Returns to Junior - The team, the fans, nearly everyone is happy so far with the Flames 2013 sixth overall pick. Considered at one point to be the consolation prize for the Flames late surge that cost them a selection in the much ballyhooed top five, the early reviews have been great as Sean Monahan has showcased himself nicely in the two prospect get-togethers so far. While he may be deserving of a top four centre spot on Calgary based on his play when September ends, I remain steadfast in my opinion that keeping him up with the Flames this year just doesn't make sense.

In a way, you could say Granlund's emergence has sealed Monahan's fate. One reason for returning Monahan to junior is to give him the chance to experience the intense spotlight of being on Canada's World Junior team, which he surely would make. As you know, this country heaps ridiculous amounts of pressure and expectations upon these young men over the Christmas holidays. But that pressure, is not unlike what Monahan is in for over the many years to come as the face of the Flames rebuild in this hockey mad market. As well, starting his entry level contract ticking this year means you're into a bridge contract or expensive long-term deal starting in 2016-17. The ripple effect of this down the road could be the team running up against the salary cap one season sooner than desired as the team rounds the corner and begins to trend upwards again. While I'm not certain Monahan will play the full nine regular season games the NHL allows before returning him to junior, I bet he plays at least five or six. That will give him that irreplaceable taste of what he's working towards for when he returns to Ottawa and ideally a trade in January to an OHL playoff contender.

6. Berra Outplays Ramo - Because his contract is larger, because his contract is one-way, there are many wanting to already anoint Karri Ramo as the starter for the Flames this season. But, both of those qualifiers are due to the league in which they extracted Ramo -- the KHL. Calgary needed to open up the wallet to lure him away ($2.75-million per season) and in addition, Ramo's already done his three-year ELC so the standard player's contract that comes next is always going to be for more coin. The one-way deal would have also been something Ramo had leverage to demand. Meanwhile, Swiss goaltender Reto Berra is about to embark on a one-year deal per the CBA's rules for an entry level contract for a player his age coming from Europe. His lower salary ($1.38-million this season) is a part of that.

What shouldn't be overlooked is Calgary traded a top NHL defenceman in Jay Bouwmeester, who still had another year left on his contract to get Berra and Cundari (and the Blues first round draft pick). While critics were quick to openly wonder, "is this all Calgary got?". Maybe the way the deal should be analyzed instead is it took a player of Bouwmeester's calibre to get the two of them out of St. Louis because of how highly touted they were.

As the proceedings got going on Wednesday, it was reiterated by the Flames that all five goalies in camp have a chance to win the No. 1 job. I would not be surprised if Berra, despite having a two-way contract, shows the form he demonstrated last year in the Swiss League and at the World Championships and ends up outplaying Ramo and if nothing else, earns the right to start the season in Calgary right alongside him. In such a scenario, journeyman Joey MacDonald may want to pick up a Rubik's cube as he'll have some extra time on his hands.

7. Baertschi Starts on the Third Line - Competition and opportunity are two themes of this year's camp. Entitlement is not. Baertschi's underwhelming performance at rookie camp is most certainly a concern and while he could erase memories of that with an inspired main camp and strong pre-season play, expect the club to be demanding of their future star. A month ago, I picked Baertschi to win the Flames scoring race this year. Well, he may end up needing to work his way up the depth chart as he could start off the year on the third line. Rewarding sub-par play is not a  precedent the club is going to set so Baertschi certainly has work to do to get back in everyone's good graces. 

I fully expect him to be a first line player this year but those minutes and top unit power play opportunities will need to be earned and while it may wreak further havoc with Baertschi's fragile confidence, it's the prudent way to proceed for the benefit of the entire club, especially the other young guys on the way.

8. Jones Starts on the First Line - Historically, it was the line that No. 12 was on that was deemed the Flames No. 1 line. When October arrives this year, it might not be as clear cut but I do expect David Jones, acquired from Colorado in the summer in the Alex Tanguay trade, to be a nice surprise and could very well find his way onto the team's top unit.

For one, he's motivated to prove that last year's three goals in 33 games was an anomaly. Secondly, he's happy to be in Calgary where he has family connections to the city. He's also out to prove he's not an injury liability. In the three years prior to last year, his goals-per-game average would put him on a pace for around 28 goals in an 82-game season. But, he amassed just 110 games over those three years while missing 106. As dull and uninteresting as his his name is -- David Jones, sounds like a made-up name used in school text books, don't be surprised if Mr. Jones establishes himself as a fan favourite in no time and becomes one of the team's most dangerous offensive players.

9. Expect a Truculent Pre-season - While some have longer NHL resumes than others and guys like Lee Stempniak, Matt Stajan and Curtis Glencross have previously played in an organization that employed Brian Burke, a majority of the players at this training camp are new to playing under him. They can consider this a fresh start and a second chance to make a first impression.

Knowing Burke's propensity for bigger, meaner and grittier players that play with an edge -- the epitome of how Burke rolls himself, I'd expect some scrappy, sandpaper-like play from the locals this month in an attempt to convince Burke that there's enough mean and nasty in the Flames dressing room already and that he doesn't need to go shopping and airlift in that type of player.

10. A UFA Defenceman Leaves Town - The Flames are set to enter the season with three veteran defencemen who are pending UFA's at the end of the season -- Chris Butler, Kris Russell and Derek Smith. It's very possible that none of them will be with the team at this time next year as I'd view at least two of them as mere place holders at this point, who are here only until the next wave of Calgary blue-line prospects are declared ready for big league service.

While top prospect Patrick Sieloff is a likely bet to return for another season in the OHL and the AHL is the logical next stepping stone for highly touted Tyler Wotherspoon after his successful tenure in the WHL, college graduate John Ramage has emerged as someone to watch closely. He's obviously got the pedigree, his Dad was a member of the Flames 1989 Stanley Cup-winning team. At age 22, he's older than the others too. Also, his on-ice leadership has already been evident and on a young team, this is an intangible quality in which you can never have enough. The AHL is probably the best fit for Ramage to start his pro career but if he shows he's ready now, it would not be a stretch if the team looks for a way to part with either Smith or Butler to create a spot. Chris Breen is another candidate for big league service time but is currently recovering from shoulder surgery.

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  1. Great article, i totally agree on the monahan front, i hope he gets a few games at the beginning of the year.I want a player to cheer on at the world juniors this year

  2. I've really enjoyed having a look around your blog today, keep up the good work! CALGARY TEAM BUILDER