Friday, September 12, 2014

2014 Penticton Young Stars Tournament: 10 Calgary Flames Story Lines

This weekend's rookie tournament in Penticton, B.C., isn't the Stanley Cup playoffs. Not even close. But, for fans of the Calgary Flames, dare to dream that this electric, fast-paced event is a sneak preview of playoff appearances soon to come.

Might that mean the return of NHL spring hockey to Calgary in 2015? Unlikely -- despite the rosy and optimistic picture I offered up here. But, flip the calendar ahead to the spring of 2016 and the post-season starts becoming a distinct possibility. Fast forward to April 2017 and the playoffs become an expectation.

In part one of my two-part Calgary Flames Penticton Primer, which you can read here, I identified 10 players that I'll be watching out for this weekend. It's not necessarily the 10 most talented players, but it's a group of prospects that for me, pack the most intrigue.

Today, in part two, I take a look at 10 Flames story lines, which I will be following this weekend.


1. Skipping School

Add them all up and Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold and Kenny Agostino have probably been to at least 10 Flames development camps. But, this will be their first rookie tournament. It's about time.

I'm sure there is a part of them that misses being on campus. That will especially be the case for Gaudreau, who was back at Boston College just a short while ago to help his brother Matt move into his dorm. But their new reality is they have jobs now, they are pro hockey players. They've each signed contracts that come with a pretty hefty 'bonus' (in the form of their NHL salary) if or when they can find their way to the show.

There are a lot of 18 and 19-year-old kids at this tournament. By that measurement, the college guys like these three and Bryce Van Brabant also must feel like seasoned vets. What I'm curious about is will they play like that. Will their older age, maturity and extra experience translate on the ice?


2. Aligning the Stars

This is my favourite part of the weekend -- guessing at who will play with who. There's no better way to pass the time than to mull over and conjure up various line combos that all work for different reasons. It's one of the great pastimes for a hockey fan. You grab a napkin or use the back of an envelope and start jotting down groups of numbers. For example, how about this for speculation:
  • 53-46-86 (Gaudreau-Arnold-Jooris) - The all-NCAA line? Maybe. Immediate chemistry with Gaudreau and Arnold and playing the role of Kevin Hayes is Josh Jooris.
  • 52-63-68 (Klimchuk-Bennett-Padakin) - Lots of talent there. Klimchuk and Bennett know each other well and Padakin just goes to the net.
  • 79-60-71 (Ferland-Granlund-Smith) - Slick Granlund gets plenty of room to operate courtesy of a couple of big bookends in Ferland and Smith. Intriguing.

Then, Adirondack coach Ryan Huska, who will be running the bench in Penticton, will decide on the actual trios and we all get to mercilessly evaluate, conveniently forgetting about the fact that immediate chemistry is virtually impossible given their Friday morning game-day skate is the first time the players will have been on the ice together, and then they play right away on Friday night.

Ultimately, who plays with who in this tournament means very little. It will likely change from game-to-game anyway. Although will Huska try keeping certain pairings together? That can be a popular route to go. Creating some familiarity with a couple C/LW pairings, for example, could be something for Huska to build upon once he starts assembling the Adirondack line-up in the near future.


3. Who Is Going to Play Right Wing?

Yes, you can stir up that debate again. The one where we lament and ponder the lack of depth at right wing. Seems the issues the Flames are experiencing at the NHL level with lack of right-handed shooters exists also at the prospect level.

Now the absence of Emile Poirier hurts. Still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, Poirier shoots left but he prefers the off-wing so there's one top candidate. But remove him and looking at the LW's versus the RW's is a lot like looking at the CFL's Western Conference vs. the Eastern Conference -- all the power and top players are on the left side.
  • Left Wing - Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Klimchuk, Michael Ferland, Kenny Agostino, Bryce Van Brabant
  • Right Wing - Hunter Smith, Austin Carroll, Garnet Hathaway, Josh Jooris, Pavel Padakin

Just like two Canadian Football League teams will -- fair or not fair, finish top two in the CFL's Eastern Conference, same thing here with two lesser prospects on the right wing getting the chance to play on the top two lines and end up playing with some special players in the likes of Gaudreau, Klimchuk, Granlund and Bennett.


4. Battle for the Open Forward Spot Begins

Call it "Open Forward Spot Idol" if you will. Barring injury, a trade, or the unexpected demotion to the minors of a player like Paul Byron, there appears to be just one clear-cut open roster spot to open the season with the Flames and this is at forward, or arguably at 'extra forward'. There will be practices and NHL exhibition games still to come but a favourable first impression in Penticton could go a long way to solidifying one's chances of being on the big club when Calgary heads out for a six-game road trip on Oct. 9.

While there are older or most established guys not in Penticton that could be in the running for the role of extra forward like Sven Baertschi, Ben Hanowski, Corban Knight and Max Reinhart, what if injuries strike and more are needed?

As I explained the other day in my look at whether or not there was opportunity, there absolutely is -- or will be, eventually, because injuries are almost inevitable and when that occurs and perhaps one or two of Calgary's top nine forward roles open up, whoever has seized the top rung(s) of the depth chart will be getting on a plane headed to Calgary. The battle to be on that top run begins in Penticton.


5. Who's Next on the Defencemen Depth Chart

At least on paper, the Flames defence looks set: Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid and Deryk Engelland. Barring a trade or injury, those six in some configuration will make up the club's three D pairings.

Where it gets murky is after that. When it comes to seventh defenceman, there are a lot of spare parts around these days in the likes of Mark Cundari, Corey Potter and training camp invitees Raphael Diaz and Sheldon Brookbank. But, all of those guys can be considered short-term solutions.

Meanwhile, if you peer into the prospect pipeline, a really good battle is developing to be the best of the next group of prospects. Tyler Wotherspoon, who looked just fine in his extended NHL audition last season, has the edge for the No. 1 spot in that queue but there are three others not far behind him in Patrick Sieloff, Brett Kulak and Ryan Culkin. Of those three, what order do you rank them? That's where it gets really interesting. Expect this to be a three-way battle that starts this weekend and will continue all season with all of them likely bound for the baby Flames.

Why the pecking order matters is when you get late in this season, the IR begins to grow, and you reach that point in the year where it's time to audition some of the kids, who gets the call?  It really is all about those three. John Ramage could factor in but I see him as a tier below. Meanwhile, not much else is coming for the moment. Rushan Rafikov remains in Russia, Keegan Kanzig has at least one more year of WHL remaining and 2014 draft pick Brandon Hickey is on his way to Boston University so he's two or three years away minimum from turning pro.


6. Putting Themselves on the Radar

Of the handful of guys that are attending Calgary's rookie camp on a tryout, which of them will stand out and maybe earn themselves a contract, or at least put themselves on the Flames radar to get another look down the road?

These guys are going to get an opportunity to play this weekend, no question, and much like evaluations in minor hockey, it won't be after any real opportunity to build up any chemistry beforehand. Calgary will have all of one ice time -- Friday's game day morning skate, before jumping right into game action against the Jets. It's on these young players to go out there and do something to get noticed and stand out.

Three invitees that I'll have my eye on are defenceman Jason Fram of the Spokane Chiefs, ex-Hitmen right-winger Pavel Padakin, who was on his way to the KHL when his team's arena burnt down forcing the team to cease operations, and 6-foot-3 goalie Matt Mancina from the Guelph Storm.

Fram, who I also wrote about in my Ten Flames Prospects to Watch in Penticton had a breakout season last year offensively going 6-51-57 in 72 games. Padakin, who was born in the Ukraine, was 27-27-54 in 66 games with the Hitmen. Eighteen-year-old Mancina, in a back-up role, was a tidy 17-5-3 with a 2.43 goals-against average and a stingy .919 save percentage.

Will these three show something special, or will another unknown step up and get noticed?


7. Rekindling of the 'Battle of Alberta'

Darnell Nurse vs. Sean Monahan
Leon Draisaitl vs. Sam Bennett

Selected with consecutive picks in the first round over the last two NHL drafts, some individual rivalries have already begun and maybe, just maybe, this will soon lead to the Battle of Alberta returning to the cherished rivalry it once was.

Joni Ortio is 23 years old and in one of my favourite fun facts, he was born on the same day as the last Flames-Oilers playoff game. You will remember that night, unfortunately. Game 7, Esa Tikkanen with the overtime winner. You want to know what has happened to what once was the greatest rivalry in hockey? That's what has happened. Calgary and Edmonton haven't met in a meaningful hockey game in what seems like forever. In fact, not only have the two teams not met in the playoffs during the lifetime of most players that will be on the ice this weekend, they have both made the playoffs in the same season only one over that 23-year span. ONCE!

It's been an abysmal run for both teams but it appears both are finally headed the right direction and here's hoping the Calgary-Edmonton game in Penticton on Saturday night will be a sneak preview in terms of intensity and personnel, to many Flames-Oilers playoff games to come over the next 10-15 years.


8. Continuation of the 'Battle with Vancouver'

Jake Virtanen vs. Sam Bennett
Hunter Shinkaruk vs. Emile Poirier

Unfortunately, Virtanen and Poirier are both injured so these individual battles between first round picks with similar attributes, who were drafted the same year and right around the same spot, won't be seen this weekend. That said, January 18, 2014, the night of the infamous brawl at Rogers Arena is a night etched in the memory of all Flames fans and while nobody here this weekend would have been in the line-up that night, they'll all know what happened and will be very familiar with the fiery rivalry that has been in place the past decade between the Canucks and the Flames. Let's be honest, it's become everything the 'Battle of Alberta' used to be.

Look for Monday night's game between these two teams to be packed with emotion as prospects look to leave an impression in the final game of the tournament and do so against a major rival. Bennett is known as a rat on the ice and you'd expect him to be at his thorny best in this match-up.


9. Debut of Wills and Loubardias

For 33 years, hall-of-famer Peter Maher was a fixture as the radio play-by-play voice for the Flames. However, he's retired and there's a new guy in town in 38-year-old Derek Wills, who much like the players and coaches that make up Calgary's roster, has reached the NHL only after paying his dues in the minors. In broadcasting for 20 years, Wills spent the past 13 seasons at the mic of the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs.

His career has been a fascinating journey and I enjoyed having the opportunity to tell his story in this feature I wrote last weekend. The last goal called by Maher was Gaudreau's first NHL goal. We'll soon find out who will earn the distinction of scoring the first goal called by Wills, who will be joined in Penticton by the very knowledgeable and all-round nice guy Peter Loubardias, back for his second year as colour commentator. All three games will be broadcast on Sportsnet Fan 960 radio. If you're watching the games via the Flames website, app, or YouTube channel, Pat Steinberg will have the call.


10. Desperately Seeking Truculence

It began with the selection of hulking 6-foot-7 right winger Hunter Smith with the Flames second pick of the second round in the 2014 NHL Draft. It continued later that same day with the acquisition of bruising fourth line forward Brandon Bollig from the Chicago Blackhawks. Then, of course, on July 1's free agent frenzy, there was the much scrutinized signing of tough defenceman Deryk Engelland to a jaw-dropping three-year/$8.75-million deal.

Brian Burke, President of Hockey Operations, wants Calgary to be big and hard to play against. Brad Treliving, Flames GM, is cut from that same fabric.

The theme is obvious so if you're an invitee to rookie camp, hope you can take a hint. Same applies to those already under contract and trying to climb up the depth chart. I would fully expect some spicey games, especially against rivals like Vancouver and Edmonton, and am interested to see who brings that coveted blend of toughness but skill also.


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Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Penticton 2014: Ten Prospects (not named Johnny Gaudreau) to Watch - Johnny Gaudreau is obvious, you always keep your eye on him. But who else should you be watching out for?  Here are min profiles of 10 Flames prospects (or invitees) that I am intrigued to see play in the Young Stars rookie tournament.
  • 2014-15 Calgary Flames Roster: Greater Opportunity Than Meets the Eye - With the signing most recently of Devin Setoguchi and Corey Potter, the training camp invites of Raphael Diaz and Sheldon Brookbank, is there a 'genuine opportunity' for a prospect to make the Flames roster? Contrary to what many think, I say there absolutely is and I explain why.
  • Meet New Flames Radio Voice Derek Wills - Derek Wills' long journey to the NHL has been anything but easy. He's been rejected, left on the curb by Claude Julien, and in the early days -- with his Dad and Grandma paying his costs, he resorted to buying his own air time and creating his own play-by-play job. Meet Peter Maher's successor and appreciate his 20-year journey to the NHL.
  • Stick TAP: Edition 2:  In the latest instalment of my Calgary Flames Q&A, I answer a variety of your submitted questions including what does the future hold for Bob Hartley, which Flames prospect will be a Calgary Flame the longest, and who is on my all-time top five list of the five players Calgary let slip away.
  • Dream A Little Dream: Can the Flames be a Playoff Team? - How soon we forget that over the final half of the 2013-14 season, Calgary was a playoff team. True story. They were a top-eight team in the west over the final 34 games, ahead of both Chicago and L.A.. Here are 12 things that need to (mostly) happen to repeat that.

2 comments:

  1. Can't wait man! I am leaving earlier from work today! Are you going to tweet during the game?
    I will comment your comments there! Hockey is back!

    ReplyDelete
  2. First game gone... my 3 starts: Granlund, Ferland and Gadreau. Now I understand why they are bringing a lot of D's to try out on main camp. Our D kids still need a lot of development.

    ReplyDelete