Friday, October 03, 2014

Always Earned, Never Given: The Inherent Challenge of Walking the Talk

Just imagine the outcry.

The Calgary Flames reveal their season-opening roster next Tuesday and it's comprised of 22 players -- 13 forwards, 7 defencemen, 2 goalies.
  • Nine over the age of 30
  • Average age of 28
  • Zero rookies

No rookies? None? Oh my. So, how's the rebuild going?

It seems outlandish to even consider yet with veterans Mikael Backlund, David Jones and Mason Raymond all returning to full practice on Friday, it's conceivable that this could happen.

An NHL roster can be as many as 23 players, but it doesn't have to be. We've often seen Calgary carry a smaller number than they're permitted.

In other words, in addition to the departure Friday of Michael Ferland to the AHL, that also could mean:
  • Sam Bennett - Back to the OHL.
  • Johnny Gaudreau - Down to Adirondack.
  • Sven Baertschi - See above.
  • Josh Jooris - See above.
  • Fan Excitement Level - See above.

To save you checking, I already did and two season tickets for the Adirondack Flames in the best seats at the Glens Falls Civic Center will set you back just a tad over $1,600 US. It's a pretty sweet deal. And West Jet would be happy to fly you there.

Big Decisions Looming

After the game on Thursday, Flames head coach Bob Hartley was asked about the push being made by the young players to make the hockey team and how the decision-making process is going.

"It's not getting any easier," he confessed. "There's going to be lots of long nights thinking about it and after tonight's game, the nights are just getting longer and longer."

Then, he trotted out those words we've been hearing throughout camp.

"Remember our slogan: It’s always earned, never given." Hartley continued. “We have some good, really young players who are coming up and right now they’re making statements."

Personally, I like the slogan. It's a fitting representation of the blue collar, roll-up-the-sleeves culture of hard work, all game, every game, which Hartley instilled on the team last year.

But it's one thing to talk the talk. Is Flames general manager Brad Treliving prepared to walk the talk?

With just one game to go -- Saturday night in Winnipeg, and with several of the kids having looked better, and in some cases far better than some of the club's older players, what will unfold in the next few days when the final decisions are made?

I feel like this is a giant poker game and sitting at the table wearing a visor, emotionless, are the Flames management team and coaching staff, who are about to be called. Now we'll find out when it comes to this whole 'earned vs. given' concept, if the club really does have a straight flush, or if they only have a pair of 3's and were bluffing.

Talking About David Jones

There have been a few players that over the past few weeks, fans have grown frustrated with for being outplayed by rookies. Two of the most popular targets of public scorn have been the oft-injured right-winger David Jones and late-summer free agent signing Devin Setoguchi, also a right-winger.

Jones is an interesting case. He's only played two pre-season games and last year, in his first season with the Flames, three separate injuries limited him to 48 games. He just can't seem to get and stay healthy for an extended period of time so through a combination of abstention and average play when he has dressed, he has fallen out of favour. The last time Jones was relatively healthy for an entire season was three years ago when he scored 20 goals for the Avalanche. The season prior, he notched a career-high 27 goals. Keep in mind that the Flames only had two 20-goal scorers last year and half of them are no longer on the team.

Making $4-million each of the next two seasons, Jones is tied with Jiri Hudler as the highest paid forward on the team. If he's healthy, he's going to be on the roster, don't kid yourself. While he'll probably continue to underwhelm fans offensively, put him on a line with  Matt Stajan and Curtis Glencross and you have a decent line defensively to match up against other team's top units.

Talking About Devin Setoguchi

The native of Taber, Alberta, has played in four pre-season games and has nothing to show for it. The general consensus is he has not looked very good in any of the games, the latest being last night when he made a couple bad giveaways and seemed to be caught in his own end most of the night.

Now I'm not prepared to call the Setoguchi signing a flop just yet. In the grand scheme of things, he's played the equivalent of one week of hockey by regular season standards. However, there have certainly been indications to why -- as a former top 10 draft pick theoretically entering his prime at age 27, and playing a position in right wing that's in high demand, that Setoguchi was out on the free agent market for 54 days before finally signing with someone. Did the Flames know something the other 29 teams do not. Doesn't look that way so far.

But, do I see Calgary putting him on waivers and sending him to the AHL? Not quite yet. Don't get me wrong, it would be simple to do. Signing Setoguchi didn't cost the team a thing. His $750,000 salary is relative pocket change -- merely a third of what the Flames paid Shane O'Brien to play in the minors last year. However, with a signing like this, a 'reclamation project' as it's been referred to, there is typically some ego involved at the management level of the team that took the chance. It's a stubbornness to prove the other 29 GMs wrong and make every attempt to rekindle the career of a guy that at one time definitely did have the skills and would be quite the coup if it worked out.

I can't see Calgary being prepared to abandon that reclamation attempt just yet and expect they'll give Setoguchi a month or two of regular season to turn things around before they consider waving the white flag and maybe walking away from the investment.

Counting Up the Bodies

So, if all the aforementioned injured veterans make it back in time. If you keep Setoguchi. If you keep Byron and why wouldn't you keep Byron. Sure, he's got the tiniest contract of them all at $600,000 so it could be buried in the minors no problem, but he's played with some spunk this pre-season. Plus, Byron is an ideal 'extra' forward that can come in/out of the line-up. He's older, he's not getting any better at this point in the AHL, you're not hurting his development by sitting him in a press box, he can play multiple positions and he's versatile in that in a pinch, he can play top six or bottom six.

Add in the other established regulars and you could have this for an opening group of 13 forwards come next Wednesday:

Hudler - Monahan - Raymond
Byron - Backlund - Colborne
Glencross - Stajan - Jones
Bollig - Bouma - McGrattan

Extra: Setoguchi

On defence, you sign Diaz which seems like a formality at this point and you have your seven veterans for the blue-line to go with the two established goalies in net.

Giordano - Brodie
Russell -Engelland
Smid - Wideman

Extra: Diaz


Just like that, you have a potential Flames opening-night roster that does not contain a single rookie. Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Can you just imagine what the fan reaction would be.

It Doesn't Make it Right

While it could be argued that based on this pre-season, a couple, if not more of the remaining kids have earned spots on this team over returning payers, that doesn't mean that they wouldn't also benefit from playing one level down, at least to begin the year. Bennett, Gaudreau, Baertschi and Jooris would all continue to develop just fine by heading to the destination noted above.

Bennett has only played two years in the OHL so it's not like he's too good for that league. Plus, participating in the World Juniors this year would be an attractive growth opportunity. The American Hockey League is an excellent and under-appreciated development and proving grounds for young players as explained in this previous posted piece featuring perspectives from Adirondack first-year coach Ryan Huska and others that have played in the AHL. So, if you haven't played there before (Gaudreau), or if you turned pro only a year ago (Jooris), or if you've been to the AHL before but a new coach and a new voice in Huska could be beneficial (Baertschi), then that route would be just fine.

However, it's not about that. The whole debate is not about where the best development would occur, the question of the day is have they been better than some of the veterans at this training camp and if so, are jobs actually being given and not earned?

So, Now What?

The Flames have painted themselves into a bit of a corner. How do they proceed and yet still remain true to that mantra they've been preaching all training camp, those same words that appear on the t-shirts the players have been wearing?

How do you move forward, personnel-wise, but maintain your integrity and remain true to that hardworking identity that you want your team and culture to be all about under the leadership of captain Mark Giordano? What roster decisions do you make to avoid essentially throwing Hartley under the bus considering more than anyone, he's been the one that's been beating the drum of 'Always earned, never given.'.

The easy way out is to keep at least two of Gaudreau, Jooris and Baertschi. Think about how motivating that message would be for the other prospects in the organization. To know that next year at training camp, you actually can legitimately win a job if you come in and have a great camp.

However, call me skeptical. I know this is what lots of fans want to see but I just can't see that happening on Oct. 8. It's not to say we won't get to that stage at a later point in the year where potentially Gaudreau, Jooris, Baertschi and Ferland will all find their way to Calgary, but I just don't see it happening immediately.

There are a couple of escape routes that Treliving and Co. have, to sidestep a potential PR mess if Setoguchi is kept over Gaudreau, for example.

Firstly, they can explain 'Always earned, never given' is in reference to over a reasonable body of work, of which a handful of games in September against mostly sub-par opposition just is not enough time. They can contend that players need more games in order to earn ice time and players like Setoguchi aren't being given ice time yet, they're still in their trial period. Not sure I buy it, but that's one way they could spin it.

Alternately, they could suggest the likes of Jones and Setoguchi have earned their ice time through their NHL body of work so far. Jones, a two-time 20-goal scorer.  Setoguchi, a 30-goal scorer once and a 20-goal scorer in two other seasons. The argument being they're not being given anything, they've earned it through past seasons of effective play. Again, not sure I'm buying it but this could be an explanation we hear.

Closing Thoughts

It's certainly going to be fascinating to see it all unfold in the days to come. Remember, the players are watching the games also -- and from a great vantage point of rink-side. Nobody has a better view. I sit on a hockey bench three or four times a week and trust me, you know who's playing well and who isn't. You know who has 'earned' minutes and who is having their minutes 'given' to them.

Jooris, who has been a pleasant surprise at camp, is a believer. He said it himself last night.

"They back up their word. The slogan, they mean it here: Always earned, never given," said Jooris after his two-goal performance in the 4-2 win over Winnipeg. "I just have to keep going out there and earning the ice and earning a spot on this team."

If Jooris does get sent down, I can't wait to hear the team's explanation, especially if he's joined on the flight by Gaudreau and Baertschi, and joined in the cab to the airport by Bennett.

That said, I remain confident that common sense will prevail and at least one kid from that group will stay and my money is on Gaudreau. He hasn't always been noticeable, but as he showed this week with his highlight-reel goal Tuesday and three assists Thursday, he can turn a game around in a split-second. Calgary has a desperate need for a game-breaker like that.

With three games in four nights right off the hop, opening the season with 14 forwards to have some options would be a logical approach so keep the faith that the only question is which rookie will make it, not will a rookie make it.

As for Jooris and Baertschi, there will be much chagrin around town initially if them both being demoted is how it shakes down, but if they've earned the opportunity to stay in camp until this late point, surely they'll also 'earn' a recall sooner than later in the regular season when injuries inevitably strike and reinforcements up front are needed.


Recent Related Flames Reading
  • Eight Lingering Questions as Training Camp Winds Down - With a week to go, there are a lot of questions still to be answered. I weigh in on a bunch ranging from how many NHL games will Sam Bennett play, to the situation in goal, to the topic of traditional jersey numbers and which one might be issued next.
  • 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!
  • 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. Glencross will be gone at the deadline because he wants to get paid , which he deserves and if Hudler has a good year again he maybe traded as well.

      1. Totally agree. People get transfixed on which teams will start the season with the Flames. Regardless of what that number is, there will be plenty that will get various lengths of auditions this year when injuries occur, trades are made, etc.

    2. Yeah... you post was a shock of reality to fan like me that want to see at least 3 kids in the line up.
      But if trades don't happen, I believe you are right.
      But what is your opinion? Like what you really think? Which kids you would like yo see in the lineup from the beginning?

      1. I still say the most ready kid is Markus Granlund. That concussion was a real disappointing thing to happen. While I think Gaudreau could benefit from a month or two in the AHL, I'm fine with him 'learning' at the NHL level also given he's 21. But prepare for wear-down with Gaudreau. He only played 40 hockey games last year. In fact, the average over the last three years was around there. The jump to 82 games in the NHL is going to result in him hitting the wall later in the year at times. Small guy, new league, more games, bigger players, increased physicality. It's not going to be easy but playing and learning in the NHL this year or at least a portion of this year does make him a better player in 2015-16 so that's a consideration.

    3. I dunno... why are a few games in September the barometer by which "earned" is decided? That seems like just an arbitrary line drawn by fans too impatient to see the future core to see the big picture. I'd be fine seeing the guys on one-ways as the starting NHL crew. Guys will get traded and guys will get traded so it's not like we won't see them at some point.

      1. This might be exactly how it shakes down, also.

    4. You have provided some good arguments that pave the veteran-heavy path. The Flames actions have pointed to this, since Treliving arrived. With the exception of letting Butler walk, every other move was to add NHL bodies. Signing all his RFA's, trading a pick for Bollig, and bringing in UFA's Raymond and Setoguchi. Make no mistake, the Flames did not back themselves into a corner, they wanted more vets and therefore more organizational depth.

      1. By having vets in place like a Setoguchi and a Byron, who they both signed for cheap, the club gave themselves a back-up plan if the kids did not "earn" themselves a NHL job. Now it comes down to did the young players do enough to earn an NHL job? I have no doubt some of them beat out a guy like Setoguchi in this limited pre-season body of work but is that how they'll be judged or will they look at that individual and ask if they did enough to supplant a veteran NHL player. Fair or not fair, Setoguchi may get a little rope given his years of NHL experience.

    5. I just wonder if we know what good hockey looks like. It's been too long living with mediocre players. When we finally draft well it becomes a shock to our system. Now we struggle between what were used to and what we have been given: better than mediocre young players

      1. We're certainly on the verge of a new era of Flames hockey in terms of the skill level of its top prospects. If you think about who could be on this team in 2015-16 -- Bennett, Gaudreau, Poirier, Granlund, that's all kind of raw skill that we're not used to, I entirely agree. Of that group, no one as of next year will be older than age 22. There's reason to be excited if you're a Flames fan, for sure. The interesting part will be what do they surround those players with as we know the management team's desire for Calgary to be hard to play against. Looking forward to 2015-16 as that's when I see the ramp-up beginning.

    6. Reading and listening to many fans' comments, I'd swear they lined up some of these kids and shot them down by firing squad, never to be seen again.