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.

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