I mean my goodness, how long have hockey fans in this city been starving for a fresh, new group of young stars to cheer for wearing the Flaming 'C'? Actually, never mind a "group", how long had the residents of Flames Nation waited for just one new star before Sean Monahan burst onto the scene last season and with 22 goals, made an immediate impact.
I suppose you could count Dion Phaneuf in there but if you're talking strictly about a young, dynamic, game-changing star forward, the wait has pretty much been since the arrival of 18-year-old Jarome Iginla and he's 37 now. So, yes, it has been a while.
Greg Nemisz? Miss. Kris Chucko? Miss. Eric Nystrom and Chuck Kobasew? Hardly the definition of a star. Oleg Saprykin? Nope. Rico Fata and Daniel Tkaczuk? Uh-uh.
But these times, they are a changing, and thank goodness for that.
This past week in consecutive games at the Scotiabank Saddledome, the Calgary Flames unveiled for the first time on home ice their two newest, shiniest and most prized possessions. Last Sunday, it was left-winger Johnny Gaudreau. On Thursday, it was 2014 fourth overall pick Sam Bennett.
Both Came as Advertised
"With the puck, it's the same whether he plays in rookie camp or college or at the NHL level, he has that ability with just a little head fake or shoulder fake that he's doing to push off defenders and suddenly he has 10-15 feet in front of him that wasn't there two seconds before," Hartley said after his home-ice debut against Edmonton. "You can't teach this. This is a gift and he has it. Very poised, very patient with the puck."
"Sam is skating as fast — with or without the puck — and there are very few players that can do this. His sense for the puck and how creative he is, it's just unbelievable. He's fast in tight areas like I rarely see with any young players."
These three are easily the most talented group of young forwards the Flames have assembled in over two-and-a-half decades and that even factor in a bunch of others that are right there as well like the very talented Markus Granlund, 21, who does a ton of things well and looks NHL-ready, or Sven Baertschi, just turning 22, who still has an ocean-sized upside and is showing signs that he's rejuvenated and his game has become more well-rounded. Oh yeah, then there's those other two 2013 first rounders -- 19-year-old Emile Poirier, who had 53 goals last year between the AHL and QMJHL and talented Calgary-born sniper Morgan Klimchuk, who has plenty of promise. Wow, what an assortment of riches
Unadulterated Excitement is Warranted
So yes, Flames fans, it's absolutely OK to be giddy these days. Be pumped, be fired up, be ecstatic. Revel in the talent Calgary is putting on the ice this September and feel no need to apologize for doing so.
Smile, brag, embrace it, wring your hands in anticipation of what the future holds. Spend all day on YouTube watching and re-watching the best of Gaudreau. Go to the Flames website and re-watch the highlights from Bennett's debut. Daydream about the return of the Red Mile, hockey in May, and seeing Flames car flags everywhere. Go and buy a No. 23, 53 or 63 jersey -- or save yourself the cost of a seamstress later and in the case of the latter two, go straight to No. 13 or Doug Gilmour's old No. 39. (Seriously, was it just co-incidence that this number wasn't issued to anyone during training camp while others around it -- 38, 40, 41, 42, all were?)
And for those descendents of Debbie Downer out there, who try and tell you to simmer down, temper your expectations, curb your enthusiasm, you just snub your nose at them. Let's be honest, these are the same people that go to the ice cream shop with over 100 flavours and order a vanilla cone. These are the types of folks, who when renting a car, would turn down the offer of a free upgrade to a Mustang convertible because it's not 'practical'.
The bottom line is Monahan has already arrived and just continues to get better. If anyone is still skeptical about Gaudreau, they haven't been paying very close attention. And you can see plain as day when you watch him play that Bennett is as 100 percent legit as they come.
Looking Back Historically
As you salivate in anticipation of the day in the not-so-distant future when the current 'big three' are all in the Flames line-up together, let's reflect on how far the team has come. Sometimes to fully appreciate what you have, you need to remember back to what you didn't have.
As you reminisce, remember that these are the best comparables from over the past 34 years. Not listed are all those forgettable years in which young talent at forward for Calgary was minimal, bordering on non-existent. Do you remember 2008-09? That year, your 'big three' forward prospects would have been Brett Sutter, Kris Chucko and Dustin Boyd. Or 1993-94? That year, future hope rested with Sandy McCarthy, Robert Reichel and Wes Walz.
- C Sam Bennett, 19
- C Sean Monahan, 21
- LW Johnny Gaudreau, 22
- C Matthew Lombardi, 21
- RW Chuck Kobasew, 21
- LW Oleg Saprykin, 22
- RW Jarome Iginla, 22
- C Marc Savard. 22
- C Jason Wiemer, 23
- RW Jarome Iginla, 20
- C Cory Stillman, 23
- RW Valeri Bure, 23
- RW Theoren Fleury, 20
- C Joe Nieuwendyk, 22
- LW Gary Roberts, 22
- C Joe Nieuwendyk, 21
- LW Gary Roberts, 21
- RW Brett Hull, 23
- C Dan Quinn, 19
- LW Richard Kromm, 20
- C Carey Wilson, 22
- C Dan Quinn, 18
- C Jim Peplinski, 23
- RW Hakan Loob, 23
I think we can all agree that other than those years with Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and either Brett Hull or Theoren Fleury, the Bennett-Monahan-Gaudreau trio is the most promising forward group Calgary has ever had. Considering how those Flames teams in the late 80s fared in terms of win-loss record and post-season appearances -- including winning one Stanley Cup, a return to perennially being a playoff contender once again cannot be that far away given the solid foundation Calgary has in these three character kids.
Organizationally, does the line-up still have holes? Absolutely. Will the Flames be a Stanley Cup favourite starting next season? Absolutely not. Defence depth is still a concern and who Calgary's goaltender of the future is, is still very much an unknown.
However, having a nucleus of highly skilled, huge-upside forwards like this -- at such a young age, is not something we've seen very often since Calgary got an NHL team. So, celebrate it and just enjoy it for what it is -- and that is a terrific start and a real exciting and promising first step towards what could eventually be a return to glory for this proud franchise.
Recent Related Flames Reading
- Replacing Mikael Backlund - Who are the Favourites? Sidelined to begin training camp with an abdominal strain, concern is growing around Mikael Backlund's health. If he ends up on injured reserve, here are nine candidates to replace him complete with odds -- from Markus Granlund (2-to-1) to Turner Elson (100-to-1).
- Book of Lists: A Flames-themed Assortment of Top 3's - Who could surprise this season? Who could regress? Which prospect is most NHL-ready? Who will be Adirondack's MVP? Who enters a make-or-break season? Who could be the first player traded? Predictions for all of these questions and more as training camp gets underway.
- Huska and the Role of the AHL: Preparing Players for the NHL - Johnny Gaudreau looks like he's ready. Markus Granlund says he's ready. Sam Bennett thinks he's ready. But are they? Ryan Huska explains there's more to being ready than just on-ice skills. Also, Granlund, Michael Ferland and others talk about what they've learned about the AHL
- 2014-15 Flames Roster: More Opportunity Than Meets the Eye - Despite the late signing of Devin Setoguchi and Corey Potter, the training camp invites of Raphael Diaz and Sheldon Brookbank, there is still opportunity for multiple prospects to force their way into Calgary's line-up this year. I look at what the roster could be.