For an indication of how vastly different the prospect cupboard looks today, you need only look at the No. 1 line that Abbotsford coach Troy Ward will deploy Friday night when the Heat, on home ice, kick off their best-of-five opening round series with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
- At left wing, Max Reinhart. Having just turned 22 in February, he’s coming off a phenomenal year in which he tripled his goals and points total from a year ago and established a team record with 63 points.
- At centre, talented Finn Markus Granlund. Barely 21 -- he just celebrated a birthday on April 16. His 25 goals in 52 games was the third-best goals-per-game in the AHL for a player his age in franchise history. Only Theoren Fleury (1988-89) and Bruce Eakin (1983-84) had more productive years.
- At right wing, fresh out of major junior, 19-year-old Emile Poirier. After a second round exit in the QMJHL playoffs, he joined the Heat for the final weekend of the regular season and made an immediate impact with two goals and two assists in two games. This coming off a 50-goal season with Gatineau.
The most encouraging part is all three of them are home-grown Calgary Flames draft picks – Reinhart (3rd round in 2010, 64th), Granlund (2nd round in 2011, 45th) and Poirier (1st round in 2013, 22nd).
Comparably, when the Heat were last in the AHL playoffs two seasons ago, the top line was comprised of journeymen Ben Walter (27), Hugh Jessiman (28) and Jon Rheault (25). All of them, along with leading scorer Krys Kolanos (30), were brought in from other organizations.
“I've only played on two pro teams now but this has been the best group of guys I've seen in an American Hockey League dressing room, for sure,” said Reinhart, when I spoke with him by telephone earlier this week. “It's fun coming into the room every day here and playing with some pretty good players.”
A Breakout Season
Reinhart’s emergence offensively has been one of the organization’s great success stories. A comparison of his AHL stats from the past two years paints a vivid picture of just how big his progression was this season:
- 2012-13: 67 games, 7 g, 14 a, 21 pts, minus-26
- 2013-14: 66 games, 21 g, 42 a, 63 pts, plus-6
“I was able to be more consistent with my game this year, I was able to show up and play good games more nights than not, and I was playing with some players throughout the year that were very good offensively and I also picked up a lot from some of the older guys that were around,” said Reinhart. “Plus I got some confidence and some experience from going up a few times. It was a good growing year for me.”
The validity of the plus-minus rating will always be argued, but for Reinhart, you get the sense last year’s minus-26 weighed on him. It was fourth-worst in the league, out of over 1,200 players.
“Not getting scored on as much. That has always been a strong point in my game and last year, for whatever reason, it wasn't,” said Reinhart. “I'm happy with the way that I've been able to change that around, especially because I was moving positions this year.”
The position change saw him settle in as a left-winger, after spending his hockey career up until this year as a centre.
“Being able to learn a new position was something I took pride in and I'm glad I had the opportunity to experience that,” Reinhart said. “At first it’s an adjustment because you're getting the puck in different areas of the rink but as the year went on, I got more and more comfortable. I think I can I play either position on any given net and that only helps your chances of getting into a line-up.”
Knocking at the Door
Reinhart had three short stints with the Flames in 2013-14 playing two, two and four games respectively during those call-ups.
The last trip to Calgary came in March where he got to play on a line with a couple familiar faces – Paul Byron, who he’s played with over the last two years, and Granlund, who he has been with for all of the second half of this season.
“Obviously, having chemistry with guys makes it a little bit easier to play the game,” said Reinhart, who had two assists in his eight NHL games. “The main thing is that every time I've been called up, just getting that experience has been a huge help for me when I come back down.”
Included was the only assist on Granlund’s first NHL goal on March 5. The two have quickly become quite a formidable pairing, whatever level they’re at.
Of Granlund’s last 15 goals (13 in the AHL, 2 in the NHL), Reinhart has assisted on 11 of them. Of the other four, one he was still on the ice for and the other three came shorthanded. Now that’s chemistry.
“He's highly skilled, he thinks the game well. He skates and moves the puck at a high speed, and obviously he has a little bit of a nose for the net,” said Reinhart, who was put on a line with Granlund starting in late December. “You just look for him when you're out there and he's usually able to make some plays.”
When Reinhart was reassigned to Abbotsford this last time, it was due to the return of Curtis Glencross and Kevin Westgarth. Rather than sulk, he went down, determined to get better.
“It sucks to be sent back down a level but you have to understand that you're still a young player that has to grow and prove yourself and I just have to keep playing the same way and in many ways try to improve on how I have been playing down here,” said Reinhart, who's dad Paul had 444 points in 517 career games with the Flames in the 80s. “Every time I've been sent down, that's been the attitude I've tried to take into it.”
Fully Focused on the Post-Season
With the number of free agent forwards that could end up departing the Flames this summer – Mike Cammalleri, TJ Galiardi and Westgarth to name three with uncertain futures, you couldn’t blame Reinhart, considering the superb year he’s had, if he said he was already looking forward to 2014 Flames training camp.
But instead, he’s focused fully on the prize at hand, which is the AHL playoffs and pursuit of the Calder Cup.
“There is still a lot more work to do to get to the next level and the playoffs is a good test for myself and a lot of guys in this organization right now,” said Reinhart.
Past playoff experience Reinhart will be drawing from will be from 2011 when the Kootenay Ice were the WHL champions and reached the semi-final of the Memorial Cup.
“It gives you the experience of winning. Maybe it’s not in the same league and same level but it’s still four rounds of having to beat a team four times and that's not easy to do,” said Reinhart, who had 15 goals in 19 playoffs games that year. “I know what the grind is like. It seems like a slow process at the time but it's the time of the year that is the most fun. You play the regular season to get into the playoffs so I think it's a lot easier to get up for these kinds of games and really test yourself every time you step on the ice.”
Grand Rapids, the defending champions, will be a difficult match-up for Abbotsford. The Griffins are also a bit of an inspirational story if you’re a young hockey prospect. Nine players in the line-up for the Detroit Red Wings this week, playing against the Boston Bruins, played in Grand Rapids last season – eight of them were in uniform the night they hoisted the Calder Cup.
“The AHL playoffs are a good stepping stone -- if you're successful, to make it to the NHL, and that Grand Rapids team obviously showed that,” said Reinhart. “Our team, as a whole, has played very consistently throughout the year and I'm pretty excited to see what our line-up can do in a playoff series.”
Sandwiched in-between the playoffs and training camp will be the NHL Entry Draft in June. Max, however, was smart enough not to bite when I asked if there was any chance – any chance at all, his brother Sam could somehow fall to the Flames at No. 4.
“The one thing I've learned about drafts is you just can't predict anything until it's over and done with so I'll stay away from predicting anything,” Reinhart said with a chuckle.
Regardless of what team Sam goes to – and sorry Flames fans, it realistically won’t be Calgary, the Reinhart brothers including Griffin, an Islanders draft pick, will continue to be there for each other. And for Max, the eldest, that’s a good thing.
“It's a very healthy competition where each of us try to push each other. Even if we're not playing in the same game and someone has a good night, the other wants to have a good night as well. I can honestly say it's had a very positive effect on my career because when you're having a bad week, your brother has a good game, it picks you up and puts you in the mood to really compete and try to one up them,” said Reinhart.
We’ll have to wait and see if for Reinhart, this will be a long summer or a short one, but you know it’s going to be a busy one.
“It's going to have to be a big off-season for me again -- in the gym and really trying to get stronger to hopefully allow myself to play in Calgary next year,” said Reinhart, listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds.
Considering where this Flames team is at in the rebuild and the opportunities that will surely exist to make this team next fall, I like his chances.
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