Saturday, August 29, 2015

Austin Carroll: Potential Steal Packs Plenty of Punch and Perseverance

It would be overgeneralizing to call Austin Carroll the right-hand shooting version of Micheal Ferland, yet there are similarities between the two wingers that fans and the coaching staff should find alluring.

There is their size. Carroll, listed at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Ferland.

There is their style of play. Both play a nasty, rugged brand of hockey while also having the ability to put the puck in the net and produce offence.

There is their background. Both played four seasons in the Western Hockey League -- Carroll with the Victoria Royals and Ferland spending a majority of his time with the Brandon Wheat Kings.

Ferland's bust-out year came in 2011-12 as a 19-year-old when he had 47 goals and 96 points along with 84 penalty minutes. Carroll's 19-year-old season in 2013-14 was also pretty good -- 34 goals and 57 points to go with 114 penalty minutes -- but his best season came last year when he chalked up 38 goals, 77 points and 124 penalty minutes.

"With his skills and what he does out there, I'd love to follow his footsteps," said Carroll last month at Flames development camp. "In junior, you always knew when (Ferland) was on the ice. Big, tough guy that was a threat to score as well."

Carroll was in the Saddledome last April for a couple of the playoff clashes against Vancouver so got to witness Ferland's effectiveness first-hand.

"They had the Ferland chants going on. It just shows that this city definitely respects and acknowledges work ethic and hard work," Carroll said. "Ferland just went out there, put his head down and went to work. He really showed the coaches and the city, that you can be an impact player doing that."

Always Wanted to Play for the Flames

Playing tyke hockey in Calgary, Carroll wanted to do one thing when he grew up -- play hockey for the Flames. His favourite player was also a popular pick with kids back then -- Jarome Iginla.

Complicating that dream, however, was a move to the southern United States when he was six years old. After a year in San Francisco, the family settled in Scottsdale, Arizona, which isn't exactly a hockey factory.

Nonetheless, Carroll stuck with hockey despite baseball, football and golf being more logical pursuits for that area of the country. He eventually ended up playing for the Junior Coyotes Elite AAA program at age 15 before finding his way back to Canada to play Junior 'A' for the Coquitlam Express of the BCHL.

Victoria in the WHL came next where he spent his final three years under the tutelage of former Flame Dave Lowry, who took over as the Royals coach in 2012-13. Lowry is considered one of the best coaches in junior hockey and will be the man behind the bench for Canada at this year's World Junior Championships.

Rare, Coveted Overall Skill Set

For some perspective on how rare it is to find someone with Carroll's combination of size, tenacity and skill, only three other times in the last dozen years in the WHL has a player 6-foot-2 or taller scored at least 35 goals, 70 points and had over 100 penalty minutes:

Adam Lowry, Swift Current (2012-13), 3rd round pick by Winnipeg in 2011
  • 6-foot-5, 207 lbs, 45-43-88 in 72 games, 102 PIM (at age 19)
Kyle Beach, Spokane (2009-10), 1st round pick by Chicago in 2008
  • 6-foot-3, 209 lbs, 52-34-86 in 68 games, 186 PIM (at age 20)
Troy Brouwer, Moose Jaw (2005-06), 7th round by Chicago in 2004
  • 6-foot-2, 214 lbs, 49-53-102 in 72 games, 122 PIM (at age 20)

Of the three, Troy Brouwer is a particularly interesting comparison considering he was also a seventh round pick and a right-hand shooting right winger. Now wouldn't the Flames be ecstatic if Carroll turns out anything like Brouwer, who has put together a solid NHL career.

Having just turned 30 this summer. Brouwer has 132 goals and 255 points in 531 regular season games split between Chicago and Washington. He's also played in 78 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup. Entering the final season of a three-year, $11-million deal, Brouwer was acquired by St. Louis this summer in the trade that sent TJ Oshie to the Capitals.

Experienced Tragedy at a Young Age

It was just before Christmas during his second season in the WHL when his father Phil succumbed to his four-year-fight with prostate cancer and passed away. Austin was 18.

For more on Austin's special relationship with his father, who was a native Calgarian, take a few minutes and watch this terrific and moving tribute from two years ago by Victoria's CHEK News.

Austin said his father remains an inspiration to him.

"I think about him often. Growing up, he pushed me every day to become better. He instilled that in me," he said. "Every day when I'm working and I want to give up, definitely in the back of my mind, as much as I want to do it for myself, I push harder just for him and my family."

New Stage in his Career

This year, for the first time since his father passed away, Carroll prepares to play hockey in a new city and in a new league and one that will take him back into the southern U.S. again, only this time in the Pacific time zone.

After signing his entry-level contract with the Flames on March 26, Carroll will suit up this season for the Stockton Heat, Calgary's AHL affiliate.
"It's a big step. As many nerves as I have, there's also excitement," said Carroll. "I love summertime but I'm itching to see how I do in pro so I'm excited for that day to come."

Carroll knows playing against men versus boys will be a big change. He expects pace and fitness to be the biggest differences.

"You have to go in there with a high fitness level so you have that chance to prove yourself. The pace of the game is going to be a lot quicker so I have to adjust quickly," said Carroll, who acknowledges some elements of his game will remain the same. "I like playing a power, physical game. I'm not shy in the corners or to step up for teammates. If that's asked to be part of my game, I'm not scared to do that."

Before Stockton's season gets underway on October 10, Carroll will get into some games for Calgary in Penticton at the rookie tournament, which runs Sept. 11-14. You can bet he'll get a taste of action in the NHL pre-season too.

"You have to mentally and physically prepare but it all comes down to how you perform," Carroll said.

Soft Hands for a Big Man

One area of Carroll's game that is impressive is his touch around the net. For a big guy, he seems to have a knack for scoring from in-close and around the goal crease.

"I've done a lot of work after practices working on quick, in-tight little skills around the net," said Carroll. "Most goals are scored right around the net. As a big power forward, I will spend a lot of time there and if I do start scoring some goals, it will be in and around the net."

With big, agile defencemen covering you like a glove and with goalies taking up so much space, you don't have the time to wait and make the perfect shot.

"You don't have a lot of time and space, so you have to make quick, quick plays and if you have to get a puck upstairs quickly, you've got to do it within a split second," said Carroll.

Following the Path his Father Envisioned

After being passed over the first year he was eligible for the NHL draft and not being taken until the final round of the next draft, it's going to be an uphill climb for Carroll to make it to the NHL.

However, considering everything he's overcome so far in his life, it would be a mistake to underestimate him. Perseverance and determination can carry someone a long way.

"Deep down, my dad always knew that this was the path for me and he knew I was going to make it," said Carroll. "But just how I did it, he didn't quite know."

As he pursues that childhood dream of one day playing for the Flames, he'll continue to have his family supporting him every step along the way -- his dad watching proudly from high above and his mom, Jennifer, as often as possible watching from near or at ice-level, as was the case throughout development camp. 

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


Recent Flames Reading

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Other Perspectives to the Giordano Contract Extension

Two years ago today, Canada's 17 best defencemen gathered at WinSport for a game of ball hockey. It was the orientation camp for Canada's National Men's Hockey Team as preparations began for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Mark Giordano was not among them.

Ryan Suter, Zdeno Chara, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nik Kronwall and Erik Karlsson -- they weren't there either, but that was because of the country listed on their passport.

The reason for Giordano's absence? Simply not good enough according to Executive Director Steve Yzerman and his management team.

Viewed in that light, Giordano signing a 6-year/$40.5 million contract extension as was announced Tuesday is downright staggering.

Yet, the overwhelming reaction to the deal, which pays him an annual average value of $6.75 million, was what a bargain for the Flames. You can include me among that group that had to look twice to make sure we were reading the dollar figure correctly. Two weeks ago in this piece when I broke down exactly what you get with the overall package with Giordano, I concluded a 6-year/$46.5 million extension -- an AAV of $7.75 million -- would be fair value.

For eight reasons why the Flames got themselves great value with this deal, I'll refer you back to that last article. His low NHL odometer, unique career 'sweet spot' and a list of comparable contracts from around the league are all there.

Today in an Eight From 80 Feet dedicated specifically to his newly-signed deal, I present part two. Here are eight additional angles in which you can look at the Giordano deal and realize it is one that Calgary hockey fans should be ecstatic with.

1. Still Getting Nearly $9 Million, Eh

NHL contracts are paid in U.S. dollars. Girodano lives and works in Canada. In case you haven't noticed, the value of the Canadian dollar ain't what it used to be.

Two years ago today when Giordano was back home in Toronto watching the Blue Jays instead of at Hockey Canada's camp, the U.S. dollar was worth 95 cents Canadian. Yesterday, it closed at 75 cents.

Put $6.75 million US into the currency converting machine and out spits $8.95 million in Canadian spending money. Look at it in that light and instead of being the ninth highest paid blue-liner in the NHL, Giordano moves up to third behind only PK Subban and Dion Phaneuf.

Sure, maybe it doesn't stay that way and Giordano's new deal is a year away from kicking in, but it's certainly something to consider.

2. Establishing a Team Salary Framework

What Flames GM Brad Treliving has managed to do with all his recent player signings is appropriately slot players -- based on how they compare relatively -- in a way that establishes a Flames salary framework that works for the team and should benefit the club moving forward.

Look at the blue-line where Brodie's extension signed early last season was the first domino. Hamilton's contract was then built off that and Giordano's contract falls in line at a number that makes sense for where he's at in his career in comparison to the other two.

A year from now when Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau need new deals, Treliving is again going to try and position them in respect to these other recent deals. Look fellas, we just paid our captain and best player $6.75 million, so take that into consideration when you're coming up with your salary ask at your young age.

Same thing for Kris Russell, who is entering his UFA season. If he is offered an extension, know that the salary will reflect where he fits in compared to the big three.

3. Economically-Priced Norris-Worthy Trio 

If his season doesn't end in February due to injury, there's a good chance Giordano wins the Norris Trophy last season. Instead, he finished sixth. Brodie also cracked the top 20 in Norris voting finishing 18th and the 25-year-old is just getting going. Hamilton just turned 22 and could very soon be in that same conversation.

We're talking about three defencemen, all potentially Norris Trophy winning-calibre, all locked up by the Flames for the next five seasons at a combined cost of $17.15 million (and even less in 2015-16 where it will be $14.4 million as Giordano completes the final year of his current contract), which is less than 25 percent of the NHL salary cap where it's at today at $71.4 million. That's shrewd spending.

If you subscribe to the adage that defense wins championships, Treliving has really set this team up nicely. Look ahead to the final three years of that five-year window in particular, which should be where this team peaks, and here are the ages the Flames young forward core will be:
  • Johnny Gaudreau - Ages 24-26
  • Sean Monahan - Ages 23-25
  • Sam Bennett - Ages 21-23

That would go hand-in-hand with:
  • Giordano - Ages 34-36
  • Brodie - Ages 27-29
  • Hamilton - Ages 24-26

4. Front-End Savings Trumps Back-End Losses

Five years from now when Giordano is 37 and has two years remaining on his deal, will Calgary wish they were paying him less? Probably.

But that's the cost of doing business. If you look at it that way, you're getting lost in the weeds. Plus, what might Giordano command for a salary at that age? Don't underestimate it. As an example, Andrei Markov's three-year extension kicked in at age 36 and was for an AAV of $5.8 million.

While he likely will be worth less at that time, it may not be considerably less. Meanwhile, the discount the team will reap at the front end of his new deal -- as much as $2 or $3 million less than what he could have earned over those first three to four years -- will be substantial and more than makes up for any overpaying the team will do in the final couple years.

We're also just guessing at when Giordano and his unusual career arc reaches 'post-apex'. Without getting into that elite class of Nicklas Lidstrom, Ray Bourque and Chris Chelios, there are plenty of others that enjoyed some of their best seasons in their mid-to-late 30s -- Al MacInnis, Larry Murphy, Mathieu Schneider, Rob Blake and Brian Rafalski are a few examples.

5. Face of the Franchise

If Giordano averages 65 games per season over the next five years, he'll pass Robyn Regehr and move into second place on the franchise's games-played list behind Jarome Iginla. So, you might as well pencil him into that spot right now.

Flames top five defencemen all-time in games played:
  1. Robyn Regehr, 826
  2. Al MacInnis 803
  3. Gary Suter, 617
  4. Jamie Macoun, 586
  5. Mark Giordano, 510

Make no mistake, we're talking about a player that is the face of the franchise, the face of the city and on track to go down in history as one of Calgary's greatest players ever. The No. 5 jerseys will be everywhere in the 'C' of Red -- as well as on the streets and in schools -- for many, many years to come.

6. Role Model 

Earlier in the month in this piece, I tackled the topic of regression and whether or not what happened to the Avalanche last year will -- as many pundits predict -- happen to the Flames this season. One of the distinguishing factors I identified that separates Calgary from Colorado as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs the year before that is the quantity of youth on this team. Over half of the Flames roster this season including a lot of very important players will be age 25 or under.

This is why Giordano is such an ideal player to be wearing the 'C' in this organization and to be sticking around for a long time. Older, experienced, yet always one of the most fit players. Giordano sets the path and the others follow. As a young player, you look at how he handles himself off the ice, on the ice, in the weight room, in the community, and you emulate. He is an exemplary person to have your future stars patterning themselves off of.

7. Attracting Players to Calgary

Hamilton signing long term. Michael Frolik picking Calgary from the 30 choices he had as a free agent.

Treliving said on July 1 that both of those transactions were helped by the successful season the Flames had last year. Winning was identified by both players as a reason why they wanted to commit to Calgary for the next several years.

Giordano accepting less than what he surely would have commanded on the open market in a year's time to stay with the Flames is yet another move made in that same spirit. He sees Calgary as the best chance to win and make no mistake, he wants to win. He is on the verge of his 32nd birthday and has played in four career NHL playoff games. Four!

Yes, players want to maximize their earnings and that's a big factor when they're on the open market or negotiating a new contract, but what really motivates most players more than anything else is having a legitimate chance to get their name inscribed on the Stanley Cup, to hoist it over their head in June at the end of a two-month playoff grind, to take it back to their hometown in the summer and show it off. A genuine opportunity to do that is huge.

If you look at the roster construction of the Flames right now, the star-studded back end, the young stars up front, Calgary is becoming a destination of choice once again for players. While it used to be that way back in the 80s, it's hard to say with any sincerity it has been that lately. Think about it, one trip to the second round of the playoffs over a 25 year span, prior to last season. That doesn't exactly land you the cute cheerleader when you're looking for a prom date.

Now, Calgary is putting itself in a position to be a team being courted, versus the team doing the courting, and that will have positive implications moving forward.

8. Staggered Expiry Dates

If you want to build a team that will be successful for the next decade and not just the next few years, you need to be succession planning all the time. In a salary cap world, you need to be prepared to regularly integrate younger and cheaper versions of players into your line-up as replacements for some of your star players as they become too old and/or too expensive.

Of the big three on the blue-line, the final season on each of their long-term deals is different and I see a real advantage to these dates being staggered.
  • TJ Brodie - Signed through 2019-20
  • Dougie Hamilton - Signed through 2020-21
  • Mark Giordano - Signed through 2021-22

Through the draft and free agency, Treliving has done a nice job in the past two years of building up the organization's depth on the back end, which was very thin not that long ago. Of course, no one can say with certainty right now if any of these highly-touted blue-liners will pan out but there are some nice possibilities in there, who eventually could turn into top four or even top pairing-calibre players.

Looking specifically at the top three defencmen on my recently-unveiled list of the Flames Top 20 Prospects, here's what we would be looking at:
  • Brandon Hickey will be 24 the summer of 2020 when Brodie becomes a UFA.
  • Rasmus Andersson will be 24 the summer of 2021 when Hamilton becomes a UFA
  • Oliver Kylington will be 25 the summer of 2022 when Giordano potentially retires.

It's not going to end up as simple as that, other names will come along and there's always the possibility the players above could re-sign, but you get the point.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


Recent Flames Reading

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Line Combo Conundrums: The Ramifications of Playing Sam Bennett at Centre

Bob Hartley sent some ripples through Flames nation last week when he noted in this short interview with Glen Schiller on the TSN show That's Hockey that he plans to play Sam Bennett at centre this season.

"Our plan today is to start him at centre and see how he does," said Hartley, speaking from what appears to be a golf tournament in Terrebonne, Quebec. "I'm not a big fan of moving young centres to the wing and hopefully we can keep him all year at centre."

In 12 NHL games last season, Bennett spent almost all of his time on left wing. While he's a natural centre and that's where I fully expect him to spend a majority of his career (see my unabridged list of the Flames top three centres for every season since 1980), I was one of those people with the mindset that this move may not come for another year. Here are a few reasons behind why I thought that:

1. Strengthens the Top Six

He may only be 19 years old and he's only played in one NHL regular season game but make no mistake, Bennett was selected fourth overall in the 2014 draft (and was considered No. 1 for a while) for a reason -- he's a very talented player already.

Assess the forward depth on the Flames and and a case could be made that he's already one of their best six forwards. However, that short list also includes two others in Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund that are already locks at centre. Bennett's chemistry with Backlund in their short time together last season made pairing them together again this season seem like a smart plan.

2. Maximizing Matt

Matt Stajan is destined to be the Flames fourth line centre at some point but he's not necessarily at that point yet. An underrated player, Stajan in a third line role behind Monahan and Backlund is an excellent fit for where the 31-year-old is at in his career and for the type of game he plays and the responsibilities he shoulders.

3. Creates Competition at Centre

This configuration with Monahan, Backlund, Stajan as the club's top three up the middle leaves an opening on the fourth line and there is no shortage of guys with centre on their resume that we'd see on stage if this September Calgary was to hold American Idol-like auditions for that role.
  • Markus Granlund
  • Drew Shore
  • Josh Jooris
  • Joe Colborne
  • Paul Byron
  • Bill Arnold

For Markus Granlund and Drew Shore, are they NHL players? It's time to find out. For Josh Jooris and Joe Colborne, what are they exactly? I think we're still figuring that out -- best role, best position, etc. While utilized mainly on the wing in recent years, could this be an ideal fit for Paul Byron? This isn't the same NHL as it was a few years back when you filled your fourth line with six-minutes-a-game tough guys. Also, don't sleep on Bill Arnold, who is 23 already. Entering his second pro season, Gaudreau's centre when he won the Hobey Baker Award at Boston College may not be that far away.

This Changes Everything

If you slot Bennett at centre, there are suddenly no vacancies at that position so while that does provide closure as to who the four centres will be, it also raises plenty of questions about how the forward group breaks down. The biggest of the questions is how would Bennett even be deployed? Given there are four lines, you could say there are four different roles he could be cast in for the 2015-16 season. Let's examine each.

1. Bennett on Line No. 1

There's a good chance Bennett ends up as Calgary's No. 1 centre eventually so why not this season? It's not to say he's going to overtake Monahan on the depth chart already, but what it could mean is Calgary moves away from its model last year of having one elite top line and instead tries to balance out the top two lines with Bennett and Monahan cast in different roles.  For example:

Gaudreau - Bennett - Hudler
Ferland - Monahan - Frolik
Bouma - Backlund - Jones
Colborne - Stajan - Jooris

Long term, I see Monahan doing a lot of the heavy-lifting when it comes to line match-ups for the Flames but I don't see that as Gaudreau's forte. Getting the diminutive winger away from the opposition's top line would make more sense.

So while last year's Monahan-Gaudreau partnership worked out nicely and was certainly effective, pairing Bennett and Gaudreau might make more sense and by doing that, you could insert Monahan between a couple players that are stronger defensively, giving Hartley a trusted unit to send over the boards to protect a one-goal lead late in the game.

2. Bennett on Line No. 2

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Who could blame Hartley if he chose to keep his top unit together again this season. While their production fell off in the playoffs, the Gaudreau-Monahan-Hudler line was the best and most productive trio in the NHL for a lot of last season. Also, if you subscribe to the notion that Backlund is ultimately built to be an ideal third line centre, your configurations could come out looking like this:

Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
Ferland - Bennett - Frolik
Bouma - Backlund - Jones
Colborne - Stajan - Jooris

A fair question though is does this ask too much of Micheal Ferland? After all, he's only played 26 regular season games in the NHL. As an alternate set-up, you could move Frolik to the left side as he does shoot left (he told me in the summer he's comfortable at all three forward positions) and then elevate veteran David Jones to the second line. Your top six would then turn out like this:

Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
Frolik - Bennett - Jones

That leaves several options for your bottom six. Here are a few configurations to ponder:

Bouma - Backlund - Ferland
Colborne - Stajan - Jooris


Bouma - Backlund - Colborne
Ferland - Stajan - Jooris


Ferland - Backlund - Colborne
Bouma - Stajan - Jooris

3. Bennett on Line No. 3

While Bennett's ceiling is very high, he's still only 19 and both Monahan and Backlund are better players right now. By keeping Monahan and Backlund 1-2 in the top six, that also protects Bennett for his first season and lessens the expectations and pressure put on him. In this scenario, your line combinations could come out like this:

Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
Ferland -  Backlund - Frolik
Bouma - Bennett - Jones
Colborne - Stajan - Jooris

Given the edge Bennett plays with, putting him between two big bodied crash-and-bang wingers like Bouma and Jones could result in an effective third unit that could put up some decent offence while being used to wear down an opponent.

4. Bennett on Line No. 4

While the likeliness of this happening seems far-fetched, if you really want to go to the extreme in sheltering Bennett in his rookie season, one could use him on the fourth line at even-strength while finding him some extra ice time on the power play. It seems like a ludicrous way to use a 19-year-old kid as talented as he is but hey, you never know what Hartley is thinking. Such an approach could result in this breakdown:

Gaudreau - Monahan - Hudler
Ferland -  Backlund - Frolik
Bouma - Stajan - Jones
Colborne - Bennett - Jooris

Of course, it's Stajan's effectiveness in a defensive role with Bouma and Jones -- as we've seen plenty of before -- that makes this configuration a possibility. Intriguing here is Colborne has some soft hands too and as a pass-first guy, that could result in Bennett getting a lot of looks to the point where his suppressed offensive totals could end up featuring more goals than assists.

Final Thoughts

Getting out the napkin at lunch and scribbling out possible line combinations is one of the best ways for hockey fans in a hockey-mad market to pass the time in the summer and admittedly, that's exactly what I've done today. But this commitment to use Bennett at centre is a very notable development that does get one thinking about the ramifications.

Lost in the above combinations is a guy like Mason Raymond. You'll notice he's not listed anywhere on the mocked-up lines as I have him, Drew Shore, Brandon Bollig, Markus Granlund and Paul Byron as the extras. That said, Raymond is a guy the Flames brought in last summer to score goals and while he's coming off a poor and inconsistent season, the veteran left winger could be the biggest benefactor of moving Bennett to centre.

If Raymond comes in and has a good camp and gets back into the good books with Hartley, perhaps he ends up being that missing piece from the top six, allowing Ferland to play in a third or fourth line role likely better suited to where he's at in his career.

The bottom line is with main training camp less than a month away, this is yet another storyline to follow with the Flames, never mind the possibility that there is still movement to come -- maybe via a trade -- to alleviate the logjam of forwards and that could change everything yet again.

We'll have to wait and see although we won't have to wait very long as training camp gets going in just a few weeks. In the meantime, just like Hartley, it's time to go back outside and get in some golf while we still can.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


Recent Flames Reading

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Gruesome Injury Behind Him, Ryan Culkin is Repaired and Ready to Go

It was the kind of gory scene you’re warned about at the start of a 'R' rated movie. Only Flames defence prospect Ryan Culkin wasn't in a theatre, he was in the offensive zone.

The date was February 6, 2015 and the AHL’s Adirondack Flames were playing at home against Utica. It was his first shift of the second period.

“It's still vividly in my memory,” recalled Culkin. “I tried to make a play going backdoor and as I did, I fell and as I was falling, my left wrist connected with someone's skate and one slice, I felt it.

“As soon as I looked down, I saw everything. I've never seen the human body from that point of view. There was tons of blood, I saw my bones and other stuff and I went into shock.”

At the Glens Falls Civic Center, the home team exits the ice between the players benches, where the ice resurfacer comes on. Call it the ‘emergency exit’ on that night as that’s where Culkin immediately headed.

“I didn't even go to the bench, I went straight to the Zamboni door and started banging on it,” said Culkin. “No one knew what happened, they all thought I got a slash or something but as I got off the ice, I was freaking out. I said, ‘It's bad, it's bad.’  Our therapist Marc Paquet looked at it and said, ‘Ya, that's not good.’”

Frightening for the Whole Family

Meanwhile, huddled in the stands, wondering what the heck was going on was Culkin’s family, who had made the three-hour drive from his hometown of Montreal to attend the game.

“My parents, my uncle, my aunt, my sister, her fiancĂ©, my girlfriend, the whole family was there. I hadn't even had time to spend time with them yet. They arrived just in time for the game because it was back-to-back games in Adirondack. I was going to have dinner with them afterwards.”

Once he reached the dressing room, Culkin got undressed as Paquet quickly taped up the cut and away they sped to emergency at the local hospital where he got a tetanus shot and then underwent temporary repairs.

“The thing with tendons is it takes 7-10 days for them to go back into their muscle so originally, they just sewed it up very loosely so it would be easy to get back in there as they didn't have a plastic surgeon on hand,” said Culkin.

Initially they thought there were two severed tendons as he couldn't move his thumb and couldn't move his wrist up and down. It was discovered during the plastic surgery four days later that it had actually been three tendons that had been severed.

The scar is there for good but other than that, Culkin's injury has healed nicely.

Abrupt End to a Great Rookie Season

The three-month recovery time shelved him for the season and it was too bad considering Culkin was playing the best hockey of his life. He finished with 18 points (1 goal, 17 assists) in 37 games.

“He was playing great,” said Ryan Huska, head coach last year at Adirondack and again this season with Stockton. “He played with Corey Potter against the top lines for us all the time and he was in a situation where we trusted him in all situations whether that be power play, penalty kill or 5-on-5 against top lines.”

Longtime NHL blue-liner Todd Gill is entering his second year as assistant coach for Calgary's AHL affiliate.

“Ryan had taken huge strides. He became a go-to guy for me at a very young age,” said Gill. “That injury really hurt us. We felt his loss big time.”

It was also painful for Culkin, who went through a grueling rehab process. It began with a lot of therapy. Next came the wearing of a JAS splint.

“That helped me try to get range of motion because at the time, I couldn't bend my wrist whatsoever,” said Calgary’s 5th round draft pick in 2012.

So far, so good, declared Culkin at July’s Flames development camp, which marked the five-month anniversary of the incident.

“I haven't been on the ice often so this summer I've really focused on going on the ice, making sure my wrist is capable of dealing with the pressure, the impact and I honestly feel it's 100 percent,” he said. “The range in motion right now, the Doctor said I'll never get back to 100 percent, but I'll probably get 95 or 98 percent. I don't think it can impact much. As long as I don't cut it again, I'll be good.”

Adjusting to Pro Hockey – Off the Ice

After four years in the QMJHL, the jump to playing pro hockey wasn't without its challenges, especially early in the year.

“Change is always difficult, especially coming from my last team (Drummondville). I went from being one of the older players -- big minutes, big role -- to playing with guys 35-years-old and they all had families. I was in and out of the line-up and it was difficult for me.”

Culkin said living on his own was the biggest adjustment.

“We always had a billet family that we lived with that made the food for us and would do our laundry. I was living with Emile Poirier and the first night, we looked at each other and said, "What do we do?’ So, we went out and ate.”

But for obvious nutrition reasons, going out to restaurants to eat all the time is not a good habit to get into.

“We learned how to cook for ourselves. The first few weeks was difficult, the transition of making your own food and going grocery shopping but other than that, we had a fun year.”

As anyone who has ever had a roommate will attest, you figure out each other’s strengths and weaknesses pretty quick.

“You have to learn who's good at what. I did most of the cooking so I guess Emile wasn't that good at that,” said Culkin with a laugh. “But he did the dishes.”

Adjusting to Pro Hockey – On the Ice

Culkin spoke highly of his time partnered on the blue-line with Potter, who was in his ninth pro season. As the year went on and Culkin was given a bigger role and more ice time, it came while playing with the 31-year-old veteran.

“I was playing with Corey for a good part of the season. He's a vet and a great guy too so my job was so much easier playing alongside him,” Culkin said.

He also says Gill was a big influence.

“I've had many coaches and some great coaches (e.g. Patrick Roy with the Quebec Remparts) but Todd, he brings a bit of a lighter side,” Culkin said. “But he's very good at teaching too, on and off the ice. We did so many videos with him. Before the season started, we did tons of video, during the season, during a day off, we did video.”

Culkin, known to have a pretty good funny bone himself, says the two of them also have a similar sense of humour.

“I loved Todd Gill from the first time I met him, he's a fun guy to be around,” Culkin said. “He's played over 1,000 games in the NHL too, so he knows what it takes to get there. He did a great job with me and he was always honest with me at the same time.”

Someone to Watch Out For

Asked what qualities have made the 6-foot-2, 195 pounder someone to keep an eye on, Gill pointed out two things.

“First, he's a good skater. Second, his hockey sense is above par,” says Gill. “He can anticipate and knows when to jump in and break up a play. He's got a great stick -- good poke check. He anticipates when to jump into the offence from the defensive position.

“He did a lot of things very, very well and he was only getting better as the season went on. We expect big things from him this year.”

Huska says he doesn't expect Culkin’s injury to result in a setback.

“I don't think it's going to hurt him at all because he showed us early in the year what he's capable of so now we're going to expect him to take another step,” said Huska. “For coaches, who haven't had a younger guy like that, to throw him into situations we did and see how he responded, I think it says a lot about him and his ability.”

As he eyes the future, Culkin is ecstatic to be a member of the Flames, who play a style of game that caters to his strengths.

“It's the best organization for a defenceman like myself, who loves to join the attack and create offence,” said Culkin. “They give the green light to all the D to join the rush and I love being that fourth attacker.”

Always Earned, Never Given.

While the top six on Calgary's blue-line looks set at the moment and while the overall depth on the back end has improved, Culkin says let’s see what happens come September.

“Anything is possible. Look at Josh Jooris last year. I don't think anyone had him in the line-up and he proved us all wrong and he had a great year,’ Culkin said. “So I'm going to camp in September with the same mindset that I can make the team and I’m going to work my ass off.”

With Michael Frolik now wearing Culkin’s No. 67, he’s left to dream of that day when he'll graduate to a more traditional number, perhaps even a single digit number like two current Flames he keeps a close eye on.

“(Mark) Giordano and (TJ) Brodie, they are probably the first guys up, first guys back, they have tremendous cardio, I'd love to be like them in the future,” he said. “That's what I like to do, I like to join the attack but always make sure the puck is out of our zone before I jump up.”

And when Culkin does fly up ice, he’ll always do so now while wearing Kevlar socks and with the same cut-resistant material protecting his wrists too – protective equipment additions all the baby Flames adopted last year after the scary incident.

“It was a long process and I don't ever want to go through that ever again.”

Safe to say Culkin’s family doesn't want to witness anything like that ever again either.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


Recent Flames Reading

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Ranking the Calgary Flames Top 20 Prospects (August 2015 Edition)

Presenting the first edition of the Flames From 80 Feet prospect rankings.

The intention is to update this list twice a year. In the summer, after the NHL draft and development camp have taken place, then again five or six months later in January or February, with the World Juniors complete and a half-season of hockey in the books.

Over time, these twice-a-year snapshots of the state of the organization's prospect cupboard will provide a nice way of tracking players as they climb or fall on the team's long-term depth chart.

Definition of "Prospect"

If you look at other hockey publications and websites, there are different definitions of who can be considered a prospect. Some have age maximums, some exclude players once they're no longer considered an NHL rookie. Here is my criteria:
  • Age 25 or under
  • Has not established himself as a NHL regular

For my rankings, I should note that this is not the order I expect players to ascend to the NHL, but rather it is sorted by the impact/role I expect that player to have when (or if) they do make it to the NHL.

I've also included an ETA, which is my guess at their potential arrival date in the NHL as an established full-time player. at which point they would also graduate from this prospect list.

Note: On August 17, I joined Ryan Pinder on Fan960 radio to count down these top 20 prospects. Listen to the archive of that show for additional insight into why I've ranked players where I have.

Calgary Flames Top 20 Prospects - August 2015

1. C Sam Bennett
  • Age - 19 
  • Size - 6-foot-1, 185 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 1st round (4th overall) in 2014
  • Last Year - Kingston OHL (11 gm, 11-13-24), Calgary (1 gm, 0-1-1)
  • ETA - 2015-16
After missing most of last year due to shoulder surgery, Bennett joined Kingston briefly then came to Calgary, where he made his NHL debut in the regular season finale. He was a fixture in line-up in the playoffs. He's got speed, skill, tenacity and could very well be the team's best player in a few years.

2. RW Emile Poirier
  • Age - 20 
  • Size - 6-foot-2, 200 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 1st round (22nd overall) in 2013
  • Last Year - Adirondack AHL (55 gm, 19-23-43), Calgary (6 gm, 0-1-1)
  • ETA - 2016-17
Not quite ready yet as we saw in his first pro season as he got in six NHL games but wasn't a factor in limited ice time. Began last year injured after off-season shoulder surgery so this year, expect Poirier to start in the AHL but if he can build on last year, he'll become a mid-season call-up candidate.

3. G Mason McDonald
  • Age - 19
  • Size - 6-foot-4, 190 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 2nd round (34th overall) in 2014 
  • Last Year - Charlottetown QMJHL (56 gm, 28-22-4, 3.06 GAA, .906 SV%)
  • ETA - 2019-20
The first goalie taken in the 2014 NHL Draft continues to develop as hoped. After a strong year in the QMJHL last year, he attended Hockey Canada's U20 summer camp two weeks ago and most experts have him pegged as the favourite to be the starter in the 2016 World Junior Championships.

4. D Brandon Hickey
  • Age - 19
  • Size - 6-foot-2, 190 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 3rd round (64th overall) in 2014 
  • Last Year - Boston University (41 gm, 6-11-18)
  • ETA - 2018-19
The Leduc native is quickly climbing the club's prospect rankings after an impressive freshman season at Boston University that earned him an invite to Hockey Canada's U20 summer camp. There, he performed well and has a good chance of making the team bound for Finland this Christmas.

5. G Jon Gillies
  • Age - 21
  • Size - 6-foot-5, 215 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 3rd round (75th overall) in 2012 
  • Last Year - Providence NCAA (39 gm, 24-13-2, 2.01 GAA, .930 SV%
  • ETA - 2017-18
Just turned pro after three terrific seasons at Providence, where he went out on top, winning the national championship. Most college goalies take three full seasons in the AHL before they're NHL-ready but with Calgary's long-term goaltending picture murky, he could get a chance sooner.

6. D Rasmus Andersson
  • Age - 18
  • Size - 6-foot-1, 215 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 2nd round (53rd overall) in 2015
  • Last Year - Barrie OHL (67 gm, 12-52-64)
  • ETA - 2018-19
After two seasons with Malmo in Sweden's second division, he was a stand-out last season in the OHL as Aaron Ekblad's replacement in Barrie. Kylington gets most of the hype but Andersson was chosen first. GM Brad Treliving says they had Andersson ranked much higher than where they got him.

7. D Oliver Kylington
  • Age - 18
  • Size - 6-foot-0, 180 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 2nd round (60th overall) in 2015
  • Last Year - AIK/Farjestads Sweden (35 gm, 6-6-12), Farjestads Jr Sweden (10 gm, 4-3-7)
  • ETA - 2018-19
By now, you probably know his story and how he slipped from one time being touted as a top five pick in 2015 to nearly falling to the third round. He's already an NHL-caliber skater and playing in North America next season -- either AHL or WHL -- will help the rest of his game. His ETA could move up.

8. C Markus Granlund
  • Age - 22
  • Size - 5-foot-11, 185 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 2nd round (45th overall) in 2011 
  • Last Year - Adirondack AHL (21 gm, 9-8-17), Calgary NHL (48 gm, 8-10-18)
  • ETA - 2016-17
Has displayed a dangerous offensive skill set and polished 200-foot game in the AHL but has struggled to solidify himself in the NHL. However, he's still 22 and while more time in the minors is possible due to the team's crowded forward picture, there is still a high upside with this player.

9. LW Morgan Klimchuk
  • Age - 20
  • Size - 6-foot-0, 185 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 1st round (28th overall) in 2013
  • Last Year - Regina/Brandon WHL (60 gm, 34-46-80)
  • ETA - 2018-19
He has declared himself ready to turn pro but we'll see. An overage season in Brandon could still be in the offing. As the least hyped of the first rounders in 2013, every development camp Klimchuk reminds us not to forget about him. He's deadly when he gets the puck anywhere around the net.

10. LW Micheal Ferland
  • Age - 23
  • Size - 6-foot-2, 215 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 5th round (133rd overall) in 2010 
  • Last Year - Adirondack AHL (32 gm, 7-8-15), Calgary (26 gm, 2-3-5)
  • ETA - 2015-16
Strong, skilled and smart, there is a lot to like about his game. The challenge for Ferland, who has had a winding journey to the NHL, is harnessing all of those attributes and displaying them consistently. But if he can, he demonstrated in the playoffs against Vancouver the impact he can have.

11. D Tyler Wotherspoon
  • Age - 22
  • Size - 6-foot-2, 210 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 2nd round (57th overall) in 2011 
  • Last Year - Adirondack AHL (61 gm, 2-22-24), Calgary (1 gm, 0-0-0)
  • ETA - 2016-17
The way he was used (or not used) last season has many wondering where exactly he fits into the Flames picture. Once considered the top blue-line prospect, his grasp on that label is slipping. Defencemen take a long time to develop and he's far from overripe, but this is a critical season for him.

12. G Joni Ortio
  • Age - 24
  • Size - 6-foot-1, 185 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 6th round (171st overall) in 2009
  • Last Year - Adirondack AHL (37 gm, 21-13-1, .912 SV%), Calgary (6 gm, 4-2-0, .908 SV%)
  • ETA - 2015-16
Gets his chance in the NHL this season at which time we'll start to get a sense of whether he could be part of the club's long-term future in net or if he is just a placeholder until Gillies or McDonald are ready. Showed enough in his brief NHL call-up last year to have many still very high on the Finn.

13. D Ryan Culkin
  • Age - 21
  • Size - 6-foot-2, 195 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 5th round (124th overall) in 2012
  • Last Year - Adirondack AHL (37 gm, 1-17-18)
  • ETA - 2017-18
Turned pro last season after four years in the QMJHL and had a solid rookie year. As the season went on, he inherited more playing time and more responsibility and was one of Adirondack's most relied upon defencemen at the time he suffered a season-ending wrist injury in February.

14. C Bill Arnold
  • Age - 23
  • Size - 6-foot-0, 218 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 4th round (108th overall) in 2010  
  • Last Year - Adirondack AHL (61 gm, 15-23-38)
  • ETA - 2017-18
Johnny Gaudreau's old centre at Boston College was never going to get to the NHL as fast nor have the same kind of impact, but don't sleep on Arnold either. In his final NCAA season, some referred to him as the best two-way player in college and there's room for that type of ability in an NHL line-up.

15. C Mark Jankowski
  • Age - 20
  • Size - 6-foot-3, 190 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 1st round (21st overall) in 2012 
  • Last Year - Providence NCAA (37 gm, 8-19-27)
  • ETA - 2018-19
A year ago, he wouldn't have been on this list. But, after a championship-winning season at PC where he may not have been a big scorer but was still a much relied-upon player -- and after a stellar display at development camp -- it's too early to write off a guy, who was always viewed as a long-term project.

16. RW Hunter Smith
  • Age - 19
  • Size - 6-foot-7, 220 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 2nd round (54th overall) in 2014
  • Last Year - Oshawa OHL (57 gm, 23-26-49)
  • ETA - 2018-19
Skating is a concern but beyond that, there is lots to like. He's a massive body that plays physical and the trajectory his offensive totals have been on during his time in the OHL intrigues. The Memorial Cup champion also brings leadership qualities the Flames covet. I'm curious to see him in the AHL.

17. D Kenney Morrison 
  • Age - 23
  • Size - 6-foot-2, 205 lbs
  • Acquired - Signed as a free agent on March 19, 2015
  • Last Year - Western Michigan NCAA (37 gm, 5-10-15), Adirondack AHL (10 gm, 2-4-6)
  • ETA - 2017-18
The native of Lloyminster was never drafted but after three years of playing NCAA for Andy Murray, he became a free agent coveted by many NHL teams. The definitive late bloomer, if his first full AHL season turns out like his try-out last year, Calgary may have themselves a gem.  

18. RW Austin Carroll
  • Age - 21
  • Size - 6-foot-3, 225 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 7th round (184th overall) in 2014 
  • Last Year - Victoria WHL (69 gm, 38-39-77)
  • ETA - 2017-18
Watching him up close at development camp, you realize why Calgary is excited about what they have. Continuing a theme, Carroll also has an alluring blend of size and skill and has especially soft hands around the net. If you know the tragic story with his Dad, you know he's built mentally tough too.

19. RW Garnet Hathaway 
  • Age - 23
  • Size - 6-foot-2, 210 lbs
  • Acquired - Signed as a free agent on April 13, 2015
  • Last Year - Adirondack AHL (72 gm, 19-17-36)
  • ETA - 2016-17
He's done it the hard way. Undrafted, earned an AHL-only deal at last year's development camp. Impressed in his first pro season to earn an NHL contract. He's older and his upside is limited but the team really likes the full package and he has a legit shot at becoming an effective bottom six player.

20. LW Andrew Mangiapane
  • Age - 19
  • Size - 5-foot-10, 170 lbs
  • Acquired - Drafted in 6th round (166th overall) in 2015
  • Last Year - Barrie OHL (68 gm, 43-61-104)
  • ETA - 2019-20
If the NHL game continues to evolve as it has recently with an emphasis on speed and skill, there may be room for a shorter but highly-talented player like Mangiapane. Development camp was my first glimpse of him in person and his creativity with the puck and vision on the ice was tremendous.

Honourable Mention - C Drew Shore, LW Pavel Karnaukhov, D Patrick Sieloff, D Keegan Kanzig, D Brett Kulak, LW Kenny Agostino

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Variables to Consider with the Giordano Contract Extension

Consider this.

Mark Giordano could sign the maximum-allowed eight-year contract extension with the Calgary Flames and in the final season -- 2023-24 to be precise, he'd still be six months younger than Nicklas Lidstrom was when he won the Norris Trophy at age 40 in 2010-11.

I'm not suggesting Giordano is the next Lidstrom. I'm also not advocating an eight-year deal.

But strolling back through recent history and closely examining the careers of the NHL's better defencemen of the last 20-25 years, there is evidence to suggest Giordano's decline could come a little later than you might normally expect.

This, along with the fact his entire career has been so unique is what makes his contract extension a very tricky one. This is also surely the reason why despite being identified in May by general manager Brad Treliving as his No. 1 priority for the off-season, it's a deal that is not done yet as we approach mid-August.

How much and for how long do you pay Giordano, who will have just turned 33 when an extension would kick in to start the 2016-17 season?

In this special edition of Eight From 80 Feet, I address eight variables to consider when it comes to this negotiation.

1. Low NHL Odometer

If Giordano was a car you were selling in Auto Trader, a key selling feature would be his low mileage.

Giordano has only played 514 NHL games. Hypothetically speaking, if he stays mostly healthy this season and plays 75 regular season games and another 11 in the playoffs, that brings him to 600 for his career as he enters his age 33-season. I was curious how that compares historically with where other defencemen were at entering the same stage of their career so I rolled up my sleeves and did the research.

First, no disrespect to guys like Bryce Salvador, Willie Mitchell and Stephane Robidas, but I wanted to limit the list to some the league's upper echelon of defenders. So, my criteria for inclusion was anyone going back to 1995-96, who finished as high as top six in Norris Trophy voting at least once.

Top six may sound pretty random but I chose that because sixth is where Giordano finished last season although he surely would have finished higher, maybe even won it, had his season not come to a screeching halt in mid-February when he suffered that torn biceps tendon injury.

I also limited the scope to players Giordano's age currently as a minimum because who knows how many games young stars like Drew DoughtyErik Karlsson and PK Subban will be at come their 33rd birthday -- although Doughty, only 25, is already at 600 NHL games so that in itself puts Giordano's total into context.

I ended up with a list of 32 players. After adding in the Giordano projection above for 2015-16, only Lubomir Visnovsky, who didn't come over to the NHL from Slovakia until age 24, will have had fewer games on his odometer entering his age 33-season.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy will have played in over twice as many NHL games at Giordano at the same point in their career.

Total Games (regular season + playoffs) Prior to Age 33-Season*:

1. Scott Stevens 1,262
2. Larry Murphy 1,234
3. Paul Coffey 1,170
4. Ray Bourque 1,167
5. Scott Niedermayer 1,136
6. Eric Desjardins 1,128
7. Phil Housley 1,126
8. Wade Redden 1,095
9/ Nicklas Lidstrom 1,091
10. Al MacInnis 1,032

11. Brian Leetch 1,021
12. Chris Pronger 996
13. Bryan McCabe 968
14. Ed Jovanovski 961
15. Derian Hatcher 954
16. Jay Bouwmeester 936 (entering his age 32-season)
17. Gary Suter 928
18. Zdeno Chara 923
19. Sergei Zubov 916
20. Sandis Ozolinsh 913

21. Sergei Gonchar 889
22. Duncan Keith 882 (entering his age 32-season)
23. Chris Chelios 851
24. Rob Blake 850
25. Brian Campbell 805
26. Kimmo Timonen 682
27. Andrei Markov 672
28. Adrian Aucoin 662
29. Dan Boyle 651
30. Francois Beauchemin 607

31. Lubomir Visnovsky 561
32. Mark Giordano 510 (entering his age 32-season)

* Age is as of January 31 of that season

Now obviously it's not like Giordano has been lying around and relaxing on beaches all winter the past decade. He's played two full seasons in the AHL, he played a season in Russia, he was just later than most in establishing himself in the NHL. That said, you would think he should have more left in the tank than one normally would have considering the NHL is the league where ultimately the most wear and tear occurs. It's the best league in the world where every game, defenceman battle against the biggest, most physical and fastest forwards in the world.

The post-season is then another level altogether. It's a much more intense grind against only the best opponents and with increased physicality. It's emotionally taxing and it's just an all-round more gruelling game. Giordano has played only four career playoff games. Second fewest on the above list is Visnovsky (12). Meanwhile, topping the list for playoff games amassed prior to their age 33-season are Scott Niedermayer (162), Eric Desjardins (157) and Nicklas Lidstrom (156). Nineteen of the 32 players listed have played in at least 80.

2. Where the Decline Normally Begins

So at what age is an NHL defenceman considered over the hill? At what point does the decline inevitably begin?

Again, I did some research. This time, I expanded the sample audience to include all defencemen, who in the last 20 years, finished in the top 10 in Norris Trophy voting at least once.

Disclaimer: I recognize that Norris voting is far from perfect but I'm using that for criteria as in my opinion it is the best way to identify the NHL's top defencemen from a historical perspective. Points wouldn't be a fair way to do it, nor would games played and advanced stats don't go back far enough.

Now this is not as clean and simple and is far more subjective but I looked at the list of 45 players that fit this criteria, examined the range of seasons in which they received Norris votes, and tried to identify their 'sweet spot' where they were consistently at their career best. It's not always cut and dried and I tried to ignore anomalies like that one season early on or that one year later in their career that looked more like a blip and focused more on identifying the body of work where they were consistently at their best (as reflected in Norris voting).

For example, Giordano's sweet spot -- for now -- would be ages 30 to 31 as it is during the past two seasons that he has really put himself in the conversation of who are the NHL's top defencemen by finishing top 10 in the Norris both years. This after having never received a vote previously. For some, the 'sweet spots' were wide and for others, they were very narrow.

What I Learned

I mentioned Lidstrom earlier and indeed, he was top of his game pretty much from age 27 until he was 40, although he wasn't alone. Chris Chelios and Ray Bourque also were very good defenders right through their 40th birthday and Al Macinnis, the Norris runner-up at age 39, would have been in that group also if he didn't have his career abruptly end due to an eye injury.

However, they were the exceptions.

Based on this, the most common point where careers began to tail off was after their age 33-season. There was another chunk that began declining after their age 32-season and another batch that arrived at their so-called 'post-apex' after their age 31-season.

That all said, affix your eyes back to the top again and you'll find plenty of examples going the other direction. For example, Mathieu Schneider, Rob Blake, Zdeno Chara, Sergei Zubov and Scott Stevens were very good right through their age 36-season.

If the latter held true for Giordano, that would equate to four years into his extension before a noticeable drop-off.

Career Sweet Spots (age range during their best seasons)

Nicklas Lidstrom, 27 to 40
Chris Chelios, 27 to 40
Ray Bourque, 19 to 40

Al MacInnis, 25 to 39

Larry Murphy, 30 to 37

Mathieu Schneider, 34 to 36
Rob Blake, 28 to 36
Zdeno Chara, 26 to 36
Sergei Zubov, 23 to 36
Scott Stevens, 23 to 36

Brian Rafalski, 32 to 35
Andrei Markov, 29 to 35
Brian Leetch, 22 to 35

Niklas Kronwall, 32 to 34* (active)
Lubomir Visnovsky, 30 to 34
Paul Coffey, 20 to 34

Kimmo Timmonen, 31 to 33
Dan Boyle, 30 to 33
Scott Niedermayer, 30 to 33
Teppo Numminen, 27 to 33
Eric Desjardins, 26 to 33
Sergei Gonchar, 25 to 33
Ed Jovanovski, 25 to 33

Mark Streit, 30 to 32
Brian Campbell, 27 to 32
Sheldon Souray, 27 to 32
Chris Pronger, 23 to 32
Francois Beauchemin, 32
Fredrik Olausson, 32

Mark Giordano, 30 to 31* (active)
Adam Foote, 27 to 31
Duncan Keith, 25 to 31* (active)
Phil Housley, 24 to 31
Gary Suter, 23 to 31

Dan Hamhuis, 28 to 30
Bryan McCabe, 28 to 30
Adrian Aucoin, 28 to 30
Derian Hatcher, 26 to 30
Sandis Ozolish, 24 to 30

Christian Ehrhoff, 27 to 28
Wade Redden, 25 to 28

Mattias Ohlund, 25 to 27

Daryl Sydor, 24 to 26

Oleg Tverdovsky, 23 to 24

3. Estimating the Grade of the Decline

When Giordano does start making his way back down the other side of of the mountain, another pertinent question is will it be a gradual descent or will it be a sharp drop-off like going off a cliff Wile E. Coyote-style?

Frankly, I cannot see it being the latter. If he was one of those slow-footed, rugged stay-at-home defencemen from a couple decades ago, that's a different story. There are some styles of games and physiques that probably don't age well, but I wouldn't put Giordano in that category.

I would expect him to be a legit Norris candidate for the next three seasons and after that, there will likely be some regression down to more like the 21-40 range league-wide in terms of defence rankings.

But keep in mind that just because he tops out at one of the league's best at age 30-34, that doesn't mean he still isn't a very solid defenceman when he's in decline. Scott Stevens and Sergei Zubov were still earning Norris votes at age 38 and 37 respectively.

Giordano on the back nine of his career will still be a good NHL defenceman.

4. Sending the Right Message

Calgary is in the business of making itself an attractive city and market to play in. It was once that before but considering the Flames had only advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs once in a span of 24 years prior to last season, it's hard to think it's been considered that recently.

However, last season's improbable success was a reputation changer and was an ideal marketing campaign for why to come to Calgary. Treliving has acknowledged that the team's success in 2014-15 coupled with a legitimate chance to keep on winning were factors in why Hamilton signed for six years and why Frolik chose to come here over 29 other options.

The proper thing to do, regardless of what it takes, is to sign Giordano as that puts an exclamation point on the organization's commitment to winning. There's talking the talk and then there's walking the talk. He is the team's best player. He's the captain. Even if it's for $27 million, a three-year extension would send a mixed message. You want to be an organization where the NHL's best players want to play, or stay, because the team looks after those players. It's by attracting, or keeping, those best players that helps you become that team that is hoisting the Stanley Cup in June.

5. Superb Fitness and Health

Yes, the league is getting younger and faster but don't expect Giordano to slow down anytime soon. He's got a reputation for being one of the Flames most fit players and has the type of physique and plays a style of game where he should age just fine.

On the health side, he's had a couple of major injuries but there aren't any chronic concerns like shoulders, backs or knees. He had a broken ankle two years ago, he had the torn bicep tendon last year. It's merely bad luck at this point and it would be unfair to label him injury prone.

6. Once a Late Bloomer, Always a Late Bloomer

In many ways, it's difficult to compare Giordano's career trajectory because it's been so different and unlike anyone else. It goes right back to the start when he went undrafted in the NHL Draft twice.

He has developed later than most, his best years have come later than most, and you can't help but wonder if that also means his declining years will begin later than most.

Maybe it's as simple as just double-checking his birth certificate. How his career has progressed would make more sense if he was actually born in 1986, and not in 1983.

7. Mr. Everything

While we've only been focusing so far on his abilities on the ice, not to be forgotten is the difference he makes off the ice. Since having the 'C' stitched on his jersey, not only has the team turned things around on the ice, the whole culture around the team off the ice has done a 180. Those that travel on the team charters will tell you it's been an entirely different vibe the past two seasons.

While there will be a point where his on-ice skills slip, his off-ice leadership and importance will remain the same. That side of Giordano's importance is slump-resistant.

Coach Bob Hartley summed it up best late last season when Giordano was hurt but still travelling with the team. "We have Giordano, our captain, we don't have Giordano, the defenceman."

Some scoff at the word intangibles and to be fair, it is an overused word, but it definitely applies here. Giordano has more value to this organization than could ever be measured and he is a necessary ingredient to have when building a championship team. It's these important qualities he brings off the ice -- that will not decline -- that make a long-term deal less risky.

8. Comparables

You can't have a discussion around what a Giordano contract extension should be without first looking around the league and seeing what other defencemen are making. I've split the list below into three -- players that signed long-term deals as RFAs so have deals that are a mixture or RFA and UFA years. Then there's strictly UFA deals, which is what the Flames are looking at. Lastly, I compare him to Calgary's other three main money makers on the blue-line.

A useful footnote to this is Giordano's current contract. He is entering the final year of a 5Y/$20.1M deal that is taking him from age 28 to 32, which carries a thrifty annual average value (AAV) of $4M.

Split RFA/UFA Deals

PK Subban, 26, 1 year into 8Y/$72M (ages 25 to 32), $9M AAV (2 RFA/6 UFA)
Shea Weber, 29, 3 years into 14Y/$110M (ages 27 to 40), $7.9M AAV (1 RFA/13 UFA)
Drew Doughty, 25, 4 years into 8Y/$56M (ages 22 to 29), $7M AAV (4 RFA/4 UFA)
Erik Karlsson, 25, 3 years into 7Y/$45.5M (ages 22 to 28), $6.5M AAV (4 RFA/3 UFA)
Duncan Keith, 32, 5 years into 13Y/$72M (ages 27 to 39), $5.5M AAV (1 RFA/12 UFA)

UFA Deals

Ryan Suter, 30, 3 years into a 13Y/$98M (ages 28 to 40), $7.5M AAV
Kris Letang, 28, 1 year into a 8Y/$56M (ages 27 to 34), $7.3M AAV
Brian Campbell, 36. 7 years into 8Y/$57.1M (ages 29 to 36), $7.1M AAV
Dion Phaneuf, 30, 1 year into 7Y/$49M (ages 29 to 35), $7M AAV
Zdeno Chara, 38, 4 years into 7Y/$45.5M (ages 34 to 40), $6.9M AAV
Johnny Boychuk, 31, beginning 7Y/$42M (ages 32 to 38), $6M AAV
Mike Green, 29, beginning 3Y/$18M (ages 30 to 32), $6M AAV
Andrei Markov, 36, 1 year into 3Y/$17.2M (ages 36 to 38), $5.8M AAV
Niklas Kronwall, 34, 3 years into 7Y/$33.3M (ages 32 to 38), $4.8M AAV

Flames Comparables

Dougie Hamilton, 22, beginning 6Y/$34.5M (ages 22 to 27), $5.8M AAV (4 RFA/2 UFA)
Dennis Wideman, 32, 3 years into 5Y/$26.3M (ages 29 to 33), $5.3M AAV (all UFA)
TJ Brodie, 25, 5 years into 5Y/$23.3M (ages 25 to 29), $4.7M AAV (3 RFA/2 UFA)

> Mark Giordano, 31, beginning _Y/$__M (ages 33 to __), $_M AAV

This gives you lots to think about. Here are a few things that pop out for me when I look at the above lists.
  • Subban - Canadiens defenceman will be younger at expiry of his deal than Giordano will be at the start of his extension. In other words, Subban is paid right through his primetime years. Different situation for Giordano. Even through reports were he started off asking for that much, Giordano will not get Subban money.
  • Weber - The contract length and circumstances around it (was offer sheeted by Philadelphia forcing Nashville to match it) makes it a hard comparable but the AAV is in the ballpark.
  • Doughty - Kings blue-liner is the NHL's best in the opinion of many. Half of his current deal being RFA years dragged down his AAV but it could also act as a governor on Giordano's dollars.
  • Keith - Structure of his deal -- back when back-diving contracts were permitted -- makes it a contract that is a sweet one for Chicago but one that is irrelevant in this discussion. It's unfortunate as they're the same age (Keith is just over two months older) and potentially could have been an interesting comparable.
  • Suter - Year six of his deal is when Suter will be the age Giordano will be at the start of his extension so Suter's AAV should probably be higher given ages 28 to 32 are primetime years. Factor in inflation as Suter deal was three years ago and this AAV seems close.
  • Letang - Has fallen off the radar a bit due to injuries but here is a very important player for the Penguins, who was third in Norris voting three years ago. Considering the in-his-prime ages covered off in his deal, how much more should Giordano be commanding? 
  • Chara - I see Giordano having better longevity than Chara, whose 6-foot-9 frame strikes me as one that would break down earlier and we're seeing signs of that now. With three years to go still, Chara is the cautionary tale about the hazards of extending a player until age 40.
  • Boychuk - His extension will kick in at age 32 instead of 33 but the range of years and length of his extension is the contract most similar on the list to what Giordano may end up with. Former second round pick isn't quite the same calibre of player Giordano is but it gives you a baseline number to work up from.
  • Brodie - They're different contracts as Brodie's was mostly a RFA deal but it won't be too long before Brodie probably becomes the better of the two players so it's worthwhile keeping his deal in the periphery. 

Conclusion - Projecting the Deal

Giordano looks to be a long way from slowing down. You saw how dominant Duncan Keith was in the Stanley Cup playoffs last year and Keith is older than Giordano by a couple months.

If I'm the team, I would look at something in the six-year range as a compromise between what the player wants (probably eight years) and what would be ideal for the team (probably closer to five years).

As for dollar figures, based on the factors I've compiled, I'm going to approach it like this:

Years 1-2 (age 33, 34) - Top pairing, $9M
Years 3-5 (age 35, 36, 37) - 2nd pairing, $7.5M
Year 6 - (age 38) - 3rd pairing, $6M

That works out to 6Y/$46.5M for an average annual value of $7.75M.

Such a deal would mean that for the next five years, $18.2M or approximately 25 percent of the Flames payroll is tied up by three players in Giordano, Hamilton and Brodie. However, those three on the blue-line give Calgary the type of foundation that perennial Stanley Cup contenders have so it would be a worthwhile investment.

Of course, it takes two sides to reach a deal. It remains to be seen if the Giordano side will go for that and perhaps this deal ends up at $8M under the premise that you're better off paying a little extra to retain a player that makes you better (e.g. Lance Bouma contract) than to not have that player.

Given he is nearly 32 and has played just four playoff games, being on a team that should be playing into May regularly in the near future is surely something that is also important for Giordano. With the young pieces up front in Calgary and the goaltending prospects in the pipeline, the situation he's in has to look pretty attractive.

A hometown discount isn't necessarily coming but Giordano is a sharp guy and he knows the situation the team is in when it comes to the young forwards that soon need to get paid. He knows the team has to be left with the financial resources to sign these important players that are integral to the future team success he will want to be a part of.

So now we wait and see, although I'd be surprised if we have to wait too much longer. Surely an extension will be in place prior to training camp beginning because coming off the season the team just had and with the productive off-season they just had, Giordano entering the season as a pending UFA would be a distraction that would only have adverse effects.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


Recent Flames Reading
  • Leafs, Avs, Flames: When Talking Regression, One of These is Not Like the Others - You hear it all the time. After making the playoffs despite poor possession stats, the Flames are set to regress just like the Avs did the season prior and the Leafs the year before that. However, does Calgary's off-season additions change things? I take a closer look. (August 8, 2015)
  • Smiling Brandon Hickey: Genuinely Enjoys Playing the Game - Get to know the highly-touted Flames defence prospect, who is making people stand up and pay attention to him after a terrific rookie season at Boston University, which helped earn him an invite to Canada's summer World Junior camp. (July 31, 2015)
  • Fork in the Road: Comparing Kylington's Options of AHL vs. WHL - I take a look at the pros and cons of Oliver Kylington going to Stockton or going to Brandon. Spoiler alert: A good argument can be made for both paths. This is going to be a good debate. (July 30, 2015) 
  • StickTAP: Your Questions Answered - In my first mailbag feature of the summer, I tackled 24 of the over 60 questions submitted by readers by answering in the form of a Thought, Analysis, or Prediction. Lots of interesting conversation topics on the minds of Flames fans these days. (July 27, 2015)
  • Breaking Down the Flames 2015-16 Roster - I've updated this roster breakdown to include the recent RFA signings of Josh Jooris and Paul Byron. How close are the Flames to the cap? Well, come and find out. (July 26, 2015)
  • Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Perspectives on Bouma Contract - It was a deal that was celebrated by many while also being soundly criticized by others. To help evaluate it, I dig into the contract and viewed it from a number of different perspectives. (July 23, 2015)