Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Eight Lingering Questions with Eights Days to go in Training Camp

With eight days to go until the Calgary Flames are part of the NHL's opening night (for the first time in four years) with a home date with the Vancouver Canucks, here are eight lingering questions soon to be answered.

Q1. How many regular season games will Sam Bennett play?

My prediction is three and I'll explain how I arrive at that number.

Sam Bennett has looked good so far, for sure. He will have a long and prolific NHL career in Calgary, for sure. This week as the Flames wrap up its pre-season schedule, he will probably also stand out. But does that mean that keeping him in the NHL this season -- just a few months removed from his 18th birthday, is the smart thing to do? Not in my opinion.

I fully expect Bennett to eventually be returned to the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs for a season that will include being a key member of Team Canada over the Christmas holidays when they play the World Junior Championships on home turf and try to win Canada's first gold medal in six years.

Bennett is not only a completely different style of player than Sean Monahan, his situation is also completely different than the position Monahan was in one year ago. For one, Monahan has played three years of OHL. Bennett has only played two. Monahan -- at the start of last season, was also over nine months older than Bennett will be at the start of this season. Then there's the size thing. Monahan was already up to 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds last October 1. Bennett, probably weighing in at around 180 right now, could still benefit from filling out his lanky frame a little bit more.

The real question is will Bennett see any NHL regular season games and if so, how many? As you know, he can play as many as nine before his entry-level contract kicks in. Otherwise, that ELC slides to next year.

The answer to this may come down to the health of Mikael Backlund, who is back skating with the Flames but has yet to return to full practice. My suspicion is Backlund won't be quiet ready for opening night. In that scenario, where Backlund needs a few more days, I can see Bennett being the placeholder for Backlund. That could mean playing in the Flames first three games, which come in a span of four nights.

After Backlund is good to go and if other centres Matt Stajan and Monahan are healthy, I see them returning Bennett to junior at that time rather than continue to play Bennett and playing one of the other centres out of position. Remember, also in the equation is Joe Colborne, who has been playing plenty of centre this pre-season.

Q2. Which unexpected Flames prospect will make it to the very last day of cuts?

There have been some off-the-radar players throughout training camp that have stepped up and gotten noticed. Of the 40 players remaining in camp, two of the biggest surprises for me would be Josh Jooris and Bill Arnold. AHL camp has begun under coach Ryan Huska and it would have been easy to ship Arnold out east along with the other college kids -- Kenny Agostino, Ben Hanowski, Bryce van Brabant. But that hasn't happened.

It doesn't get much fanfare, maybe because he played with Gaudreau last year so you looked at him differently, but Arnold plays a really sound defensive game and there will always be a spot for a player like him in the NHL if he can continue to develop. Good on face-offs, excellent on the penalty kill, Arnold's time isn't now but the longer he hangs around, it shows that the key decision-makers are also liking what they see.

Jooris, a big right-winger out of Union College, is coming off one season in the AHL. A late bloomer, he's already 24, he's been a real pleasant surprise in camp and continues to push the so-called established veterans on the right side. Specifically, David Jones and Devin Setoguchi. I wouldn't be surprised if Jooris gets a look at some point in Calgary. Meanwhile, expect him to be a key player and leader with the baby Flames.

Q3. Who gets the season-opening start in net?

Karri Ramo started the  season-opener last year, gave up four goals on 39 shots in a shootout loss in Washington, then oddly found himself nailed to the bench as Joey MacDonald reeled off five consecutive starts -- the second of which he gave up five goals on 28 shots in an overtime loss, yet still got the call the next game.

It's too early to anoint anyone a winner just yet between Ramo and Jonas Hiller but expect the next three games to be very influential in that decision. Ramo, easing his way back into the line-up after a minor injury, has played only three periods so far -- and that came over two games. But for what it's worth, he was dynmite making 30 of 31 saves during those two stints, which both came on the road and against pretty good Vancouver and Colorado teams.

Hiller has been merely average so far.

I'd give the edge to Ramo as the younger candidate, the guy with more upside and also factoring in the way he finished last season, which was very strong. Comparably, Hiller finished last season tumbling down to No. 3 on the Ducks depth chart. However, Hiller's here on a big ticket at $4.5-million so you know he'll see a lot of action, even if he's the guy wearing the ball cap on opening night.

Either way, with back-to-back games to start the season, expect them to split those first two assignments and getting the third game might be whoever looked best in their first game. Let the season-long competition for playing time begin.

Q4. How many regulars will begin the year on IR?

Injuries have certainly been one of the themes to the preseason across the league and it hasn't been any different here with Mikael Backlund's recovery from an abdominal strain the big one that everyone has their eye on.

We're just over a week from the start of the regular season and Backlund hasn't competed in full practice yet so we're quickly approaching a point where it's going to be unrealistic to expect him to be ready to go for opening night. He's far too important of a player and that type of injury is not one you want to rush back from or you could aggravate it and end up missing an extended period. With the Flames playing three times in the first four nights, I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see Backlund return until later on in that six-game road trip the Flames depart on right after the home opener.

The other injury concern is to Mason Raymond, who has a suspected groin injury and is listed as day-to-day. A short stint on the IR for Raymond could be possible for the same reasons mentioned above with Backlund. It will be a situation to monitor in the days to come.

Meanwhile, the other injuries not considered overly serious are to Ladislav Smid (infected tooth), Deryk Engelland (unspecified) and to the oft-injured David Jones (lower body).

Corey Potter is also returning from injury soon as is Tyler Wotherspoon but both could be AHL-bound. Morgan Klimchuk sprained his wrist last week and is out for a few weeks. But he was not in the mix to make the Flames this season and will be headed to Regina (WHL) as soon as he's recovered.

Q5. How many players from the Abbotsford Heat will graduate to the Flames opening night line-up?

It's been a long time since the AHL was the talent pipeline for the Flames it has seemingly become over night. Over the past five years, in fact, only four players have graduated to the NHL from Calgary's AHL team -- Lance Bouma, Paul Byron, TJ Brodie and Mikael Backlund.

In five seasons in Abbotsford, last season when the Heat went 43-25-8 was their best record. It was unfortunate that they drew Grand Rapids in the opening round of the Calder Cup playoffs as the Griffins were a better team than their record showed due to many players playing up with Detroit much of the year as the Red Wings battled injuries. The result, unfortunately, was a first round exit for the Heat.

From that talented team, will anyone graduate to start the year in Calgary in 2014-15? In an interesting exercise earlier in the summer when I went back and listed off the players each year the Flames have successfully graduated from the AHL, I speculated at who the leading candidates would be to graduate from last year's team and Markus Granlund and Max Reinhart topped the list. Next were Tyler Wotherspoon, Michael Ferland and Sven Baertschi.

However, Granlund's concussion suffered against Vancouver on Friday may impact what was a serious push from him to make the team. I think Reinhart has been very steady so far and he is playing with so much more confidence and assertiveness than we've seen from him before. It wouldn't surprise me if Reinhart starts the year in Calgary with the other threat being Ferland, who has played very well right from the start of rookie camp. Ferland has not looked like a player that missed the final four-and-a-half months of last season due to a knee injury.

As I wrote here last week, Baertschi came to camp rejuvenated and he has definitely taken some strides. I don't like his odds of starting the year in Calgary but a good week coming up will go a long way to leaving a positive impression on general manager Brad Treliving and making sure he's near the top of the list of options when the Flames do need to call up a player when injuries inevitably strike.

Of course, if Johnny Gaudreau makes the Flames and/or if Backlund and Raymond are healthy and ready to go, you run out of forward roster spots pretty quickly so there's an outside chance, no players from last year's Heat will start the year in Calgary. However, it's not all about just starting the year, it's who ends up seeing significant time in the NHL this season and by year's end, there could be three or four in that category.

Q6. Who will be the seventh defenceman?

Assuming Ladislav Smid recovers from his tooth infection in time, the top six are set with Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie, Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, Smid and Deryk Engelland. Even if Tyler Wotherspoon, recovering from shoulder surgery, is ready for opening night, that more than likely leaves him beginning the year anchoring the blue-line and playing big minutes in Adirondack.

The role of seventh defenceman with the Flames will be a guy that's in-and-out of the line-up and is destined to go to a veteran with right-hand shooting Switzerland native Raphael Diaz, in camp on a try-out, the leading candidate. Others competing for that role include Corey Potter, Sheldon Brookbank and Nolan Yonkman. However, from what I've seen, Diaz is the guy and let me tell you, he can hammer the puck. He leads the Flames with 14 shots on goal in the pre-season and he looks like a guy that can play in all situations and that versatility will come in handy. He could end up playing a lot this season and who knows, if he signs a one-year deal, maybe he becomes a trade chip later on. Diaz was dealt at the trade deadline last year, fetching a fifth round pick in return when Vancouver flipped him to the New York Rangers.

Q7. What will happen with Johnny Gaudreau?

This is certainly the big debate of 2014 with some very passionate opinions on both sides. What both sides need to acknowledge is regardless of what happens, this is a way better debate than the old days. I remember when the same discussion swirled around Jeff Cowan and Ron Petrovicky and are they ready to play in the NHL. How to proceed with talented prospects like Gaudreau, Bennett, and Ferland are good 'problems' to have.

Predictably, the points haven't come as easily in the NHL preseason for Gaudreau as they came in the Young Stars tournament. In fact, through three games, Gaudreau has yet to pick up a point. Yet, it would be criminally wrong to judge his game solely on that, obviously, as he's still been getting plenty of chances, is piling up plenty of shots on goal (13, second on the team) and he doesn't look like a guy playing at a level above where he should be.

This week will be a particularly interesting one for Gaudreau as he'll be playing games against line-ups much closer to what the Flames will face in the regular season.

The points I keep coming back to is what's the rush? No harm would come from starting him in the AHL for a month or two and letting him experience some offensive success down there and get comfortable with the physicality of the pro game and the less operating space he'll experience at this level. Maybe it's 10 games, or 20, or 30, but ease him in, let him show he's too good for the AHL and then bring him up. It's a preferred way of handling a potential star player than starting him in the NHL and then having to send him down after he struggles. That can be hard on one's confidence. If the Flames have learned anything from their handling of Baertschi, they'll play it safe and start Gaudreau in Adirondack and have him earn his way up.

Bottom line and I've stated this multiple times. What Gaudreau has already done for me is change the question. No longer is it will he be an NHL player? Now it's only a matter of when will he become an NHL player. If it's not Oct. 8, it could still very likely be this calendar year, fans just need to be patient.

Q8. What will be the next 'traditional number' issued?

It was at the end of last season when president of hockey operations Brian Burke stated that starting this year, the Flames would be wearing "traditional numbers". The rationale was if those numbers were good enough for the great hockey teams of the 50s and 60s, than it's good enough for the Flames. Sure enough, during the summer, Baertschi went 47 to 27, Jones went 54 to 19, Wotherspoon went 56 to 26, etc.

So, who's next? Candidates include Gaudreau (No. 53), Bennett (No. 63), Ferland (No. 79), Reinhart (No. 59), Granlund (No. 60) and Diaz (No. 36).

The other question is what is the exact criteria for a traditional number? Paul Byron (No. 32) is the one outlier right now if you view traditional as numbers 1-31. But then again, there aren't many numbers left in that batch. With No. 9 (Lanny McDonald) and 30 (Mike Vernon) retired, that leaves 2, 3, 12, 13, 14, 34 and 39 as the only available numbers under 40.

However, surely you can cross 12 (Jarome Iginla) and 34 (Miikka Kiprusoff) off the list. Presumably No. 13 is earmarked for Gaudreau and my own personal theory is Doug Gilmour's old Calgary 39 is waiting for Bennett, who wore Gilmour's old Toronto No. 93 in Kingston.

Nobody has worn No. 14 since Fleury so that seems unlikely to be issued also. Can you imagine Ferland making the team and wearing No. 2?  Egad. A forward wearing jersey number 2 is about as anti-traditional as you can get. Maybe Diaz switches to 3 and Ferland takes 36?

My hunch is there is not any immediate number changes other than maybe Diaz. Instead of anointing any of the Flames prospects that may open the season in Calgary as here for good, all the aforementioned players keep their current number and by the time they've established themselves as ready to stay in the NHL -- two, three, four months from now, maybe by then due to a trade or two, some other number possibilities might have opened up. Don't forget that Monahan wore No. 20 in junior. If Curtis Glencross, a pending UFA, ends up getting dealt this year, does Monahan switch? That would be a tricky one PR-wise given all the No. 23 jerseys out there already but it could happen. Although Monahan doesn't strike me as a guy to fussed about his jersey number. We'll see.


Recent Related Flames Reading

  • Bennett, Gaudreau and Monahan: Be Excited About the Flames Bright Future - These are exciting times in Calgary and my message to all those long-suffering hockey fans is enjoy it, damn it. Sam Bennett, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan make up the most exciting forward trio the Flames have had in over 25 years so enjoy it!
  • 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


  1. My answers, summary of course:
    1 - 0 or 3.
    2 - Jooris
    3 - Ramo
    4 - 2 or 3 ( Backlund, Jones (that would be good for the team) and Mason
    5 - 2 out of these 3: Reinhart, Gaudreau, Ferland
    6 - Diaz. Even more, he will get Engellan spot soon.
    7 - Starts at NHL, demoted to AHL and back to NHL
    8 - Diaz

  2. I was surprised to see # 2 wasn't retired. But, hey, Jean Beliveau wore #4!