Friday, November 22, 2013

Why Monahan's Red Jersey This Christmas Should Say "Canada"

Calgary Flames rookie centre Sean Monahan will be playing a hockey game on New Year's Eve this year. The question is where.

Will he be right here in Calgary at the Scotiabank Saddledome, donning the new Flames third jersey for a game against the Philadelphia Flyers?

Or, will he be 7,200 kilometres and eight time zones away at the Isstadion in Malmo, Sweden, wearing a Canada jersey for the traditional Dec. 31 World Junior Championship showdown with the United States?

Team Canada will soon release the list of players invited to its final selection camp, which will not be held in Calgary at WinSport this year but instead will take place in Toronto beginning on Dec. 12. You can bet Monahan will be included on that list as a possibility, subject to him being released to play by the Calgary Flames.

That decision, which will need to be made prior to the start of camp -- so in less than three weeks, will fall on the shoulders of the Flames management team of Brian Burke and Jay Feaster. I expect they will take as much time as they can to decide so it's conceivable such an announcement won't come until after the Flames host Jarome Iginla and the Boston Bruins on Dec. 10.

For me, it's not a difficult decision at all. In fact, it's an absolute no-brainer. Here are a dozen reasons why Monahan should join Tampa Bay's Brett Connolly and Anaheim's Devante Smith-Pelley -- both in 2011, as the only players since the 2004-05 lockout to be loaned from an NHL roster to Team Canada for the WJC.

12 Reasons Why Monahan Should Play for Canada

1. Why Not?

Let me break it to you. The Flames are not making the playoffs this year. Blame the ridiculous difficulty of the Western Conference if it makes you feel better. It doesn't change the fact that Calgary woke up Friday morning 14 points back of eighth spot in the West and that gap could easily be 20 by the time the Monahan decision needs to be made. Based on the current NHL standings, the Flames need to go 44-10-6 over its final 60 games to crack the top eight. Yeah right. So, you're certainly not sacrificing your playoff hopes by letting Monahan go and play for his country.

2. Into the Pressure Cooker

What a growth and development opportunity it would be for Monahan to shoulder the pressure of being one of the leaders of Team Canada.

Because it falls during the Christmas holidays when kids are off school and adults are off work, it feels like the entire country follows this team's every move. The expectations Canadians put on this team of gold medal or failure is insane.

The spotlight will be hot, it will be intense, and for a kid that didn't play in the OHL playoffs last year and won't play in the NHL playoffs this year, they would be the most important games he has played and will play for some time. What a chance to drop him into that type of setting so he's got that much more experience when the Flames eventually do get back to the playoffs.

3. Live the Dream

In this country, kids grow up dreaming of two things: 1. Winning the Stanley Cup. 2. Playing for Team Canada. For many retired NHLers, the 1972 Summit Series was a source of inspiration. Younger guys would have got caught up in the excitement of the 1987 Canada Cup. Junior hockey-aged kids today will have fond memories of Canada winning Olympic gold in Salt Lake in 2004.

Monahan has worn a Team Canada jersey before but not on this type of stage. Most recently, he played for Canada in the U18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament in 2011. He scored a goal in the final as Canada won gold. Prior to that, he suited up for Team Ontario in the U17 Hockey Challenge, another international hockey tournament.

It's an honour that should never get old -- right, Ryan Smyth? During this Flames rebuild, Monahan may get a few chances to play for Canada in the IIHF World Championships that take place in the spring but that will pale in comparison to the high octane experience of the WJC.

 4. Leadership Development

If he does go, he'll be one of Canada's most experienced players. Whether that translates to a letter on his jersey, it's hard to say for sure. What we do know for certain is he'll be one of the team's leaders whether it's figuratively or literally and that's not new for him.  He was captain of the Ottawa 67s and you can bet that one day he will also wear a letter for the Flames.

What a great opportunity for him to take a break from being a 19-year-old passenger on a Flames roster with a bunch of 30-somethings, to being one of the guys driving the bus. Being a captain or being a leader is the type of experience that cannot be taught in a practice and you can't learn it from watching video. You can only get good at it and better at it by being in these types of situations and accumulating experience. What a chance to start preparing Monahan for his future role as a leader and potential captain of the Flames.

5. Taste Victory, For a Change

Last year's Ottawa 67s won an OHL-low 16 games. By the time this NHL season concludes in mid-April, the Flames could very well have the fewest wins in the NHL. I know, I know, it's not Calgary's fault, blame the difficulty of the Western Conference. Now, Monahan will never admit this, but winning so infrequently has got to wear on a guy eventually. Heck, I go a few weeks without winning my Friday morning hockey game and I get down in the dumps.

What a refreshing and pleasant change it would surely be for Monahan to be part of a great team for a few weeks, one that is expected to win and will win a bunch of games from the pre-tournament exhibitions right through the round-robin and medal round games. Experiencing that winning feeling again and on a regular basis could really energize the kid for his return to the Flames in January. Calgary will be at the halfway point in the NHL season by then and might be in desperate need of an adrenaline boost.

6. Organization-Wide Ripple Effect

By sending Monahan to the WJC, that essentially opens up bonus one-month NHL trial for a Flames prospect currently in the minors. In a year where developing players across the organization should be of paramount importance, this is the equivalent of found money. You could also look at it as an opportunity for a guy already on the Flames roster to elevate his role and try and get his career back on track -- and I'm talking about Mikael Backlund.

  • I'd sublet Monahan's spot in the top nine to Backlund and tell him, "OK kid, here you go. You've got a dozen games to show us that you're still a key part of our future." Baertschi-Backlund-Hudler as a trio for an extended period? Why not. 
  • Meanwhile, recent call-up Blair Jones gets a chance to try to resurrect his career and as a pending unrestricted free agent -- build up some possible trade value,  by regularly centring Calgary's fourth line. 
  • Lastly, with Jones gone from Abbotsford, that opens up a role on the top line there alongside veteran Ben Street and red-hot Michael Ferland. That will benefit another Flames prospect or prospects, who will get increased minutes, power play time and responsibility.

That's a whole series of bonus development opportunities for the organization, simply by removing Monahan from the Flames roster for a month. Of course, Monahan will be getting his own unique development experience.

7. No Regrets

It's happened to all of us. You have an opportunity to do something or go some place that we turn down because we weren't old enough to fully appreciate or 'get' the significance of it at the time. For me, it was a trip to Europe that a couple buddies went on after we finished high school. I declined for a few reasons, none of them very good as I look back on it now. Sure enough, 25 years later, I still have never been to Europe.

Twenty years from now when Monahan is looking back on his pro hockey career, I guarantee he'll be glad he had the chance to travel to Sweden with the best players his age in this country and go head-to-head with the best from around the world. He might downplay it right now -- caught up in the excitement of being in the NHL and all, but that would be short-sighted. This is the first of many, many years for Monahan of five-star hotels, charter flights, full NHL buildings and adoring fans. Seize this Team Canada opportunity while you can.

8. Get Into the Team Canada Pipeline

Who knows if the NHL will shut down and allow players to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, or in the 2022 Winter Olympics, or in 2026. But if they do, Monahan has the potential to be a guy that will certainly be in the conversation come roster selection time. While playing for Team Canada previously in a high profile event like the WJC is not a pre-requisite, it certainly won't hurt your case. If you look at the five centres projected to be on Canada's Olympic Team in Sochi in February, all five played for Canada in the World Juniors:
  • Sidney Crosby Pit - Twice
  • Jonathan Toews Chi - Twice
  • John Tavares NYI - Twice
  • Ryan Getzlaf Ana - Twice
  • Patrice Bergeron Bos - Once
Monahan hasn't had that chance yet so why not now. It may just give him that little extra boost for when another opportunity to play for Canada may come up in four or eight years.

9. Because He Can

Sometimes the opportunity just isn't there. You're not age-eligible, you're injured, you're playing on an NHL team that is in playoff contention and can't afford to lose you, or whatever. But the chance to play for Team Canada is right there in front of Monahan, so close he could reach out and grab it.

The circumstances if you look at his age, having not played in the World Juniors before, being with a non-playoff NHL team, it is the perfect storm of factors for when it makes total sense for a player to be loaned from his NHL club to Team Canada.

10. Erase Memory of Being Cut Last Year

What if?

You know that was a question on Monahan's mind throughout last year's WJC in Ufa, Russia, especially when Canada was whipped 5-1 by the U.S. and lost 6-5 to Russia in the bronze medal game.

As you'll remember, Monahan was not a part of last year's Canadian squad. Instead, he was one of the early cuts by coach Steve Spott. Six months later at the NHL Entry Draft, Monahan was drafted sixth overall, the third Canadian-born player off the board behind Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin -- both of whom were there.

You know Monahan would like an opportunity to step on that international stage and say 'hey, I could have been the difference last year' by making a difference this year under coach Brent Sutter.

11. New Year's Eve Staredown with Jon Gillies.

What a great way to begin New Year's Eve for Flames fans. Sleep-in, eat breakfast, then at 9:30 a.m. you get the dynamite match-up of Flames top goalie prospect (and arguably their top overall prospect), Providence College's Jon Gillies -- who everyone expects to be the U.S. starting goalie, going head-to-head with Monahan in that New Year's Eve game. It would be spectacular.

Who knows, maybe this high stakes meeting -- or an even more important clash in the gold medal game, could turn out to be the first of many international clashes between the two potentially significant pieces of the Flames future. Think Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin, two arch-rivals when playing for their respective countries, yet great team-mates otherwise that form the backbone of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Admittedly, this next statement is a 'Hail Mary' on my behalf and my intention is not to burden either player with unfair expectations but you have to wonder, could Monahan and Gillies one day evolve into the two anchors of the Flames franchise and the next generation of Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff? With a bit more post-season success, of course.

12. Gives Canada a Better Chance To Win

When it's time for the World Juniors, I am a fan like everyone else, sitting on the couch and cheering Canada on. Canada's chances of winning gold will be a lot better with Monahan in the line-up than without him. So, selfishly but in the spirit of national pride, I say let the kid play!

Canada was shut out of the medals last year and only won bronze in 2012 when the tournament was held in Alberta. With back-to-back silvers before that, Canada hasn't won gold since 2009, which capped off a stretch of five straight years winning gold. It's time to start a new streak and having the services of a guy with over 30 NHL games on his resume by then and at least eight NHL goals, would be a huge advantage.

Dismissing the Counter Arguments

As always, there are a few counter arguments out there. Here are some I've heard and why I'd dismiss them.

  • Best place for him to get better is by being at NHL practices and playing in NHL games. From a raw skill development perspective, you're probably right. But I'd argue you're looking at the situation from a far too narrow perspective. If he stays healthy, he'll still play as many as 70 NHL games this year and that's still a lot.
  • It will decrease his chance to win the Calder. Yes, you're right, if you're looking at this strictly in the here and now. But it's a small sacrifice in the big picture if it increases his chance at winning the Stanley later on in his career. My sense from talking with him this year is he's about as team-focused as you can get so I can't see him getting too caught up in how it might harm his rookie-of-the-year chances. Plus, 68-70 games is still a large enough body of work to prove you should be the rightful winner of the Calder, anyway.
  • But he's one of the team's top scorers and most important players. So? Even if his absence for a dozen games costs the Flames two victories (shootouts, perhaps) -- and that's a stretch, what are the ramifications? Calgary misses the playoffs by 28 points instead of 24? View it this way. Four less points at year end could improve where the Flames draft in June by a few spots and that's not entirely a bad thing.  
  • What if he gets injured? Pardon? He's playing hockey! Whether he's playing in North America or in Europe, there's no difference. In fact, I'd say the odds of getting injured are probably higher playing in NHL games given the smaller rinks, more physical game, mismatch in age, and huge size of most defenceman. I'm sorry but I don't get this argument at all.
In Conclusion

There are so many intangible and spill-off benefits of Monahan playing for Team Canada that I find it impossible to believe that the Flames will be able to rationalize that it's best that he remain in Calgary for meaningless Flames games No. 31 through No. 42. As it is, this season is going to start dragging soon enough (and for some, has already begun) in the take-no-prisoners war zone that is the Western Conference.

Boxing Day at the very raw hour of 5:30 a.m. Calgary time, that's when the round-robin begins for Canada. Monahan's first game would come against Germany. I predict a goal and an assist for Monahan, a convincing victory, and most importantly, a big smile -- with way more to come through the ten days after that.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Back to the Future: The State of the Flames Goaltending

Many refer to Sean Monahan as the face of the Calgary Flames rebuild but perhaps the guy that really should adorn the cover is prospect Jon Gillies.

After all, in order to get back to being perennially playoff relevant -- what a rebuild blueprint is designed to do, the assembled pieces must include a reliable, steady go-to option in goal that can be counted on nightly to keep the Flames in the game. That includes stealing a point here and there and more importantly, not being a liability.

As the season winds on, it's looking more and more like the current lot assembled in Calgary are merely temporary fixes until a permanent solution comes along.
  • That long-term answer won't be Laurent Brossoit, he was just traded to Edmonton in exchange for Ladislav Smid
  • It won't be Olivier Roy, who the Flames got from the Oilers along with Smid. If he had that kind of upside, Edmonton wouldn't have parted with him. 
  • It could still be Joni Ortio, currently toiling at Abbotsford, but that's wait and see.
  • More so, it's looking like Jon Gillies, who we know is highly thought of within the Flames management team, is where Calgary's future hopes lie.
Saturday, Nov. 16, provided an interesting and revealing dichotomy of the current state of the Calgary Flames goaltending as an organization.

All Hail the College Kid

First, earlier Saturday evening, you had Gillies with yet another stellar game in net for the Providence College Friars. The Flames third round pick in 2012 made 23 saves in a 3-0 victory over Vermont. It gives the sophomore three shutouts this year and a school-record eight in less than a season and a half. 

It's conceivable that the only way uber talented Flames prospect Johnny Gaudreau from Boston College doesn't win the Hobey Baker Award this year for top U.S. college player is if Gillies wins it instead.

Through 10 games, Gillies is 8-1-1 with a microscopic 1.59 goals-against average and a scintillating .949 save percentage. Somehow the 19-year-old has found a way to make his freshman numbers, impressive in their own right -- 17-12-6 record, 2.08 GAA and .931 SV%, look merely ordinary.

After another sterling performance by Gillies, you can't blame Flames fans for wanting to close their eyes and dream of the 6-foot-5 American wearing the Flaming 'C'. Heck, maybe a bunch of them did as they laid down last night for a nap after shovelling the snow drifts off the driveway.

But while they drifted away to visions of Gillies leading the Flames back to respectability, they were jarred awake by the nightmare that is quickly becoming the state of Calgary's current goaltending.

Collective Failings at the NHL Level

It was understood coming into this season that among the Flames many holes in the line-up, goaltending was the biggest of the question marks.

Well, we're now 20 games into the season and that hasn't changed.
  • Joey MacDonald made seven starts and was disgracefully shipped away to the minors.
  • Karri Ramo has also made seven starts but other then being given the keys for opening night in Washington, has yet to convince Bob Hartley he's the guy. 
  • Reto Berra has made six starts, all of them in the last seven games. He started about as good as anyone could -- a stunning 42-save win in Chicago. But his play has been up and down since and he seems to be losing his grasp on the starter's job rather than securing it.
As much as the organization hoped one of them -- preferably one of the two European imports, would seize the reins of the No. 1 job, it hasn't happened yet with the first quarter of the season now in the books.

You get the feeling and this makes the most sense anyway as it allows further stocking of higher draft picks the next couple years, that Flames fans will have to patiently wait for Gillies as the team's best hope at being the Miikka Kiprusoff heir apparent.

To that point, I would expect Calgary to make a determined effort to sign Gillies this spring and pry him away from school. The sooner he turns pro and gets into the Flames system, where he can face a higher level of hockey and receive instruction from the likes of Calgary goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk and Abbotsford goalie coach Jordan Sigalet, the sooner he may be ready for the NHL.

Ugly Deja Vu

It was a mere 15 days ago at the Saddledome with the same 2-2 score, also in the third period, and in the very same corner of the rink, that a very similar play unfolded to David Perron's god-awful goal on Saturday night that proved to be the game-winner in Edmonton's 4-2 come-from-behind victory.

That night against Detroit, Tomas Tatar was the guy on the grassy knoll that harmlessly flung the puck towards the Calgary net and after changing directions slightly off the skate of Joakim Andersson, it fooled MacDonald and went in, giving the Red Wings the lead for good and sucking the life out of the home side.

Until that point, it seemed MacDonald could do no wrong in the eyes of Hartley. He was the favourite son, rarely blamed for anything, seemingly above impunity.

Things changed quickly after that. By the next morning, MacDonald was placed on waivers and by Sunday, Berra had arrived on the scene and stepping on a flight bound for Abbotsford was MacDonald. That was the last we saw of the veteran, who has been backing up Ortio in the AHL ever since.

Now, under eerily similar conditions last night, it's Hartley's latest favourite son -- the big Swiss netminder, who gives up a bad goal from the corner, over a foot below the goal line. After the game, Hartley described the goal in one word, "awful". And if you were in the rink, you could feel the deflating impact it had on the team.

There are 42 goalies with enough playing time to be eligible for the NHL's save percentage leaders. MacDonald ranks 39th, Ramo is 40th. Berra is one start shy of qualifying but if he did have enough minutes, he would be 41st, right behind Ramo.

In defence of all of them and especially Berra, the Flames are guilty of playing some pretty shoddy defence of late. This was especially the case in going winless this past home stand. Mark Giordano continues to be missed a ton.

In particular, there were some absolutely egregious mistakes, giveaways and blown coverages in the 7-3 loss to Dallas on Thursday that produced scoring chances that the best goaltenders in the league would not have stopped. Yet, there's no disguising what really are some pretty underwhelming and mediocre numbers thus far:
  • MacDonald - 3-3-1 record, 3.17 GAA, .885 SV%
  • Ramo - 2-4-1 record, 3.59 GAA, .882 SV%
  • Berra - 1-4-1 record, 3.65 GAA, .882 SV%

So, What do the Flames Do Now? 

Not much.

It's way too early to ship either of the new guys out to sea. Berra and Ramo have shown enough to suggest they are at least deserving of a longer trial and this is certainly the year for such experimenting. Given the extra leash Berra has had the last two weeks, it would make sense to extend the same courtesy to Ramo and give him the baton and see what he can do with a string of consecutive starts.

Adjusting (or re-adjusting in the case of Ramo) to the North American game -- the smaller rinks, the quicker/harder shots, the more densely populated slots, is not easy. We're not yet at the two-month mark so there is still very much the possibility either Ramo or Berra will find their groove and emerge as the defacto starter, making this discussion a moot point. However, it's safe to say fans are growing less confident with every mounting loss that either one is going to be the Flames goaltender of the future. Instead, they'd be satisfied if they're just adequate goalies of the present.

When the club is ready to try something new, behind door No. 4 is Ortio. He's been getting the bulk of the starts at Abbotsford and reportedly has been solid. He was impressive during Flames rookie camp and has already played with the men in the Finnish elite league. With the Heat, he's gone a perfect 7-0-0 with a 2.50 GAA and .920 SV%.

Meanwhile, as the two goalies described as the best goalies not playing in the NHL last year, show there was maybe a reason they weren't playing in the NHL, a former Flames goalie prospect is having himself an excellent season not playing in the NHL.

Leland Irving, the Flames first round draft pick in 2006, is currently getting his resume back together while playing for Jokerit in Finland and he's off to a fine start. Signed to a one-year contract, Irving has put together a 1.81 GAA and .928 save percentage for the club that will join the KHL next year.

Bottom Line

Don't let the 3-0-2 start fool you, this is a development year for the Flames, the first of a few years that will need to be looked at through that lens. That development includes the goalie position where on a night-by-night basis, it seems you won't know what you're going to get and that is something everyone is still getting used to.

Enjoy your retirement Miikka Kiprusoff, the stability you provided for all those years is certainly missed. Meanwhile, Jon Gillies, enjoy quiet college life while you can, the spotlight will be affixed on you very, very soon.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Unveiling of Ladislav Smid

Sunday morning at the Saddledome, with Calgary in the midst of three days off, Ladislav Smid put on a Flames practice jersey for the first time and joined his new team for a gruelling practice.

Sounding genuinely excited to be in Calgary, here is a link to the story I wrote this afternoon for The Canadian Press:

Meanwhile, here are some other random notes and quotes from Smid, which I couldn't fit into the wire story:

Offensive Offence

Smid hasn’t scored much in his career, just 11 goals in 474 games. But he did score three goals as a rookie, one of them coming in the final game of the season at the Saddledome and came against Miikka Kiprusoff. Although it's almost impossible to believe, he then scored just one goal over his next four seasons. Now that’s a defensive specialist.

Falling Ice Time

Smid’s ice time had been slightly down this year. So far in 2013-14, he was averaging 17:53, fifth behind Oilers defence regulars Justin Schultz, Jeff Petry, Andrew Ference and Anton Belov. He had been a mainstay in the Oilers top four during the previous years, averaging over 20 minutes per game.

Hitting Machine

This year and last, Smid has been credited with 203 hits. That compares to 384 for the entire Flames team.  This year, he has 52, which is third amongst NHL defencemen behind Radko Gudas (55) from Tampa Bay and Cody Franson of Toronto (54). Last season he was also third with 151. He trailed Philadelphia's Luke Schenn (187) and Toronto's Mark Fraser (153).

On the Transition

“I barely slept last night,” said Smid. “I was a little bit nervous about meeting the new guys and going to a different organization but everybody was so nice and so supportive so they’ve made it real easy for me.”

Smid admits he was caught off guard by the call from Edmonton General Manager Craig MacTavish.

“When I first heard, I was kind of upset,” Smid said. “After signing a four-year deal, I thought I would be there for quite a while but that’s how the hockey business works. I didn’t expect my name to be the one that is going to be traded but it is what it is. After one day being shocked, I talked to my wife and she’s excited to come here and start a new chapter and same with me.”

On Mark Giordano

“With Gio going down, obviously that’s a big loss. He brings that grit, he plays hard every night, losing him, it’s a big hole to fill,” said Smid. “Me coming here, I just need to focus on my role and that’s being physical, obviously blocking shots and being good on the penalty kill. I’m going to try and do my job on an every night basis.”

Smid and Giordano had battled each other hard over the years. In 2009, they dropped the gloves and duked out, a fight Smid described today as a "draw". Well, here it is so judge for yourself.

"We always had good battles. We always chirp each other. But I respect him a lot," said Smid. "He brings a work ethic and the grit and everything that a great leader is supposed to have on an every night basis and you can’t ask to have a better captain than that. I was happy for him to get the ‘C and I’m looking forward to working with him."

About Playing His Old Team on Saturday

“Obviously. It’s going to be weird to face my old team this early but I’m really excited for it,” said Smid. “I believe we’re going to beat them. It would be a really nice feeling to leave the ice with the two points.”

Apparently he’s missed, or so he’s been told.

“Some guys are still upset about it up there. They’re going to miss me, I hope,” said Smid with a chuckle.

When he got the news he was traded, he was in Philadelphia and out for dinner with fellow countrymen Ales Hemsky and Jakub Voracek from the Flyers.

“Voracek, actually,” said Smid, when asked who picked up the tab. “He felt bad, he’s like 'tough day for you.'”

Then the Hemsky trade rumours started swirling to the point they thought all three of them may end up being traded that same night.

“It was funny because Hemsky was there too and the Twitter was going crazy with him being traded to Philadelphia so we're like, maybe Voracek will be part of the trade too, then it would be three guys traded the same night. It was a fun night.”

Smid admits he will miss his old buddies.

“Obviously, I’m going to miss my former teammates in Edmonton, I had a great time there but it’s kind of over and I’m looking forward to this challenge.”

On the 2014 Winter Olympics

“I haven’t spoken to them for quite a while. The last time I spoke to the assistant coach (Frank Musil) was before the year started,” said Smid. “I don’t know. Hopefully I can fight for a place to make it there. It’s obviously a huge honour to represent your country at the Olympics so I’ll do whatever it takes to get there but at the same time, my main focus is on Calgary and succeeding here.”

Smid was not a part of the Czech team in 2010.

“I wasn’t there, I was just watching,” said Smid. “This year, we had camp there in the summer and I was there for that and we had some meetings and went over our system and stuff like that.”

There are a whopping 67 names on the Czech National Team invite list for their orientation camp.

“I know,” said Smid, laughing about how long the list is. “There’s European guys, NHL guys, it’s crazy but that’s how it is.”

And no, the Czechs did not adopt the Canadian model of playing ball hockey. “I would probably hurt myself. I’m not very good with runners and a hockey stick.”

History of Flames Czech Defenceman

Smid becomes the fourth Czech defenceman to play for the Flames. The others were:
  1. Frank Musil - 335 games from 1990-91 to 1994-95
  2. Roman Hamrlik - 128 games from 2005-06 to 2006-07
  3. Peter Buzek - 76 games from 2001-02 to 2002-03
In addition to being the Czech National Team’s assistant coach, Musil has also been a long-time scout for the Oilers so Smid knows him.

“Frankie, he’s actually the guy that called me from the Olympic team. I hope I’m going to talk to him soon. He was a hard-working guy too.”

On Choosing No. 3

“They gave me a pretty narrow list of numbers,” said Smid, who wore No. 5 with the Oilers. “I forgot that Dion Phaneuf wore this number, so that’s kind of weird. I like to keep it single digits and simple so No. 3 it is.”

Interestingly, Musil also wore No. 3 for the Flames.

Since Phaneuf wore it, it's also been seen on the back of Ian White and most recently, Brett Carson. Others that have worn that number include Steve Konroyd, James Patrick and Denis Gauthier.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Right Here, Right Now: It Was the Right Time To Shuffle Berra and MacDonald

For most Calgary Flames fans, it was a move that was long overdue. For the organization, it was a move that probably came sooner than they ideally would have hoped.

Either way, Calgary did the inevitable Saturday morning by waving good-bye to a 30-something and hello to a 20-something by placing veteran Joey MacDonald on waivers and recalling Reto Berra from the American Hockey League's Abbotsford Heat.

The move comes the morning after MacDonald's disappointing 18-save performance in a discouraging 4-3 setback to Detroit at the Scotiabank Saddledome. It was a game in which Calgary fell behind 2-0 early despite holding a 12-5 edge in shots after the first period, then resiliently rolled up its sleeves and scored twice in the second to get back on level terms with the veteran-laden Red Wings, only to see the guests retake the lead for good on a weak goal early in the third.

The go-ahead goal at 1:25 came on a harmless-looking shot... or more so a centring pass from deep in the corner by Joakim Andersson. Despite being released from well below the goal line, the puck somehow found its way off and through MacDonald and into the net, absolutely silencing the sell-out crowd of 19,289 and sucking the life right out of the home side.

"They got a lucky one there at the start and that kind of changed the momentum in the game for a little bit. We had it going pretty good there in the second," said Matt Stajan.

Coach Bob Hartley, after the game, admitted it was a a tough blow.

"Obviously, it's like you take a good punch on the nose, but, at the same time, you have to regroup. In a game, anything can happen and you have to be ready for it.”

As difficult as the goal was to concede, MacDonald's remarks afterwards were perhaps even tougher for the team to swallow.

"Guys make lots of mistakes on the ice but once we make one, everybody knows," said MacDonald, who seemed more determined to deflect the blame rather than accept it. "I didn't think we had much in the third. I know they got that lucky one but we've got to turn it around and get some chances. I thought in the third, we just kind of stepped back, we played the majority of our time in our end and you can't do that."

While the tie-breaking goal was the primary talking point, the fourth Detroit goal making it 4-2 with less than four minutes remaining, was also a shot that needs to be stopped at the NHL level. While this one was at least above the goal line, the wrister from Justin Abdelkader was still from a sharp angle and a long ways out. MacDonald dropped to his knees early and got beat over his shoulder.

Why The Time Was Right For This Move

As I see it, there are three reasons that President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke and General Manager Jay Feaster were left with no recourse other than to pull the trigger on this move right now. 

1. Free Joni Ortio and Laurent Brossoit

While the Flames are hopeful Karri Ramo, or Berra, or a combination of the two will give Calgary a chance to contend in the here and now, the reality of the situation in the ultra-competitive Western Conference is that this hockey club, as adorable and charming as it is, is still a couple years and a few pieces away from being a legitimate playoff contender.

When that time does arrive, it's very likely that the Flames starting goaltender will be neither Ramo or Berra but instead be one of the Flames three younger prospects in the system. 
  • It could be Jon Gillies, considered by many as the organization's top goaltending prospect. The 19-year-old is currently in his second year at Providence College and is off to a superb start as he looks to build on a sensational freshman campaign in which he chalked up a 2.08 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. He's a candidate to leave school, sign with the Flames and turn pro next summer.
  • It could be one of the other younger goaltending prospects already playing pro this year. Joni Ortio has already played in the Finnish Elite League and is just 22 years old. He made a strong impression during Flames development camp as well as the rookie tournament in Penticton. With Berra in the NHL, Ortio will now be handed the reins in Abbotsford and as the starter for the Heat, will get the playing time he needs to continue his development.
  • Laurent Brossoit, 20, is a guy not to forget about as he is also a highly thought-of prospect for the future. But, with less pro experience than Ortio, having him as the No. 1 starter with the Flames ECHL affiliate in Alaska gives him also a chance to play every game and hone his craft. The ECHL is not quite the AHL, but is a nice step-up from the WHL where Brossoit last played.
Depending on what happens with MacDonald and if he ends up unclaimed and getting on a flight to Abbotsford, expect the Flames to look into signing another goaltender simply to be the back-up to Ortio. Make no mistake, the best thing for the Flames is for both Ortio and Brossoit to not be splitting time but rather starting virtually every game as No. 1 goaltenders in the AHL and ECHL respectively.

2. It's Time to Find Out 'What is Reto Berra?'

Let's not forget that Berra is on a one-year deal. He's still a restricted free agent at the expiration of this contract but this is obviously a pivotal year for the Flames to find out exactly what they have right now, but maybe more importantly, what they may have in the future with Berra so they can make the right decision contract-wise when negotiating with him next summer.

Who knows, maybe they conclude Berra will never be an NHL netminder and don't resign him -- although I doubt that's how it unfolds (From the archives, 12 Things I Like About Reto Berra). However, giving him a long audition is certainly prudent as there are a lot of hockey people that feel he has the tools to be very good, which is why he was a key part of the package the Flames received when Calgary traded Jay Bouwmeester to the St. Louis Blues last year.

Despite everyone's inclination to put Ramo ahead of Berra on the organization's depth chart coming into the 2013-14 season, Feaster never said that was the pecking order. The variance in salary between Ramo ($2.75M) and Berra ($850K) was not a reflection of a '1a' and '1b' but more a by-product of their two different situations. Ramo has already had his NHL entry-level contract and also, needed to be lured away from the KHL. Berra did not have the same leverage and is just now on his ELC as he plays his first year in North America.

At the end of September with only a limited amount of playing time in the short pre-season to evaluate them, starting Berra in the AHL was the easy choice so he could continue to get acclimatized to the 200 x 185 rink, something he's had very little experience with compared to Ramo, who had been in North America from 2006 to 2009 as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization.

One thing for certain, you can't accuse the Flames of babying Berra. This upcoming Flames four-game road trip is not going to be any easier than the last road trip. Their opponents are all off to good starts and have a intimidating 20-4-5 record on home ice. So, it's right into the bonfire for Berra, regardless of whether he gets the start Sunday in Chicago, or Tuesday in Minnesota, or Thursday in St. Louis.

Although, of all the possibilities, if Berra does end up making his NHL debut at the United Center against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, the Flames may hear from the United Nations as isn't that type of inhumane act covered off in the Geneva Conventions?

3. MacDonald's Purpose Had Run It's Course

I always viewed MacDonald's role on this team and the impetus for controversially re-signing him in the summer to a one-year deal, as not unlike that of Derek Smith, Tim Jackman and even Chris Butler, to name just a few. They are veteran NHL players on expiring contracts that are place holders only -- like seat fillers at the Academy Awards so the rows are all filled when the broadcast goes to a commercial. There are a lot of players on this club's roster that are here primarily to allow Calgary the luxury of not unnecessarily rushing the development of its top prospects and keep these keys to the future slotted correctly and playing and learning at the appropriate level -- i.e. the AHL, NCAA, or junior.

For example, the club is very high on Tyler Wotherspoon and Patrick Sieloff but as excited as they are about the future they'll have in the NHL and as ready as these two appear to be on the surface to the excitable, salivating fan in Flames nation, playing them in the NHL this year makes no sense and could hinder rather than help their development. The best next step for these two junior hockey graduates was the AHL and a half-year, full year, or maybe even a year-and-a-half or two years of playing against that level of competition where mistakes aren't as critical and the spotlight isn't as intense.  

It was the same situation with MacDonald. Calgary signed him to a contract for $925,000 which let's be honest, is not a big money deal for a NHL goaltender. The Flames did not offer him that size of contract nor did MacDonald accept it had their been an expectation from either side that he was going to be the Flames No. 1 goaltender this season.

What having MacDonald around this year -- at least to start -- allowed the Flames to do was have Berra go down to the AHL and get his skates wet with the North American game gradually and in a less pressure-filled situation against teams like Lake Erie, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee.

Everyone knows how hot the spotlight is on the goal crease in Calgary so why rush anyone if you don't have to. In fact, I'd suggest in a perfect world, MacDonald is having a year more like he had last season, the Flames win last night's game 3-2, and this move didn't happen today and Berra spends another month or two in the AHL. Or, Calgary eventually flip-flops Ramo and Berra and keeps MacDonald around as the capable NHL back-up.

But, that's not how it shook down. Last night's third period mistakes by MacDonald and the noticeable drain it had on the psyche of this hockey club mentally, was evidently the tipping point in this decision happening right now.

Final Thoughts

Calgary has a good thing going right now. The identity this hockey club has forged with its lunch bucket work ethic has been entertaining to watch and the excitement level around the Flames this year has been the highest its been in a long time. But, in order for that style of play to be sustained, the 18 skaters in uniform every night need to believe that the guy in pads behind them is going to come up with some clutch saves in key situations so they can get rewarded for their tireless efforts.

There will be games when Berra's performance will be disappointing, you can count on that. It is the nature of the position. However, he's at a different stage in his career compared to MacDonald and the expectations should be different both from the fans, as well as the five guys on the ice in front of him. More than anything, as long as when he makes a mistake, he owns up to it and points the finger at himself rather than the other direction, then even the mistakes will be tolerated because with this team, where it's at, mistakes are going to happen, it's just a matter of learning from it and continuing to get better and doing so together as a team.