Thursday, October 10, 2013

Putting the Amazing Start to Sean Monahan's NHL Career in Historical Context

Find Sean Monahan a real estate agent because he might be going house shopping in Calgary very soon.

The soon-to-be 19-year-old rookie centre continues to show that he is more than capable of playing in the NHL right now and making a significant impact, too. The latest exhibit was a dazzling goal and an assist effort in a 3-2 Calgary Flames victory Wednesday night over the Montreal Canadiens.

Monahan's ice time keeps rising, his responsibilities keep increasing, and the points keep on coming. Monahan has begun his NHL career with an impressive four-game points streak (3 goals, 2 assists).

The last time a Flames 'rookie' had points in each of his first four games, that player's name was Sergei Makarov and the season was 1989-90, the year after Calgary won the Stanley Cup. Here's how Makarov began his career in Calgary:
  • Oct. 5/89 vs Det - 1 g, 2 a =  3 pts
  • Oct. 7/89 vs NYI - 1 g, 3 a = 4 pts
  • Oct. 10/89 at NJ - 0 g, 1 a = 1 pt
  • Oct. 11/89 at NYR - 0 g, 1 a = 1 pt
Mind you, there is the subtle difference that Makarov was 31 years old, had already appeared in over 500 games in the Soviet Union and had also played in three Winter Olympics by then. (Needless to say, the NHL's rookie rule was rewritten after that season.)

As Monahan Goes, the Flames Go

By no coincidence, the Flames are rolling right along with Monahan. In a year in which many picked Calgary to finish near the league cellar, they have opened the season going an improbable four consecutive games without a regulation loss. If not for a couple of third period sags, they could very well be sitting a perfect 4-0-0 right now. Stunning. The last time the Flames picked up a point in each of their first four games was 2009-10 when they won four straight to begin the year.

The Flames have only accomplished this feat a total of three times since moving to Calgary in 1980. They also did it in 2001-02 (3-0-1) and in 1993-94 (4-0-0).  In the spirit of this stat, however, you could technically also include 1988-89. That season the Flames started off 2-0-2 by today's measurements but the second game was an overtime loss and back then you did not receive a point for that.

The other impressive number through the first week of the season is in over 248 minutes of game action, the Flames have only trailed for 13:20 -- that was during a pair of one-goal deficits on Sunday versus the Canucks.

Now it's still early, for sure, with six long months still to go but this 2013-14 version of the Calgary Flames looks absolutely rejuvenated compared to past editions. They're quick, they're relentless on the forecheck, their first passes and exits out of the defensive zone are as assertive and confident as we've seen in recent memory. This is a completely different team under the guidance of new captain Mark Giordano.

While there are a lot of factors contributing to Calgary's unexpected hot start -- Lee Stempniak, Joey MacDonald to name just a couple, the guy wearing No. 23 has got to be at the top of the list.

Monahan's two points Wednesday against Montreal were not cheapies. In fact, none of his points so far have been. On his goal, he initiated the sequence with a nifty behind-the-back pass before smartly dashing to the front of the net and then hitting the brakes to be right there in the front row to deftly flick in Stempniak's rebound.

Next, it was Monahan's sublime pass to Sven Baertschi in front to make it 2-0. Unlike most players who in that same scenario would have corralled the puck first and then looked up and tried to find a target. Monahan looked back to identify his passing option first so when he did reel in the puck after the long rebound, he immediately spun and zipped the puck right on the tape of Baertschi in front, who neatly steered in his first goal of the year. Those two goals showcased just how much raw offensive talent Monahan possesses.

Drifting Further Away From Ottawa

The Ottawa 67's haven't re-assigned their captain's C yet. They're holding it for you know who. But it's gotten to the point now where if Monahan ends up being returned to the OHL, it is going to absolutely stun the city of Calgary. I can't even imagine what the reaction would be with the fan base, never mind inside the home dressing room. I just can't see it happening. Usually when guys return to junior, it's to get bigger and stronger. That just isn't an issue with Monahan who did his obligatory 'get bigger and stronger' last summer after being drafted when he packed on over 10 pounds to up his chassis to a solid 6-foot-2, 200 pounds.

Since the nine-game audition for junior-eligible players came into being in the NHL -- allowing teams to ship a player back to the CHL and delay by one year the start of their three-year entry level contract, the highest scoring player to be sent down was Colorado's Wojtek Wolski. In 2005-06, Wolski had two goals and four assists in nine games with the Avalanche when they decided to send him back to Brampton (OHL).

Gilbert Brule, also in 2005-06,  is the only other player to have scored four or more points in their trial and be returned to junior. Brule had two goals and two assists in seven games with Columbus before the Blue Jackets dispatched him back to Vancouver (WHL).

Best Starts to an NHL Career in Flames History

Beside Makarov, where does Monahan fit in, in terms of the fastest start by a Calgary Flames rookie?

I took a look back at the debuts of some of the greatest players this team has drafted and developed. While accurately documenting the starts for guys like Gary Roberts, Al MacInnis, Gary Suter and Dan Quinn is difficult to do with the lack of availability of game summaries from the early 80s, here are a bunch of others you'll fondly remember, who began their career in Calgary. Included is how many goals-assists-points they had through their first four NHL regular season games:
  • Joe Nieuwendyk, age 20, 1-0-1 in 1986-87
  • Brett Hull, age 22, 1-0-1 in 1986-87
  • Theoren Fleury, age 20, 0-5-5 in 1988-89 (three assists in game 2, two assists in game 3)
  • Cory Stillman, age 21, 0-2-2 in 1994-95
  • Jarome Iginla, age 19, 2-1-3 in 1996-97 
  • Derek Morris, age 19, 0-0-0 in 1997-98
  • Oleg Saprykin, age 18, 0-1-1 in 1999-00
  • Chuck Kobasew, age 20, 2-0-2 in 2002-03
  • Dion Phaneuf, age 20, 1-1-2 in 2005-06
  • David Moss, age 24, 3-0-3 in 2006-07
Nieuwendyk's totals came from late in the 1986-87 season when he joined the Flames after wrapping up his season at Cornell and played nine regular season games. He played six more games in the playoffs that year.

Nieuwendyk holds the Flames rookie points record with 92 points, which he set in 1987-88 when he notched 51 goals and 92 points. During that season in which Nieuwendyk won the Calder Memorial trophy as NHL rookie of the year, he was 2-1-3 through his first four games. Monahan is ahead of that pace.

What Lies Ahead

Conveniently for the Flames from an assessment perspective, the ultimate test to see where Monahan is at is coming soon. Next week, Calgary departs on a five-game road trip that begins with a treacherous three-game journey through California. They continue on to Phoenix before wrapping up in Dallas. We know Monahan will begin that road trip with the Flames. Considering the final game against the Stars will be the Calgary's 10th game, if he also finishes the road trip with the hockey club, we'll know what the Flames management team of Jay Feaster and Brian Burke decided.

Personally, I do have a prediction of what will happen and will fully admit it is different from what I would have said if you asked me a month ago or even two weeks ago. And as someone that has to watch this team play on a regular basis as my profession, I'll be delighted if my original inclination ends up being proven wrong. The product Calgary is putting on the ice right now is as exciting as it's been in many, many years and it makes it awfully fun to watch for everyone.

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