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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sven Degrees of Separation: How did we get to the point we're at with Baertschi?

It feels like longer but it was just three summers ago that Calgary Flames fans were basking in the wake of a refreshing change of direction at the NHL draft. Jay Feaster, having just taken over the general manager reins from Darryl Sutter, showed an affinity for speed and skill over size in using three of Calgary's first four picks on highly talented, creative, but small forwards.

Of that trio, which included Finnish centre Markus Granlund in the second round and tiny but gifted left-winger John Gaudreau in round four, the real excitement was around 13th overall pick Sven Baertschi. Born in Switzerland, the left-winger was coming off a superb regular season with Portland (34-51-85 in 66 games) -- his first season in North America, which was followed by an even better playoff performance (10-17-27 in 21 games) as Baertschi, along with teammate Ryan Johansen, helped lead the Winterhawks to the Western Hockey League final, where they would lose out to Kootenay.

During Sutter's eight years as GM, it could be argued the only legitimate 'skilled' forward the Flames successfully drafted and developed was 2007 first round pick Mikael Backlund and back in the summer of 2011, the jury was still very much out on him as he was coming off an underwhelming 10-goal rookie season.


Excitement Builds

As it turned out, the buzz around Baertschi was just getting started. It would reach a feverish pitch the next season after he turned in an even better year in the WHL and in the process accomplished something that hadn't been done in over a decade-and-a-half and hasn't been done since.

In 2011-12, Baertschi averaged a stunning two points per game, finishing with 33-61-94 in 47 games. That remarkable regular season remains the only time in the WHL in the last 17 years that a player has finished the year with twice as many points as games played (while playing a minimum of 40 games). Jordan Eberle never pulled that off. Neither did Patrick Marleau or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jamie Benn or Ryan Getzlaf. Nor did Sam Reinhart or even Calgary Hitmen legend Pavel Brendl, for that matter.

In fact, turn your gaze out East and the last guy to accomplish that feat in the Ontario Hockey League was John Tavares, who did it seven years ago. The last guy before him? Some dude named Patrick Kane.

In the typically higher-scoring QMJHL, only two players have done it recently with one of them having done so in each of the past two years. His name is Jonathan Drouin and chances are you've also heard of him.

For good measure as Portland went all the way to the WHL final again in 2012 -- only to lose again, Baertschi wrapped up his impressive junior career by going a scintillating 14-20-34 in 22 playoff games.

So after all that excitement and so much promise, where did things go wrong? How did we get to this point we are today where Baertschi's future with the organization is very much a question mark? Not long ago viewed as potentially one of the best players on the Flames, now he's not even considered by some as one of the club's top prospects.

Here is a look back at seven things that have happened between draft day and today, which I feel have contributed to the current mess we're in.


Sven Degrees of Separation 


1. March 7-17, 2012

The Flames were banged up and desperate. Big time desperate. Calgary sat two points out of a playoff spot but forwards Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak, Mikael Backlund, Blake Comeau, Tim Jackman and Lance Bouma were all injured and Greg Nemisz, Krys Kolanos and Guillaume Desbiens had already been summoned from Abbotsford. Needing another forward, Feaster decided his best option for his next reinforcement was leveraging the seldom-used emergency recall option so on Mar. 7, he called up Baertschi from junior.

Held off the score sheet in his NHL debut against Winnipeg at the Saddledome, Baertschi scored his first NHL goal in his next game in Minnesota. What a moment. He then proceeded to score in each of the next two games as well to make it a three-game goals streak for the kid, who was not yet 18-and-a-half years old. Lauded with headlines like 'Svensational', Baertschi was suddenly the toast of the city. Fans loved him.

However, just like when you were 12 years old and you met that cute girl while you were on vacation with your parents, it was a short fling that had no chance of lasting. Stempniak's return from an ankle injury meant on Mar. 17, 11 days after he arrived, Baertschi had to be returned to Portland.

At the time, it was hoped this early exposure to the NHL and his offensive success might help Baertschi in the long run. However, in hindsight, it seems the unrealistic expectations that came with it -- both for fans and more so for Baertschi himself, ended up being the worst possible outcome.


2. April 13-25, 2013

Baertschi spent the 2012-13 NHL lockout in the AHL where he got off to a terrific start going 6-11-17 in the first 19 games for Abbotsford. Then he suffered a spine-related head/neck injury that knocked him out of the line-up for over a month. He returned to the Heat for a couple games in January before re-joining Calgary when the lockout ended and drawing into the line-up for the Jan. 20 season opener.

It was in game four that Baertschi suffered a hip flexor injury that cost him 11 games. Upon his return to the Flames line-up, he was not getting a lot of ice time and after six games, Baertschi was demoted to Abbotsford. In those 10 NHL games, he had accumulated just one assist.

Having got his game going again, and with the Heat eliminated from playoff contention, and with roster spots available in Calgary after the trading away of Jarome Iginla and Comeau, Baertschi was called back up again on April 7. In his first game, he logged 18:15 in ice time and played much of the night on a line with Mike Cammalleri.

Getting steady ice time every night, Baertschi finished the season on a tear, racking up an impressive seven-game points streak (3 goals, 6 assists). Things were good for Baertschi. Plus, with Calgary's perennial leading scorer gone, the club and its fan base was looking for someone new to lead the team offensively and why not Baertschi considering his sparkling resume. Frequent water cooler conversation that off-season centred around who would lead the Flames in scoring in 2013-14. In fact, in this story, I predicted it would be Baertschi from the list of 11 possible candidates.

If there's a lesson to be learned in all this it's that thriving in April when there's no pressure on the team -- the Flames were far removed from playoff contention, and when you're mostly playing teams in the same boat so also deploying line-ups laden with rookies, is success that you do need to temper when it comes to setting future expectations.


3. April 26, 2013

The final game of the season was in Chicago and Baertschi would end up missing that one with a groin injury picked up the night before in St. Louis. Little did we know at the time the significant ripple effect that injury would have.

First, it forced Baertschi to reluctantly turn down an invitation to play for Switzerland at the IIHF World Championships in May. While it is a tournament that is viewed as no big deal here in North America, it's the opposite in Europe where it's very important. Making matters worse, Baertschi would end up missing out on an amazing Cinderella run for Switzerland that was not unlike the Flames 2004 Stanley Cup run was around Calgary. An extreme underdog, the Swiss went all the way to the final before losing the gold medal game to Sweden.

Then, hoping to recapture that same magic in the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Swiss stuck with mostly that same roster -- 19 players from the WC team were part of the team that went to Sochi. That left Baertschi once again out in the cold, missing a golden opportunity to gain valuable confidence and experience by playing on a big stage against the best players in the world.


4. September 5-8, 2013

Each September, prior to Calgary's main training camp, the prospects report to rookie camp. It's a busy week, which culminates in a tournament in Penticton, B.C. and games against prospects from the Oilers and the Canucks. It's dubbed the Young Stars tournament and with more NHL experience than anyone else going into last year's event, Baertschi should have been one of the stars of that camp.

But it didn't turn out that way.

Baertschi did not shine -- held without a point in three games. His lackluster play was criticized and his attitude was questioned. While it's true he never got to play with the Flames premium talent in Sean Monahan, Markus Granlund or Emile Porier, instead lining up with the likes of Coda Gordon (no longer in the organization) and Josh Jooris, he also didn't exactly earn such a plum assignment either. After the tournament, Abbotsford head coach Troy Ward, who led the camp, didn't mince words.

“There’s no question, when Sven has the puck or he’s in support of the puck and has someone that can support it with him, Sven’s a really good player,” said Ward. “One of the things he has to continue to learn as a young man is continue to play hard and go get it back. That’s his development right now."

Was Baertschi miffed that he was invited to a 'rookie camp' despite having 25 NHL games on his resume? Although still considered a rookie by NHL standards, that sure was the prevailing feeling you got. I relate it to a 15-year-old boy being forced by his parents to take his 10-year-old sister out Halloweening. The impression Baertschi left was that he wasn't motivated.

How that tournament played out for Baertschi was a disaster and he left Penticton with a tarnished reputation that he has yet to repair.


5. September 30, 2013

On Monday morning, three days prior to the Flames regular season opener in Washington, Calgary media assembled at the Saddledome for the traditional start-of-the-year state-of-the-nation address to be delivered by Brian Burke, who was less than four weeks into his role as President of Hockey Operations.

It was a pretty nondescript presser for the most part, the most interesting things being Burke's seemingly endless array of unique and colourful expressions that always keep a room amused. But then Baertschi's name came up in a question and Burke was not shy to share his first impression.

Asked what he thought of Baertschi so far, he responded, "That I don’t know. I’m not sure. All I’ve seen so far is flashes of brilliance. Flashes of brilliance are fine if you’re working in the university, but they’re not much good to people in an NHL building."

He wasn't done.

“There are three zones in the ice surfaces in this league. I don’t see that he’s learned to play and compete in two of them. He’s got to learn there’s a clock in this league and there’s so many minutes in the game and that you’ve got to compete through all of it. What I see is a guy who’s focusing on one area and even then, sporadically,” said Burke. “So I don’t know what we have."

He still wasn't done.

“I’m not ready to quit on a young kid. I’m not ready to throw him under the bus here today and rip him, but I think you can tell from my comments that I see big holes and I see a lack of commitment that’s not going to get him anywhere in my books.”

Baertschi made the Flames season-opening roster. But many were already wondering how long he'd last. Meanwhile, as for the answer to how long it would take for Baertschi to move past such pointed and public criticism? I don't think we have the answer to that one yet.


6. December 12, 2013

It was a day that seemed inevitable as soon as Burke joined the Flames organization on Sept. 5. Sure enough, just over three months after being hired to oversee Feaster, Burke fired Feaster.

Up until that point, Baertschi had been up with the Flames and while he looked just fine at times, he struggled to consistently get meaningful ice time from coach Bob Hartley, who stuck him on the fourth line some nights and four times made him a healthy scratch. But with Feaster's departure also came Baertschi's as Burke demoted him to the AHL as his first order of business as the club's interim GM.

Back in the AHL where some argued he should have been from the start of the season, Baertschi struggled to find his way initially. In his first 15 games, he managed only two goals and two assists. The points eventually came as he strung together a couple five-game point streaks and a six-gamer as well, but you never got the impression he ever got back in the organization's good books.

Occasionally, Ward would touch on modest improvements in Baertschi's much ballyhooed 'three-zone play' but he never gushed praise, that's for sure. When Baertschi did get hot offensively -- he erupted for a seven-point weekend in a two-game series with Rockford late in the season, Ward seemed more determined to credit his linemates than the left winger himself.

Tough love? No kidding.

Baertschi also wasn't a factor in the AHL playoffs and the Heat could have really used some offensive spark from him. Coming off their best ever regular season and poised for a long run behind the standout goaltending of Joni Ortio, the Heat instead succumbed to Grand Rapids in four games in the opening round best-of-five. Just like that, it was season over with Baertschi limping to the finish line with just a single assist over his final seven games.


7. May 9, 2014

What an opportunity this year's World Championships was going to be. Sean Monahan was going to be there. Johnny Gaudreau was going to be there. Mikael Backlund was going to be there. Most importantly for Baertschi, so was newly hired Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who was an assistant GM with Team Canada. It was the perfect opportunity for Baertschi to turn the page on what had been a miserable and frustrating year and leave a solid first impression on Calgary's new decision maker.

Knowing what was at stake and how badly Baertschi and his fragile confidence really needed something good to happen, you had to feel for the kid when halfway through Switzerland's opening game against Russia, he went down with a fractured rib. That injury that sent him to hospital would knock him out of the tournament. Seven minutes and five seconds of ice time. Ten shifts. That was it for Baertschi, a horrible but fitting way to wrap up a very challenging and mettle-testing 12 months.


Looking Forward

Earlier this spring, it was announced that Baertschi's jersey number was changing from '47' to '27'. I wouldn't read too much into it but maybe, just maybe, it's a positive sign of what will be a much better year. Although, it's hard to imagine a year going much worse.

With so many already focused on the 2015 draft, hoping that the Flames will be ready to turn the corner quickly on the rebuild if they can add just one more high-end first round draft pick to the organization, you tend to forget that they have a pretty darn good first round pick right under their nose in Baertschi, and he's already here.

Maybe it's because of that initial five-game stint three years ago but you tend to forget that Baertschi is still only 21 years old. There are only three players drafted after him in 2011 that have more points. He's far from a bust yet.

A good comparable for Baertschi is Minnesota's Nino Niederreiter. In fact, their similarities are down-right spooky.
  • Nearly identical in age -- Niederreiter is less than a month older
  • Both play left-wing
  • Both played two years in the WHL with Portland
  • Both are from Switzerland
  • Both were first round picks -- Niederreiter was 5th overall in 2010

In their most compelling similarity, you could also argue both were in the NHL too early. Drafted by the Islanders, Niederreiter went straight to the NHL as an 18-year-old and had a disastrous season. A prolific scorer in junior and coming off a year with the Winterhawks in which he scored 41 goals and had 70 points in 55 games, Niederreiter amassed all of one goal and no assists in 55 games during his rookie season in New York. Oh ya, and he was a minus-29.

Niederreiter spent all of 2012-13 in the AHL and after being acquired last summer by the Wild in a trade for Cal Clutterbuck, Niederreiter had a nice year in his return to the NHL and I thought played his best hockey of his career in last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Not yet 22 years old, he's suddenly back on track to being the player everyone once thought he would be. 

It goes to show that having patience, while it can be excruciating when you're dealing with such immense talents that you can't wait to see put on your favourite team's jersey, can really pay off in the end.


So How Will it End?

Whether a similar bounce-back will happen in Calgary with Baertschi is one of the more compelling story lines to follow in the year ahead. It would come as a shock to nobody if instead, Baertschi is shuttled out of town in a trade. Everyone knows the Flames desire to get bigger and with Gaudreau on the scene now -- and also a natural left-winger, is their room in the line-up for both him and Baertschi? 

Now I think there is. First, remember the shortage of right-wingers on this club. A couple of port-siders will have to switch over and play on the right instead so that opens up some additional options. Secondly, Baertschi does have the ability to play with a bit of an edge. Considering the year he just suffered through, you would sure hope he'll come to camp in September fired up, angry and ready to play hard. 

When he was hired, Treliving made a point of saying every player in the organization can look at his arrival as GM as a fresh start. He insisted that every player would begin with a clean slate. Nobody needs that clean slate more than Baertschi. Now we'll see if he rolls up his sleeves and embraces it.

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Related Flames Reading


  • Debut of the Stick TAP - My Own Q&A Mailbag - You guys submitted some great questions: How many NHL games this season will Sam Bennett play? Will the Flames be in the running for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel? In this new content feature, I responded to these and other reader-submitted questions by providing my own Thoughts, Analysis and Predictions.
  • What Could (and Will Not) Happen with Kevin Hayes - If you believe what you read, the ex-linemate at Boston College of Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold and the former first round pick is about to become an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 16. I broke down the different scenarios of what could unfold.
  • Flames Dev Camp Scrimmage No. 2 - Eight observations from a wild and woolly 30-minute game at WinSport in which many prospects stood out -- and in a good way.
  • Flames Dev Camp Scrimmage No. 1 - Five players that looked good in the first of two Flames scrimmages planned for development camp. In short, Calgary's best prospects -- Gaudreau, Bennett -- were their best players.


    Saturday, July 26, 2014

    Stick TAP: My thoughts, analysis and predictions in response to your questions

    Welcome to the inaugural edition of Stick TAP, a brand new content feature I'm taking out for a test drive. If you find it interesting and worthwhile, and the readership is there, I can see this interactive piece becoming a recurring monthly item. But I defer to you. Let me know what you think.

    The premise of Stick TAP is not revolutionary. It's similar to mailbag features you will have seen elsewhere. It's an opportunity for you -- the reader, to ask questions about the Calgary Flames, and I'll answer the question or at least share my thoughts. Where I am putting my own unique twist on the concept is every response will be broken down into three specific elements:

    Thoughts - General commentary, maybe including something you hadn't considered.
    Analysis - Statistic(s) or research that supports or relates to the topic.
    Prediction - The dangerous part. I'll take a guess at what will happen. But no scorekeeping allowed!


    To get started, I put out a request for questions last weekend and I had a terrific response. From the many topics submitted, I can't answer them all today but I have selected five to get us started. From the leftovers, I then selected another five that I've answered with a quick and short response. These can be found at the bottom in the appropriately named Snapshots section.

    I'll save the others for perhaps another time, if still relevant. Or will turn them into a future blog. Note that you can tweet your questions to me anytime at @DarrenWHaynes and I'll put them in the queue for consideration for the next Stick TAP.


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    Q1. Which Flames prospect that spent the year in Abbotsford last season makes a big leap forward in the show?  
    - Submitted by @vanpelt77
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    Thoughts

    The Olympics last year was a coming-out party for Finnish centre Mikael Granlund, who played his best hockey of his career when he rejoined Minnesota after the break. Selected 9th overall in 2010, Granlund was instrumental in the Wild's opening round upset of the Colorado Avalanche in the playoffs. Might there be a similar breakout season coming from younger brother Markus Granlund in 2014-15?

    Drafted by the Flames in the second round of the 2011 draft, Markus spent most of last season in the American Hockey League, where he was consistently one of Abbotsford's top players finishing an impressive 25-21-46 in 52 regular season games. Centring the Heat's No. 1 line and forming a dangerous duo with left-winger Max Reinhart, Granlund was also good in a short playoff stint going 2-3-5 in four games. In-between, Granlund had earned a call-up to the Flames on Feb. 24, where he got into seven games with the big club and scored two goals and added an assist before suffering a shoulder injury 12 seconds into his first shift of a game against Los Angeles on Mar. 10.

    While blessed with a great offensive skill set -- sublime passer, hard shot, and crafty on a breakaway, he's not all finesse. While he's a bit undersized at 5-foot-11, in the games I saw him play last year, he plays bigger and is not afraid to get in hard on the forecheck and take the puck into the dirty areas.

    'Patience' is a buzzword around the Calgary Flames these days and while it's easy to look at Granlund's age -- 21, and suggest the smart thing to do is to have him play another season in the AHL, we tend to forget that his background has been different. Prior to last year, Granlund played two seasons for HIFK Helsinki in the Finnish hockey league so while last year was his first year playing pro on this side of the Atlantic, he's been playing with 'men' for three years now.

    The Granlund brothers train together in the off-season and the strides taken by both players last year reflects the work they're putting into it. With another solid summer of training this summer and with Markus motivated by his brother's impactful play in the Stanley Cup playoffs, expect Granlund to put in a serious run for one of the open jobs on the Flames.


    Analysis

    It's not normal for guys Granlund's age -- he was still 20 right up until very late in the regular season, to have the type of success he enjoyed last year in the AHL. Theoren Fleury -- way back in 1988-89, represents the last time a Flames prospect younger than age 21 scored at a more prolific rate in the minors.

    In Calgary Flames history, here is the top 10:

    1. Theoren Fleury, 1988-89, 37 g in 40 gm, 0.93 GPG
    2. Bruce Eakin, 1983-84, 33 g in 67 gm, 0.49 GPG
    3. Markus Granlund, 2013-14, 25 g in 52 gm, 0.48 GPG
    4. Cory Stillman, 1994-95, 28 g in 63 gm, 0.44 GPG
    5. Cory Stillman, 1993-94, 35 g in 79 gm, 0.44 GPG
    6. Pierre Rioux, 1982-83, 26 g in 59 gm, 0.44 GPG
    7. Chuck Kobasew, 2002-03, 21 g in 48 gm, 0.44 GPG
    8. Marty Murray, 1995-96, 25 g in 58 gm, 0.44 GPG
    9. Dustin Boyd, 2006-07, 27 g in 66 gm, 0.41 GPG
    10. Andrew McKim, 1990-91, 30 g in 74 gm, 0.41 GPG

    How did Granlund's goal-scoring rate rank in the AHL this year? His 0.48 GPG ranked him ninth in the league but of the eight ahead of him, nobody was as young as Granlund. In fact, Anaheim's Devante Smith-Pelly (0.49), 21, and Chicago's Jeremy Morin (0.51), 22, were the only players younger than age 23.


    Prediction

    If he doesn't begin the season in Calgary, it will be because there isn't an opening in the role he would best play. If your only option due to the presence of other veterans is to play Granlund on the fourth line, that would be misuse of him and sitting him out as the Flames extra forward wouldn't make any sense developmentally. In that scenario, a better option would be have Granlund playing on the top line in Adirondack.

    However, once the first injury hits with the Flames and there is an opportunity to play Granlund in a top nine role, I expect him to be one of the first forwards recalled and when he comes up that next time, it could be to stay. Even if the need is on the wing, while Sven Baertschi may be the higher ranked prospect based on where they were each drafted, Granlund had the superior season last year and in my eyes, is deserving of getting that first look.


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    Q2. Do you think the Flames are purposely going for McDavid or Eichel this year?
     - Submitted by @aloudoun
    -----------------------------------------

    Thoughts

    Well, "purposely" is a strong word. However, if you're asking if Flames management is aware of the calibre of player available in next year's draft in Connor McDavid -- 4th in OHL scoring last year (and was 16 years old for half of the season) and Jack Eichel -- every bit McDavid's equal according to many, you know they are and behind closed doors, I'm sure they are every bit as smitten at their potential as the common fan.

    What we also know is that conveniently enough, this is not 'the year' for the Flames anyway. Sorry. They're a charming lot and all and last year was one of the more entertaining seasons in recent memory but they just don't have the horsepower to finish anywhere near the top eight in the Western Conference.

    Sure, there's plenty of good feeling and optimism around how the Flames finished up last season (19-13-0 in final 32 games) and the direction this club is headed. Yes, there are quality players on the way in the form of first round picks Sam Bennett, Emile Poirier and Morgan Klimchuk -- but their time is at least a year away. Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are exciting pieces, but they're also just getting started.

    The Flames prospect cupboard has a lot more in it than a couple years ago but it goes without saying that adding one more big piece, one more potential superstar into the organization -- especially if it's one of those so-called generational stars that rarely come along, it would really set the organization up for a very bright future.

    The presence of the big three in Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Mikael Backlund, improved goaltending with the addition of veteran Jonas Hiller, combined with Bob Hartley coaxing everything he can out of his blue collar group, is going to once again make the Flames a formidable opponent to play every night. But from what we've seen so far in the off-season through the players added and term they've been added for, management knows that it's the next wave of players still to come that is going to finally put Calgary back on the map.

    This year and it won't be from a lack of trying, expect a bunch more one-goal games with the Flames most often the team coming up one goal shy. Throughout the year, expect the club to give chances for young players to show their stuff when injuries hit rather than bringing in quick fixes. In fact, there are so many waiver-exempt prospects deserving of an NHL audition, WestJet may want to consider adding a daily Calgary-to-Adirondack direct flight.


    Analysis

    Two examples in the Western Conference of the simple formula of getting good players, and then getting good is Chicago and Colorado.

    Chicago

    The Blackhawks have appeared in 94 playoff games in the last six years. That's five more than Calgary has played in the last 25 years. But Chicago wouldn't be a shell of the team they are today if not for two key pieces that they added in consecutive drafts:
    • Patrick Kane, drafted 1st in 2007
    • Jonathan Toews, drafted 3rd in 2006

    After both joined the organization, the Blackhawks ascension began with a good year in 2007-08 although it wasn't quite good enough to make the post-season. The return to the playoffs came in 2008-09 in which they went to the Conference finals. You'll be very familiar with their success ever since.

    Colorado

    Their formula has been similar yet a bit different. While they did sneak in one playoff appearance over the five-year span leading into last season, they also had three years in which were dreadful and finished near/at the bottom of the league. Painful at the time, it helped them get:
    • Matt Duchene, drafted 3rd in 2009
    • Gabriel Landeskog, drafted 2nd in 2011
    • Nathan MacKinnon, drafted 1st in 2013

    The Avalanche are going to be really good and a Western Conference power for several years to come and it's all from setting themselves up for long-term success by getting three elite talents in short order via the draft.

      Prediction

      There are various other formulas as well when it comes to building a perennial playoff team -- see the Detroit Red Wings model.  And there is no guarantee as Edmonton has shown (so far) that top picks will automatically lead to success. Nonetheless, if you can piece together a series of high picks and draft some top talent, and ideally mix in at least one elite level, first overall-type in there, that is your best bet at building an excellent hockey team and making future success sustainable.

      Bennett, considering where he was ranked much of the season, may have ended up a 4th pick on paper but I think can be viewed as a No. 2. With a top pick next year, plus include Monahan, who is here already, and 2015-16 is when things could really start getting interesting with 2016-17 the year Flames fans should really be excited about.

      However, here's the bad news -- from a draft perspective. I just don't see this group finishing in the bottom two. What they lack in talent they make up for in work ethic. There are a lot of motivated young players like Sven Baertschi and Michael Ferland, who will be making a push. The goaltending won't be spectacular but will be improved this year.

      Also, the difficulty of the Western Conference schedule and those top 10 teams will be mitigated by the games they'll have against Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton, of which one or more could conceivably finish behind the Flames.

      Buffalo should once again be the league doormat and while it wouldn't surprise me if the Flames end up in 29th, my gut says they will end up 27th or 28th and just miss out on the big two. While that result will disappoint some fans, the club will still get a really nice player at No. 3 or No. 4 and with the other prospects in place already, they'll still be ready to turn the corner sharply -- just the squeal from the tires won't be quite as loud as it might have been with McDavid or Eichel.


      -----------------------------------------
      Q3. Do you think Bennett plays nine games then goes back to junior, goes straight to junior or makes the team?
      - Submitted by @schafer_12
      -----------------------------------------

      Thoughts

      You know the comparisons are going to be made. If Sean Monahan, as the 6th overall pick, can stick with the Flames out of training camp, why can't Sam Bennett as the 4th pick? Admittedly, right here on this blog I predicted last summer that Monahan would end up going back to junior and I was wrong. But call it a double-of-nothing bet, but I'm going with the same prediction once again this year because I don't see their situations as the same.

      There are three reasons why I fully expect Bennett to be back with the Kingston Frontenacs this year:

      1. Experience - Bennett has less OHL experience than Monahan. Monahan had three seasons in the OHL when he arrived at Flames camp last year. Bennett has only played two years of major junior.

      2. Age - Bennett is much younger. It may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme but it is. Bennett will be over nine months younger than Monahan will have been last year. As you'll see below, not many kids make the NHL at Bennett's age.

      3. Size - Monahan showed up at training camp a rock-solid 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. A big reason players will return to junior is to get bigger. Monahan was already bigger. Meanwhile, the lanky Bennett is 6-foot-1 and I'd suggest is in the vicinity of 180 pounds. Some extra muscle wouldn't hurt, especially given the abrasive nature of how he likes to play, but that will come via a year's worth of working out, not just a couple months.


      Analysis

      How young is Bennett? He just turned 18 on June 20, one week before the draft. In the last 16 years, only eight players Bennett's age or younger have played a full season in the NHL. Here they are, ranked by age (youngest to oldest):

      1. Jordan Staal, Pit, 2006-07 (Sept. 10, 1988) 81 gm, 29-13-42
      2. Aleksander Barkov, Fla, 2013-14 (Sept. 2, 1995) 54 gm, 8-16-24
      3. Nathan MacKinnon, Col, 2013-14 (Sept. 1, 1995) 82 gm, 24-39-63
      4. Sam Gagner, Edm, 2007-08 (Aug. 10, 1989) 79 gm, 13-36-49
      5. Sidney Crosby, Pit, 2005-06 (Aug. 7, 1987) 81 gm, 39-63-102
      6. Evander Kane, Atl, 2009-10 (Aug. 2, 1991) 66 gm, 14-12-26
      7. Patrice Bergeron, Bos, 2003-04 (July 24, 1985) 71 gm, 16-23-39
      8. Zach Bogosian, Atl, 2008-09 (July 15, 1990) 47 gm, 9-10-19

      Looking at that list, you know the decision to keep a few of those players in the NHL is one that teams and maybe even the player also, ended up regretting. Kane and Bogosian are two that come to mind. You could probably lump Gagner in that group also.


      Prediction

      Bennett will definitely play a bunch of exhibition games and he may get in a few regular season games also but I wouldn't guarantee it and I certainly wouldn't assume he's here for the full nine games that he is permitted to play before his entry level contract kicks in.

      I have little doubt Bennett ends up back in Kingston but how quickly that occurs and if he gets a few NHL regular season games first could hinge on the health of the Flames and how some of the other older prospects fare in training camp. If Calgary is looking solid up the middle with Backlund, Monahan, Matt Stajan and perhaps Markus Granlund or Lance Bouma as well, then Bennett may depart NHL camp sooner than people think.

      Kingston opens up its regular season on Sept. 25 and while Bennett will not be back in time for that, if the Flames are healthy, Bennett could be returned prior to the Flames season-opener on Oct. 8.

      After Calgary's home opener, they immediately go on a six-game road trip. If there are injuries, it's possible Bennett begins that trip with the big club and gets in a handful of games depending on how many players are hurt and what the club's needs are, but I'd be surprised if he ends up playing more than four or five games before he goes back down and begins what should be a dominant year including a trip to the World Juniors at Christmas.


      -----------------------------------------
      Q4. Do you think the Flames will have a goaltender this year that will play 50+ games or a real change around in the net again?
      - Submitted by @FlamesFun
      -----------------------------------------

      Thoughts

      Despite Jonas Hiller's big $4.5-million salary, which I view as more a product of supply and demand than performance of late for the 32-year-old Swiss goaltender, I fully expect the battle for the starting job to be an ongoing competition that starts in training camp and runs the course of the season.

      There's very little chance that recently re-signed Joni Ortio can do enough in September and in a handful of exhibition games to earn the starting goaltending job so pencil him, despite his determination, to be the No. 1 puck stopper in Adirondack.

      That leaves Karri Ramo and Hiller with Ramo's case an interesting one as he'll be a pending UFA this season. The way Ramo finished last year and considering the club has to make a decision on him sooner than later, expect him to see his share of work no matter what. Even if Hiller wins the starting job, I'd expect Ramo to still play at least 35 games. Ideally for the Flames, however, from an asset perspective is it's Ramo that wins the No. 1 job.

      The subplot to the battle in net is what will happen in 2015-16. Ortio's two-year contract is a two-way deal for this year but it reverts to a one-way NHL deal in year two. He'll also be waiver eligible by that point, which means despite the nominal salary of just $600,000 -- just $25,000 above the NHL's minimum salary, you can't just ship him down and pay him that in the minors without having to expose him to all 29 other teams. So, safe to say he'll be in Calgary that season unless his play drops off to the point that the Flames don't care if they lose him on waivers.

      However, if Ortio puts together another solid season in the AHL -- last year he was 27-8-0 with a .926 save percentage, which was second in the league, expect the Flames to move either Ramo or Hiller at some point to create a roster spot. The advantage of making such a decision during the season rather than after is if it's Ramo they choose to move, they can maybe get an asset for him in return if they deal him at the NHL trade deadline. We're all familiar with the second round pick Brian Burke surprisingly got from Colorado in exchange for Reto Berra. If Ramo's not in Calgary's future plans, you won't want to waste that asset and see him leave for nothing.

      The other scenario one shouldn't rule out is the Flames sign Ramo to an extension and then look to unload Hiller at the trade deadline or next summer. Calgary fans missing No. 34 will undoubtedly endorse a choice of going with a goalie tandem consisting of two Finns.


      Analysis

      This training camp will be the first time in eight years that the Flames will have two goaltenders in camp that are coming off years in which they played 40-plus games. Here's a quick look back at that time and other such occurrences:

      • 2007-08 - The circumstances in this one were completely different. After playing 55 games the year prior with Phoenix, Curtis Joseph was brought in to back-up Miikka Kiprusoff. Nobody was under the illusion that Joseph, age 40, could wrestle away the starting job. The end result was Kiprusoff played 76 games while Joseph played just nine.
      • 2001-02 - Again, this wasn't really a battle for No. 1. Mike Vernon was 38 and on his second tour of duty with the Flames. While Vernon had played 41 games the year prior, the reason 31-year-old Roman Turek was acquired from St. Louis where he had played 54 games the year prior was to be the No. 1, and that's exactly what happened with Turek playing 69 games to Vernon's 18.
      • 2000-01 - This was really the last legitimate battle for No. 1. Vernon had split the previous year between San Jose and Florida before being brought back by the team that originally drafted him. The incumbent was Fred Brathwaite, who had played 61 games with Calgary in 1999-00. In the end, Braithwaite played in 49 games compared to Vernon's 41.

      Other goaltender battles we've seen between two goalies coming off 40-plus game seasons.

      • 1999-00 - Grant Fuhr vs. Fred Brathwaite
      • 1997-98 - Dwayne Roloson vs. Rick Tabaracci
      • 1996-97 - Trevor Kidd vs. Rick Tabaracci


      Prediction

      Personally, I was surprised that Hiller was the back-up that was signed on July 1. But, it could have been a situation where beggars can't be choosers. The Flames definitely needed a veteran goalie and with younger options like Chad JohnsonThomas Greiss and Justin Peters already having signed elsewhere, the options became thin pretty quickly.

      My prediction is Hiller and Ramo will split the games nearly 50/50. While Ramo proves to be a capable NHL goalie, I don't think he's the guy the Flames want to commit to long-term at age 28 and especially at the wage he may ask for as a UFA. So, I think Calgary looks to trade Ramo at the deadline to a playoff contender that perhaps due to injury, may be looking to add a veteran back-up.

      Ortio will then get the call from Adirondack and will make a majority of the starts over the final month of the season. In 2015-16, it will be a tandem of Ortio and Hiller with Jon Gillies as the No. 1 goalie in Adirondack.


      -----------------------------------------
      Q5. Will the Flames make a step forward or backward next season?
      - Submitted by @Danycalgary
      -----------------------------------------

      Thoughts

      The important thing to distinguish when we use the word "progress" is how are you measuring such? Are you talking about literal progress or figurative progress? If your eyes are strictly on the points column in the NHL standings and expecting an 8-10 point improvement, you may be disappointed with how the 2014-15 season goes. The West has only gotten tougher this summer and I think it's going to be awfully difficult for the Flames to equal the success they had last year when among their accomplishments, they went 4-3-0 combined against Western Conference finalists Chicago and Los Angeles. Bob Hartley's club isn't going to be sneaking up on anyone this year beginning right from October.

      However, figurative progress is most certainly possible. If your end goal is to get back to being a perennial playoff contender and legitimate Stanley Cup threat, there are ways to get closer to that goal without necessarily making a step forward in terms of the standings. Even a modest drop-off in points while doing so with a younger and less experienced line-up can still be considered a net gain -- although don't expect anyone in Flames management to confess to that publicly.


      Analysis

      Rather than look at rebuilds gone wrong -- Florida, the Islanders and Edmonton. Instead, I took a look at the lean non-playoff years leading up to the return to prominence for Chicago as well as the ascension by Los Angeles into being the 'mini' dynasty they are today. I picked these two clubs as we can all agree they are both in pretty good stead right now.

      What I found and this isn't necessarily shocking but there was nice gradual ramping up of their point totals after they hit bottom and were forced to build themselves back up.

      Chicago

      • 2008-09 - 46-24-12, 104 pts (+16) Playoffs
      • 2007-08 - 40-34-8, 88 pts (+17)
      • 2006-07 - 31-42-9, 71 pts (+6)
      • 2005-06 - 26-43-13, 65 pts (+6)
      • 2003-04 - 20-43-11, 59 pts
      • 2002-03 - 30-33-13, 79 pts
      • 2001-02 - 41-27-13, 96 pts - Playoffs


      Los Angeles

      • 2009-10 - 46-27-9, 101 pts (+22) Playoffs
      • 2008-09 - 34-37-11, 79 pts (+8)
      • 2007-08 - 32-43-7, 71 pts (+3)
      • 2006-07 - 27-41-14, 68 pts
      • 2005-06 - 42-35-5, 89 pts



      Prediction

      I expect Calgary to end up around the same mark they finished at last year when they were 35-40-7 for 77 points. They could be four points better but even if they're a few points worse, doing that while integrating youth into the line-up will make it a year of forward progress regardless. However, giving youth opportunity is the key. It is imperative for the Flames to expedite the rebuild that they use this season to start the carousel going and give opportunities to kids that could be part of the core of this team a few years down the road.

      On the other hand, if they repeat last year's point total with a veteran team and all their kids in the minors, I would call that a step backwards.

      You can't have five prospects all ripening at the same time. That's just bad planning. You need to work them into the line-up gradually. Calgary's done that recently with Brodie, Backlund and Monahan. They must continue that slow turnover this year.


      -----------------------------------------
      Snapshots

      Short and quick answers to other randomly selected questions that were submitted.

      -----------------------------------------
      Q. How likely is it that the Flames will be one of the top teams in a few years? Considering top teams now will be in decline. Will Flames become a 'playoff here-and-there team' (Ott), consistent playoff team (Chi), or a consistent bottom team (Edm)?
      - Submitted by @g1ddy_up

      One thing we must remember is that being a consistent playoff team like the Flames were through the 80s, when Calgary never missed the post-season once, was a lot easier when the NHL only had 21 teams. Back then, nearly 70% of teams made the playoffs.  Now, it's just over 50% that make it and with the salary cap, being continually good for a long time is that much more difficult.

      However, if the core the Flames have in place pan out, if they can pick up one more stud in the 2015 NHL Draft, and if someone steps up and becomes the No. 1 goalie for the next several years, I definitely see Calgary as setting themselves up to be a consistent playoff team starting in 2016-17. They could even creep into the playoffs grabbing one of the final spots in 2015-16.

      -----------------------------------------
      Q. What do you think the chances are of Calgary signing Devon Setoguchi? They need players on the right side and if you could do a one-year deal like Raymond had in Toronto, it could be a win/win.
      - Submitted by @coachkayne74

      A. I don't see Setoguchi as a fit, unless they also move out a body. The Flames need to keep some spots open for developing prospects. Signing Setoguchi, while addressing a short-term need on right wing, would gobble up one of only a couple spots remaining for forwards. If they have no room for kids, that creates a developmental logjam in the AHL.

      With Bennett and Poirier likely to arrive in the NHL for 2015-16, older prospects like Granlund, Reinhart, Ferland, Knight and Baertschi need a chance to play this year so they and the Flames can see where they're at and whether they have legitimate NHL futures.

      -----------------------------------------
      Q. What are realistic expectations for Sean Monahan next season and in his career? First-line centre?
      - Submitted by @tommyhuge

      A. Despite his very nice rookie season, I would have modest expectations for him this year. I'll take a guess at around 20-20-40 over a full season. Long term and it's so hard to guess after just one season, but I see him more as a second line centre or even a guy that anchors the third line on a real deep team (e.g. Connor McDavid and Sam Bennett ahead of him), where he'd play between a couple big wingers on a power line that can score but also defend. I'd project him as a guy that will average 25 goals per year and 50-55 points.

      -----------------------------------------
      Q. Do you think the Flames can land Kevin Hayes? What about our chances at Ryan O'Reilly?
      - Submitted by @hipcheck26

      A. I'd say a 1-in-5 chance at Kevin Hayes. I don't think it's the slam-dunk that some fans think. The fact that both of his old Boston College linemates are here is nice but as I documented in this blog a week ago, they only played together for 26 games. I think that connection is being over-hyped.

      Hayes, Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold will be friends forever regardless of what organization they end up in. If there are contending teams, especially U.S. teams that have a need for depth at winger but are thin on cap space, those opportunities might be pretty attractive to Hayes, especially if he sees it as an outside shot of jumping straight to the NHL. Besides, by signing elsewhere, he isn't competing against Gaudreau for a job!

      I'd say it's very unlikely Ryan O'Reilly arrives in Calgary. With one penalty last year, this year's Lady Byng award winner is hardly a Brian Burke type of player in the slightest. In fact, back in 2006 when GM in Anaheim, Burke said about the Lady Byng, "It's something I don't particularly want to see on my team.".

      Where Burke always insists there is room on the roster for skilled guys, the Flames already have a bunch of those. I just don't see it.

      -----------------------------------------
      Q. What are your thoughts on Mark Jankowski? You've said this is a critical year, but do you see it happening?
      - Submitted by @lummer1

      There were some good pieces written on Jankowski when he was here for development camp. It's too bad a hip injury prevented him from being on the ice. Although you wouldn't expect Treliving to say anything different, he said that Jankowski is very much in the Flames future plans still.

      Coming up on year three at Providence College, a continuation of the modest improvement he made last year is imperative. With PC expected to be one of the powers in college hockey this year, it will be a year with added exposure and added pressure. This could be good, or this could be bad.

      I see him having his best season so far this year. But it won't be one that will have people wondering if he'll leave school early and turn pro. Always projected as a long-term project, he'll remain a polarizing talking point for fans right up until the end of his senior year when it will be decision time, or potentially, confession time for the Flames.

      Saturday, July 19, 2014

      Triple Eagle: A Review of the Variables Involved in the Pursuit of Kevin Hayes

      For ardent Calgary Flames supporters, Kevin Hayes is a fellow that needs no introduction.

      Having spent the past four years at Boston College with Bill Arnold and the last three years as a teammate of Johnny Gaudreau, Hayes really climbed onto everyone's radar starting in December last year when longtime Eagles coach Jerry York decided to take his three top players and put them together on the same line.

      It began as an experiment in the third period of BC's home game against Holy Cross on Nov. 29. Trailing 5-1 at the time, and coming off a 5-1 drubbing to Maine the previous weekend, York decided he needed to shake things up. It worked as the Eagles scored three unanswered goals in the third and although they still lost 5-4, York saw enough to keep the line together for the following Saturday's game versus New Hampshire and the magic began at that point.

      BC's 6-2 victory that day kicked off a 19-game unbeaten streak for the school that would last nearly three months. Leading them the whole way was the trio of Gaudreau, Arnold and Hayes, which remained a line for the remainder of the season and man, did they ever put up some gaudy numbers. In their 26 games together, they racked up a combined 54 goals and 134 points.
      • LW Johnny Gaudreau - 24 g, 31 a, 55 pts
      • C Bill Arnold - 11 g, 24 a, 35 pts
      • RW Kevin Hayes - 19 g, 25 a, 44 pts

      Overall, Hayes finished the year with 65 points in 40 games (27 goals, 38 assists), good for second in NCAA Division One scoring behind Gaudreau's 80 points. Hayes was also named one of the finalists for the Hobey Baker, which of course was eventually won by Gaudreau.


      Why Kevin Hayes is in the News

      Hayes was drafted in the first round, 24th overall, by Chicago in the 2010 NHL Draft. At the time, he had just completed his second and final year of high school hockey at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts. Bound for Boston College, it was quite a grade 12 year. Hayes had 25 goals and 67 points in just 28 games.

      Fast forward four years and here we are today. Hayes has graduated from Boston College and now is on the clock to sign with the Blackhawks by 11:59 pm ET on August 15 or he will automatically become a unrestricted free agent and be free to sign with any NHL team.

      So, who and what is Kevin Hayes?

      For one, he's huge at 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds and as you know -- with special thanks to the Los Angeles Kings, 'big' is in style right now in the NHL.

      There have been question marks about his skating but how big of a red flag is it? I've heard and read a range of opinions. Keep in mind that recently hired Troy Crowder, who is working in a player development role with the Flames, is a guy who specializes in improving a player's skating.

      Are Hayes' goal and point totals misleading and more a byproduct of spending two-thirds of the season alongside the offensively-gifted Gaudreau? Certainly playing with the best college player in the country by far is going to inflate your stats. However, if you look back, what's reassuring is he made huge strides offensively every year -- even when not skating with Gaudreau, so his bust-out fourth year can also be viewed as merely a natural, continuing progression.

      Worth pointing out is one can't get caught up in the raw goals and assist totals. Hayes suffered a freak quadriceps muscle injury two years ago that required three separate surgeries and cost him the final couple months of the season. As a result, he only played 27 games. In fact, it's been speculated he may have left school and signed with Chicago after that third year had it not been for that injury.

      Recapping his four seasons at Boston College:

      • 2010-11: 31 gm, 4-10-14 (0.45 points per game)
      • 2011-12: 44 gm, 7-21-28 (0.62 points per game)
      • 2012-13: 27 gm, 6-19-25 (0.93 points per game)
      • 2013-14: 40 gm, 27-38-65 (1.63 points per game)


      Why Hayes is a Good Fit for the Flames

      There are three reasons.

      First, the past connection with Gaudreau and Arnold speaks for itself. That line had tremendous chemistry and even though it's highly unlikely they'd remain a line in the NHL, it's nonetheless a fun possibility for fans to dream about. Being a line together in Adirondack this upcoming season would be a far more realistic possibility.

      Secondly, his size is obviously something Calgary would covet. A point reiterated ad nauseum by Flames management is the desire to be a bigger and more physical team. You do that by adding guys, who are 6-foot-4. Remember that in the most recent draft, the Flames did not select anyone shorter than six-foot and at their recent development camp, only three of the 36 skaters were under 6-foot. In fact, of the 18 players invited on a try-out, all of them were 6-foot or taller with a majority of them 6-foot-2 or bigger.

      Thirdly, you have the Flames lack of natural right wings. The team seems less concerned about this than fans, claiming many of their left wingers and some of the centres can play on the right side, but it's clearly the position on the club with the least depth right now and the left-hand shooting Hayes would be a really nice add in that regard.


      Evaluating and Understanding Chicago's Options

      There are a few different ways the Blackhawks can proceed on the Hayes situation. Here's a quick review of their three options:

      1. Sign Him - There have been reports earlier that Hayes will not sign with Chicago. This speculation grew when he did not attend the team's development camp this July. However, bear in mind there's always rumours and conjecture with these things. Just yesterday, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman told the Chicago Tribune that the team remains "hopeful" that they can sign Hayes.

      2. Let Him Become a Free Agent - This isn't as bad of an outcome for Chicago as you might think. Because Hayes was a first round pick (and this caveat in the CBA only applies to first rounders), the Blackhawks would receive compensation from the NHL if they cannot sign him in the form of a second round draft pick in the 2015 draft. That pick is relative to where he was originally taken in the first round so would be pick No. 24 in round two or 54th overall.

      3. Trade His Rights - Calgary's dealing away of Tim Erixon on June 1, 2011, is the best comparable here. Had then GM Jay Feaster let the 2009 first round pick just walk away, the Flames would have received compensation from the NHL in the form of the No. 23 pick in the second round (No. 53 overall) in the 2011 draft. Instead, the Flames got more than that by dealing the rights to the Swedish defenceman to the New York Rangers, who offered up two second round picks -- No. 45 and No. 57 along with Roman Horak (Calgary also sent a fifth round pick to New York). In hindsight, that would turn out to be quite a shrewd move by Feaster, who used those two picks to select Markus Granlund and Tyler Wotherspoon, two of Calgary's top prospects, who look like they're both on their way to long NHL careers.

      Revisiting that situation, the Rangers were taking a chance but they were confident they could sign Erixon. Plus, if they didn't, they would have been the team that received the second round compensatory pick so they were essentially willing to deal one second round pick and Horak for the chance to have exclusive negotiating rights. It worked out in the sense that Erixon signed with New York, although Erixon the player did not work out.

      The other example that comes up but is not an apples-to-apples comparison is the Corban Knight situation from last summer. When Calgary traded a fourth round pick to Florida to get the rights to Knight, who the Panthers had drafted in the fifth round in 2009, there was no fall-back compensation option. In the current CBA and it was the same in the previous 2005 CBA also, there is no compensation for not being able to sign draft picks from rounds two through seven.

      In that situation, the Flames took a calculated gamble but given Knight's High River upbringing, they made the trade fairly confident they could sign him and sure enough they did. In that case, Florida was highly motivated to deal his rights because at least that way, they got something for him.


      Other NHL Teams Hayes May be Eyeing

      In addition to Calgary, there are a few other teams you would think would be near the front of the pack when it comes to courting Hayes:
      • Florida Panthers - This is where Kevin's older brother Jimmy now plays, after being traded away by the Blackhawks last year in a trade for Kris Versteeg. Jimmy, also a right-winger, is two-and-a-half years older than Kevin and is two inches taller. The two got to play together for Team USA at the most recent World Hockey Championships in Belarus. It was their first time together on the same team since a one year overlap in their careers at Boston College.
      • New York Rangers - The Rangers are short on cap space but in need of position players and could offer Hayes something the Flames cannot, which is not only a shot to step right into the NHL but also to do so on a team that just went to the Stanley Cup final so is clearly a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The other New York connection is Chris Kreider, who played two seasons with Hayes at Boston College. 
      • Boston Bruins - He's a local kid born in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The idea of playing for the hometown Bruins would have to be pretty appealing you would think. Around Calgary, one can relate to that desire considering the number of southern Alberta kids that so excitedly have come home to play for the Flames -- Mason Raymond, Corban Knight, etc.

      Will Hayes be Hard to Sign?

      The hardest part is being a team he wants to sign with as at this point, Hayes is very much in the driver's seat of his own destiny. The actual contract terms will not be that hard to agree to given the term (must be two years) and his maximum base salary ($900,000) are all dictated by the CBA.

      The negotiations would revolve around signing and performance bonuses but even at that, there are guidelines in the CBA to what those performances bonus options can be be and there are also limitations to how much in bonuses can be offered.

      In Calgary's situation, they certainly have the cap space and if they see a fit, they would surely be willing to ante up as necessary to get a deal done.


      Crystal Ball: Speculating on Mark Jankowski

      A question that came up recently while talking about Chicago's situation with Hayes was would Calgary, in two years time, potentially choose to not sign 2012 first round pick Mark Jankowski and instead take a second round draft pick from the NHL as compensation.

      Good thinking but it's not that simple.

      In order to receive compensation, the team holding the player's rights must make the player a bona fide contract offer. You can't just choose to not sign a guy and be compensated. The spirit of it is to be compensated only when you try to sign a player but are unable to.

      What "bona fide" means, and this phrase is a common one that appears 108 times in the CBA, is that the team make a legitimate contract offer that meets the minimum requirements for salary and term as set out in the CBA.

      Typically, when team is making a bona fide contract offer out of necessity -- like the Flames just did with 2013 draft pick Eric Roy to retain his rights for another season, that offer can be viewed as essentially a minimum wage offer by NHL standards with no signing bonus, no performance bonus, nothing extra. Roy rejected it, and so do most players when they get such offers -- assuming they're of the ilk that the player feels a better offer will be forthcoming.

      Depending on Jankowski's progression -- and at this moment he's still very much in the Flames picture as Wes Gilbertson from the Calgary Sun covered off here, if he does tumble off Calgary's prospect radar, the Flames could find themselves in a position in two years of deciding between two options:

      • Not signing him (and not even offering him a contract) and ending up with no compensation.
      • Offering Jankowski the mandatory two-year deal. With that, if he takes it, working with him in the AHL for a couple seasons, or if he rejects it for some reason, then taking that compensatory pick, which would be 51st overall in the 2017 NHL Draft.


      However, that's a long, long way away. For now, Flames fans should hope Jankowski builds off last year and has a breakout third year for Providence College, which is supposed to be one of the best teams in college hockey this season.


      Conclusion: So, What Do the Flames Do?

      In my eyes, Calgary should wait until August 16 and hope Hayes also makes it to that date and doesn't sign before that with either Chicago or another team the Blackhawks might trade his rights to.

      I would not trade for Hayes' rights because if you're Calgary, what are you prepared to give up? There's a good possibility the Flames finish in the bottom three in the NHL this season so would you trade a second round pick for Hayes' rights knowing it might turn out to be the 33rd overall pick? Is the reward of potentially signing him big enough to mitigate the risk of falling back to the compensatory 53rd pick if you're unable to sign him? Not in my eyes.

      Could Calgary flip Chicago a prospect?  It would have to be a good enough prospect for the Blackhawks to be interested in giving up that second round pick fall-back and is that too much to surrender if you're the Flames? The bigger question, what prospect are we talking about? Patrick Sieloff? Granlund? Risky.

      There has not been any indication to what Calgary's interest level is in Hayes and that's expected considering his rights do belong to Chicago still and you get into tampering if you start commenting on such matters publicly.

      Many feel the chance to reunite with Arnold and Gaudreau is a huge attraction but that's maybe being oversold considering how unlikely it would be they'd actually play on a line together anyway. The reality is they only played together for 26 games last year and it was NCAA hockey that they dominated. Where they slot in at the NHL level could be very different roles.

      Gaudreau would be the first one ready you'd think and is a top-six guy. Is Hayes with his size more suited to being a third line player, at least initially? Arnold with his defensive prowess, tracks to be more of a Matt Stajan-type in my books so if he ascends to the NHL and he may be a couple years away, would it be as Gaudreau's centre? Perhaps, and that's sure fun to think about that dynamic duo playing together again but putting away the rose-coloured glasses, I'm not sure that's a long-term fit.

      The good news is we won't have to wait long for an ending to this story as August 15 is not that far away. If you're a Flames fan, keep your fingers crossed. Soon we'll know what Kevin Hayes feels about all this and at this point, that's all that matters.

      -----------------------------

      Related Flames Reading
      • The Ben Hanowski Barometer - The recent re-signing of forward Ben Hanowski provides a window into how quickly the Flames have improved the depth in the organization.
      • Flames Scrimmage No. 2 - Eight observations from a wild and woolly 30-minute scrimmage at Flames Development camp, a game in which many prospects stood out and in a good way.
      • Flames Scrimmage No. 1 - Five players that looked good in the first of two Flames scrimmages planned for development camp. In short, Calgary's best prospects -- Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett -- were their best players.

      Sunday, July 13, 2014

      Ben Hanowski: A Sign of Positive Change with the Flames

      The Ben Hanowski signing by the Flames on Saturday to a one-year, two-way deal (valued at $67,500 in AHL, $850,500 in NHL) didn't come with a lot of fanfare and that in itself is testament to how far Calgary has come in just the last couple years when it comes to building up depth in the organization.

      There was a time not that long ago where the kind of year Hanowski just had in the American Hockey League -- 13-18-31 in 55 games, would have made him one of the Calgary's top prospects. However, that isn't the case any longer.

      To the credit in particular of former general manager Jay Feaster and his shrewd drafting during his three years at the helm, the days of looking in the Flames prospect cupboard and having not much to choose from other than Kraft Dinner are in the past. Suddenly, there is depth, there are options, there are plenty of reasons for fans to get excited, and a guy like Hanowski -- a former third round pick by the Penguins, who was acquired in the Jarome Iginla trade, can be looked upon as a fringe prospect. Perhaps he does blossom into a full-time role in the NHL but it's not as if the Flames are in trouble if he doesn't. They have other options now, which has not always been the case, especially recently.


      2013-14: The Restocking Begins to Show

      Among Flames prospects, which I define for the purpose of this article as players age 23 and younger and on NHL contracts (so excluding journeymen like Ben Street, Brett Olson, Blair Jones), Hanowski ranked fourth on Abbotsford in scoring last season. He was behind:
      • Max Reinhart - 66 gm, 21-42-63
      • Markus Granlund - 52 gm, 25-21-46
      • Corban Knight - 70 gm, 18-26-44

      While he did play 14 additional games, it's worth noting that Hanowski had the same number of goals as former first round pick Sven Baertschi and finished with two more points.

      If you look back, you realize it's been a long time since Calgary has had such riches in the minors (again, I'm excluding non-prospect minor league veterans like Krys Kolanos, Ben Walter, Matt Keith, Jon Rheault). In fact, during the two AHL seasons prior to last year, 31 points would have made Hanowski the Flames highest scoring prospect.

      Here are Calgary's top-scoring prospects with Abbotsford over the previous four years:
      • 2012-13 - Roman Horak - 59 gm, 16-14-30
      • 2011-12 - Greg Nemisz - 51 gm, 13-16-29
      • 2010-11 - TJ Brodie - 68 gm, 5-29-34, Greg Nemisz - 68 gm, 14-19-33
      • 2009-10 - Mikael Backlund - 54 gm, 15-17-32

      It's surprising how closely Hanowski's AHL numbers -- in his first professional season after graduating from St. Cloud State, resemble Backlund's in his first pro year in 2009-10. Although, Backlund was two years younger. I wouldn't read too much into it, it's just interesting.


      A Make-or-Break Season

      To have a shot at having a long NHL career or at minimum, to earn himself another contract with the Flames at the expiration of his current deal, skating is an area that Hanowski acknowledges he needs to get better at. He showed last year that he is a more than capable AHL player and will be even better in his second pro season. But is there enough there considering he turns 24 in October to stay long term in the NHL? Specifically, can he score enough to play a third line role or bring enough belligerence for the 6-foot-2 winger to eventually secure a fourth line role? We'll have to wait and see.

      In this piece from Wes Gilbertson today in The Calgary Sun, Hanowski acknowledges there are inefficiencies in his skating stride. One can assume he's already been in contact with newly hired Troy Crowder, who in his player development role with the Flames, is all about improving a player's skating. I would guess Hanowski will become one of his projects.

      Hanowski had two stints with the Flames last year. He played a total of 11 games amassing just two assists. That gives him three points in 16 career NHL games.

      My guess is Hanowski plays a majority of the 2014-15 season in Adirondack. Again, as a reflection of how much better stocked the pantry is now, it's quite possible he won't even be in the top seven or eight scorers amongst Flames prospects. Others in the mix I'd expect to finish ahead of him if they are in the AHL would be guys like Emile Poirier, Corban Knight, Kenny Agostino, Bill Arnold, Markus Granlund, Max Reinhart, Johnny Gaudreau, Sven Baertschi and Michael Ferland. A few of those guys may end up in Calgary but still, you can see the positive direction this organization is headed.

      This is not so much a slight on Hanowski as it is a tribute to the Flames and how quickly they've turned things around, with even more organizational help on the way in the next couple years in the likes of Morgan Klimchuk, Sam Bennett, Hunter Smith and a high draft pick in 2015.


      A Final Thought

      The best case scenario for Calgary and for Hanowski is he has a great year and becomes an asset that the Flames can work with. Whether he becomes something of value the Flames can include in a trade or if his emergence makes someone else expendable, nothing bad comes from young players developing into good, solid hockey players.

      They may not end up realizing their full potential in the organization in which they were groomed, but that team can end up better off as a result. Young, legitimate prospects are currency and the more you have of them, it gives you leverage and that's how you continue to improve a hockey team, especially a rebuilding one. Better yet, it can even shorten up the length of said rebuild and playoff-starved Flames fans can only hope that will be the case in Calgary.

      -----------------------------
      Related Flames Reading
      • Flames Scrimmage No. 2 - Eight observations from a wild and woolly 30-minute game at WinSport in which many prospects stood out -- and in a good way.
      • Flames Scrimmage No. 1 - Five players that looked good in the first of two Flames scrimmages planned for development camp. In short, Calgary's best prospects -- Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett -- were their best players.

      Wednesday, July 09, 2014

      Development Camp: Eight Observations From Scrimmage No. 2

      Well folks, that's it, that's all.

      Calgary Flames development came came to a close on Wednesday morning at WinSport with a second scrimmage, which wrapped up the six-day camp. You can now go outside and weed your garden. Oh joy!

      It was another good turnout as the stands were once again packed with fans eager to see what the future might hold and I do mean future. With one notable exception -- and you know who that is by now, that NHL future I'm talking about is at least a year away and for some -- if it happens at all, could be 3-5 years down the road. Nonetheless, there was a lot of talent in town, significantly better prospects than Calgary got used to seeing at these camps a few years ago when they were quietly held at Don Hartman Arena. There is certainly reason to be optimistic if you're a fan, who has grown tired of watching other teams play in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

      With the Flames 2014-15 season opener against Vancouver less than three months away and with rookie camp starting up in two months, there won't be much down time. Like it or not, winter will be here before you know it.

      I'll leave you with eight observations from today and the overall camp on the whole. I'll be working on some longer player profile pieces over the summer and if you're following me on Twitter at @DarrenWHaynes, I'll certainly let you know when I have them completed and posted.


      1. Space Up, Offence Up

      In contrast to Monday's scrimmage (my recap here), which was mainly played 5-on-5 and produced only two goals, there was much more space to move on Wednesday morning at WinSport as the 30-minute game started with 4-on-4, then went to 3-on-3 after about 12 minutes and ended up an exhausting-to-play-but-fun-to-watch 2-on-2. What we learned is opposing Johnny Gaudreau with only four skaters on the ice is like chasing a squirrel around a football field.

      The final score in the game was 5-5, I think. Or, maybe it was 6-5 for the Reds. Regardless, the fact I lost track of the score in the end is exactly the kind of problem you hope to have when you open up the ice like that and give guys space to be creative. The resulting offence speaks to the quality of the players in camp -- particularly the ones already in the organization, most of whom accommodated themselves very well.

      The game zipped by really fast and was once again high-tempo and with its fair share of physicality. The excitement created when you get into pond hockey with two or three skaters aside certainly leaves you wondering if it's just a matter of time before the NHL at least experiments with that in the AHL as an alternative to the shootout to decide tie games during the regular season.


      2. I Think We Should See Other People

      In the spirit of Ross and Rachel, maybe Boston College duo Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold are just on a 'break'.

      It was certainly an interesting dynamic this week with Gaudreau wearing white in both scrimmages and his best buddy playing on the reds. For much of today's game, Gaudreau's wing-man was hulking Milan Lucic-look-a-like David Wolf, who like everybody else, came away impressed.... or make that mighty impressed with Gaudreau's high skill level.

      "He's just pure talent," said the 24-year-old German. "He's so smooth on the ice. At his size, he's probably the best player I've ever seen."

      Gaudreau, as you come to expect every game, did score a goal and it was a dandy. He made a nice deke and deftly slid the puck through the five-hole on Mason McDonald after he was sprung on a breakaway by Kenny Agostino.

      Meanwhile, at the risk of sounding more like a Hollywood Insider from TMZ, I can confirm that Arnold was spotted playing with Morgan Klimchuk in both scrimmages. Yes, it would seem they're now an item. Klimchuk scored twice Wednesday -- both set up by Arnold, who also had a goal of his own.

      "I didn't really know Billy that well coming into this week," Klimchuk said. "But to sit next to him and to be on his team and be around him all week and do off-ice activities with him, you really do build chemistry and I thought that definitely showed in the game today."

      Klimchuk had a great chance at his hat-trick at one point but from a prime shooting area, he unselfishly sent a pass back across the slot to Arnold instead.

      "He's a lot of fun to play with, a real skilled, fast player. We've been playing together a lot this week and I think it showed out there," said Arnold. "We were clicking and we had a good feeling for where each other was going to be on the ice."

      Gaudreau and Arnold did find themselves back together again at centre in the shootout -- both shooting at the same time but in opposite directions. And in a twist of fate, Gaudreau was thwarted by McDonald while Arnold scored on a deke against Doug Carr. "Bragging rights for the summer," said a delighted Arnold, with a chuckle.


      3. I'll Be Back

      If I played you a clip from my voice recorder and asked "Who is this?" Your first guess would be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, I can definitely confirm David Wolf is German and speaks just like Arnie, or... I suppose... like many Germans do. I can also confirm that he is quite a character. Firstly, he's pumped about Germany's 7-1 rout of Brazil in the World Cup on Tuesday. Flying back to Germany tonight, he'll be home in time and looking forward to the big party that will be Sunday's final. I also discovered Wolf is a personable, funny and very engaging fella off the ice.

      When the 24-year-old was signed in May, much of the discussion revolved around his size -- 6-foot-2 and at least 216 pounds, his truculent style of play, and how he led the German League in penalty minutes in two of the last three seasons. However, lost was the fact he was also second on his team in points each of the last three years.

      "I stand up for my teammates when I have to, I fight when I have to, but I'm not out there looking for it," said Wolf, who had a few good scoring chances during the game but was not able to capitalize. In the shootout, he was also denied but just barely as he raised eyebrows by pulling out the only spin-a-rama move we saw. He just couldn't jam the puck past McDonald's outstretched pad as he completed his 360.

      "I do have some finesse too, although I've got 'summer hands'," laughed Wolf, who says he hadn't skated in nearly three months before this week. "I've got to get on the ice more and more and then I'll get my hands and my conditioning back."

      "David's an interesting guy. He's like a walking fridge," said Flames GM Brad Treliving. "He's got a straight-ahead approach and he's a big body, who does everything well. He'll be an interesting guy to see, come training camp."


      4. Johnny B. Goode Again

      Watching Gaudreau on the ice is just so darn enjoyable. His creativity is off-the-charts and the failed attempts by others to cover him, hit him, catch him, get the puck away from him, or do anything to stop him -- it's like watching one long, endless Keystone Cops routine. Flipping through my notebook from this morning, I have references to No. 53 scribbled on every page with enough stars written besides those references to resemble the constellations in the northern sky. Some examples from today:
      • Speeds down the wing, turns away slickly from Keegan Kanzig, makes a nice toe-drag around Austin Carroll and snaps a quick shot on goal.
      • Gains the zone, does a sharp curl towards the board to lose the defender and give himself time and space. Then, zips an absolutely perfect saucer pass across the slot that lands on the tape of Chris Dienes for a one-timer.
      • On a 1-on-1 rush, he's stood up just inside the blueline and knocked down by a good, physical defensive play by Allan Caron. However, you're messing with the wrong guy, Allan. That same shift on another one-on-one between the same two guys, a nice curl-and-drag move by Gaudreau results in Caron flopping to the ice and sliding helplessly out of the play. Gaudreau then strolls in for a dangerous shot.  Later that same shift, with Gaudreau buzzing around like a mad hornet, he regains the puck again with a lightning fast stick lift and steal of the puck from unsuspecting Damian Bourne.
      • While playing 2-on-2, Agostino and Gaudreau had possession of the puck for nearly their entire shift. They scored once and essentially just teased the helpless red pairing of Scott Allen and Brandon Vuic, who looked like a pair of Wile E. Coyotes chasing a pair of road runners in the defensive zone.  

      Gaudreau won't dominate like he did at this camp at Calgary's main training camp starting in mid-September but it will be intriguing to see how he fares. That will be the real test to see if he is ready to be an NHL player right now or if some seasoning in the AHL is the route the Flames will opt to go. Consider this one of the top story lines to follow heading into training camp.


      5. Sam Being Sam 

      Sam Bennett is going to be a fan favourite, no question. He doesn't care how big you are, he's going to get in there, and get in there fast and he's just so damn determined to come away with the puck. A couple times on the forecheck, Bennett pursued a guy behind the net and if he didn't succeed in stripping the puck from the panic-stricken defenceman, he then chases him up the ice relentlessly like a pit bull.

      He's not afraid to get to those so-called dirty areas either. In one sequence in front the opposition's net, he had a gruelling 8-10 second battle for positioning in front with massive 6-foot-6, 245 pound defenceman Keegan Kanzig. Bennett did not back down and was determined to get to and stay on that patch of ice at the top of the crease.

      The same two met again later along the sideboards and while Kanzig was first to the puck, it was Bennett that came away with the puck for a dangerous scoring chance. All it took was an aggressive, physical play from Bennett to pop Kanzig into the boards and then strip the puck from him. "Like a dog on a bone." -- that's how I'd describe Bennett regarding his pursuit of the puck.

      On a side note, Bennett and Klimchuk will both be at Team Canada's World Junior orientation camp later this summer. It's a decent bet that both could be on this year's team and if so, it would be the first time the Flames have had two forwards on Canada's World Junior team since 1999 when Rico Fata and Daniel Tkaczuk were part of Canada's silver medal-winning team. (I know what you're now thinking and stop thinking that way. I have zero doubt that the future of Klimchuk and Bennett is much brighter than it turned out for those other two Flames 1st round picks.)

      In the last 15 years, the only three Flames forwards to play for Canada at the World Juniors have been: Greg Nemisz (2010, silver), Dustin Boyd (2006, gold) and Chuck Kobasew (2002, silver).


      6. 'D' Depth Chart

      None of the defencemen that were on the ice at development camp are immediate threats to play in the NHL. However, look 2-3 years into the future and you may have something.

      For me, the top three that were on the ice this week in terms of future potential are:
      1. Brett Kulak
      2. Keegan Kanzig
      3. Ryan Culkin

      Because I said "on the ice", this excludes Patrick Sieloff, who was at camp but did not dress for the scrimmages as he continues to work his way back from being injured almost all of last season. Sieloff has the potential to be ranked right there with Kulak.

      Both Kulak and Culkin, who have offensive upside, sniped goals on Wednesday and they could be a couple key figures in Adirondack this year assuming that's where they land. Kanzig has impressed me all week and while he'll be back in Victoria this year for sure, his future looks bright as long as he can continue to improve his foot speed. Even with the wide open ice today that comes with 2-on-2, I thought Kanzig looked just fine. He's a better skater than you would expect.

      As for Eric Roy, he's tall enough but that's his best quality. At least in this week's sample, he's just not at the same level as the other three. Also of note, making an impression on the Flames was undrafted Jason Fram. At the camp on a try-out from Spokane (WHL), where the 19-year-old has played the past three seasons, Fram was the lone player singled out by Treliving today, who the Flames have already decided to bring back to rookie camp. At 6-foot-0 and 195 pounds, Fram saw his offensive production skyrocket from 2-13-15 in 60 games in 2012-13 to 6-51-57 in 72 games last year.


      7. Nervous Mason McDonald

      It's so hard to evaluate goalies in this type of setting considering the odd-man rushes that naturally occur in a pond hockey format, which was the second half of today's game that 2014 2nd round pick Mason McDonald played. Also, allowing a breakaway goal to Gaudreau as he did hardly puts him in an exclusive club.

      In the shootout, it didn't start off so good as McDonald was beaten five-hole by Agostino and again in the same spot two shooters later by Collin Valcourt. However, he stopped the next 11 shots including Bennett, who after scoring on a spectacular deke move in Monday's shootout, tried a similar move only this time did not convert.

      "It's a big jump from junior to this," McDonald said. "The pace is so much faster, guys skate so much faster, the shots are so much faster. Everything is bang-bang. It's great to have the experience of it and going back to junior, it will help me."

      And next breakaway, he vows to stop Gaudreau.

      "He's really shifty, he can shoot the puck. He's got everything to be a pro hockey player. He was definitely the best out there," said the soft-spoken 18-year-old. "It's too bad, he got me through the five-hole. Next time I'll have him."


      8. What Will Development Camp Look Like in 2015?

      This year's camp was just like last year's camp, and also the camp the year before because it was the format already in place when Brad Treliving was hired by the Flames as general manager. However, expect Calgary's development camp to look a little different next year.

      "It's safe to say there will be changes," said Treliving. " I don't think it will be radical changes but we'll tweak it."

      Calgary's camp is certainly one of the longest if not the longest in the NHL. The players are on the ice for five consecutive intensive days. Arizona's development camp -- and that would be the organization Treliving just left, consists of only three on-ice sessions of 90 minutes each.

      Shortening it certainly sounds like one of the things he's considering.

      "I want to continue to place the emphasis on education," Treliving said. "It's development, it's giving these guys the tools. Yes, you want get a little glimpse and see how they move and do those things but in a lot of ways, the emphasis on doing too much heavy-lifting on-ice and evaluating in the middle of July, it can be a dangerous thing."

      ----------------------------

      Related Flames Reading:
      • First Impressions from Scrimmage No. 1 - The Flames best players were their best players on Monday as Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett were two of the five players that stood out for me. 
      • The Polarizing Selection of Goaltender Mason McDonald - Selecting a goaltender with pick No. 34 infuriated a lot of Flames fans. Why take a goalie so early? Well, I've done the homework and I will explain to you why it was the smart choice for Calgary at that point in the draft.