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Friday, April 25, 2014

The Big-Time Emergence of Max Reinhart

These are changing times for the Calgary Flames organization and in a good way… a very good way.

For an indication of how vastly different the prospect cupboard looks today, you need only look at the No. 1 line that Abbotsford coach Troy Ward will deploy Friday night when the Heat, on home ice, kick off their best-of-five opening round series with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

  • At left wing, Max Reinhart. Having just turned 22 in February, he’s coming off a phenomenal year in which he tripled his goals and points total from a year ago and established a team record with 63 points.
  • At centre, talented Finn Markus Granlund. Barely 21 -- he just celebrated a birthday on April 16. His 25 goals in 52 games was the third-best goals-per-game in the AHL for a player his age in franchise history. Only Theoren Fleury (1988-89) and Bruce Eakin (1983-84) had more productive years.
  • At right wing, fresh out of major junior, 19-year-old Emile Poirier. After a second round exit in the QMJHL playoffs, he joined the Heat for the final weekend of the regular season and made an immediate impact with two goals and two assists in two games. This coming off a 50-goal season with Gatineau.
(Read my in-depth feature on Emile Poirier, posted on April 23)

The most encouraging part is all three of them are home-grown Calgary Flames draft picks – Reinhart (3rd round in 2010, 64th), Granlund (2nd round in 2011, 45th) and Poirier (1st round in 2013, 22nd).

Comparably, when the Heat were last in the AHL playoffs two seasons ago, the top line was comprised of journeymen Ben Walter (27), Hugh Jessiman (28) and Jon Rheault (25). All of them, along with leading scorer Krys Kolanos (30), were brought in from other organizations.

“I've only played on two pro teams now but this has been the best group of guys I've seen in an American Hockey League dressing room, for sure,” said Reinhart, when I spoke with him by telephone earlier this week. “It's fun coming into the room every day here and playing with some pretty good players.”

A Breakout Season

Reinhart’s emergence offensively has been one of the organization’s great success stories. A comparison of his AHL stats from the past two years paints a vivid picture of just how big his progression was this season:

  • 2012-13: 67 games, 7 g, 14 a, 21 pts, minus-26
  • 2013-14: 66 games, 21 g, 42 a, 63 pts, plus-6

“I was able to be more consistent with my game this year, I was able to show up and play good games more nights than not, and I was playing with some players throughout the year that were very good offensively and I also picked up a lot from some of the older guys that were around,” said Reinhart. “Plus I got some confidence and some experience from going up a few times. It was a good growing year for me.”

The validity of the plus-minus rating will always be argued, but for Reinhart, you get the sense last year’s minus-26 weighed on him. It was fourth-worst in the league, out of over 1,200 players.

“Not getting scored on as much. That has always been a strong point in my game and last year, for whatever reason, it wasn't,” said Reinhart. “I'm happy with the way that I've been able to change that around, especially because I was moving positions this year.”

The position change saw him settle in as a left-winger, after spending his hockey career up until this year as a centre.

“Being able to learn a new position was something I took pride in and I'm glad I had the opportunity to experience that,” Reinhart said. “At first it’s an adjustment because you're getting the puck in different areas of the rink but as the year went on, I got more and more comfortable. I think I can I play either position on any given net and that only helps your chances of getting into a line-up.”

Knocking at the Door

Reinhart had three short stints with the Flames in 2013-14 playing two, two and four games respectively during those call-ups.

The last trip to Calgary came in March where he got to play on a line with a couple familiar faces – Paul Byron, who he’s played with over the last two years, and Granlund, who he has been with for all of the second half of this season.

“Obviously, having chemistry with guys makes it a little bit easier to play the game,” said Reinhart, who had two assists in his eight NHL games. “The main thing is that every time I've been called up, just getting that experience has been a huge help for me when I come back down.”

Included was the only assist on Granlund’s first NHL goal on March 5.  The two have quickly become quite a formidable pairing, whatever level they’re at.

Of Granlund’s last 15 goals (13 in the AHL, 2 in the NHL), Reinhart has assisted on 11 of them. Of the other four, one he was still on the ice for and the other three came shorthanded. Now that’s chemistry.

“He's highly skilled, he thinks the game well. He skates and moves the puck at a high speed, and obviously he has a little bit of a nose for the net,” said Reinhart, who was put on a line with Granlund starting in late December. “You just look for him when you're out there and he's usually able to make some plays.”

When Reinhart was reassigned to Abbotsford this last time, it was due to the return of Curtis Glencross and Kevin Westgarth. Rather than sulk, he went down, determined to get better.

“It sucks to be sent back down a level but you have to understand that you're still a young player that has to grow and prove yourself and I just have to keep playing the same way and in many ways try to improve on how I have been playing down here,” said Reinhart, who's dad Paul had 444 points in 517 career games with the Flames in the 80s. “Every time I've been sent down, that's been the attitude I've tried to take into it.”

Fully Focused on the Post-Season

With the number of free agent forwards that could end up departing the Flames this summer – Mike Cammalleri, TJ Galiardi and Westgarth to name three with uncertain futures, you couldn’t blame Reinhart, considering the superb year he’s had, if he said he was already looking forward to 2014 Flames training camp.

But instead, he’s focused fully on the prize at hand, which is the AHL playoffs and pursuit of the Calder Cup.

“There is still a lot more work to do to get to the next level and the playoffs is a good test for myself and a lot of guys in this organization right now,” said Reinhart.

Past playoff experience Reinhart will be drawing from will be from 2011 when the Kootenay Ice were the WHL champions and reached the semi-final of the Memorial Cup.

“It gives you the experience of winning. Maybe it’s not in the same league and same level but it’s still four rounds of having to beat a team four times and that's not easy to do,” said Reinhart, who had 15 goals in 19 playoffs games that year. “I know what the grind is like. It seems like a slow process at the time but it's the time of the year that is the most fun. You play the regular season to get into the playoffs so I think it's a lot easier to get up for these kinds of games and really test yourself every time you step on the ice.”

Grand Rapids, the defending champions, will be a difficult match-up for Abbotsford. The Griffins are also a bit of an inspirational story if you’re a young hockey prospect. Nine players in the line-up for the Detroit Red Wings this week, playing against the Boston Bruins, played in Grand Rapids last season – eight of them were in uniform the night they hoisted the Calder Cup.

“The AHL playoffs are a good stepping stone -- if you're successful, to make it to the NHL, and that Grand Rapids team obviously showed that,” said Reinhart. “Our team, as a whole, has played very consistently throughout the year and I'm pretty excited to see what our line-up can do in a playoff series.”

Oh, Brother

Sandwiched in-between the playoffs and training camp will be the NHL Entry Draft in June. Max, however, was smart enough not to bite when I asked if there was any chance – any chance at all, his brother Sam could somehow fall to the Flames at No. 4.

“The one thing I've learned about drafts is you just can't predict anything until it's over and done with so I'll stay away from predicting anything,” Reinhart said with a chuckle.

Regardless of what team Sam goes to – and sorry Flames fans, it realistically won’t be Calgary, the Reinhart brothers including Griffin, an Islanders draft pick, will continue to be there for each other. And for Max, the eldest, that’s a good thing.

“It's a very healthy competition where each of us try to push each other. Even if we're not playing in the same game and someone has a good night, the other wants to have a good night as well. I can honestly say it's had a very positive effect on my career because when you're having a bad week, your brother has a good game, it picks you up and puts you in the mood to really compete and try to one up them,” said Reinhart.

We’ll have to wait and see if for Reinhart, this will be a long summer or a short one, but you know it’s going to be a busy one.

“It's going to have to be a big off-season for me again -- in the gym and really trying to get stronger to hopefully allow myself to play in Calgary next year,” said Reinhart, listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds.

Considering where this Flames team is at in the rebuild and the opportunities that will surely exist to make this team next fall, I like his chances.

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Related Reading:

  • Emile Poirier's Bright Future - His favourite player growing up was Alexei Kovalev and they actually have a lot in common. Flames can only hope Poirier's NHL career will be similar also.
  • Johnny Gaudreau: A Limited Engagement - Excitement, hype and optimism aside, here's why starting 'Johnny Hockey' in the AHL next season is probably the wise thing to do.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

So Far, So Good - Emile Poirier's Bright Future

Emile Poirier’s favourite player growing up was Alexei Kovalev and despite being drafted 22 years apart and born over 7,700 kilometers apart from his idol, they are a lot alike.

The Calgary Flames can only hope when all is said and done, their career NHL numbers will also end up being similar.

For example:
  • Both were first round picks – Kovalev selected 15th overall by the Rangers in 1991, Poirier drafted 22nd overall by the Flames last June.
  • Both are 6-foot-1
  • Both are left-handed shots that play right wing
  • Both are frisky competitors on the ice. Kovalev piled up over 1,300 PIM in his career. Poirier had 129 PIM in 63 games this past season in Gatineau.

Kovalev played his first NHL game at age 19, which is the same age as Poirier will be at the start of next season. By the time he played his final NHL game -- two days shy of his 40th birthday, the talented Russian had appeared in 1,316 NHL games, scoring 430 goals and racking up 1,029 points.

Yes, no kidding the Flames would be very happy should Poirier’s career end up resembling that.

A Soft Spot for Montreal

Poirier became a Kovalev fan when he signed with his hometown Canadiens in 2005. Poirier was 10 years old at the time. He spent four seasons with Montreal and was the leading scorer for the final two.

As you’d expect from someone born and raised in Montreal, who had the chance to attend five or six games live every year, Poirier was a huge fan of le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge. In fact, Poirier admits he still has a “little bit” of a soft spot for the Canadiens today.

That was a good game, real fun to watch,” said Poirier, when I caught up with him via telephone in his hotel room Tuesday night, shortly after the Habs completed their four-game sweep of Tampa Bay.

Although, he admitted he had some mixed emotions on this particular night considering Cedric Paquette, the Lightning player in the penalty box when Max Pacioretty scored the winning goal, is a buddy of his from back home that he trains with during the summer. “Oh man, I feel bad for him,” Poirier said.

Poirier says some of his best Habs memories are from 2009-10. That season, with Kovalev gone and Mike Cammalleri signed as an unrestricted free agent to replace him, eighth-seeded Montreal went to the Eastern Final. In 19 playoff games, Cammalleri had a whopping 13 goals. Brian Gionta (9) was the only other Montreal player with more than four goals.

“I remember that first year Cammalleri was here and they went all the way to the third round, he was unbelievable in those playoffs,” said Poirier. “Those playoff games were crazy.”

Interestingly, Poirier might well have been drafted by the Canadiens last June.  Of the handful of teams that Poirier had in-person visits with leading up to the draft, Calgary was one and Montreal was another. There is speculation that if the Flames didn’t grab Poirier at No. 22 – much higher than he had been ranked by the NHL’s scouting services, he quite likely may have been snapped up by Montreal at No. 25. Instead, the Canadiens took American-born right-winger Michael McCarron.

Recapping the 2013-14 Season (thus far)

Poirier’s third and probably final year with Gatineau in the QMJHL was excellent. After 32 goals and 70 points in his draft year, he followed that up with 43 goals and 87 points this season. In the playoffs, he added seven more goals in nine games as the Olympiques got ousted for the second year in row by Halifax.

“I had a good season and I was able to develop certain things that I needed to work on defensively,” said Poirier.

One of those areas, as is so often the case with young players, was his work in his own end, away from the puck.

“It’s trying to be a complete player, competing in those one-on-one battles defensively and learning to not always go on the offence,” said Poirer, who says he was in contact every week with the Flames – usually Ron Sutter, the Flames Director of Player Development. “I’ve became a way better player now than I was a year ago.

Also new this year was a leadership role. He served as assistant captain for the Olympiques for the first time.

“The leadership part was definitely different, especially with all the young guys coming in and I was the leader and they’re learning from you,” Poirier said. “But it was a good thing and I appreciated that.”

In a second life that hockey players don’t get very often, this year when Poirier’s junior season ended, his season wasn’t actually over. Soon after getting eliminated on April 11, Poirier was invited to join the Flames American Hockey League affiliate in Abbotsford. He hooked up with the team in San Antonio the following weekend and after watching the first game from the press box while getting instruction from the coaches, he was in uniform the next two days -- the final two games of the regular season.

Solid First Impression

In his first game on Friday, Poirier scored a goal off a set-up from Max Reinhart. The next night, he scored another goal and had two assists – all in the first period.

“The biggest difference is the execution, it's way faster and the execution is way better,” Poirier said of the jump to the AHL. “Plus, you’re playing against men, not young kids in which many are younger than you. There are some big guys.”

In Saturday’s game, Poirier’s linemates were the ever-dangerous Finn Markus Granlund and Reinhart, who set a team record this season with 63 points.

“He’s a big, strong kid with tremendous speed,” said Reinhart. “He makes good plays on the boards and doesn't turn the puck over. I had a lot of fun playing with him and I wouldn't be surprised if he's in the playoff line-up.”

For that to happen, considering Abbotsford is carrying over 30 players, the most important person to impress is Heat head coach Troy Ward. Well, it’s safe to say that was achieved also.

“One thing that Poirier brings to the table is he's like Pavel Bure in that one-and-a-half steps and he's at full speed, he's gone. He's super fast,” said Ward Wednesday morning during a guest spot on Sportsnet 960 radio. “He has great vision, obviously he has good hands, and he puts his nose in there. He's not afraid to go to the dirty areas to score goals.”

Poirier’s 52 goals in the QMJHL and AHL combined in 74 games, is the most goals for a Flames prospect in a single season since Dustin Boyd scored 55 with Moose Jaw in 2005-06.

“Obviously, through just one weekend, he's made a pretty good push,” said Ward. “There are two different sides to you as an AHL player. 1. Can you fit in on the ice and make the plays that are necessary to help yourself and help the team. 2. Do you fit in socially and mentally at this age.

“Sometimes it doesn't seem like a big step from major junior to the AHL but it's a huge step as a man. Sometimes it takes kids a little bit longer but so far, so good for Emile. He looks like he has a lot of maturity to him and he understands how to get through the pace of the game so far and he seems to be fitting in well.”

Enjoying the West Coast

It’s only been a week but Poirier says he’s enjoying his time with Abbotford and hopes it goes on for a while. Should the Heat make it to the Calder Cup final, the season would run into mid-June. While there are new players to get to know, Poirier says he did meet many of the younger players at Flames development camp in July including his current roommate at his hotel, French-speaking Ryan Culkin, also a recent addition from the QMJHL.

While Poirier said he hadn’t been told yet if he’ll play when Abbotsford hosts the defending champion Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings) on Friday night in the first game of the best-of-five opening round series, and while Ward was non-committal, you sure get a sense of which way Ward is leaning.

“I was really happy with his first weekend and we'll look to get him in there this weekend,” said Ward. “It's still really about development. We've got to develop hockey players.  That development is within the food chain of the company. The Poiriers, the Kulaks, and the Klimchuks of the world, they're all future guys that we want to get ready for training camp next year with Bob Hartley and his staff so we're going to give them as much exposure as we can.

“To play any of those guys in any one of those games is something that is our goal and if they're better or we feel that they can contribute more at this particular time than obviously some of the guys that have been here all year, those are decisions we'll make come Friday,” said Ward.

What Lies Ahead?

Long term, Poirier looks to have a pretty bright future according to Ward.

“Here's a guy that you would project at some point in time, will be able to get for sure in the 20s, if not in the 30s, in goals in the NHL. He's that gifted as a skater and he's got great vision. There are good days ahead for Emile.”

And for his part, Poirier sees good days ahead for the Flames also. He didn’t see Calgary play a lot this year but he did see them play live in Ottawa and also watched them play on TV a few times. He says he liked what he saw and feels his style is a good fit with the blue-collar work ethic the team displayed all season.

“That's good for me, I like that style of play. The intensity in the game, I loved it,” said Poirier.

Meanwhile, Poirier will continue to practice hard during the day and until the AHL playoffs get underway, sit back and watch the NHL playoffs at night and imagine the day when that will be him -- playing in front of a raucous crowd after a dazzling pre-game display like Montreal put on at the Bell Centre.

“Oh, sure, you think about it. You put yourself in that situation and wonder how it will be like -- to see all the video stuff, to see and hear all those great names. It's unbelievable,” said Poirier.

Calgary may not have the same rich history as the Canadiens but should exciting prospects like Poirier, Granlund and Johnny Gaudreau turn out as hoped, they could have a very prosperous present soon enough.

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Related Reading:
  • The Big-Time Emergence of Max Reinhart - As Abbotsford prepares for the playoffs, it's top line is a reason for optimism for the Flames franchise. Reinhart, Markus Granlund and Emile Poirier are all very young and home-grown Calgary draft picks.
  • Johnny Gaudreau: A Limited Engagement - Excitement, hype and optimism aside, here's why starting 'Johnny Hockey' in the AHL next season is probably the wise thing to do.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Do-it-Yourself NHL Draft Lottery - 2014 Version

It's finally going to happen.

For the first time in 41 years and the very first time since the franchise relocated to Calgary in 1980, the Flames will have a top-five pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. The franchise last picked in the top five in 1973 when Tom Lysiak from the Medicine Hat Tigers was selected second overall by Atlanta.

We'll know for sure how the NHL Draft Lottery will shake down on Tuesday at 6 pm MT when TSN will turn the selection of one team to move to No. 1, a process that takes less than a second given the result is computer-generated, into an 'enthralling' 30 minute television event.

But, who can blame them. They know they'll have millions of eyes on them, especially with the new draft lottery rules that took effect last year in which any of the 14 non-playoff teams could win the lottery and secure that coveted first overall pick. Sure, the odds are better of Buffalo (1 in 4 chance) winning than Washington (1 in 200), but anything can happen.

But, why wait for Tuesday night -- Hold your own NHL Draft Lottery today!

By following my easy five-step, do-it-yourself NHL Draft lottery instructions, you can play the role of James DuthieBob McKenzie or any of your favourite TSN hockey personalities and re-create the NHL Draft Lottery event in your own garage, or living room, or even in your kitchen and you can do it right now.

There are two versions -- the simple version, tailored for Calgary Flames fans, and an advanced version.


NHL Draft Lottery Simulation - Simple Version

This version is specific for Calgary Flames fans and will allow you to hold the lottery, then hold it again, then again, and again, and you can keep going until the Flames win it and get the No. 1 pick. Then, you can go to bed Monday night and have blissful dreams of Sam Reinhart, or Aaron Ekblad, or whoever you have tabbed as the best of the bunch.

Step 1 - You need 48 of something and a bowl to put them in. I recommend buying a box of Alpha-Bits cereal -- inexpensive, plentiful and the letters can come in handy in the advanced version (below) to help distinguish the teams. Plus, when you're done, just add milk and have some delicious breakfast.

Step 2 - To mimic the 10.7% odds of the Flames winning the lottery, you'll need to designate five of the 48 Alpha-Bits as Calgary. That's pretty easy, grab five of the letter 'C' and throw them in your bowl.

Step 3 - To mimic the 31.3% odds that a team that finished higher in the overall standings than Calgary wins the lottery and jumps all the way to No. 1, subsequently dropping the Flames down one pick to No. 5, we need a way to designate 15 of the 48 objects as this scenario. With the Alpha-Bits, let's use the vowels for this. So grab an assortment of 15 A's, E's, I's, etc. and add them to the bowl.

Step 4 - To mimic the 58.0% odds that one of the top three teams win the lottery -- Buffalo, Florida or Edmonton, which would subsequently have no impact on the Flames draft position, we'll use consonants other than 'C'. So grab an assortment of 28 B's, D's, G's, etc. and add those to the bowl.

Step 5 - Stir up all the Alpha-Bits so they're nicely mixed up although don't be too truculent with your stirring as you don't want to smash the letters. Then, close your eyes, cross your fingers and pick one.
  • If you pick a 'C', Flames win the lottery and choose No. 1
  • If you pick a consonant, Buffalo, Florida, Edmonton win the lottery, Flames remain at pick No. 4
  • If you pick a vowel, Flames fall one draft spot to pick No. 5

So, how do the odds in this breakfast cereal simulation compare with the odds in real life?  It's actually very, very close.

In Real Life - Flames have 10.7% chance of picking 1st, 31.3%* chance of dropping to No. 5
In the Simulation - Flames have 10.4% chance of picking 1st, 31.25% chance of dropping to No. 5

Note: A caveat with this year's draft is NJ is not allowed to win the lottery. There's a 1.1% chance of this happening but if it does, there will be a re-draw. This is part of the Devils punishment for the Ilya Kovalchuk contract fiasco from a couple years ago.


NHL Draft Lottery Simulation - Advanced Version

With this version, you can take your NHL Draft lottery re-creation to the next level by not just determining Calgary's fate, but actually learning who, specifically, does win the lottery and if it's the Oilers, you can let out a 'phew' and be relieved that it's just a simulation.

Step 1 - Same as above. You need 48 of something. Again, I recommend Alpha-Bits.

Step 2 - Assuming you're using Alpha-Bits, you need to allot a certain number of a certain letter to all of the primary teams involved in the lottery. Here are my recommendations for what letter to use for each team and how many Alpha-Bits each team will get.
  • Buffalo (B) - 12
  • Florida (F) -  9
  • Edmonton (E) - 7
  • Calgary (C) - 5
  • NY Islanders (N) - 4
  • Vancouver (V) - 3
  • Carolina (H) - 2
  • Other (O) - 6

Step 3 - Put all of the objects into a bowl and shuffle them up.

Step 4 - Close your eyes, cross your fingers and pick one.

Step 5 - If you pick a letter 'O' for "Other", that means one of the long-shot teams ranked 17th to 23rd in the final standings -- Toronto, Winnipeg, Phoenix, Anaheim (from Ottawa), New Jersey (see above note), Nashville, or Washington -- wins the lottery and everyone on the list above will drop down one draft spot.

No, that doesn't help you with which of those seven long-shot teams actually wins it, but unless we want to get into the messy job of using several hundred Alpha-Bits and nobody wants to do that, that's as precise as this simulation gets. Sorry.

How do the the odds of our simulation compare with the odds in real life? Again, it's very close. Below are the real percentages followed in brackets by the percentages based on a bowl of 48 Alpha-Bits.

Buffalo - 25% (25%)
Florida - 18.8% (18.8%)
Edmonton - 14.2% (14.6%)
Calgary - 10.7% (10.4%)
NY Islanders - 8.1% (8.3%)
Vancouver - 6.2% (6.25%)
Carolina - 4.7% (4.2%)
Other - 12.3% (12.5%)

Have fun and remember, don't add milk to your bowl of Alpha-Bits until after you've held your lottery.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Johnny Gaudreau in the NHL: A Limited Engagement (for now)?

Johnny Gaudreau will make his much-anticipated debut for the Calgary Flames tonight against the Vancouver Canucks. Enjoy it, everyone, as it may be a while before his next NHL game.

While CBA rules -- as confounding as they are sometimes, means Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver will be as close as Gaudreau can get to Abbotsford this season, I fully expect Gaudreau to be reporting to the Heat six months from now when the 2014-15 seasons begins. Here is why:

The Flaw with the Monahan Comparison

Many have already brought up Sean Monahan. The argument being that Gaudreau looked just as good as Monahan did last July at the Flames development camp, so why couldn't he also step right into the NHL next year. Heck, he'll even be two years older than Monahan was this season.

The big difference with how Monahan was handled this year -- staying with the NHL club the entire season, compared to Gaudreau's situation next year is the options available. When it comes to moving on to the all-important 'next level', increasing the challenge so a prospect's development curve doesn't flatten out, the two situations are very different.

For Monahan, who turned 19 on Oct. 12, the options were limited. Since the American Hockey League was not a possibility per an agreement between the NHL and CHL that prohibits that route at Monahan's age, the choice was he either go back to the Ottawa 67's, where he had already played 207 games over three full seasons. Or, he remain with the Flames. His play in the pre-season, as well as October as the NHL season began, clearly showed that he was ready for a next level so Calgary was where he stayed.

Gaudreau's situation is entirely different. When he arrives at training camp next year at age 21, there will be two options for the New Jersey-born left-winger to play at a higher level. There's the NHL, obviously, and there will also be the AHL. Both will present new challenges after three years of NCAA hockey and I'd look at it this way: When your child graduates from the kiddie pool to the regular pool, does it make sense for them to close their eyes, plug their nose and immediately dive into the deep end? Not so much. Instead, the smart approach is slip into the water at the shallow end and move towards the deep end.

Why the AHL Route Makes Sense

First, a disclaimer. I won't altogether rule out the possibility that Gaudreau impresses the coaching staff so much next September that he earns a spot in the Flames line-up to start the year. Heck, maybe he'll never play a game in the AHL. We'll have to wait until September and with a longer body of work determine what makes sense. However, I'd be very, very surprised if he starts the season with the Flames for several reasons.

1. Get Acclimatized to the Rigorous Schedule

An adjustment that can't be overstated is how grueling the pro hockey grind is compared to U.S. college hockey. This year with Boston College, Gaudreau played only 40 games. Last year, he played 35 games. At 76 games, the American Hockey League regular season is longer than his past two NCAA seasons combined. And that's not even factoring in the playoffs and the possibility of up to 28 more games. So at minimum, you're looking at double the amount of hockey games than you're accustomed to.

Then, there's the travel. While playing at the Boston College campus in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, many of their road trips were in-state to places such as Boston, Cambridge, Lowell, Worcester and Andover. In contrast, there are no in-province trips for Abbotsford. In fact, nothing remotely close. Instead, we're talking about lengthy journeys to the likes of Des Moines, Iowa. Or Utica, New York. Or Cedar Park, Texas. Or Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Hamilton, Toronto, etc.

Boston College traveled a total distance of 14,000 km this season. They left the Eastern time zone only once for a weekend trip to Minneapolis and two games with the University of Minnesota.

In comparison, by the time Abbotsford's 2013-14 regular season ends -- so this doesn't include the playoffs, the Heat will have travelled over 95,000 km, nearly seven times the distance.

If you travel regularly -- for work or otherwise, you'll know that it is never as glamorous as people think -- especially in the minors. Delayed flights, cancelled flights, malfunctions, weather delays, bus detours. It can be and often is exhausting.

2. Opposing Bigger, Stronger Players

For Gaudreau, his diminutive size is the story line that will never, ever go away. He's listed on the Flames roster as 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds although he says he's more like 160. Based on official rosters of all 30 teams maintained by the NHL, 150 would make Gaudreau the lightest player in the NHL and 160 still lands him in the bottom five of over 970 players (second lightest is Flames teammate, Paul Byron). The adjustment Gaudreau will face in the NHL of playing against bigger, stronger and older players is going to be considerable, there is no denying.

The good news is the AHL provides a very similar proving ground.

For example, the Flames play Vancouver on Sunday. The Canucks roster averages 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. Comparably, Abbotsford plays Oklahoma City on Sunday. The Barons roster averages 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds.

What you get in the AHL, which is a luxury you don't have in the NHL, is a bit more time and space and while Gaudreau works on thickening up his frame and moving that 150 into the mid-160's at minimum, this is a good thing. Like some minor hockey parents when their kids arrive in bantam and body contact for the first time, we don't want Mrs. Gaudreau having to cover her eyes every time little Johnny heads into the corner in pursuit of the puck.

3. 2014-15 Isn't the Focus Anyway

It's understandable that fans could look at how competitive Calgary has been over the final three months of this season -- either winning, or losing closely, and wonder if playoffs could be a possibility next season. After all, since Jan. 18, the Flames record of 20-13-1 is better than several playoff-bound teams.

While I don't see any reason the team can't be as competitive as it was this season -- with Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie anchoring the blue-line and several rookies this year being that much better as sophomores, it's a stretch to believe Calgary can pick up the extra 15 points that would be necessary to get into the playoff mix in an awfully tough Western Conference.

Given the highly touted youth that is in the pipeline finally, guys like Morgan Klimchuk and Emile Poirier probably bound for the AHL next year, the season that Flames fans should really be circling on their calendar is 2015-16. Wedding plans, spring vacation plans, that is the year that ardent Red Mile enthusiasts are going to want to keep their April and May calendars open... just in case.

Knowing that, why rush Gaudreau unnecessarily? Let him adjust and learn the NHL game in the AHL, where he can do so at an appropriate pace.

4. See Gustav Nyquist

So there's this guy named Gustav Nyquist, perhaps you've heard of him? He's got 23 goals in his last 33 NHL games and has taken the NHL by storm. How Detroit has handled him is making veteran Red Wings GM Ken Holland look like a genius and might be a blueprint that the Flames should closely consider when it comes to Gaudreau's career path. After all, there is a lot in common between the two former college players.
  • Both were NHL 4th round draft picks -- Nyquist 121st in 2008, Gaudreau 104th in 2011.
  • Both Turned Pro After Three Years of College -- Both playing in Hockey East, Nyquist was at the University of Maine, Gaudreau at Boston College.
  • Both won a NCAA scoring title -- Nyquist in 2009-10 (19-42-61 in 39 gm), Gaudreau this past year (36-44-80 in 40 gm).
  • Both had Hobey Baker-worthy seasons -- Nyquist was runner-up in 2009-10, Gaudreau, of course, won it on Friday night after being a runner-up last year.
  • Neither is Six-Feet Tall -- While Nyquist is much more generously blessed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, he doesn't tower over others. Gaudreau, hopefully still growing, is listed as 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds.

Detroit was extremely patient with Nyquist. He spent parts of four seasons in the AHL including two close-to-full years. During that time, his short NHL stints didn't amount to much. Prior to this season, he had four goals in 40 NHL games. But the Red Wings were patient -- extremely patient, and now they've got a real talent on their hands. With 28 goals in 57 games after being called up on Nov. 21, Nyquist ranks sixth in the NHL in goals-per-game behind Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Max Pacioretty, Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski. That's pretty good company.

In addition to Nyquist's 122 AHL games, other top NHL scorers also played significant stretches in the AHL to begin their career: Patrick Sharp (163 games), Jason Spezza (122), Nazem Kadri (119), superb Tampa Bay rookie Ondrej Palat (117), Brad Marchand (113), David Krejci (94) and Kyle Turris (86), to name just a few.

Now maybe Gaudreau's stint in the minors would be short. Ryan Getzlaf (8-25-33 in 17 gm) and Corey Perry (16-18-34 in 19 gm) began their careers in the AHL with Portland in 2005-06 (worth noting, this was while Brian Burke was General Manager in Anaheim). It took less than 20 games for them to prove they were too good for that level. Why not play it cautious with Gaudreau also and have him earn his way to the NHL the same way instead of starting him at the top and run the risk of sending him the other direction like the Flames ended up doing with Sven Baertschi this season.

5. Building a Nucleus and Developing Together

In Abbotsford next year could be many key players that will be important pieces when Calgary is ready to become playoff-relevant once again. I'm talking about players like Poirier, Klimchuk, Patrick Sieloff, Tyler WotherspoonMarkus Granlund (although the latter two could graduate to Calgary next fall). Add in Gaudreau, Bill Arnold and Kenny Agostino and you have what could be the core of the Flames for many years to come. 

Again, I draw your attention to the Detroit model and why wouldn't that be one to emulate considering they've made the NHL playoffs an astounding 23 years in a row -- no rebuilding required. 

If you look at the Red Wings youth, who are all key contributors on the Red Wings today -- Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Joakim Andersson, Brendan Smith, Riley SheahanBrian Lashoff, all of them played together and got better together while toiling for Grand Rapids in the AHL. 

It's that type of succession planning that will keep the Red Wings in the playoffs for many more years to come.

Conclusion

Perhaps the best indicator of what the Flames and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke are already thinking came on Friday night. 

That night, in a telephone interview with local media, Burke shared his opinion on player numbers and how it's going to change for Calgary next year.

"We're doing away with high numbers in Calgary. We're going to get back to No. 1 to 35," said Burke. "If that was good enough for the great teams in the '50s, than it's good enough for us.”

Meanwhile, that same night in Philadephia, Gaudreau was being awarded jersey No. 53, and Arnold was given No. 46.

"They're taking training camp numbers, just like any other young player," explained Burke. "The way we do it in Calgary now is you have your training camp number and you keep that training camp number until you make the team."

So, while college kids Gaudreau, Arnold, Agostino and Bryce Van Brabant will skip the Pacific time zone this year and subsequently miss an opportunity to join an Abbotsford team getting primed for the playoffs and a Calder Cup run, you can bet most -- if not all of them, will arrive in British Columbia next fall when their pro careers really get underway.

Heads up Abbotsford, get your seasons tickets for next season now as Johnny Hockey will be coming to an arena near you.