Sunday, August 24, 2014

Flames 2014-15 Roster: Dwindling Opportunity But Part of the Master Plan?

  • Flying time from Calgary to New York City: 4.5 hours
  • Driving time from JFK International Airport to Glens Falls Civic Centre: 3.5 hours
  • Miscellaneous (check-in, customs, bag carousel, rental counter): 3 hours
  • Time zone change: 2 hours

If you want to watch the Calgary Flames brightest prospects in action this year -- or at least to start the season, it seems this is what it will take.

It's still leaving the house at 6 o'clock to get to the arena for a 7 o'clock game -- as would be the case if you were headed to the Saddledome, only we're talking about leaving at 6 a.m. now and heading for the airport.

Sven Baertschi is in Calgary right now. On Sunday, he signed autographs and dropped the puck for the 'big game experience' that wrapped up the Sport Chek - Calgary Flames Development Camp going on at SAIT. The volunteer-driven weekend hockey school for 60 disadvantaged kids from around Calgary is the brainchild of Sportsnet Radio's Rob Kerr. It's an excellent camp in its third year that takes kids that cannot afford to attend a hockey school and teaches them not just hockey skills but also about fun, leadership, respect and teamwork.

While it's terrific to see Baertschi helping out in the community, I can't imagine his reaction when he heard the news on Saturday that the Flames were adding another veteran to their NHL roster in unrestricted free agent Devin Setoguchi. Well, cross off another roster opening. Insert 'exasperated sigh' here.

Perhaps this is a sign of more roster changes still to come, a trade or two forthcoming. After all, new general manager Brad Treliving has said all along that he's been trying to get some things done. But if not, it's not looking very good if you're one of the Flames many prospects hoping to make this hockey club this September as they're simply aren't going to be many jobs available.

Examining the Flames Potential Starting Roster

I took an educated guess as to what Calgary's opening night 23-man roster could look like and as things stand today, there really is only one opening at forward. One!

This link will take you to my projected Calgary roster on CapGeek, which is my best guess to how the Flames will open up the season. You'll see I've included unsigned restricted free agent Lance Bouma (the $1.1-million salary is just a guess) as he will eventually be signed and be on this team.

In summary, here is how it breaks downs:
  • Starting Forwards (12) - Backlund, Bollig, Bouma, Colborne, Glencross, Hudler, Jones, McGrattan, Monahan, Raymond, Setoguchi, Stajan
  • Extras (2) - Byron, Reinhart
  • Starting Defence (6) - Brodie, Engelland, Giordano, Russell, Smid, Wideman
  • Extras (1) - Cundari
  • Goalies (2) - Hiller, Ramo

First of all, spoiler alert: Sam Bennett will not make this team. Having just turned 18 -- nine months younger than Sean Monahan was at this same time, I've said all along he'll go back to junior for another year and now especially, I see Bennett as a virtual lock to play this season in Kingston.

Secondly, you're probably wondering why Max Reinhart instead of the uber-skilled Johnny Gaudreau?

The philosophy with this hockey club has always been and I doubt this changes under Treliving -- and it makes sense, is they want their prospects playing. In particular, their 'grade A' prospects. This, along with the other many reasons I identified back when Gaudreau signed, is why he likely opens this season with Adirondack.

If you look at those 12 starting forwards, that's who is going to play if they're all still here and healthy come Oct. 8 when the Flames open the season at home against the Vancouver Canucks.

You may not agree but seriously, who would coach Bob Hartley scratch out of that group?
  • Lance Bouma? Nope, just coming off a terrific year, excellent fourth line player.
  • Brian McGrattan? Against the Canucks? Have you already forgotten the night of the brawl? Not a chance.under the current management regime
  • Brandon Bollig? They just traded for him, that's not happening.
  • Devin Setoguchi? They didn't sign him to bring him here and not play him.

Given that, the last thing you want to do is keep your prized prospects up with the NHL team and then not play them. That means the jobs as extras up front go to Paul Byron and Reinhart. The latter is my choice to get the one Flames job opening at forward as at age 22, he's a bit older than the others and with two full seasons in the AHL under his belt, he's got more pro experience than the others. Also, let's not forget he was one of Abbotsford's top players last year with a breakout 21-42-63 season in 66 games to lead the team in scoring.

(For more on Reinhart's emergence last year that included a shift from centre to left-wing, here is my story on him written last April when I spoke with him right after Abbotsford's regular season concluded.)

A No-Risk Signing, But Not a No-Cost Signing

Getting back to the signing of Setoguchi, who will wear jersey No. 22, there are a lot of things to like about what's being billed as a reclamation project:
  • He's 27 years old, which is still very young. Many players would just be entering their prime.
  • He's played 459 games so he brings lots of experience.
  • He's a right-handed shooting natural right winger, joining only David Jones and McGrattan with that distinction.
  • At $750,000 on a one-year deal, he's also ridiculously cheap considering his $3.25-million NHL salary a year ago.
  • He's a former first round pick, drafted 8th overall by San Jose in 2005
  • He's an Alberta kid if you put stock in that.

We know there is talent there. In his sophomore season, he scored 31 goals as a 21-year-old. Let's not forget the Flames top scorer left over from last year's team is Sean Monahan, who had just 22.

However, how good could any bounce-back season possibly be? Could he play well enough to fetch the Flames a mid-round draft pick at the trade deadline? Maybe, but hard to imagine them getting much more.

Reasons for scepticism would include he's coming off a season in which he scored 11 goals. He's a natural right wing in a league where the right side is very much a wasteland for many teams -- part of the reason there was so much interest in Kevin Hayes. Yet, Setoguchi signs the type of cheap deal in Calgary, which would have been attractive to many cap-crunched playoff contenders seeking RW depth. Why did they all stay away? This young, experienced unrestricted free agent theoretically entering his prime was dangling out there for 54 days before finally accepting a one-year deal with the 27th place Flames.

At that salary, I fully agree there is no risk, but I'd also argue there is still a cost and that is to the development of the club's young prospects.

Prospects Need a Chance to Play

For the Flames to expedite the rebuild, they need to keep progressing their prospects each year and seeing what they have at the next level. You can't just drop five prospects into the NHL line-up a year from now and watch them flounder.

With the likes of Sam Bennett, Emile Poirier and Patrick Sieloff all likely carrying NHL ETA's of 2015-16 -- and Gaudreau could very well be on that same time line too, this season would be the ideal year to begin the prospect auditions and in addition to Reinhart, get guys like Markus Granlund, Michael Ferland and Corban Knight a long look. Same goes for the sometimes forgotten Baertschi, whose trials and tribulations I documented here. Get him back up in the NHL and see where he's at.

Now granted, there will be injuries and that will lead to a handful of opportunities and at least some of those players closer-to-ready should get their chance eventually, but with the Byron re-signing earlier in the summer and now Setoguchi, the number of open roster spots and legitimate chances to make this team out of training camp is quickly dwindling.

Now I could be wrong but you've got to think that surely there won't be any more player additions at this point -- at least up front. The knock on this organization for so long during all those mediocre years is there was not genuine opportunity for young players to make the team due to too many veterans on one-way contracts. It can impact the psyche of your kids when in their eyes, they see a scenario where no matter how good their training camp is, there is no realistic chance of making the team.

Earlier this summer, I wrote a piece in which I looked back at the Flames history of successfully graduating players from the AHL. In this article, which you can read here, their success rate has been particularly awful lately with just four players (Bouma, Byron, TJ Brodie, Mikael Backlund) having made the jump over the past five seasons.

Young players, especially on a team that is rebuilding, need to know there is genuine opportunity. Legitimate roster openings increases motivation and generates internal competition that makes everybody better.

Perhaps There is a Bigger, Secret Master Plan

The other day I wrote about the 12 things that -- if they happen, would result in the Flames drafting Connor McDavid next June. The Setoguchi signing further supports my third point in that story and that was that all of Calgary's best prospects end up playing this season in the AHL (or OHL).

Although this will never be stated publicly, you can't help but wonder if the Setoguchi signing is part of a bigger, master plan to finish in the bottom two this year and have a shot at one of the two much-ballyhooed and potentially franchise-shaping generational players eligible for next year's draft in McDavid or American Jack Eichel.

Perhaps the Setoguchi signing -- a no-risk pick-up that has only upside and yada, yada, yada as stated publicly by the Flames, is also being viewed internally, behind closed doors, as more of a 'may work but we're fine if it does not' move than a 'win now' move. I won't characterize it as a 'lose now' move as that's not the culture being cultivated here but not-winning may ultimately be the end result, no matter how hard you're trying, if you end up icing a team that just doesn't have the talent.

There is a cost to stunting the growth and development of some of the older prospects by keeping them in the AHL again this year -- and if this team finishes in 24th place in the process, that could set the rebuild back even further.

However, if it all results in this team being so 'not good enough' in 2014-15 that they end up drafting McDavid or Eichel, then instead of hurting the rebuild, you've now expedited the rebuild with the addition of an impact player that would likely step right into the Flames line-up next season.

A second year in the minors for Markus Granlund, who looks ready now, or a year in the minors for a player like Gaudreau, might delay by a year how quickly they become an impact NHL player but the bottom line is extra time spent playing in the AHL is never going to hurt you. The AHL is a superb development league and for the benefits of such, you just need to look at Detroit. The Red Wings have always been very patient with their young players. Like marinating a steak, the longer the better sometimes. Gustav Nyquist, for example, spent 137 games in the minors before breaking through last year and having a huge season.

Just think. All this time by saying he wanted to speed up the rebuild, perhaps this has been the master plan all along for Brian Burke, the Flames President of Hockey Operations. Never to be admitted to publicly, of course, but ask yourself, is Calgary really trying to get back into the playoffs on the coat tails of Byron, Setoguchi and Engelland for that matter. Or, are the odds of an expedited return to the post-season far better on the back of an 18-year-old stud like McDavid, which a line-up filled with journeymen/placeholders like Byron and Setoguchi, over Granlund and Gaudreau, might ultimately lead get you?

Knowing this city's infatuation with McDavid, I know what you're hoping.


  1. Solid analysis of the Setoguchi pick up. If the Flames have given up on Sven, a smart team would let him earn a roster spot, showcase his talent and then trade him (preferably for a good defensive prospect). I think they are going to grind him into the ground an lower his trade value further. BT has been quite disappointing so far and really is just a mouthpiece for BB.

    1. The Flames have yet to play a single game under Treliving and Mark Giordano, while having spoken to him multiple times on the phone, hasn't even met him in person. It's still so early that patience is my advice. Give Treliving an opportunity to do his thing. We're not privy to his plan so until he has a chance to execute that plan, I don't think it's fair to be critical. Next year this time, then we'll have a better sample to reflect on and even more so, two years from now. Let's just wait and see.