Monday, September 30, 2013

A Roll of the Dice - How the Calgary Flames Can Make the 2014 Playoffs

Pick up a dice or a 'die' to use proper English, choose a number and give it a roll. If you picked '6' and it comes up with as a '6', congratulations, the Calgary Flames have made the playoffs.

See, that was simple. And no -- all you cynics, I wasn't implying that you roll a 20-sided die.

On the eve of the 2013-14 NHL season, sports betting website Bovada has listed the odds of the Calgary making the playoffs as 9-to-2. In decimal form, that's 4.5-to-1 or essentially, a roll of a six-sided die.

Much has been made about how the Flames aren't supposed to make the playoffs this season. Heck, I've looked, and looked, and then looked some more and to be quite honest, I struggle to find one team in the newly reorged Western Conference that Calgary can finish ahead of, never mind six. But the first week of October in hockey, akin to the first week of April in baseball, is all about hope, optimism, and steadfastly clinging to the greatest sporting cliché of them all -- anything can happen.

So sitting here today, with the Flames in a 30-way tie for first place overall and in a 14-way logjam for top spot in the West, here are a dozen variables that if they unfold, could very well result in Calgary remaining in the mix and come mid-April being part of the post-season for the first time in five years. Yes, George Costanza, I'm saying there's a chance.

12 Factors for the Flames to Return to the Playoffs

1. Culture Change - No one can argue what Jarome Iginla meant to the city of Calgary or the vital role he played on this team the past decade-and-a-half. But what has been debated the last few years is how good of a captain he actually was. His style was very much one of lead by example and while you can't fault his body of work on the ice, called into question more than once was the state of the Flames off the ice. It was Jarome's team and in the sanctuary of the home dressing room, did that prevent fresh and badly needed voices from rising up when things went south?

There's a new guy with a 'C' now and Mark Giordano, by all accounts, is a popular choice and in my opinion an excellent choice for the role. He will not influence a game offensively in the same way as Iginla could but his heart and desire is everything you can ask. Never underestimate what 23 men pulling the rope in the same direction can accomplish and if this shot in the arm, if this influx of enthusiasm and vigor from a leadership perspective can foster an aligned group off the ice, the Flames will be a better team for it.

2. Value of the Euro - It's frightening to think back at how poor this club would have finished the last few years if not for the miracles turned in on a seemingly nightly basis by Miikka Kiprusoff. Now the Flames greatest goaltender of all-time is gone and left behind is a humongous chasm. For this club to have any shot at all of making the post-season, two average goalies isn't going to cut it -- nor is 33-year-old journeyman Joey MacDonald -- he of the 323 career minor league games. Whether it's Karri Ramo -- who will get the first shot or Reto Berra, it doesn't much matter, the Flames need one of them to rise up and seize the reins as the starter, play upwards of 60 games, and take a regular post-game twirl at centre ice as one of the three stars.

3. The Real Deal - Since day one when he was plucked with the sixth overall selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Sean Monahan has impressed the Flames. The past three months have included the development camp, rookie tournament and main camp and every time the 6-foot-2 centre has put on the Flaming 'C' -- practice jersey or the real sweater, he has gotten better. He's smart, he's strong, he's skilled and he has entrenched himself as one of the Flames top centres to start the season. The big question is will Monahan stay beyond the allowed nine games and become the first Flames draft pick to make the jump straight to the NHL since Rico Fata, Calgary's sixth overall selection in 1998.

He seems ready and if that is the case -- both physically and mentally, practising with and playing against the best players in the world is certainly the best next step for this mature young man, who turns 19 in two weeks and has already played in over 200 OHL games. And if he sticks around, he makes the Calgary Flames a better team, no argument there.

4. Local Passion Burns Deep - During the Flames magical 2004 Stanley Cup run, TJ Galiardi and recently acquired Joe Colborne were living in Calgary and part of the city-wide sea of red. Galiardi had just turned 16 and Colborne was 14. Now, each with something to prove, they're back in the city in which they were raised and about to play for the team they grew up cheering for -- both calling it a dream come true.

As a rookie, Galiardi scored 15 goals with the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10. He had seven goals the next year, nine the year after that and just five last year in the lockout-shortened season. Galiardi got some significant playing time in the playoffs last year with San Jose operating alongside Joe Thornton and Brent Burns. With such a favourable finish to the year, now he wants to build on that and establish himself as key member of this team, taking on more responsibility than has ever been asked of him before.

Colborne's story has been well documented since he was acquired Saturday from Toronto. A first round draft pick by Boston in 2008, he's played in only 16 games so far but will get the best opportunity he's had yet in Calgary. What Colborne has to overcome is the premise he's no longer a prospect, which is certainly what the optics suggest when a team trades you for a fourth round draft pick. On paper, Colborne -- a 6-foot-5 skilled centre and Galiardi -- who can play multiple positions and be effective at both ends of the ice, have a lot to offer and could really provide the club with a boost. As Calgary kids, they're also none too pleased about how many people are writing off the Flames for this year so know that for them, it's personal and they're motivated.

5. The B's Take Another Forward Stride - Six months ago when we last saw the Flames, Sven Baertschi was leading the offence and TJ Brodie was quarterbacking the defence. Both players were at their best last April as the Flames played out the final month. Last year was also a bounce-back year for centre Mikael Backlund, who finally began to show the two-way game that made him the Flames first round pick in 2007.

Baertschi is just turning 21, Brodie is 23 and Backlund is 24. If these three can pick up where they left off last season and continue to improve along that same tangent, they are three significant pieces that will only help the Flames stay in the mix in the Western Conference. But the key is to pick up where they left off. To do so, Baertschi in particular has a longer way to travel coming off a less than stellar camp, which could even land him in the minors to begin the year.

6. Reinforcements Must Be Ready Soon - Over the length of an 82-game season, injuries will happen. It's inevitable and the Flames are not all that deep in terms of talent that is NHL-ready right now.  How an NHL team handles the turbulence of losing a couple of key players goes a long way to whether they're a contender for a playoff spot at year's end or not.

While the Flames may not have an abundance of guys ready to step in and contribute today, that may change as soon as a couple months from now. The Flames have an abundance of talent at Abbotsford this year, arguably one of the finest groups they've ever assembled at the minor league level. However, the likes of smooth and steady Tyler Wotherspoon, rock'em sock'em Patrick Sieloff, college grad John Ramage -- all those guys are playing pro hockey for the first time and don't kid yourself, even the minor leagues is still a significant jump up from playing WHL or NCAA. They've all got loads of talent but will they be ready in time for when re-inforcements are needed? Can young forwards like Roman Horak, Markus Granlund, Michael Ferland, Ben Hanowski and Corban Knight get themselves ready so if inserted into the Flames line-up, Calgary doesn't miss a beat? That's the challenge. What's going to be a key is avoiding injuries to begin with, then surviving them when they do occur.

7. Special Teams are Vital - Goalie pads are a little shorter this year, the nets are not as deep. These are tiny changes that have been made to try and increase scoring in the NHL. But more important than anything -- and it's the same thing we say each and every year, special teams will be key. When you get the power play, can you take advantage and scoring that key goal to break a tie or open up that pivotal two-goal cushion. Without Jarome Iginla on the power play and Jay Bouwmeester logging all those minutes shorthanded, it will be a challenge for both of the Flames special team units not to fall off from where they were a year ago yet they cannot afford for that to happen.

Last year, the Flames were a respectable 9th with the man advantage and 14th shorthanded and you know where that got them in the West -- third from the bottom in the conference standings. They'll need to be just as good if not better to crack the top eight this year.

8. Home Ice Advantage - All in all, the Flames were okay at home last year going 13-9-2 -- although perhaps more telling was the fact they were outscored 80-78 at the Scotiabank Saddledome. To contend, Calgary needs to establish an identity as a team and live that identity on home ice and make the Dome an awfully hard place for opposing teams to play in. That used to be its reputation, but it's not so much any more.

With Brian Burke at the helm of hockey operations, he'll expect a team that's belligerent, pugnacious, nasty and all things truculent. Play that way consistently and you'll get the added bonus of the extra man in the form of the Saddledome's 'sea of red' which can be as intimidating of a home ice advantage as there is in the league. However, attendance has tapered off of late, more and more seats last season were empty and that's got to be a concerning trend. But with a shot of youthful enthusiasm, a display of passion and a never-say-die work ethic, the crowd will get behind this team and stay with them and the wins will come. The Calgary Flames won over the city of Calgary in 2004 as the underdog that everyone adored. Nothing was expected and that was part of the charm. In a season in which expectations are even lower, maybe the city can fall in love with this club all over again.

9. Motivated UFAs - The best forward line all training camp has been the rejuvenated Matt Stajan between Curtis Glencross and Lee Stempniak. That trio has been together more than any other unit and their chemistry has shown with three veterans creating the bulk of the Flames scoring chances. Coincidentally, two-thirds of that line -- Stajan and Stempniak, are in the final year of their contracts and and will be unrestricted free agents next summer. There are certainly plenty of examples in the NHL over the years of how guys playing for their next contract tend to add a little extra giddy-up to their game. A career year from Stajan and Stempniak will be a double dip for the Flames. Not only will it make the Flames a much more competitive team, but it will also improve the draft pick(s) they might fetch in return if they're traded.

If you do subscribe to the theory that contract years provide extra motivation, Calgary is in good stead this year. Other notable pending UFAs include Mike Cammalleri, Chris Butler, Kris Russell and Tim Jackman. Add in Joey MacDonald and Derek Smith and a whopping one-third of the roster is without a contract for next season and should be looking to make an impression on not just Flames management but on other GMs around the league.

10. Get Plenty of Help - Well a lot of things need to fall Calgary's way in order for them to be competitive in the Western Conference, the Flames will also need at least six teams around them to disappoint. In the ideal scenario:
  • Edmonton continues to struggle defensively and Devan Dubnyk, trusted one more years with the keys, demonstrates that he is not a bona fide starter.
  • Colorado, while getting plenty of goals from its top notch offence, struggles in a similar way to the Oilers and can't keep the puck out of its own net.
  • Dallas misses Mike Ribeiro more than they realize. Valeri Nichushkin isn't ready to be counted on yet and the offence doesn't score enough for Kari Lehtonen in net.
  • The reduced travel of finally being in the West doesn't lead to increased victories for Winnipeg, nor a playoff spot for the once again post-season deprived Olli Jokinen.
  • Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Seth Jones anchor a nice blue-line and Pekka Rinne gives Nashville top notch goaltending but the forward group, badly in need of a brand name, can't light the lamp enough.
  • Cal Clutterbuck's absence turns out to be a bigger void than expected and no matter how much Minnesota plays Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the Wild don't get enough from the supporting cast. 
  • Shane Doan finally starts to show his age and Mike Smith returns to being the Mike Smith of a few years ago. Phoenix leans heavily on those two pieces and its playoff hopes hang in the balance with them.

11. Avoid Long, Scarring Slumps -- It seemed like it went on forever yet last year in winning the Stanley Cup, the Chicago Blackhawks played a total of just 70 games. That gives you a sense of how long the NHL's 82-game grind really is. The key for the Flames is to be able to avoid prolonged slumps.

In the natural ebb and flow of a six month regular season, three-game losing streaks will happen -- but can be mitigated greatly by mixing in single points along the way via an overtime or shootout loss. The key will be avoiding those long five or six-game skids which is not only a punch to the kidneys in terms of the conference standings but also negatively impacts the psyche of a team that most experts are expecting to be bad anyway. As well, the home fans may be quick to start rooting for draft position in no time once it becomes clear to them that the team is headed the wrong direction -- even if such occurs in November.

Can the Flames stem the tide when the water starts getting choppy, that will be key and where Giordano as captain, aforementioned veterans like Stempniak, Glencross, Stajan and Cammalleri, as well as seasoned pros like Shane O'Brien and David Jones have to play a pivotal role.

12. Olympic R&R - One concern Calgary shouldn't face is Olympic fatigue. Jiri Hudler (Czech), Sven Baertschi (Swiss) and Reto Berra (Swiss) will quite possibly be the only three Flames representatives taking part in Olympic Men's Hockey. With the impact on the Flames from a wear-and-tear perspective being less than most other teams, the additional rest allowing bumps and bruises to heal and batteries to be re-charged should help the Flames for a late season push. Of course, that's only pertinent if they can find a way to stay close to the pack through the first week of February when the 17-day break begins.


Conclusion

Back in April, the odds of winning the World Series for both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians were 66-to-1. Meanwhile, the odds for the Washington Nationals -- the team I'm a passionate supporter of, were 7-to-1. The Major League post-season began today and in the mix and still very much alive and a candidate to win baseball's championship are both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Meanwhile in Washington, the lockers have already been cleaned out.

If the unexpected can happen over baseball's 162 game season, the unexpected can most certainly happen over a schedule that is half that length and in a league in which comparably, 50% more teams make the playoffs.

The Sports Network will telecast 10 Flames games nationally this season. Four of them will be in October. Reading between the lines, it suggests TSN scheduled things that way so they would get a bulk of the Flames national telecasts out of the way before they become irrelevant. The TV networks, the hockey pundits, mostly everyone is betting against the Flames being anywhere near a playoff berth this year. Now it's time to see if they can call a 'six' and sure enough, roll a 'six' -- that type of wager should it happen, would pay out a lot and benefit this hockey club in many ways.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Should Sean Stay or Should He Go? A Historical Look at Draft Picks That Jumped Immediately to the NHL

Given how impressive Sean Monahan has played since being drafted sixth overall by the Calgary Flames in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the swirling question on the mind of everyone is should he stay or should he go?
  • That’s stay as in remain with the Calgary Flames for the 2013-14 season. 
  • That’s go as in return to the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s where he’s played the past three seasons.
At this point, I'd say it’s academic that he will open the season with the Flames. The bigger question is will he play just the nine or fewer regular season games that the CBA permits a player to play before returning to junior and delaying by one year the start of their three-year entry level contract. Or, will the 6-foot-2, 200 pound centre stick around Calgary for the winter and refine his game while practicing with and playing against the best players in the world.

I took some time to go back to the 1997 NHL draft and then back through every draft since, to see what history has to say on this polarizing topic. I researched specifically how often players have made the jump to the NHL the same year they were drafted.

Here are my findings for you to add into the conversation the next time you’re discussing the topic over some salt and pepper ribs and a couple of pints.


General Trends

Expectedly, the greater percentage of players that made the jump to the NHL the year they were drafted (defined as played in 10 or more games) was the first overall pick. In fact, in the past 15 seasons, just once – in 2006, did the first overall pick not play the jump and play a full NHL season the next year.

The player in question that year was current Colorado Avalanche defenceman Erik Johnson. He was selected as the top pick by the St. Louis Blues in 2006, who passed on Jordan Staal (second overall to Pittsburgh) and Jonathan Toews (third overall to Chicago). That winter, Johnson played what would turn out to be his only year at the University of Minnesota.

Here is a summary of how many players, by draft slot, have made the jump to the NHL the year after they were drafted. Again, this means they played 10 or more games. As you’ll see, a majority of them have been players chosen in the top three and the drop-off after that is what you'd expect if we were plotting this data on the bell curve -- with two exceptions -- 8th pick and 12th pick.

For reference, I have included the names of the players selected starting with pick No. 4.

Rounds 1-30

1st14
2nd
3rd6
4th3 (2003 – Nikolai Zherdev Clb, 2009 – Evander Kane Wpg, 2011 – Adam Larsson NJ)
5th3 (1999 – Tim Connolly TB, 2006 – Phil Kessel Bos, 2007 – Luke Schenn Tor)
6th3 (1998 – Rico Fata Cal, 2000 – Scott Hartnell Nsh, 2007 – Sam Gagner Edm)
7th2 (1998 – Manny Malhotra NYR, 2010 – Jeff Skinner Car)
8th5 (1997 – Sergei Samsonov Bos, 2002 – Pierre-Marc Bouchard Min, 2008 – Mikkel Boedker Phx, 2010 – Alexander Burmistrov Atl, 2011 – Sean Couturier Phi)
9th1 (2008 – Josh Bailey NYI)
10th1 (2001 – Dan Blackburn NYR)
11th0
12th3 (2002 – Steve Eminger Wsh, 2010 – Cam Fowler Ana, 2012 – Mikhail Grigorenko Buf)
13th 1 (2003 – Dustin Brown LA)
14th1 (2009 – Dmitri Kulikov Fla)
15th0
16th1 (1999 – David Tanabe Car)
17th1 (1997 – Robert Dome Pit)
18th0
19th1 (2008 – Luca Sbisa Phi)
20th 1 (2003 – Brent Burns Min)
21st0
22nd0
23rd1 (2003 – Ryan Kesler Van)
24th0
25th0
26th 1 (2007 – David Perron Edm)
27th 0
28th 2 (2000 – Justin Williams Phi, 2008 – Viktor Tikhonov* Phx)
29th1 (2012 – Stefan Matteau NJ)
30th 0

Beyond the First Round

2nd Round, 33rd – 2009 – Ryan O’Reilly Col
2nd Round, 45th – 2003 – Patrice Bergeron Bos
5th Round, 139th – 2011 – Andrew Shaw Chi*

*was a 20-year-old


Sixth Overall History

Since Monahan was drafted sixth, that was the one draft slot I took an in-depth look at.  I learned that as noted, two sixth overall picks have made the jump to the NHL and stayed the entire season:
  • 2007 – Edm C Sam Gagner (79 gm, 13 g, 36 a, 49 pt)
  • 2000 – Nsh LW Scott Hartnell (75 gm, 2 g, 14 a, 16 pt)
Meanwhile, there was one sixth overall pick that started the year in the NHL and played more than 10 games. In fact, he played 20 games for the Calgary Flames before returning to junior. It's a familiar name and a familiar story in this city and somehow after scoring 43 goals in 64 games for London in his draft year, he simply could not produce in the slightest at the NHL level.
  • 1998 – Cal LW Rico Fata (20 gm, 0 g, 1 a, 1 pt) – Returned to London (OHL)
Lastly, there were five players selected sixth that had a cup of coffee in the NHL but played the great majority of the season back in junior.
  • 2002 – Nsh RW Scottie Upshall (8 gm, 0 g, 1 a, 1 pt) – Returned to Kamloops (WHL)
  • 2003 – SJ LW Milan Michalek (2 gm, 0 g, 1 a, 1 pt) – Went to Cleveland (AHL)
  • 2005 – Clb C Gilbert Brule (7 gm, 2 g, 2 a, 4 pt) – Returned to Vancouver (WHL)
  • 2008 – Clb LW Nikita Filatov (8 gm, 4 g, 0 a, 4 pt) – Went to Syracuse (AHL)
  • 2011 – Ott C Mika Zibanejad (9 gm, 0 g, 1 a, 1 pt) – Returned to Djurgardens (Sweden)


Calgary Flames History

Having never had a top five pick, the occurrences of Flames draft picks jumping straight to the NHL the next year have been rare, happening on only three occasions since 1997. In two of the occasions, it was only a handful of games. In Baertschi's case, it was a mid-season emergency call-up that enabled him to get in five NHL games.
  • 1998 – 6th overall, LW Rico Fata (20 gm, 0 g, 1 a, 1 pt) – Returned to London (OHL)
  • 1999 – 11th overall, LW Oleg Saprykin (4 gm, 0 g, 1 a, 1 pt) - Returned to Seattle (WHL)
  • 2011 – 13th overall, LW Sven Baertschi (5 gm, 3 g, 0 a, 3 pt) – Returned to Portland (WHL)
In terms of other players on the Flames, one other played a game in the NHL the year he was drafted. Matt Stajan, selected by Toronto in the second round in 2002, 57th overall, got into a game at the end of the Maple Leafs season after Stajan's season with Belleville concluded. Stajan scored a goal in that one game, beating Ottawa Senators goalie Martin Prusek.


Conclusion

As you can see, many have made the jump to the NHL without issue and are enjoying prolific NHL careers. While generally, the odds are very slim if you're not a top three pick, it has been done by others. One trend that has helped has been the player's age. Lower draft picks like Williams, Perron, Kesler and Tanabe were 19 years old by the time the season began and not 18. Meanwhile, others like Bailey, Fowler, Brown and Kulikov all turned 19 within the season's first couple months.

In that regard, Monahan has an age advantage on his side as he'll turn 19 on Oct. 12, less than two weeks into the 2013-14 season.

That said, there are others on this list like Dome and Burmistrov, whose NHL careers either never took off or in the case of the latter, is already on hold. However, those that crashed and burned versus those that turned out just fine are certainly in the minority.

What will Calgary General Manager Jay Feaster ultimately decide? We'll find out for sure in late October if not before. Either way, I don't see playing in the NHL this season or not having a long term effect one way or another on Monahan. More than anything, it's a matter of  how the Flames want to handle him as a treasured asset.

The sooner the clock starts ticking on Monahan's ELC, the sooner he's into that next big contract and if that happens simultaneously with many players on this club, the sooner this team will find itself back into a salary cap problem. These are issues that are three years away but decisions made today can have a significant impact.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

TJ Galiardi Adjusting Nicely to New Position

Here's a link to my story after Calgary's 5-3 victory on Tuesday over the New York Islanders at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

CALGARY - When the buzzword "opportunity" is thrown around at an NHL training camp, it usually applies to rookies trying to crack the big team's roster.

But for the Calgary Flames it also applies to a guy like six-year NHL veteran TJ Galiardi, who is looking to take his career to another level at a new position.

The Calgary native was... Read the entire story.


Supplemental Quotes

Other related comments that didn't make it into my story from Galiardi, Jacques Cloutier and Dennis Wideman.

TJ Galiardi, Flames Centre

On the chemistry on his line, playing with Lee Stempniak and Curtis Glencross:

"We only had one practice together so it takes a little bit of time to get some chemistry. The first period, we were a little sloppy but we got into it. Those guys are top class players and are fun to play with."

"(Speed, skating) It's part of my game, I want to always be moving. When I'm not, I get into trouble. When I get my feet moving, I can create for my linemates I'm out there with. It's only going to get better and better with more time playing with the same guys."

"I felt pretty good. I had a good summer. That's something I wanted to work on for sure. That last couple years, I feel like I could have had 10 more goals each year if I just bared down a little. There was even another chance early in the game that I probably should have scored. Those are things you learn from watching guys that are very consistent scorers."

On putting on a Flames jersey, the team he grew up cheering for:

"It's amazing, I dreamt about it when I was a kid. IT's true. It might give me a little extra boost this year. We're going to surprise people if we play the way we can."

Dennis Wideman, Flames Defenceman

On Galiardi's play so far:

"I've been very impressed with the way TJ has played. He hasn't played centre for four or five years. He's played two games now and I think he's adjusting nicely. That's not an easy thing to do, to go from the wing to centre in the NHL, pre-season or not. I think he's done really well."

On the adjustments that come with switching to centre:

"For him, it's jumping into pockets on breakouts, finding the timing, and knowing where his outs are and if he gets in trouble or under pressure, where his play is. When you're on the wing, you chip it off the glass when you get pressure. When you're a centre, you have to find someone or find a place to chip it."

Jacques Cloutier, Flames Assistant Coach

On the added flexibility of having Galiardi re-learn centre:

"If we decide to put him back on the left side, he'll have no problem. If he kills penalties, it's important that he's able to take face-offs too. Now you can put him on the ice. That's why I think all the work he's put in last year and this summer too, he came in in great condition, it's a fresh start. He's really excited coming back to the rink. He's from here, he played for the Hitmen, and coming back into this building is very familiar for him."

On the character he brings to the team:

"The addition we did this year with TJ and (Shane) O'Brien. We brought in some solid guys. We had a really good mixture but those guys bring life and it's so important. Not everybody is a big chatter but O'Brien, Galiardi, Glennie, Jackman and all those guys. Now the ball is rolling, now you have more excitement. You can never have enough of those guys."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flames Training Camp 2013 - Ten Fearless Predictions

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

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

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

10 Fearless Predictions for 2013-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related Flames Reading

Monday, September 09, 2013

Penticton Post Mortem - Revisiting my 10 Flames Storylines

Prior to the start of the Young Stars Classic rookie tournament in Penticton, I identified 10 Calgary Flames storylines I was going to be closely following.

After the Flames impressive showing in the event, winning its first two games -- 5-2 over Edmonton and 4-1 over Vancouver, before suffering a 3-2 loss to San Jose on Sunday, I thought I'd take a few minutes and revisit those 10 storylines and let you know what I learned.

1. North To Alaska

The recent addition of the ECHL's Alaska Aces into the Flames organization as a next-level-down minor league affiliate to the American Hockey League's Abbotsford Heat, gives Calgary increased options when it comes to developing and finding ample playing time for its burgeoning pool of prospects. One position that's particularly crowded is goalie where 33-year-old journeyman Joey MacDonald is joined by veteran European imports Karri Ramo, 27, and Reto Berra, 26, in the battle for NHL playing time.

Also in the organization and looking to make an impression are the Flames two goaltenders that will split the playing time in Penticton -- Laurent Brossoit, 20, and Joni Ortio, 22. Brossoit's stock has steadily been on the rise since being drafted in the sixth round in 2011. Meanwhile, Ortio has been playing against men in the Finnish Elite League. No, there won't be any decisions made after this short tournament but these three games are an opportunity for one of them to move ahead of the other on the depth chart. The second-best of the two come the end of September will want to invest in some warm Sorels as they'll likely be bound for Anchorage.

THE VERDICT - It was more about what one guy did than what the other didn't do but Ortio, in his only start, was absolutely sensational and showed that he's here to make a serious run at a job with Calgary, never mind Abbotsford. Getting the Friday assignment against Vancouver, Ortio was peppered for 40 shots but was only beaten once -- a long screen shot he didn't see. On the day the team left for Penticton, I sat down with Ortio to discuss his many connections and comparisons to Miikka Kiprusoff, his frustrating first season with the Flames two years ago, his breakout season back home last year, and the two biggest adjustments for him in adapting to the NHL game. Read my in-depth feature on Ortio here

Brossoit was fine -- .906 SV% and 2.50 GAA for his two games. He was not very busy in the opener against Edmonton and was the victim of a couple of bad bounces in a 31-save night against the Sharks. But, two years younger than Ortio and in year one of his three-year entry level contract compared to Ortio, who is entering the final year of his ELC, the early edge for landing in the AHL vs ECHL goes to the more experienced Finn.

2. Future Constellations

I'm particularly intrigued to see the line combinations and who plays with who during this tournament. Seeing how the Flames emerging stars are aligned may just be a preview to combinations or trios to come down the road.

Markus Granlund and Sven Baertschi worked well together at development camp. Will they be reunited? Who will flank 2013 sixth overall pick Sean Monahan? Might the Flames try him with fellow first rounders Morgan Klimchuk and Emile Poirier, who conveniently play left wing and right wing respectively? On the blue-line, will we see top-end prospects Patrick Sieloff and Tyler Wotherspoon pair up and see what impact they can have as a duo?

Note: On Sept. 4, the Flames announced that Klimchuk will not attend the tournament and will be sidelined for 2-4 weeks due to an abdominal wall strain suffered during a recent WHL pre-season game with Regina.

THE VERDICT - Throughout the weekend the line combinations and defence pairings were mostly tossed back into the blender prior to each game. Clearly the coaching staff of Troy Ward and Robbie Ftorek, perhaps under guidance from above, wanted to see guys play with different guys and see what worked and what didn't. Predictably, in some cases, chemistry was instant. In others, not so much.

Granlund, who I also spoke with at length prior to the tournament beginning -- see his feature here, was the best Flames player in the tournament with three goals and a bunch of dandy set-ups. He just looked one step faster and a level or two more skilled than most everyone else. So whoever was riding shotgun with Granlund -- Poirier one game, Michael Ferland for two others, they ended up looking good also. Monahan and Poirer played together for two games and they were superb, a tantalizing package of speed and skill in those two 2013 draftees who could be NHL line-mates in 2014-15.

Baertschi was a disappointment but he wasn't surrounded by the same skill as some of the others and that may have factored in. Corban Knight was his centre for two games and Josh Jooris for the other. His opposite winger for two of the games was Coda Gordon. Baertschi didn't get to play with either of the Flames top two centres in Monahan or Granlund, nor did he have the chance to take a spin with the dynamic Poirier. The silver lining for Baertschi was that in the only game in which the outcome was on the line in the third period -- Sunday's one-goal loss to San Jose, he did have his best period. Did Baetschi lack motivation for this tournament, given he was a 25-game NHL 'vet' at a rookie camp?  On Twitter Sunday, I joked that his uninspiring performance was akin to a 14-year-old asked by his parents to take his 10-year-old sister out on Halloween. Regardless, it goes to show that Baertschi's success in 2013-14 may depend on how he's used and where he slots in on the depth chart. It sets up three interesting weeks coming up in main training camp. 

3. Flames Development Camp, Part 2 - The Sequel

A quality that eludes so many young players is consistency. So important is finding a way to make an impact each and every game rather than ride the roller-coaster of highs and lows that typically happens with most rookies and wreaks havoc with their confidence. In this respect, I'll be watching to see if guys that stood out to me six weeks ago at WinSport can back it up with another strong showing. I'll have my eye on MonahanGranlundCorban Knight and Sieloff as four of the bigger names looking to further establish themselves. I'll also keep a close watch on lesser known players who made a great impression on me in July, players such as Ryan CulkinTurner ElsonJosh Jooris and even invitee Linden Penner,

THE VERDICT - Granlund and Monahan definitely delivered once again and by displaying that consistency -- from development camp-to-Penticton, as well as shift-to-shift and game-to-game, those two demonstrated that they are a notch above the others. 

Knight and Sieloff were fine but not as impactful as at development camp. Culkin was generally pretty good despite having to overcome a horrendous gaff in game one when he fired the puck into his own net. However, Culkin didn't have as big of an impact as I was expecting -- but then he only played two of the games. Elson was great when he got the plum assignment of skating with Monahan and Poirer but didn't stand out in the other two games. Jooris had a good tournament and was used a lot, showing why the Flames were determined to lure him away from college.

4. Whose Ready for Prime Time?

Make no mistake, a better litmus test is still to come in the form of the seven pre-season games between Sept. 14 and Sept. 25 that will be played against bigger, older and more experienced NHL players. But, these three games should still provide a sneak preview to who might be ready to pull on a Calgary sweater when the Flames open the season Oct. 3 at the Verizon Center in Washington.

While Baertschi is virtually a lock, I'm particularly intrigued to see who stands out amongst the candidates to potentially play centre either now or next year. It's very possible that three of Calgary's opening four centres in 2014-15 will be playing this weekend in MonahanGranlund, and Knight. What about Max Reinhart, where does he fit in? Reinhart played 11 games last season but due to injury was not able to fully participate in the development camp so he's got some catching up to do. For Reinhart, this weekend could be huge. Can he outplay Knight? That's one of several subplots to monitor.

THE VERDICT - I really liked the two games that Reinhart played before he got Sunday night off. He scored a goal, had good jump, demonstrated his strength in one sequence getting behind a defenceman, who was all over him and then essentially swatting him aside like a mosquito to give himself a clean breakaway. Maybe that was those 11 NHL games last year paying off? He sure seemed to be playing with an assertiveness that comes with confidence. Knight is not flashy but is solid and rarely seems to be in the wrong place or make a bad play. Reinhart vs Knight will be a training camp battle to monitor. 

Monahan continues to look comfortable in this level of hockey and I have no doubts he could play at the NHL level this year, just not sure how effectively over an 82-game grind and in the tough Pacific Division. I still say one more year of the OHL, a couple weeks under the national microscope at the World Juniors, and perhaps a trade to an OHL playoff contender if Ottawa doesn't turn out to be one, is the prudent route to go. 

The most intriguing situation is Granlund. I mean this guy looked really, really sharp and if he keeps it up, there's going to be a temptation to find him a spot on Calgary's opening night roster. Yet, it doesn't make sense to play him on a third or fourth line. He's got loads of ridiculous skill and is best served as a first or second line guy playing with skilled wingers who can score. Perhaps he starts in Abbotsford to get further assimilated to the NHL-sized rinks and the physicality of the North American game but he'll play at some point in Calgary this year, I assure of that.

5. Best of 'D' Rest

There's been a lot of hype and for good reason about Sieloff and Wotherspoon, who both signed entry level contracts with the Flames this summer. Likely destined for the OHL and AHL respectively for more seasoning, both will nonetheless be out to turn heads and change minds this training camp. But, what about the rest?

Three Flames defencemen are pending unrestricted free agents at season's end -- Kris RussellChris Butler and Derek SmithShane O'Brien is a UFA the year after. Opportunity awaits in the near future and I'm interested to see who else forges their way into the conversation. Culkin is a guy that really stood out in July and is sniffing around for a pro contract. John Ramage is a rare right-handed shot and as a college grad is older and stronger. Can he get himself into the mix? Looking further down the road, Brett Kulak is a player I want to see more of as well as 2013 fifth round pick Eric Roy.

THE VERDICT - Making a big statement with an impressive tournament was Ramage. In fact, the Wisconsin graduate might have been the best of all of them -- Sieloff and Wotherspoon included. He's only 22 years old but commands a presence on the ice of someone that's closer to 32. The poise he shows, the obvious leadership in his constant on-ice instructing and directing, I was very impressed. As well, he showed more offensive panache than I was expecting but that's indicative of his improved two-way game. In Ramage's first three years with the Badgers he scored six goals combined. Last year he tallied eight. 

The other guy that made him noticeable once again and in a good way was Keegan Kanzig. More on him below.   

6. Watching and Waiting for Keegan Kanzig

Victoria Royals defenceman Keegan Kanzig was the tallest player drafted in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, 13 pounds heavier than any of the other 210 players. With size like that, that's how you get on my radar. Given what this young man could become, I'll be keenly observing his development every chance I get and that includes this weekend. He's a project, for sure, and is a long ways away but I was impressed by how Kanzig played in development camp. For a guy 6-foot-7 and 240-plus pounds, he was more mobile and looked slimmer than anticipated and had one of the lowest body-fat indexes of any of the prospects when they went through the fitness testing at the start of camp.

THE VERDICT - You just expect him to be a worse skater, more out of shape, caught out of position as he runs around trying to make hits. But, he doesn't seem to do those things. They talk about hockey IQ. Add that to a guy the size of the Rocky Mountains and the Flames appear to have one hell-of-a fourth round pick in the pipeline. Oh yeah, and he can throw 'em too. Got in a heavyweight tilt with 6-foot-5 Kyle Bigos from the Sharks on Sunday and was the decisive victor. Am pretty sure Kanzig needed to have his knuckles re-paved after it all was over. And Kanzig is just three-quarters of the age of 24-year-old Bigos.  

7. Identity in the Making

Grittier and harder to play against. That, according to Flames General Manager Jay Feaster, is the mould in which he's trying to shape this Flames club and those qualities were a theme to some of his off-season dealings that brought guys like TJ Galiardi and O'Brien to town. But, for best results, a culture and team identity is something you need to nurture and grow within the organization and cannot simply be imported and those seeds of the future, if you will, are these players in Penticton. I'm not worried about Sieloff, he's the poster child for those abrasive qualities the organization is seeking but it can't be a one-man show. I'll be watching to see who else steps up this weekend and shows some sandpaper qualities.

THE VERDICT - Helped by playing rival organizations for the first time and not just scrimmaging against each other, there was a little bad blood established during the tournament and that's a good thing as many of the kids will be playing against each other at different levels for years to come. Even first rounders Monahan and Poirier showed a scrappy side in some impromptu meetings at the top of the crease. Kanzig is the guy that can drop them with anyone, Sieloff is the guy that will send you into next week if you cross the blue-line with your head down, but more importantly, there were signs of team toughness that is perhaps most valuable of all.  

8. True Measure of Greatness

One of the true measures of a player's greatness is how much better he makes others around him. Over to you, Sven Baertschi. A month shy of his 21st birthday, if Baertschi had played just one more NHL game he wouldn't be in Penticton as the general guidelines around eligibility excludes players who have played more than 25 NHL games.

Instead, he is here and with an opportunity to elevate the play of the others on his line. I'm curious to see who gets the cushy assignment of playing alongside Baertschi. Will his line-mates be able to elevate their game to another level and who knows, maybe there might even be some instant chemistry that could potentially spill over into the pre-season and maybe even the regular season. The leadership opportunity for Baertschi this week will exist in even greater form in the dressing room and off the ice too. At development camp, he told me that despite the pressures, guys still need to have fun and that's an area where he tries to lead by example. I get the feeling he'll be preaching that same thing this week.

THE VERDICT - Plain and simple, Baertschi clearly isn't great yet. In retrospect, still only 20-years-old and with just 25 games on his NHL resume, this shouldn't stun anyone. A lot was expected out of him and as I already touched on above, what we got was sloppy and generally uninspiring play. What I will say with certainty is the temperature of the spotlight on him during main training camp has just gone up several degrees. 

9. Playing Shorthanded

When we look back at this year's tournament roster ten years from now, it may very well turn out that it featured several of the Flames 'stars of the future' as advertised. However, not to be forgotten are all the guys that aren't here.

As the hectic traffic on Calgary's roads this morning reminded us, school is back in and given the Flames affinity of late for kids playing U.S. college hockey, that means some of Calgary's finest prospects aren't going to be in Penticton. That long list includes goaltender Jon Gillies and 2012 first round pick Mark Jankowski -- both back in Providence already, getting ready for their NCAA season to start. Of course, Johnny Gaudreau is back at Boston College so he won't be there either. Also absent will be Kenny AgostinoBill Arnold, John Gilmour and big, tall and ever-engaging Tim Harrison.

THE VERDICT - Does Calgary win Sunday's game with San Jose if they had the luxury of turning to big Jon Gillies in net?  Maybe. It would have further helped if Monahan had Johnny Gaudreau on his wing instead of Andy Taranto, who was there on a try-out. However, despite the wealth of talent south of the border that were holed up at their school library doing homework, the Flames still looked very good all weekend and clearly have way more legitimate potential impact NHL players in the mix than this organization has had in a very, very, very long time. 

10. Poirier vs Shinkaruk, Round 1

Friday, Sept. 6 sets up to be the first of what is likely to be many meetings between Emile Poirier and Hunter Shinkaruk. Poirier, through no fault of his own, ended up one of Calgary's most scrutinized picks in the draft not so much because of who he was, but more so who he wasn't.

I recapped the wild adventure that was the Flames 2013 draft here. However, as a quick recap, the Calgary native Shinkaruk kept falling in the first round and to the astonishment of pretty much everyone, he was still on the board when it came to the Flames pick at 22nd. As shocking as that was, what followed was even more stunning to observers outside of Calgary's management inner circle as the Flames also passed on the hometown kid to select Poirier. Then, to put an exclamation mark on the sequence of events, Shinkaruk was plucked two picks later by arch rival Vancouver. Whether Feaster called the right name that afternoon in New Jersey will be a question asked for many years to come and the first chance for observers to over react one way or the other will take place in Penticton when the two prospects go head to head.

THE VERDICT - Poirier was good all weekend. Great speed, sneaky good with the puck. He's a bit of a pest too and that's a quality the team certainly needs more of. I didn't see as much of Shinkaruk as the only game I saw of Vancouver was the head-to-head with Calgary but in that game, Shinkaruk was excellent as well showcasing a nice shot, great vision, and a soft set of hands around the net. It's been just over two months since the draft so it should come as no surprise that the players picked 22nd and 24th are still very much on equal footing. Stay tuned on this one as there are still many chapters to be written. 

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Tribute to Kipper – Joni Ortio’s Mesmerizing Debut

All the big stars of past and present have one -- Garth Brooks, Elton John, Justin Timberlake, Elvis. It’s called a tribute artist and they look and perform just like the real thing. They can be so similar, it’s remarkable. Well, apparently Miikka Kiprusoff has one too. His name is Joni Ortio and he took centre stage Friday night in Penticton.

The Flames 22-year-old Finnish goaltending prospect, six-foot-one and 185 pounds – precisely to the exact inch and pound the same stature as Kiprusoff, and brandishing many of the same acrobatic qualities, had a sensational evening. Ortio turned aside 39 shots in Calgary’s 4-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks at the Young Stars Classic tournament.

Ortio was busy right from the start, confidently turning aside Canucks 2013 first rounder Hunter Shinkaruk on a dangerous chance at the side of the net, just minutes into the game.

And he was very good right through an encore performance at the very end. To bookend a fabulous 60 minute display of goaltending, Ortio once again showed his athleticism by going post-to-post ala Kiprusoff in his prime to rob Vancouver’s other 2013 first rounder, Bo Horvat, from in-close after he was neatly set up by Shinkaruk. Ortio had made a similar sprawling stop off Niklas Jensen earlier in the game.

“It was a hell-of-a-hard first game,” Ortio said afterwards. “After a long period of not playing a game, you never know what is going to happen. Fortunately, I got a couple shots early on and that got me into the game and it took care of itself.”

Only Frankie Corrodo’s screened point shot on the power play, which it didn’t look like Ortio saw, eluded him.

Thirty-Four Connections

Growing up in Turku, which is also Kiprusoff's home town, Ortio always cheered for the hometown hockey team TPS. Naturally, he was a big fan in particular of the goaltenders that played for TPS. In addition to Kiprusoff, that meant former NHLers Antero Niittymaki and Fredrik Norrena, too.

“But Kipper, he was probably the biggest for me,” Ortio said Wednesday during a lengthy chat at the University of Calgary where he had just finished the fitness testing that kicked off Flames rookie camp. “I looked up to Kiprusoff a lot as a kid, he played in TPS first and when he came over here, I started watching the NHL a lot more.”

Ortio eventually met Kiprusoff and got to know him as they would get together when he returned home in the off-season.

“We used to skate together with a bunch of NHL players back home in the summer. I knew him that way,” Ortio said. “We also talked a lot at training camp two years ago.”

By getting to know Kiprusoff on that level, Ortio saw a side to the Flames greatest all-time goaltender that not many in Calgary had a chance to see.

“To the media, Miikka might come across as a quiet guy but once you get to know him, you don’t hear the end of it,” Ortio said. “If you just talk to him face-to-face, he’s got a lot of stories and he’s not afraid to share them with you. He’s a really funny guy.”

Ortio also confirmed Kiprusoff was back in Calgary while adding, “He’s a really hard to get hold of.” Well, that part we knew.

With Kiprusoff expected to retire despite no official word yet, Ortio is hoping to be the new Finn on the block. But he knows that in order to make the Flames hockey club considering Joey MacDonald, Karri Ramo and Reto Berra are all above him on the depth chart, he’s got to leave it out there on the ice. He certainly did that Friday night against the Canucks.

“I want to play in the NHL, that’s for sure. I came here to challenge for that spot and make those guys on a one-way contract feel as uncomfortable as I can,” Ortio said.

Four Years of Ups and Downs

It’s been a roller coaster few years for Ortio since being drafted by the Flames in the 6th round in 2009, 171st overall.

In 2009-10, he played mostly junior hockey in Finland. That included six games at the World Junior Championships where he didn’t perform all that well with a 3.02 goals-against average and .844 save percentage.

In 2010-11, he played at three different levels. He began in junior, then played in the league one below the Finnish Elite League. Later, he also played 16 games in the SM-Liiga with TPS. By that point, Kiprusoff was part of a group of NHLers that owned TPS -- Saku and Mikko Koivu also a part of that group. That year Ortio once again played in the World Juniors and this time with far greater success as indicated by his 1.86 GAA and .931 SV%, which was second best in the tournament.

Ortio came to North America for the 2011-12 season but it did not go as he had envisioned. After being assigned to Abbotsford, he ended up competing with Leland Irving and Danny Taylor for playing time for the season's first three months. Disgruntled about how it was going, he returned to Finland in January and returned to TPS, where he finished off the year.

“It was a learning experience and it was a bit of a disappointment – a little bit of both,” said Ortio, who is philosophical when reflecting back on his initial abbreviated stint in North America.

 “At that point, it was all new to me,” Ortio said. “It’s always frustrating when you can’t get the games in or get the ice time you want but at the same time, it toughens you up by giving you experience on how to deal with that type of situation for when it might happen later on in my career.”

Ortio remained in Finland for 2012-13, where he enjoyed a breakout season as the No. 1 goalie for HIFK Helsinki – the same team Flames prospect Markus Granlund played with. The team reached the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated by Tappara Tampere led by ex-Flame Ville Nieminen and Aleksander Barkov.

“Last year I got to play pretty much as much as I wanted. I want to carry on that responsibility to help out your team day in and day out and help them win games. That’s one of the biggest things I can take out of last year.”

He says he’s arrived in Calgary this year a different player now than he was two years ago.

“I’ve matured quite a bit. I played back home last year and played almost 80 games. It taught me how to compete and how to be consistent day in and day out,” Ortio said. “Trying to give the guys a chance to win every night. That’s probably the biggest thing I took with me from back home.”

Despite how it turned out, Ortio says his first camp with the Flames was a valuable experience.

“The time I spent here two years ago really helped me just to know what to expect. Now everything going on is not new for me. I’ve been through it once. I don’t need to focus on it that much anymore and I can focus all my energy on the thing I’m here to do, which is work hard and leave everything on the ice.”

Two Biggest Adjustments in Coming to North America

When European goalies come to North America, they often refer to the challenge of adjusting to new shot angles that comes with the smaller ice surface. However, Ortio says this isn’t as big of a deal for him anymore because for one, he has been over here. Secondly, many of the rinks in Finland aren’t as big now.

“They’re going towards NHL size so they’ve made them smaller,” Ortio explained. “They’re not as small as NHL rink yet but they’re going that way. It used to be 30 metres wide, I think it’s 26 metres over here. In most of Finland, they’ve gone down to 28 metres. It’s not every rink but most of them so it’s not a huge adjustment for me.”

However there are other adjustments with the NHL game and Ortio explained two in particular that he continues to work at.

The first is more of a technique thing and it’s around better rebound control.

“In a game, usually there aren’t a whole lot of plays open other than to shoot the puck at the net and hope for the rebound. If I kick out the rebound and it’s laying right in front, it’s going to cost me and it’s going to cost the team. That’s the biggest thing to consider that you don’t give out easy rebounds.  If you can avoid those easy rebounds, you’re not going to get scored on.”

Ortio says the other is more mental and it’s staying focused the entire time.

“You have to be ready all the time, you can’t take moments off on the ice because anything can happen since the pace is so high, especially compared to the pace in Europe. Over here, the tempo is much higher so you have to be prepared all the time. You can’t even take a second off because it will cost you eventually.”

On the Possibility of Returning to the Minors

This year, if he doesn’t make the Calgary Flames roster out of training camp, Ortio says he’s ready to go to the minors and keep working.

“If that doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world,” Ortio said. “Sure, I’ll be disappointed but I’ll go to Abby, work hard, put that effort in, day in and day out, and who knows what’s going to happen up top in the show. Someone might get injured or they have to make changes. So I’ll be ready if that happens.”

Meanwhile, there are more gigs still to come this month. One more game in the rookie tournament, Sunday night versus San Jose, and then the Flames have seven pre-season games. You can bet Ortio will get a few more chances to further impress.


Related Flames Reading
  • Getting to Know Markus Granlund - His stellar on-ice play so far has spoken volumes. Prior to departing for Penticton, he talked about his breakout season in Finland last year, his strengths as a player and his hopes for 2013-14.
  • Ten Storylines To Follow In Penticton - The battle between Laurent Brossoit and Ortio in net, can Ryan Culkin earn a pro contract, first rounders Emile Poirier and Sean Monahan. So many things to watch and I break it all down.
  • North America, Take One - Recounting Karri Ramo's First Attempt at the NHL - You may have forgotten but Ramo's already spent parts of three seasons in the NHL. Here's an in-depth look at his adventurous first attempt including his scrap in his second game, a suspension and his most unusual initial goaltending tandem.
  • Twelve Neat Things about Reto Berra - After his impressive performance at the World Championships, I investigated who is Reto Berra, anyway?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Exciting Finnish – Getting to Know Markus Granlund

Markus Granlund says his favourite player growing up was Saku Koivu. With 17 NHL seasons in the books and over 800 points, not a bad choice.

It’s also an appropriate choice considering that in many ways, Granlund is cut out of the same mould. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, he is similar in stature to Koivu. Granlund is also a strong, play-making centre who can score, just like his idol.

Back in July, centring a line with Sven Baertschi and Coda Gordon in the Flames development camp scrimmages, Granlund – who speaks limited English, let his play on the ice do all the talking and did it ever speak volumes. He drew praise from Baertschi who had nothing but good things to say about Granlund’s dynamic game

“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 at the time. "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."

Hearing from the Man, Himself

After Granlund finished his fitness testing Wednesday at the University of Calgary, I had a chance to chat with the quiet-spoken 20-year-old. Using countryman Joni Ortio as his translator in the handful of instances when he couldn’t come up with the right words, he talked about his overall game, his time in Finland, and his expectations going forward with the Penticton Young Stars Classic tournament coming up and the Flames main training camp after that.

Granlund played the past two seasons in the Finnish Elite League for HIFK Helsinki. Last year, 19 years old and the youngest player on a veteran team, Granlund established himself as one of the team’s go-to players. He finished second on the team in scoring with 10 goals and 20 assists in 50 games.

“It was a huge thing for me as a young player to be put in that kind of role at such a young age,” said Granlund, who notched 15 goals and 19 assists in his rookie year. “It’s nice to get that responsibility so early on.”

Mixed in was a superb showing at the 2013 World Juniors where he tied for the Finnish team scoring lead and was second overall in tournament scoring with five goals and seven assists in six games.

Ortio, who is two years older than Granlund, offers a unique perspective on Granlund’s 2012-13 campaign given he had the best vantage point of anybody – a view from ice level.  Ortio, also a Flames prospect, was Helsinki’s starting goaltender last year.

“At times, he was our No. 1 centre. Just to be in that spot and face all that pressure you have playing in that spot, that builds character and makes you ready for the next step which is here, right now,” said Ortio. “So it was great for him to see that much ice time and the role he was playing and for him to pull it off perfectly.”

Ortio says Markus Granlund is a very similar player to his talented brother Mikael, who is one year older and was drafted ninth overall by Minnesota in 2010. Mikael played 27 games last year as a rookie with the Wild.

All Finnish, No Swedish

“Yes, I am a playmaker, but I can score goals too,” insists Granlund, when asked to describe his overall game. An area he’s already notably good at but continues to work on is the quick release of his wrist shot.

“If you shoot, you have to shoot quick because you don’t have much time over here,” said Granlund, who signed a three-year entry level contract in April. “In North America, everything on the ice you have to do a little bit more quicker than back home. Obviously with the smaller rink, there’s not as much as space on the ice to make plays.”

Ortio said fans will enjoy watching Granlund as he is an exciting player.

“He’s the guy that can set up plays you wouldn’t even dream about. At times last year, he’d make a play on the ice and I’d be like ‘wow, I didn’t see that coming’. He’s just so intelligent. He knows exactly where his linemates are at all times.”

Then there’s this gem from two years ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frWLxU_tGFo

Would Granlund like to have Baertschi as one of his linemates again in Penticton?

“Of course, he’s a good player. But I don’t care who I play with, it doesn’t matter,” Granlund said. “I just want to do my best every day and try to make my linemates better.”

New and Improved Markus

Since being drafted by the Flames in the second round of 2011, 45th overall, three areas that Granlund says he’s been working on has been his power, his skating, and his “muscle”, pointing out that a big difference for him is players in North America are so much stronger.

During a recent interview on Sportsnet 960 radio, Flames GM Jay Feaster said he’s looking forward to seeing how Granlund fares in his first taste of pre-season hockey.

"If there is one guy I really am anxious to see, it would have to be Markus Granlund. When you look at what he did this past season over in Europe and I thought he was one of the most pleasant surprises of development camp,” Feaster said. “He's a wildcard in my mind and he's someone I'm anxious to see when he's up against the top guys on these other teams and teams that are our rivals.”

Like each and every prospect, Granlund hopes to be pulling on a Calgary Flames jersey a month from now. But if that doesn’t happen, he says he’ll go down to Abbotsford and continue to work.

“If that's the case, you can’t just keep thinking about oh no, now I’m in Abbotsford, I have no chance to get back up. There’s always possibilities if you do your best.” Granlund said.

Wherever he ends up in 2013-14, perhaps Ortio will be right there alongside him. At minimum, the two of them will be sticking together for September.

“For sure it’s nice to have a guy around that speaks the same language,” Ortio said. “I don’t have any problems with English but it’s nice to chat with your own native tongue every once and a while and I bet it’s a huge help for him. I was here a few years ago and know the deal and I hope I can help him out the best way I can."

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