Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Brodie Signing is a Win-Win for Everyone

Wow, did the TJ Brodie discussion ever take off like wildfire Wednesday when it was announced late in the afternoon that the Flames and the 23-year-old restricted free agent had finally come to terms on a new 2-year, $4.25-million contract.

It took a while and there's been a lot of debate about how the Flames should approach the situation. Should they lock Brodie up long term in hopes of getting him at a discounted rate in the latter years of the contract? Or, do they do what they did and go with a bridge contract that gives Brodie a nice pay bump from his entry-level deal (a cap hit of just under $750,000) and gives him another couple years to establish or prove the calibre of NHL defenceman he truly is before signing that longer term contract that will take him through his prime.

Calgary fans witnessed a breakout season from Brodie in 2013, one that was topped off by a spectacular month of April in which he established himself as arguably the team's top defenceman, logging an average of more than 23 minutes of ice time every night. 

My guess is what we saw in April is an indication of the player he will continue to become but it came as no surprise that the Flames, given their history of being hamstrung by long-term, bad-value contracts, chose to take a more cautious approach, saying we think we know what you are and we'd love you to become that guy that will anchor our blue-line for years to come but before we pay you as that guy, we want you to prove it over a couple more full seasons.

I see this deal as a fair one for Brodie and an excellent one for Calgary General Manager Jay Feaster and the Flames and is one where it's highly unlikely that not locking up Brodie long term will turn out to be something the team regrets.

Here are the five factors I took into consideration in concluding that this is a smart contract that is a win-win for everyone involved:
  • Where Brodie will be in seven years
  • Where he is today
  • Where he was three months ago
  • Where he was six months ago
  • Where he was five years ago


1. Where TJ Brodie Will be in Seven Years

We'll likely never know what it would have taken to sign Brodie to a seven year contract today but for the sake of argument, let's say Brodie does view himself as being a comparable player to Roman Josi and asked for the same 7-year, $28-million deal the Nashville defenceman agreed to in June. We'll call that scenario No. 1.

Next, let's look at today's deal combined with what could happen next. Let's assume that the next two seasons he plays even better than he did last April and in two years time, he snubs his nose at Josi's thrifty $4-million/year pact and demands a contract in the vicinity of what similar-aged Zach Bogosian (7-year, $36-million), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (6-year, $33-million) and Tyler Myers (7-year, $38.5-million) have -- let's make it a 7-year, $37.25 million deal. We'll call this scenario No. 2. 

Scenario 1: Paid today like Roman Josi
  • Net Cost to the Flames: $28 million over 7 years
  • Brodie Becomes a UFA at: Age 30

Scenario 2: Two-year bridge deal, then $37.25-million over 7 years
  • Net Cost to the Flames: $41.5 million over 9 years
  • Brodie Becomes a UFA at: Age 32 

In this comparison, the Flames pay out an extra $13.5 million in scenario 2 but they're also getting Brodie for two additional seasons. In very simple math (excluding the money Calgary is saving up front with the relatively low salary hit the next two years and how the interest on those savings will compound), scenario 2 sees Brodie essentially being paid $6.5-million and $7-million respectively for those two additional years in a Flames uniform.

In scenario 1, if Calgary wanted to resign Brodie as a UFA for two additional seasons to take him to that same age of 32, you would expect the asking price to be in the $6-$7-million/year range considering that five years earlier we hypothesized that Brodie had commanded nearly $5.5-million/year. Add in inflation and even if he's slightly south of his prime now, there's little doubt that $12 or $13-million for two years would be the asking price to re-sign the 30-year-old unrestricted free agent.

If you'd call the end result of this case study a wash for the club and player, in order for this 'bridge followed by a long-term contract' approach to ultimately come back and "bite the Flames" as some say it might, it would require Brodie to elevate his value even more so in two years, he will command upwards of $6-million/year over a long term deal. I like Brodie a lot but the odds of him turning into Erik Karlsson in the next two seasons and warranting that type of money is extremely unlikely.

What if Brodie Asked for Same Term, but Less Dollars Than Josi?

Yes, it's possible that the Flames may have been able to get Brodie to agree today to seven years and closer to $24-million but I wouldn't just assume that would be an offer the Brodie camp would smile and happily accept. And he certainly wouldn't have been interested in going any cheaper than that over seven years given how much money, potentially, he could be leaving on the table.

What it comes down to if you're Brodie is this. If you're confident you're on your way to becoming one of the league's premier defencemen in 4, 5, 6, 7 years time, you're not going to accept a long-term deal right now unless it is close to or at Josi's in value.

Even if Brodie did accept a 7-year, $24-million pact, the net difference is still negligible. Even if it costs the organization an extra $6 or $8-million over that longer haul, there will be no regrets from the Flames looking back on this day. They would be at peace knowing that they made a smart business decision, one in which Brodie only gets paid if he proves his worth -- unlike so many other deals we've seen in recent years that have crippled teams financially and have often ended in expensive buyouts.
 
2. Where TJ Brodie is Today

If you look at the NHL's impressive class of 1990-born defencemen, the deal Brodie signed today is very fair and slots right into the appropriate rung on the salary ladder when you compare where his game is at today, what his responsibilities have been, and how his resume looks compared to others in that same age group, who are also on bridge deals:

TJ Brodie - 114th overall pick in 2008 has played 104 gm (4-24-28)

That slots him behind:
  • NYR Michael Del Zotto - 20th overall pick in 2008 has played 250 gm (24-86-110). He's entering second year of a 2-year, $5.1-million contract.
  • FLA Dmitry Kulikov - 14th overall pick in 2009 has played 232 gm (16-64-80). He's entering second year of a 2-year, $5-million contract.
That slots him ahead of:
  • OTT Patrick Wiercioch - 42nd overall pick in 2008 has played 50 gm (5-16-21). He just signed a 3-year, $6-million contract)
  • MIN Marco Scandella - 55th overall pick in 2008 has played 89 gm (4-11-15). He just signed a 2-year, $2.05-million contract)
  • PHX Michael Stone - 69th overall pick in 2008 has played 53 gm (6-6-12). He just signed a 3-year, $3.45-million contract) 

3. Where TJ Brodie was Three Months Ago

There's no question that we saw a different Brodie last April. A whole new confidence emerged as he noticeably elevated his game over that final month averaging 23-plus minutes of ice time and playing in all situations. Over the final 10 games he was tied for second on the team in scoring behind Sven Baertschi.

The caveat, however, is Brodie stood out on a team that was not very good overall. The Flames were merely playing out the string at that point and were often playing against teams that had also been eliminated from playoff contention. It's only prudent to asterisk what you saw over that final month -- which in terms of stage is the polar opposite to the level of intensity and competitiveness that followed when the NHL playoffs began, and want to see Brodie exhibit all those same strengths over an extended period this season when at least for the first few months, the games will once again be meaningful.

Think of the Bad News Bears. Until Tatum O'Neal came along to demonstrate what a good player really looked like, even Tanner Boyle, Timmy Lupus and Ogilvie looked pretty good within the context of a bad baseball team. Well... OK, maybe that's a bad example. But, you get my point.

The other relevant development that happened at the end of last season was Brodie went overseas to join Team Canada at the World Hockey Championships. Although a small sampling once again, that was a useful barometer in the sense that it removed Brodie from his Flames setting and introduced a neutral evaluator in Canadian head coach Lindy Ruff. If you recall, Brodie played a little, but not a lot as the 6th or 7th defenceman and was a scratch for Canada's final game when PK Subban arrived.

On that team, Brodie expectedly slotted behind veterans Dan Hamhuis, Stephane Robidas and Brian Campbell, yet he was also used far less than guys like 30-year-old journeyman Jay Harrison (just signed a 3-year, $4.5-million deal with Carolina) and undrafted Stars prospect Brenden Dillon (still on his entry level contract). Meanwhile, going back to the Josi comparable again, Josi was dominating the tournament and would eventually be named the MVP.

4. Where TJ Brodie was Six Months Ago

On Jan. 20, Calgary opened the 2013 season at the Saddledome versus the San Jose Sharks. Brodie -- seventh on the defencemen depth chart, wore a suit that night and not his jersey. As he was munching on press box popcorn, the Flames trotted out a defence comprised of Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman, Cory Sarich, Chris Butler and Derek Smith.

If you look at it in that context, signing a contract for $2.1-million/season just over a half-year after being deemed not good enough to play in Calgary's top six, is not a bad outcome for Brodie.

5. Where TJ Brodie was Five Years Ago

It's not necessarily fair but there seems to be a period of time -- and I can't tell you exactly how long that period is, where your draft slot travels with you and that can help prop you up if you're a first or second round guy or work against you if you were a fourth round guy like Brodie.

The 2008 NHL draft class was stacked. The quality of defencemen that came out of the first two rounds that year was ridiculous -- Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Tyler Myers, Erk Karlsson, Jake Gardiner, Luca Sbisa, Michael Del Zotto, John Carlson, Slava Voynov, Roman Josi, Travis Hamonic.

When you're a first or second rounder, that's a badge of honour that carries cachet for quite a while and often gets that player the benefit of the doubt over someone picked in the third or fourth round like Brodie was that year.

There is a statute of limitations for how long your draft position remains relevant before it no longer matters but I'm not convinced we're at that point yet so for Brodie, that's another perception thing that he's going to have to combat in terms of establishing himself as a top player in the league and more than anything, that will take time and a consistent high level of play over not just a lockout-shortened 48-game season but over a couple full-length 82-game grinds as well.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Calgary Flames All-Time Best Names

My wife's not much of a hockey fan but when I told her it was Pekka Rautakallio's 60th birthday today, even she remembers that name and I assure you it's not from watching him whirl around the ice as a Calgary Flames defenceman in the early 80s.

So what makes a great hockey name? For one, it has to be recognizable but on the merits of the name itself, not because of any associated career achievements. e.g. Wayne Gretzky would be the most recognizable player of all time, but it's not a great name. On the other hand, Radek Bonk is.

As a tribute to Rautakallio, here is my 23-man roster of the All-Time Best Calgary Flames Names. These are players who have played at least one NHL game for the Flames since the franchise arrived in Calgary in 1980. Unfortunately, this rules out players that were in the organization but never made it to the NHL such as Miika 'Tickle Me' Elomo and Hungarian goaltender Levente Szuper.

Criteria of What Makes a Great Hockey Name

Before we unveil the Flames all-time best names, here is my definition of what makes a great hockey name. This is obviously very subjective and is just a sampling as a lot of criteria can weigh into it.

1. It's gotta be fun to pronounce and make you giggle. e.g. Ziggy Palffy, Jordin Tootoo.

2. If when you're saying it, you break into an accent you don't have, that's a good indicator. My weakness has always been the Montreal Canadiens. I don't speak a lick of French but it is impossible for me to say names like Pierre Mondou, Rejean Houle or Jacques Lemaire without breaking into an outrageous French accent.

3. Alliteration is always good fun. Thanks to all those unimaginative Moms and Dads out there who thought it seemed like a good idea at the time. e.g. Dick Duff, Tony Twist.

4. Names that sound like other things -- beverages, objects, body parts, bowel movements, medical conditions -- always score well. e.g. Darius Kasparaitis, Daren Puppa.

5. There's a certain charm that accompanies 'eye-chart' names, especially once you reach the point after enough practice where you're one of the minority that can actually pronounce the name correctly. e.g. Mariusz CzerkawskiBranko Radivojevic

6. Anything Finnish. Seriously. e.g. Janne Niinimaa, Reijo Ruotsalainen



Calgary Flames All-Time Best Names - 23-Man Roster

Forwards:

I'll start off with the four forward lines. These are the guys who who will dress on opening night.
  • LW Gino Cavallini, C German Titov, RW Hakan Loob
  • LW Eddy Beers, C Kelly Kisio, RW Ed Ward
  • LW Lynn Loyns, C Hnat Domenichelli, RW Sergei Krivokrasov
  • LW Krzysztof Oliwa, C Stephane Yelle, RW Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond


While we've got a nice assortment of name styles represented across these four lines, Hakan Loob clearly has the best handle of the bunch. Yes, what I'm saying (and spitting) and you've heard this before is that the Flames No. 12, playing right wing, is the guy that will be counted on to carry the offence. Another interesting observation was that I really struggled to find centres so that is the team's weakness. Titov played mostly wing during his time in Calgary but he played some centre which is why I made him my 1C. 

Other names worth mentioning would be the presence of one-time NHL all-star 'Edward'... or make that 'Ed Ward'. There's Harlequin Romance lead character Lynn Loyns. Also of note, 'PL3' has the distinction of having the longest NHL name of all-time. A fun fact about Letourneau-Leblond is that there are more letters in his last name than minutes played in his three career appearances with the Flames. Lastly, if you play hockey and your last name rhymes with 'freeze your ass off', congratulations Sergei -- you've made the team.

Defence:

Here are the three pairings that will patrol the blue-line.
  • Zarley Zalapski, Pekka Rautakallio
  • Peter Ahola, Kari Eloranta
  • Charles Bourgeois, Pat Ribble

That top pairing consists of two pretty darn good monikers and I can see them playing a ton of minutes, especially considering the next pairing after them. Remember 'Scary' Kari Eloranta? Old No. 20 was prone to the frequent misadventure on the ice and was well-deserving of that dubious nickname. When it comes to regal names, Charles 'Grab my Pipe and Slippers' Bourgeois is just perfect. As for Pat Ribble, the director of The Flintstones called and he needs you back on the set as soon as the game's over.

Goaltending:

Here are the two guys manning the pipes.
  • Rejean Lemelin
  • Rick Tabaracci

Goaltending was also not as deep when it came to unique and interesting names so this is another one of the Flames' weaknesses. Part of the allure with Lemelin, for me, is the French thing, thus he's listed as 'Rejean' and not 'Reggie'. Earning him the starting gig is the fact his last name was often pronounced 'Let-them-in' by disgruntled fans and that's one tough nickname for a goalie to be tagged with. (Isn't that right, Andre 'Red Light' Racicot?) As for Tabaracci, make it 'Ricardo' instead of Ric and you've got a member of the Three Tenors as your back-up goalie. (From that same era, rounding out the NHL version of the Tenors were Sergio Momesso and Luciano Borsato.)

Healthy Scratches:

Filling out the 23-man roster but not dressing for opening night would be these three:
  • RW Vesa Viitakoski, LW Nevin Markwart, G Jason Muzzatti
A good mixture on the bench with the double-V, a guy whose last name sounds like an Italian sports car, and one of my favourites in Markwart. Frequently a healthy scratch in his time with the Flames in the early 90s, I always said Markwart should retire and open his own clothing store and he could call it 'Markwart's Warehouse'. Yeah, sorry about that.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Opportunity Knocks for Roman Horak

If there’s one topic that’s been discussed more in Calgary this summer than the weather, it’s been the Flames lack of depth at centre.

Heck, even Roman Horak talked about it when I caught up with him after the second of two scrimmages held during the Calgary Flames Development Camp.

“For sure, it’s a huge opportunity, ” said the 22-year-old Czech, one of the candidates for the four jobs up the middle. “There’s a bunch of new guys coming in and all the centres are fighting for spots.  Right now, obviously there’s Matt Stajan, Mikael Backlund, then there’s going to be battles for spots so obviously I’m going to try to do my best to earn one of those spots.”

Of the 44 players at the development camp, Horak was by far the most decorated in terms of NHL service time having accumulated 81 games with Calgary his first two seasons, 56 more than next best Sven Baertschi.

Great Trade in the Most Difficult of Circumstances

Horak was acquired by the Flames on June 1, 2011, coming over from the New York Rangers in exchange for disgruntled prospect Tim Erixon, who the Flames drafted 23rd overall in 2009. Erixon’s refusal to sign with the Flames forced new Calgary General Manager Jay Feaster into salvage mode and despite the gun to his head, Feaster ended up faring quite nicely. In exchange for the Swedish defenceman and a fifth round pick, Feaster got Horak and two second round picks in 2011. Those picks turned out be Finnish centre Markus Granlundwho had an excellent development camp, and highly touted blue-liner Tyler Wotherspoon.

Horak, a fifth round pick by the Rangers in 2009, also had a solid development camp for the Flames.  With Ben Hanowski skating as his left-winger in both scrimmages, the two of them played well together. I thought Horak showed assertiveness, confidence and a veteran’s poise at both ends of the ice. Contributing to Horak’s veteran ‘look’ was the jersey number on his back. Gone was the unconventional No. 51 and stitched on in its place was No. 21, the same number worn by Andrew Cassels in the late 90s and on some pretty bad Flames teams, Cassels was one of the more dependable centres.

“Yeah, I’ll keep this one. It’s not one of those high numbers so it feels a little more ‘mature’ I guess,” said Horak with a chuckle. He said he received a call prior to the camp from Flames Equipment Manager Mark DePasquale. “He asked me if I wanted to change numbers. I asked him what options he had and he gave me a few numbers and I picked 21.”

A Bunch of Scoring in Bunches

It was during the NHL lockout last season, while wearing No. 20 with the Abbotsford Heat, that Horak showed the most promise yet with a scorching hot streak to start the year.

With the AHL as competitive as it gets thanks to the many NHLers playing in the minors due to the lockout, Horak got off to a blazing start racking up 10 goals in his first nine games while peppering the opposing goalie with 34 shots over that span. The bad news is he would score just six goals in the final 52 games. There was a correlation. After averaging nearly fours shots per game that first four weeks, Horak averaged less than two shots per game the rest of the season.

His fast start did confirm one thing we’d seen already seen from Horak in his young career and that is he’s a streaky scorer. Horak played 61 games with Calgary his rookie season in 2011-12 and that year, two of his three goals and four of his seven points came in back-to-back home games in late October.  Not co-incidentally, those two games were also the top two that season in terms of his ice time. Horak says production hinges greatly on opportunity.

“It all depends on where the coach puts you. I can play an offensive role, too. In Abbotsford last year, I had a good start to the season," said Horak, who finished second on the Heat in goals behind Krys Kolanos. “But if the coach says you’re going to play fourth line, you can’t expect to have 20 minutes of ice time. It all depends on how much you play and if you’re going to play first two lines, you have a different role than third or fourth line.”

Stuck in the Middle

As we look at the depth chart for Calgary as it stacks up today -- pending any late dips into free agency, you can pencil Backlund in as the No. 1 centre. Stajan was arguably the Flames most consistent player last year in what was a nice bounce-back season so it would be easy to simply slot him in as No. 2. However, I’d suggest Stajan’s game is more conducive to a third line role. Corban Knight is fresh out of U.S. college and considering his strength is his defensive prowess, he’s probably best-suited for the fourth line to begin his pro career -- if he makes the big club. Conceivably, that leaves a second line centre position open if you’re of the mindset, which I am, that 2013 sixth overall pick Sean Monahan is best served with one more year of seasoning in the OHL (i.e. Not burning the first year of his entry-level contract on a Flames team going nowhere this season.)

 “The way I look at it, wherever they put me, I’m just going to do my best to be part of the team,” said Horak. “Obviously one day, I’d like to play top six but there are so many good players so it’s going to be a battle.”

While a long season lies ahead for the rebuilding Flames, Horak likes the direction the team is going, acknowledging that this year’s development camp was a better calibre than in years past.

“It was a higher tempo, for sure,” Horak admits.  “It was good. It was tough for me because before I came here, I skated only twice so it’s always hard to adjust to game speed again. The second game was good. I felt better, I felt stronger on the puck.  But still, it’s the middle of summer and I still have some time to get into game shape and that’s what I’m going work on when I go back home now.”

Team Identity in the Making

While Calgary may not win many games in 2013-14, Horak says they’re not going to get outworked.

“Everyone knows Bob (Hartley).  He demands that his players be in the best shape and you could see it, it’s why we’re doing mountains and all this skating in the middle of summer,” Horak said. “We’re going to be the best-conditioned team in the league and that’s where we’re going to start.”

If the older, regular season version of the Calgary Flames play with the same energy and enthusiasm that the younger, July version of the team displayed during development camp, maybe this isn’t merely a start, but more so is the start to something good.

Related Development Camp Reading

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Zero Downside, 79 Inches of Upside - My Take on Chris Breen

In bold, capital letters, the top line of the Calgary Flames News Release issued at 3:32 pm Wednesday afternoon immediately grabbed everyone's attention. "FLAMES SIGN DEFENSEMAN..."

But, the collective sigh from exasperated Flames fans immediately after was all you needed to hear to know that the name that followed was not TJ Brodie. Instead, it was Chris Breen.

Hey, we've all been there. It's Christmas morning, you've got one gift left under the tree, rectangular in shape, you're certain it's that new remote control dune buggy you were hoping for. You rip off the wrapping and open the box only to discover...  pajamas. They may turn out to be the best pajamas ever -- soft, comfortable, cozy, durable. But in that moment, with disappointment of what it wasn't still far too fresh, those pajamas didn't stand a chance, quickly anointed "worst present ever."

Perhaps this is the reason behind what I thought was a surprisingly high amount of criticism Wednesday after what I simply saw as a low risk, high reward no-brainer of a signing by Flames GM Jay Feaster.

10 Reasons Why I Like the Chris Breen Signing

1. That Kind of Size is Hard to Come By - In the last four NHL Entry Drafts, 843 players have been selected. Only two have stood 6-foot-7 or taller -- and half of those guys were drafted by the Flames. Yes, I'm talking about giant d-man Keegan Kanzig, plucked in the third round less than three weeks ago, who has already made a favourable impression thanks to his play at the team's recent development camp. The other is Dallas blue-liner Jamie Oleksiak, grabbed 14th overall in 2011, who made his NHL debut last year playing 16 games and is considered the second-best prospect in the Stars system behind Valeri Nichuskin. The point is that defencemen, who are that menacing in size, are very hard to find, so when you've got one, you hang onto him until the expiry date is reached.

2. Sale Pricing - $80,000 may seem like a lot of ch-ching if you're working part-time at Burger King, but in the context of a pro sports organization, Breen's two-way contract that pays him that amount in 2013-14 if he spends the year in Abbotsford is mere pocket change. In fact, his NHL salary of $577,000 that he'd earn for any time spent with Calgary is also right out of the bargain bin and just a smidge over the NHL's minimum wage of $550,000. Also, the contract is for one year so no big deal -- figuratively or literally.

3. Exhibit A: Zdeno Chara - No, I haven't lost it and please, don't you lose it by running away and taking this point out of context. Am I comparing the two players?  Absolutely not. What I will say, however, is that Chara was once a tall, gangly-looking kid playing junior hockey who couldn't skate very well at all yet 16 years later, you could say his career has turned out pretty good. Don't get me wrong, the odds of Breen becoming just a quarter of the player that Chara has become are extreme and would be like winning the lottery. But, if someone offered you a free lottery ticket, which is essentially what's happened considering the contract terms, why wouldn't you accept it, cross your fingers, and see what happens.

4. Young and the Restless - Breen is 24 years old. Is the window closing on a guy that age if he hasn't played a single NHL game yet? Sure it is. But it's not shut all the way yet, either. Remember the Flames have two 26-year-old goalies in Karri Ramo and Reto Berra whose NHL careers are just now getting started. (Yes, I know Ramo got in a half-season worth of games with Tampa Bay when he was 21 but this season can be considered the real start to his big league career.)

In case you haven't noticed, youth is in style around Calgary right now and while that could mean NHL opportunities for guys like Tyler Wotherspoon and Patrick Sieloff, they're only 20 and 19-years-old respectively and haven't played beyond junior. Defencemen often require a year or more in the minors to get acclimatized to the speed of the pro game. Breen has had that seasoning already and reportedly is a far improved player from when he made his AHL debut three years ago. Even if he ends up merely keeping a seat warm for one of the next wave of prospects coming soon, if Breen's presence with the Heats helps the Flames avoid rushing a 20-year-old to the NHL when injuries strike, that's pretty important, too.

5. Exhibit B: Hal Gill - Big 6-foot-8 defenceman Hal Gill was an 8th round draft pick in 1993. Considering the draft is only seven rounds now, you can essentially consider Gill an undrafted player just like Breen. Gill's debut in the NHL came at age 22 with his breakout season coming four years later at age 26. Had it not been for his season-ending shoulder injury, Breen's NHL debut would have come last year at age 23. A knock on Breen's game is his lack of offence. Well, Gill has scored 36 goals in 15 seasons so it's pretty clear he's not in the league because of his scoring touch. Yet, big Hal has found a way to be very serviceable, playing over 1,100 NHL games and 110 more in the playoffs. And at age 38 and currently with Nashville, he still has another year to go on his most recent contract.

6. Wax On, Wax Off - In his time with the Flames organization, nothing but good things have been said about Troy Ward, head coach of the Abbotsford Heat. The praise has come both from the players that have played for him as well as those within the Calgary Flames front office that work with him. At least around these parts, his legend as a quality teacher has grown to the point where you could consider him the Mr. Miyagi of AHL coaches and if that's the case, playing the role of Daniel Larusso is Breen -- albeit, he's a slightly taller version of Ralph Macchio. Three years under the tutelage of Mr.Ward is not a bad place to be learning how to play the game of hockey. And that first year when Ward was an assistant to Jim Playfair, he worked mainly with the defencemen, which meant a lot of one-one-one time with Breen -- "you must sand the floor, all the floor".  We know how Karate Kid turned out. With the right sensei, why couldn't Breen's journey have a happy ending too.

7. He's Got Some Fight in Him - First of all, lose the stereotype, despite his massive size this guy's not your prototypical goon, far from it. I see him in a similar light to big Dana Murzyn when he was with the Flames. As older fans will recall, Dana was a guy you expected to be a fighter just because he was a big dude. The good news is that with YouTube as my witness, Breen is far better with his fists than Murzyn ever was. Back in the day, George Johnson from the Calgary Herald once described Murzyn's fighting style as like watching a giant bear try and swat a honeypot out of a tree. Breen's a better pugilist than that and has shown he isn't afraid to drop the gloves to protect himself or his teammates. His fight card counts 13 tussles in his time at Abbotsford including seven last season. If, indeed, being bigger, tougher and harder-to-play-against is the new Flames identity in the making, Breen is certainly an option that fits that niche.

8. Sleepless in Abbotsford - If you're a father, you'll know all too well the challenging times that come with being a parent for the first time. If you add a second child within two years of your first, then you're really crazy and you're really in for a whole new world. I know firsthand the adjustment when a baby comes along and it is not easy. You're tired all the time, stressed. Oh, there are plenty of joyful moments along the way too, don't get me wrong, but teething, ear infections, gassy bellies, you become a human mechanic in no time that's on call 24x7.  Well, this has been Breen's life the last three seasons.

Breen has two young kids, one is just at or approaching three years of age while the other is less than one. Having a baby while you're in the NHL is one thing -- you just open your wallet and fly your wife and the baby to Hawaii whenever she, or you, needs a break. Or, you fly in your mother-in-law whenever and for however long you need, or you hire a nanny, or you go sleep in the guest house or your second apartment. When you're earning an NHL pay cheque, you have plenty of options that allow you to remain focused on hockey. When you're in the AHL making $52,500 per year, that's something completely different. You're watching for sales on diapers, cradling the baby in your arms while you wash the dishes as your wife takes her turn napping, there's no getting away from it. Oh, and by the way, during that same time, you're supposed to be 100% focused on doing everything you can to develop into an NHL player? Not saying it can't be done, just the degree of difficulty rises exponentially. So why not give a 'Dad' another year.

9. Deserving of a Chance - The bottom line is Breen's put in the time. He's reportedly improved in all facets of his game each year. His game has evolved where in the second half of last year, he was playing top four if not higher and logging a lot of important minutes. He's also became a key cog in the penalty kill and with all the shot blocking that is part of an effective penalty killer in this day and age, Breen makes for a pretty big wall of defence and I'm sure he's taken some vulcanized rubber to nearly every part of his body. When you're rebuilding, quality is often a by-product of quantity. Like the recent draft, the advantage of having three first round picks is the hope that two will turn out. Having 44 prospects at development camp gives you options that you don't have if you have 32 prospects there like in previous years, etc. Adding Breen to the growing pool of defencemen options for this upcoming season just increases the odds that the six that do emerge will be six that earned it. Competition makes everyone better.

10. More Jobs Coming Soon - With the recent acquisition of Kris Russell, Mark Cundari acquired last year, Chris Butler re-signing, Wotherspoon and Sieloff expected to get long looks during training camp, there doesn't appear to be any room left at the inn if you're a defenceman. However, with Russell, Butler and Derek Smith all UFAs at the end of 2013-14 and if Blake Comeau is fetching you a 5th round pick and Henrik Karlsson can get you a 7th round pick, it wouldn't surprise me if a couple of those guys at minimum depart Calgary in exchange for a draft pick at some point this season. Same thing for Dennis Wideman, who could potentially become a trade candidate. Knowing that opportunities will be forthcoming, and that injuries are inevitable, that depth chart of NHL-ready players can never be too long.

Final Thoughts

I won't get into assessing Breen's game as it stands right now because to be honest, I haven't seen him play enough. But when we do get a chance to see him on skates live and up close, whether that's at Calgary's main training camp or possibly the Young Stars prospect tournament in Penticton prior to that, I'd be shocked if he doesn't show enough to validate the very, very minimal investment the Flames made in him on Wednesday.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Five Players That Stood Out in Scrimmage No. 2

Much like the different complexions a playoff series takes on over its duration, Monday's scrimmage at the Calgary Flames Development Camp had a bit of a different feel from Saturday's initial game.

While there were a couple players that changed to the opposite jersey colour to balance out the numbers, it was mostly the same two Red vs Black sides from Saturday and with many of the forward lines remaining intact, maybe that explained the better cohesion on the ice and overall improved game flow, better passing, etc.

What the second game in three days would most definitely explain is the spicy first period in which tempers were flaring and there was plenty of crankiness. The biggest incident was a vicious cross-check to the face of Tim Harrison by the normally calm, cool and collected Sven Baertschi, who didn't take too kindly to being hit heavily into the boards by the enthusiastic 6-foot-3 forward, who was drafted by the Flames in the sixth round.

In another incident, camp invitee and Kris Letang look-a-like Trey Lewis hit Baertschi and for his troubles, he later got the pointy part of the elbow from giant defenceman Keegan Kanzig.

All in all, it was another high tempo and entertaining game for the big crowd of Flames fans that turned up on a Monday morning at WinSport. It wasn't as large a crowd as Saturday's gathering but had to be at least 500 people and they liked the intensity from the two sides, even if the Calgary coaches didn't. After that testy first period, both teams were told to cool it and sure enough, they did.

Five Players That Made an Impact

1. C Markus Granlund - It's too bad he doesn't speak English as he followed up a good scrimmage on Saturday with a great scrimmage on Monday. Instead, he let his on-ice play do the talking and boy did it speak volumes. As Sven Baertschi alluded to when I asked him about playing alongside Granlund in this story from Saturday, Granlund is particularly good at 'Finnish hockey' as Baertschi called it and that is always having his head up regardless of whether he does or doesn't have the puck. This enables him to always be looking, to always know where the open guy is and he makes some dynamite passes as a result. He also has a good shot and quick release and in the second period Monday, he stole the puck in the slot and just like that it was behind goaltender Brody Hoffman. He seems very capable at the face-off dot, too. Markus was one of the Flames two second round picks in 2011, selected 45th overall. He's been playing hockey with the men in the Finnish Elite League and last year, as the youngest player on HIFK Helsinki, he was second on the team in scoring.

2. LW Turner Elson - Boy did this guy ever make himself noticeable on Monday. He was all around the puck, had great jump and was like a vulture in the offensive zone -- constantly buzzing around the net, zipping passes all directions, and firing shots from everywhere. On one rush, he looked like Johnny Gaudreau dancing around Brett Kulak down the wing and nearly potting a goal as he cut hard to the net. He's an Alberta kid from St. Albert who just wrapped up a four-year career at Red Deer (WHL). He was never drafted but signed with the Flames in 2011 and is likely destined for Abbotsford this season. Playing on a line with two undrafted kids in camp on a tryout in Josh Jooris and Linden Penner, that isn't exactly a plumb assignment considering all the draft picks on hand, yet that trio was dangerous in both games. I talked with Elson post-game and he was really happy with how it went and admitted he should have had at least three goals. He's a real nice kid and I will have a profile piece about him out later in July so look for that.

3. RW Tim Harrison - Too me, he's sort of a Mark Jankowski 2.0 as he was also drafted out of high school and at 6-foot-3 is similar in stature. His big frame seems to be around the puck a lot and he's not shy about getting in after the puck and playing a hard-nosed style. That style earned him that aforementioned 'simmer down' stick to the mush from Baertschi -- which he answered by scoring five-hole on the penalty shot he received. Later on, Kanzig challenged him in an long stare-down that included a couple stick whacks and jiggling of the gloves. After that, it was surly blue-liner Patrick Sieloff with a frisky couple shoves -- those same two also got at each other on Saturday. Off the ice, he's a very charismatic character and dare I say he had me wondering if this is how Craig Conroy might have been at age 19. If you haven't heard the great story about his mini bike racket he had going on at the Stampede on Friday night, it's a must-listen and you can hear him tell the story here.

4. LW Johnny Gaudreau - Whenever he's on the ice, you simply can't take your eyes off him as his ability to weave around traffic and repeatedly make something out of nothing is impressive. I caught up with one-on-one afterwards and he talked about how much he liked the Flames young team, how much he enjoyed this year's development camp, getting to know the guys and playing with Sean Monahan in particular. He also talked about "hopefully" putting on a Flames sweater as soon as this upcoming season once his Boston College season is over, similar to what Ben Hanowski did last season. Read my full Johnny Gaudreau story here.

5. D Ryan Culkin - Not flashy but plays a steady game in his own end, makes a great first outlet pass that resulted in some odd-man rushes. Seemed to show good instincts in the offensive zone too in one sequence making a smart pinch and ragging the puck deep into the zone before making a slick centring pass. He's a lanky kid that the Flames drafted in the 5th round in the 2012 draft from Patrick Roy's Quebec Remparts. That pick was notable in that it was the first time in eight years Calgary had selected a player from the QMJHL This year, of course, they dipped into the 'Q' again with the pick of Emile Poirier 22nd overall. Culkin will inevitably fill out more and adding more muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame will make his net presence that much more stronger.

Related Reading

Monday, July 15, 2013

Gaudreau Excited About His Future and the Flames Future Too

Born 16 months apart, Calgary Flames prospect Johnny Gaudreau and his little brother Matt are tight.

"Everywhere we've been together, we've just been so close," Gaudreau said after Monday's development camp scrimmage at WinSport.

"We shared rooms growing up until we were 17 years old, our Dad coached both of our hockey teams, back-to-back games every weekend -- his game and then my game."

Over the years, Gaudreau said they even picked their schools together.

"The reason why we picked Boston College is they wanted us both and that was really special for us," said Calgary's fourth round draft pick in the 2011 draft.

By deciding to return to B.C. for his junior year and play on the same team as Matt -- as was their original plan, Johnny will get to play alongside his brother on the same team for the first time since they played together for one year in high school.

"Hopefully we get to play with each other all year," said Gaudreau, who turns 20 in August. "If I would have stayed another year in the USHL instead of going to Boston College for my freshman year, I would have played against him one year but I left early to go to school."

A Fan Favourite Already

For someone who has never played in a game for Calgary, Gaudreau has quickly become one of the Flames most popular players thanks to his offensive wizardry on the ice. His talent was on display at the last World Junior Hockey Championships when he scored seven goals in seven games for Team U.S.A.  

Having already seen him dipsy doodle around opposition defencemen on television, the Flames Development Camp has been a chance for fans to see his offensive prowess live and in person. With the size of the bodies all around him, the intensity, all the crashing and banging, how he somehow still manages to create space for himself to make those sublime passes is something else.

It's that elusive, unteachable raw offensive skill set, which has left Flames fans having sleepless nights in fear that they might lose Gaudreau in the same way Anaheim lost Justin Schultz last summer when the college graduate refused to sign with the Ducks and became a free agent. Those alarm sirens began wailing last spring when Gaudreau announced he was returning to Boston College for a third year.

However, Gaudreau's been clear with his motivation. He wants the chance to play with his brother. He says he also wants to get bigger so he's better prepared to handle the rigors of the professional game. Essentially, he's hoping one more year will get him to a weight that will keep him an effective player.

Maybe Not Much Taller, But Certainly Bigger

Last year at this time, Gaudreau says he was in the vicinity of 143 pounds. This year, his 5-foot-8 frame is tipping the scales at 158. That still may not be a lot, but it's a lot better.

"Definitely I’m a lot thicker. This summer has been awesome for me. I’ve gained 8-10 pounds since the end of the year. I’ve been working out pretty hard at school and I’m just getting done working out at school so I get to go home now," said Gaudreau, who credits his school's strength and conditioning coach Russ DeRosa for his weight gain.

"I hope that next year, by the end of the year, I’ll be high 160's, maybe 170. I doubt I’ll be reaching the 170’s but hopefully the high 160s -- maybe 168 or 169," said Gaudreau.

Gaudreau is a likable, personable player off the ice. Hailing from Carneys Point, New Jersey, when he talks he sounds like you'd expect someone to sound if they're from New Jersey while also spending a lot of time in the Boston area.

In that distinct accent, he says his desire to continue to get stronger was also a factor in his decision to return to school.

"Playing with some of the bigger bodies this year, the bigger guys at this camp, I can tell how much guys are getting stronger and I know that if I want to make it to the next level, I obviously need to get stronger and bigger in the right areas," said Gaudreau. "That was one of my biggest concerns in going back to school."

Getting Closer to Turning Pro

Could Gaudreau be ready to sign an entry level contract and turn pro by the time the 2013-14 NCAA season is over? He says he hopes so.

"I’m just playing it by ear right now," said Gaudreau, confirming no future plans are set beyond playing this year at Boston College. He says if all goes well, he'd like to be able to join the Flames by the end of the season.

"Hopefully they want me next year at the end of the year and hopefully I can come in and make an impact for them.," says Gaudreau. "If I play well this year and put on the right weight, I think I might be able to do it."

Gaudreau says one of his biggest concerns is being able to play well at the pro level and not be a liability.

"I just want to make sure that when I come in or if I come in, I’m ready to go," said Gaudreau. "I don’t want to be one of the weak links out there. I want to make sure that I’m not a concern out on the ice. I want to make sure that I’m valuable on the ice and not just one of those players that oh, oh, he’s on the ice, we’ve got to watch out."

Excited About the Young Flames

Having enjoyed a great week at the Flames development camp, his third with the club, Gaudreau sounds genuinely excited about Calgary's future.

"Last year there were good guys but this year with their draft and all the young guys they’ve gotten and a lot of good free agents they’ve picked up like Corban Knight, it just shows where the organization is going and I’m really excited to see the next few years," he said. 

One of the faces of the rebuild is Sean Monahan, Calgary's sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft. Gaudreau's has had as close a look as anybody has had to Monahan this week as they've played on the same line in both scrimmages and he's liked what he's seen.

"It’s been a fun week playing with him. He's a talented player, moves the puck, big strong, fast kid. Not selfish, great guy on and off the ice and he’s really effective all over the ice. It’s been awesome ," Gaudreau said. 

He hopes the two of them will be reunited sometime down the road.

"Yeah, that would be nice, getting to play with him would be real exciting, especially playing in front of 20,000 fans -- that would be even better. Hopefully we get to play with each other again someday down the road."

Fans would like that too. As it stood Monday afternoon, they already couldn't get enough of 'little' Johnny Gaudreau as he signed autographs and posed for pictures with small kids, big kids and even a bunch of Dads.

"Yeah, it’s something I never really expected. I’ve never had the chance to do that stuff before," Gaudreau said about all the attention. "It’s a lot of fun coming up here, seeing all the fans, and seeing how much they love their hockey so it’s pretty cool."

Perhaps he'll have a chance to do it again as soon as next March.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Other Post-Scrimmage Comments - Jankowski, Hanowski, Klimchuk, Penner

Saturday was the first of two scrimmages at the Calgary Flames development camp. Afterwards, I caught up with several players and we chatted about a variety of topics. Included was:
  • Sven Baertschi - He talked about how he's trying to get the others at camp to smile and have a good time. Having played on a line with Markus Granlund in the scrimmage, he also chatted about the Finn and the strides the Flames second round pick has taken. Read the story here.
  • Lauren Brossoit - He began his WHL career at age 15 and now is 20 and ready to turn pro. He talked about what lies ahead and the great opportunity there is in Calgary for a goaltender. Read the story here.
  • Scrimmage Recap - I also cobbled together all the notable performances that stood out for me and posted it in the form of 12 random observations. Read the story here.
As for the other players I had a chance to chat with post-game -- Ben Hanowski, Mark Jankowski, Morgan Klimchuk and Linden Penner, here is a summary of their comments.

Ben Hanowski

Acquired from Pittsburgh in the Jarome Iginla trade. The 22-year-old played five games for the Flames last year after graduating from St. Cloud State and scored one goal, which came in his debut versus Minnesota. He's been in Calgary since June 9 working out daily with team personnel to improve his overall strength as well as his skating. He played on a line centred by Roman Horak in the scrimmage and they seemed to mesh well.

On the past month of training:
  • They really want you to get better so it’s been really good to be up here, getting pushed by these guys that are part of the organization for a month.
  • In the morning, it’s Domenic Pittis, skills coach and in the afternoon, Rich Hesketh, strength and conditioning coach. It's two-a-days,  five days a week, and then a skate on Saturday.
  • They’ve kept us busy and I’m feeling pretty good. You’re done by 3 or 4 and you’re just ready to hang out and lay low.
  • I feel better on the ice. 
On the scrimmage:
  • You don’t feel the fatigue, your adrenaline gets going, you’re playing a game, so definitely fun. It’s nice to get bumped around too and have some physical play and get a feel for that again because it is different than just playing shinny. It was a good. Obviously you could tell it was a little cluster out there. There wasn’t a lot of flow to the game but that’s what happens when you just throw guys together and everyone’s going hard.
  • It is a big group. Obviously, you don’t want guys to get hurt, but if you’re a physical player, you have to show that you’re a physical player and be physical. It’s tough that it’s in July but you have to be ready to compete and be ready to get knocked on your butt if you’re not ready.
Comparing his two Pittsburgh development camps he attended (2009, 2010) to Calgary:
  • This one is a little bit tougher, just the on-ice stuff. Yesterday’s skate and the first skate were tough. Hour and a half, a couple mountains at the end of the skate yesterday. The skates are a little bit more ramped up but they’re pretty similar.
  • When we had our scrimmages and practices (in Pittsburgh), there was always a lot of people. Today was awesome with all the fans here, all the way around. It’s the kind of atmosphere and city you want to play in. 
Looking ahead to training camp 2013:
  • All I’m going to do is work as hard as I can, get in great shape, get stronger, work on my skating, and come to camp and just work hard. It’s in my control how well I can perform, but there’s a lot of good hockey players and there’s not a ton of spots open up front so if I end up in Abbotsford, it’s not going to devastate me. I’m just going to go into camp and have no regrets and play hard.

Mark Jankowski

Seeing him on the ice, his combination of quickness and size -- up to 6-foot-3 "and a half" Jankowski always points out, it's easy to see why the Flames were excited about him as a prospect and took him with their first pick in the 2012 draft. He gets where he needs to go in a hurry and is a huge presence in the middle of the ice. He will be heading back to Providence for his second year of college hockey. In the scrimmage he centred a line with David Eddy and Kenny Agostino.

On the scrimmage:
  • Definitely, everybody in the room was looking forward to this day. It was a fun out there and I’m glad we could get the win, too. We’re really competitive, everyone here is competitive so we were really happy after that.
On the differences of it being his second development camp now:
  • I feel a little bit more comfortable out there. I’ve been here once before so I have that comfort, I know the guys a little bit more too and I’ve scrimmaged here before so everything is just a little bit more comfortable.
On being a bit taller and 14 pounds heavier this year:
  • I definitely feel a lot bigger and I feel a lot stronger out there, which means I can compete harder in the corner for pucks and battling and taking the puck hard to the net and all that kind of stuff. That’s what I wanted to work on in my game and I feel like I did that a little bit there at school and I still have a lot to improve on.
On the overall higher calibre of prospects at this year's camp:
  • Everyone out there, it’s definitely a high-compete level, great skill and great talent out there. So the camp, it’s definitely very competitive.
  • I definitely want to take everything I’ve learned here, just how the compete level is just so high, everyone’s trying to make the team. When you come out here and you see all these great players, you want to take some things that they do well and try to work it into your own game as well.
On the city of Calgary:
  • I love it. The Stampede was awesome last night, go see the Chuckwagons and all. That was really cool.
 
Morgan Klimchuk
 
A Calgary native, Klimchuk was the Flames third and final first round selection in the 2013 draft. He just turned 18 in March and is the youngest player at the development camp. He was one of five left wings that were rotated on the Red team during the scrimmage so he had different linemates throughout after starting out with Corban Knight and Tim Harrison. He was one of two players out of 10 to score a goal in the shootout held after the game.
 
On the development camp experience:
  • I was talking to people coming into camp and asking them what to expect. It’s tough on you, you’re doing two-a-days, not a lot of sleep, but it’s great just to be wearing this jersey and get this experience going and kind of get my feet wet in what to expect to play for the Flames.
  • I was pretty happy with how I played today. Played pretty skilled, reliable defensively and I think that’s the biggest jump you need to make at this level. I was playing with a lot of different players, playing a lot of different roles today, but I thought I kept up fine. I’m just looking to grow every day and try to get better.
On staying at a hotel in his hometown, where he is roomates with Sean Monahan:
  • It’s a little bit different, it's 45 minutes from home all the way down here, but it’s good to stay with the guys, get to know everyone. I think that’s a pretty important part of this week. 
  • (Monahan) is holding up pretty well. He’s a great player and even a better person. He’s dealt with a lot of pressure I think for his whole career. He’s got the mental capacity to deal with that no problem. Like you saw today, he scored our only goal and he’s a great player and he’s handling the pressure really well.
On what he needs to work on:
  • To play at this level, obviously  you just need to get bigger and stronger and make your decisions pretty quick.  You do see pretty quick what you need to work on and that was one of the things I was looking to get out of this week.
  • You come here to earn a spot on the team, that’s your ultimate goal, so when you’re playing other guys that are trying out for the same position or trying out for the team in general, you want to make sure you outplay them but there’s a lot of great players here so it might take a while or it might happen pretty quickly, you just try to play your hardest every night.
On wearing a Calgary Flames jersey for the first time:
  • Pretty special, for sure. I’ve got some pretty small Flames jerseys and a pretty big one now. To get the one at the draft and hang it up next to the ones I had growing up was pretty special and I’m looking to get those framed now as that was a pretty big moment in my life.
 
Linden Penner
 
In one of the great stories from the scrimmage, the undrafted Penner who played with Whitecourt in the AJHL last year scored a pair of goals. While he watched the draft, he didn't expect to be drafted but was excited to get a call at 10 a.m the next morning from Flames Development Coach Ron Sutter inviting him to camp. The big winger is going to try and make Everett (WHL) in the fall having earned an invite to their camp. In the scrimmage, he played with Josh Jooris, another player at camp on a tryout basis and LW Turner Elson.
 
On the confidence the Flames will give him heading to Everett:
  • Definitely my confidence going into camp would be higher than it would have been if I wasn’t here but I just have to keep my head down and keep focusing and training hard because I’ve been going pretty hard with my personal trainer out in Sherwood Park this summer. I’m excited to go out there so hopefully it will be a good opportunity for me. 
  • I’ll be trying out for Everett next year. No guarantees but I’m going to work really hard and hopefully crack a spot on that roster next year. I’ve heard Kevin Constantine is the coach who will put you in the show if you have it so I’m pretty excited.
  • Saskatoon drafted me as the 10th round as a bantam. I was trying out for Saskatoon (Blades) this year and (head coach) Lorne Molleken cut me.
On watching the draft, then getting an invite and then, the development camp experience:
  • First my agent called, and then Ron (Sutter) gave me a call an hour later. I was so stoked. I was just excited to get here. It was a good day when he called me there and I got an invite.
  • It’s pretty cool. Being out there with Sven (Baertschi). Turner (Elson) and Josh (Jooris) were unreal linemates. I probably couldn’t have asked for anyone better to play with. Those guys have unreal skill so it was pretty cool to score those goals and have everyone cheering, it was a good experience for me.
  • It’s definitely an experience to be out there with those guys. I’ve never been one to get really nervous out there. But I mean, it’s cool to be out there with those guys. I’ve never skated at this level before so it was definitely a big jump for me but I enjoyed it, it was pretty fun out there.
On his two-goal game in the scrimmage:
  • That first goal (nice shot from the slot), I don’t score skill goals very often, I score those greasy ones like the second one so that was pretty cool. I was pretty impressed.

Brossoit Shows He Has Plenty of Game

If being called up to play a game or two is referred to as 'having a cup of coffee', then Laurent Brossoit's WHL debut at age 15 was like having a steaming pot of coffee dumped in your lap.

It was Valentine's Day 2009 and coming off the bench in relief of Edmonton starter Cam Lanigan, Brossoit was lit up by Spokane for five goals on 22 shots. It was an inauspicious start to his WHL career but thankfully for the Calgary Flames goaltending prospect, it's not how you begin, it's how you finish.

Brossoit, now 20, was the Oil Kings No. 1 goalie the past three seasons and in his eyes, it's time to get his pro career started. While he could potentially return to junior as an overager, that's not his plan whatsoever. Brossoit says he's ready for the next level and by turning in two superb periods of hockey at the Flames development camp scrimmage on Saturday, he walked the talk, surrendering just a single goal, a beebee off the stick of Sean Monahan.

"I personally feel like I’m ready for that next level and it would be a bit of a disappointment to go back to playing junior. I feel like I’ve made my mark there and I want to move up now. That’s my goal, to move up to the next level," said Brossoit, whose WHL resume consists of 191 games, 44 coming in the playoffs.

The Flames Draft Day Steal

Brossoit was drafted by Calgary in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, 164th overall. The 12th goalie selected that year, he was coming off a pretty ordinary first year as a starter with Edmonton where he posted a 3.32 goals-against average and .887 save percentage.

However, the past two seasons, as a much improved Edmonton team reached the WHL final both years -- winning once, it's been a whole different story. The team was much improved and so was Brossoit who dropped his GAA the past two years to 2.47 and then 2.25, while increasing his save percentage to .914 and then .917.

"I’ve made some huge strides over my WHL career. The biggest thing for me is my mental game. In my draft year, that was one of my weaknesses," said Brossoit after Saturday's scrimmage. "Going so deep into the playoffs twice in a row was huge for my mental game, just learning how to stay focused and all that. I think I’m ready for the next level whether it’s in Abbotsford or in the NHL. To be honest, I’m happy to play anywhere that’s up from junior."

The way his career has blossomed, it looks like the Flames have got themselves a real draft steal, which is a general theme for that 2011 draft, the first for General Manager Jay Feaster, in which Calgary also plucked uber-talented Johnny Gaudreau in round four and grabbed stud defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon late in the second round.

"It does seem like a long time ago and I think I’ve come a long way," said Brossoit, recalling draft day, which was spent at his Grandma's house. "I like being considered the underdog. Being a sixth round, some turn a blind eye but I like it, it gives me motivation to prove people wrong, that I’m not just a sixth rounder."

Positive Flaming 'C' Debut

Brossoit played the first two periods of Saturday's scrimmage and was pleased with how it went.

"A little bit rusty but it’s always nice to get back into a game-style situation because in the summertime, you don’t get too much of that. Any goalie will say they love games more than practices so I was happy that today was scrimmage day," said Brossoit, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 205 pounds.

Included among his many stops were penalty shot saves off Roman Horak, Ben Hanowski and Johnny Gaudreau.

"Goalies enjoy them... if you’re stopping them," said Brossoit with a grin. "We hate penalty shots if we’re not feeling it and we’re getting lit up. But three-for-three, I felt pretty good."

He also admitted he wanted the Monahan goal back.

"I wasn’t happy with the goal I let in, going through the arm, goalies never like that so I wasn’t happy about that but I think I dialed it in after that goal and started feeling like I usually do."

The Surrey, B.C.-born Brossoit, who doesn't speak with a hint of a French accent, despite how his name is pronounced, says there are a couple big differences between what he's experienced this week at the development camp and what he was used to at practices in the WHL.

"The tempo is a lot higher and the biggest thing I noticed is the shot quality. The pro, that next level, the shots get harder and more accurate. You have to stay focused at all times, you won’t get those softies coming at you," he said.

Perfect Timing to be a Flames Goalie

The Flames goal crease is crowded, there's no denying. Assuming Miikka Kiprusoff doesn't return, there is still Karri Ramo fresh from the KHL, Swiss star Reto Berra, veteran Joey MacDonald and Finland's Joni Ortio. Yet, despite the mass of bodies competing for spots in the NHL and AHL, Brossoit says the opportunity could not be any better.

"When is the last time people in Calgary watched a Flames game without Kiprusoff being the starter? It’s definitely an end of an era and the start of a new one and I’m just happy to be a part of this rebuild and my timing couldn’t have been better to be in this organization, especially being a goaltender," Brossoit said.

He looks forward to doing everything he can to avoid a return trip to Edmonton this fall.

"Whether I’m good enough to play in the NHL or not, it’s totally up to them. Whether they want me to develop more or if I’m ready. It’s in their hands and I’m just going to play my best," said Brossoit. "They’ve made it pretty clear I have a good shot in Abbotsford. If I go back to Edmonton, I go back to Edmonton, I’ll deal with it when it happens."

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

'Old Man' Baertschi Making Camp Fun for Everyone

Of the 44 prospects at the Calgary Flames development camp, Sven Baertschi can be considered middle-aged. Born in 1992, he falls somewhere in between the oldest attendee -- Swiss goaltender Reto Berra, age 26, and its youngest participant -- Morgan Klimchuk, who turned 18 in March.

However, in terms of his NHL resume, Baertschi's 25 games is second only to Roman Horak's 81 and that leaves him in the role, at least figuratively, as one of the camp's elder statesmen.

"There are (birth year) 95's here so yeah, I do feel old, I’m growing out my beard right now," Baertschi said with a chuckle after Saturday's scrimmage at WinSport. 

Making it Fun for Everyone

Always smiling, Baertschi's a guy with an infectious personality and over the first three days of the one-week camp, he took it upon himself to try and get the younger guys -- and older guys for that matter, to relax and enjoy themselves.

"I’ve been through a lot, I was able to play with the Flames last season and also play with Abby. For me it was the same thing. I came in and I had guys like Lance Bouma, Greg Nemisz and TJ Brodie. They were there to help and show me around and everything. Now I am the guy trying to help guys," said Baertschi, who still qualifies as a NHL rookie in 2013-14.

"What I found is a lot of guys were nervous right off the hop, as soon as camp started. It was the same for me and of course you’re a little nervous, but on the other side, you have to enjoy the process. I didn’t see many guys smiling the first couple days and I was like c'mon guys, I know it’s the NHL, but you can still have fun here," Baertschi said.

As the camp has gone on, Baertschi says he and some of the more experienced guys have been able to get the other prospects to relax more.

"You want to be focused and you want to put in your work, but there are certain times at camp where you just have to have fun," Baertschi said. "I’m that type of guy, I want to have fun no matter what it is. Usually you play better hockey when you’re having fun, you practice better when you're having fun. You’re still focused but you just enjoy it a little more and that’s part of the game. You don’t want to lose that as soon as you come to the rink."

Mid-Season Form in Mid-July

Saturday was the third straight day on the ice for the camp's participants, coming on the heels of practice sessions on Thursday and Friday. Baertschi came into camp supposed to be the best guy on the ice and he didn't disappoint, picking up a pair of assists in the entertaining scrimmage. Had there been a score sheet, his name could have been on it a few more times too if only some of his teammates were able to finish off his set-ups.

Despite how game-ready he may have looked to the public, however, he insists he can and will be much, much better.

"I’m very rusty, to be honest. I’ve got blisters, my hands still feel like they're wooden. This is just the third time I’ve actually been skating this summer," said the Swiss left-winger. 

Building up his strength has been Baertschi's summer priority resulting in most of his training time being spent in the weight room. He said it felt good to get back on the ice, where he most loves to be.

"It always takes a couple practices but then you’re back into it. The tough part is that all my gear got flooded at the rink so I came in here with brand new everything," he said. That included new skates that needless to say, aren't yet broken in like his old pair. "I never get blisters from skates, never, this is the first time and my feet really hurt right now. When you haven’t been in new skates for a while and then you get bumps, it’s a little different. Every step you take, ow, ow, ow. But, it’s a pain I have to deal with right now."

Fun Playing with the Finn

Baertschi was the Flames first round pick, 13th overall in 2011. Calgary's second round pick that year, 45th overall, was Finnish centre Markus Granlund. The two played on the same line Saturday morning with Coda Gordon from the Swift Current Broncos patrolling the right side. Asked to assess the play of Granlund who scored once during the game and once more in the just-for-fun post-game shootout, Baertschi had high praise calling Granlund a dynamic forward and really smart guy.

"What they learn in Finland is you always have your head up. It doesn’t matter if the puck is on your stick or not, your head is always up. As soon as the puck touches his blade, he doesn’t look for the puck any more because he knows it’s there, he can feel it," Baertschi said. "So when you play with him, he always sees you because his head is always up. You don’t have to yell at him because he sees you already. He makes good plays out there and he can also shoot the puck, he has a really accurate shot."

Baertschi can see the day where the two Europeans are NHL teammates, maybe even linemates.

"It would be great. He’s a guy who is developing really good, he's been getting stronger the last couple years and that’s the next step to get from junior hockey or European hockey to the NHL, to be strong and be physical. Just from last year to this year, I can see that he’s carrying the puck much better, he’s stronger on the puck."

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Scrimmage Features Notable Performances

I spent Saturday morning at the Calgary Flames Development Camp and after the high tempo, full-length game, I caught up with several players to hear how it went from their perspective. Here are links to separate sidebar stories I cobbled together from post-scrimmage conversations with Sven Baertschi (read story here), Laurent Brossoit (read story here), Ben Hanowski, Mark Jankowski, Morgan Klimchuk and Linden Penner (read story here).

Also, here are some of my general observations from the inaugural scrimmage, which came on the fourth day of the week-long camp.

Dozen Thoughts on Scrimmage No. 1

1. Keegan Kanzig’s Big Presence – This dude is big, no denying, but if you can somehow imagine it, difficult as it is considering he’s 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, I thought he actually looked pretty slim out there.  Seriously, he could be 255 with that body type but his 240 is svelte-like and he gets around better than I expected. He’s also not shy to roam off-leash either, frequently winding up in front of the other team’s net. He did face Johnny Gaudreau on a one-on-one down the side boards and was second best in that match-up but of all the guys to be beaten wide by, I think you get a free pass if it’s Gaudreau.

2. Shootout Deja Vu – If anything looked ‘same old, same old’ for long time Flames observers, it was the lack of execution when it came to penalty shots. Just like the failings of the 30-somethings in years past, the 20-somethings didn’t have much luck lighting the lamp either in the so-called skills competition. Playing pond hockey rules with every penalty whistled by the two referees resulting in a penalty shot, there were six penalty shots during the game and no goals were scored with Gaudreau, Kenny Agostino and Ben Hanowski among those thwarted. After the game, a five-player shootout was held with Reto Berra and Joni Ortio stopping four out of five each, Morgan Klimchuk and Markus Granland the lone two to successfully convert.

3. Captain Crunch – What we saw over three periods was Patrick Sieloff’s game in a nutshell – plenty of physical and nastiness defensively, lots of board-rattling hits also, but no panache whatsoever offensively. No gloves were dropped on the ice in the game but there were a couple of testy exchanges with Sieloff in the middle of both. In one incident, it was big Michael Ferland that exchanged whacks of the stick with the surly 2nd round pick. Lanky Tim Harrison exchanged shoves with Sieloff in another minor confrontation. The knock on Sieloff’s game is it’s one dimensional, which he reminded us of when he failed to bury a neat set-up in front from Sven Baertschi.

4. Nearly Flawless Between the Pipes – When talking about the Flames crowded goal crease, don’t forget about Laurent Brossoit. The young WHLer played extremely well in his two periods of puck-stopping with the only blemish a Sean Monahan shot from the slot that beat him under the arm. Brossoit admitted afterward, he was not happy about that one, but was pleased with his game otherwise, which included stopping three penalty shots. Brossoit can potentially return to the WHL as an overager but in talking to him, he feels he’s proven all he can at that level and is anxious to take that next step into the pro ranks.

5. Johnny Be Really Good  – Johnny Gaudreau is electrifying to watch, there’s no other way to say it. His skillset and creativity with the puck is something to be seen and he reminded everyone of the sheer talent he gushes, skating on a line with Monahan. In a possible look into the Flames future, the two connected for a neat tic-tac-toe goal and Gaudreau set up a bunch of other chances as well. Afterwards, I asked Monahan if any of the other prospects stood out to him and without hesitation, he said Gaudreau. Every time I see him, it feels less and less possible that this guy can’t be a success at the NHL level, he's just too talented.

6. Is that Kris Letang? – Now we know why defenceman Trey Lewis of the Halifax Mooseheads got himself an invite to the Flames camp -- he looks just like Kris Letang on the ice.  Or at least, he looks just like Letang from behind anyway. They’re of similar stature, and with the long hair flowing out the bottom of the helmet, that part is similar also. While Lewis wore No. 78, it was easy to envision him wearing Letang’s No. 58.  It was a solid game for Lewis if by no other measurement than he wasn’t noticeably caught out of place, which is often a sign of a good game for a blue-liner.

7. Non-Roster Invitees Looking Good – In addition to Lewis, the line featuring Flames prospect Turner Elson alongside invitees Josh Jooris (US college) and Linden Penner (AJHL) was one of the better trios all game with Penner scoring twice. They had the puck a lot, took it to the net with some urgency and were a presence all game. And that’s mission accomplished when you’re here on a tryout basis as is the case for Jooris and Penner. Penner, genuinely excited about his productive game, will be looking to make Everett in the WHL next year, which is coached by former NHL coach Kevin Constantine.

8. More Energy Than Chemistry – There was plenty of speed in the game, which had a few of us wondering mid-game how some of the Flames veterans would be fitting into game with that kind of tempo.  All players were fully invested in the game with the boards rattling on a regular basis. But while raw offensive talents like Gaudreau and Baertschi made some dynamite plays with the puck, it felt to the players and looked at times like a a bit of a “cluster” as one player remarked post-game.  And that's to be expected with players playing with new linemates, etc. It was nonetheless entertaining.

9. So Far, So Tall, So Good For Reto Berra – While beaten twice in his one period of work, it should be noted he was under siege immediately after he entered the game. Berra made numerous sharp saves as well and that massive wingspan of his – he looks taller than the 6-foot-4 listed on the roster, is certainly an asset. Berra doesn’t give you much space and for a big guy, seems calm and in control all the time. In the post-game shootout, he took away any opening forcing Mark Jankowski to shoot wide, then after getting beaten by Granlund, he followed up by stopping Baertschi, Jooris and Emile Poirier.

10. Roman Horak, looking like an NHLer – Listed as No. 51 in the program, Horak took to the ice in jersey No. 21 instead, a ‘real’ NHL number if you will. He seemed to rise to the opportunity and play like an NHL player, too. With Hanowski on one wing and Ferland/Ryan Howse alternating on the other side, Horak was noticeable all game and in a good way, showing veteran poise, looking calm with the puck and making smart and simple decisions. Opportunity is certainly there for anyone resembling a centre and early signs show Horak is up for it.

11. Fans Psyched for the Future – The scrimmage was held on the NHL-sized Joan Snyder rink at WinSport, one arena down from the main international-sized ice surface that Hockey Canada calls home, and the place was absolutely packed. It was impressive to see with several players commenting afterwards how cool it was too see the stands jammed as well as people two or three deep pressed up against the glass. I’m guessing there was around 1000 people in attendance. While the main rink would have been a better venue for accommodating the enthusiastic spectators, an NHL development camp obviously needs to be held on an NHL-sized ice surface

12. Perfect Pairings – There were no duos of (Brett) Hull and (Adam) Oates calibre, nor was there any combos with the chemistry of (John) Hall and (Daryl) Oates for that matter, but several centre/winger duos stood out for me -- Corban Knight/Harrison, Horak/Hanowski, Jankowski/Agostino, Granlund/Baertschi and Monahan/Gaudreau.

Alright, check back later tonight and Sunday for further player reaction from Saturday's scrimmage.

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