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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Five Flames Training Camp Battles to Watch

The non-stop conversation topic that refused to go away, has gone away. Phew. If only the same thing would happen with the Kardashians.

As a welcome reprieve from a year ago when the battle in the Flames goal crease was all anyone in Calgary was talking about, this year there is no such drama.

Alluding to the three-goalie nightmare with Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo and Joni Ortio, general manager Brad Treliving said after the season that it's something he'd never do again.

True to his word, training camp opened this week without a hint of mystery in net. Calgary traded a second round pick for Brian Elliott. He will start. They signed veteran Chad Johnson as a free agent. He will back-up. Top prospect Jon Gillies has fully recovered from hip surgery. He will start in Stockton.

Yawn.

But fret naught, there are still many other training camp battles going on that will give you several topics to roll-up the sleeves and debate the next time you're hanging out at the pub.


Five Training Camp Battles


1. Who will play with Gaudreau and Monahan?

One guy is waiting for the Brinks truck to arrive and the other is recuperating from a strained back. That said, I would be shocked if Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan aren't side-by-side, just like old times, when the Flames open the season October 12 in Edmonton. What's quickly become an age-old question though is who will be on the starboard side.

Best Guess - Alex Chiasson

With word Friday from coach Glen Gulutzan that he wants Troy Brouwer to be alongside Sam Bennett, that removes -- at least for now -- the lead horse from the discussion of who will play right wing on the top line. From the list of other candidates, I sense many players will get their shot over the season's 82 games. But for now, the guy I'm looking at that packs some intrigue is newly acquired Alex Chiasson.

Acquired from Ottawa in the summer in exchange for Patrick Sieloff, the 25-year-old comes to Calgary seeking a fresh start after a couple down years with the Senators. While behind the bench here is assistant coach Dave Cameron, the same guy he struggled under, also behind the bench is the coach whom he's had the most NHL success with in Gulutzan. Aware of the upside with the 2009 second rounder, who scored 19 goals in 86 games in a season-and-a-bit as a rookie, can Gulutzan's presence along with being back in the West be the tonic? At 6-foot-4 and 208 pounds, there's plenty of size there and he has shown an ability to finish. Given the nominal acquisition cost, what a find it would be if it worked out. Chiasson's thrifty $800,000 salary would also nicely off-set the big dough to be earned by his linemates.

Other Candidates - Micheal Ferland, Hunter Shinkaruk, Chris Higgins, Linden Vey

Dark Horse - Daniel Pribyl

The severity of his knee injury and the long rehabilitation required from it -- it's been about five-and-a-half months since his surgery -- means there's a good chance Pribyl opens the year in Stockton. He is not yet skating with the team. But when he's ready, he was the second-leading scorer in his country last year. He's big and skilled and you know the team likes him -- Treliving comparing his style to former NHLer Robert Lang.

While he may not open the season in that spot, he could very well end up finishing the season there and if so, what a free agent signing he could turn out to be.


2. Who will play with Bennett and Brouwer?

With Gulutzan declaring on Friday that he would like to keep Bennett and Brouwer together for a while to see if they can build some chemistry, that begs the question of who might end up playing alongside them.

Best Guess - Micheal Ferland

Long term, this really feels like Matthew Tkachuk's spot and what a snarly trio they would form. However, most expect Tkachuk to eventually return to London (OHL) for one more season and that opens up an opportunity for someone else. Of the other candidates, Micheal Ferland could be the best fit.

With Ferland you get some decent hands -- although he's struggled to score at the NHL level thus far -- and a good hockey IQ. Of course, you also  get some edge and physicality too and after a year in which that element of his game would come and go, perhaps Brouwer's presence and his outspoken reputation would help get Ferland's game to the next level. One guy, who knows very well what Ferland's upside is would be Gulutzan. After all, he had an ice level view of his impactful playoff series against the Canucks two years ago. In need of a new contract after this season, the motivation should be there for Ferland and should he land this role, what a golden opportunity it would be.


Other Candidates - Lance Bouma, Chris Higgins, Hunter Shinkaruk

Dark Horse - Matthew Tkachuk

I was admittedly wrong on Monahan three years ago as I assumed he'd go back to junior and he just refused to let that be an outcome. He got in the line-up, produced, and the Flames could not get him out of the line-up. It would certainly not be stunned if the same thing unfolded with Tkachuk, Calgary's most recent sixth overall pick.

You know he's going to get a lot of playing time in the pre-season. If he can play the same surly, agitating and impassioned game as he displayed at the Young Stars Classic last weekend in Penticton, he also could make it hard for Gulutzan to pull him out of the line-up. While there is still some junior in his game, Calgary could really use someone that goes out and pisses off the opponent. A mature young man off the ice, there is no doubt that he could make the jump. It could be argued that since the AHL is not an option, sheltered minutes in the NHL would also be best for his development given he has already dominated at major junior.


3. Who will play with Backlund and Frolik?

Continuing the theme of partnerships, I will assume Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik will be linemates again because why not. They've shown great chemistry in the past and are a vital part of the Flames middle-six. An additional luxury with Frolik is he could also easily slide over to his natural side of left wing so that further opens up the list of possibilities.

Best Guess - Lance Bouma

Coming off an injury-plagued season in which he never really got himself going, the best-case scenario for the Flames would be for Lance Bouma to return to his form of two years ago. Much of his success when he scored 16 goals came while playing alongside Backlund so you can see the appeal of trying him in that spot once again in hopes that he can bounce back to 10-12 goals.

Bouma provides a physical presence that would nicely complement the two Europeans and on a line that would also be tasked out with some difficult shutdown assignments, he is better equipped than some of the other candidates to take on that type of role. Entering year two of a three-year deal, this is a big season for Bouma. The 26-year-old needs to get his season off to a positive start and re-establish himself as a key ingredient on this team. He also needs to stay on the ice and out of the trainer's room, which has been his biggest challenge.

Other Options - Lauri Korpikoski (PTO), Michael Ferland, Garnet Hathaway, Hunter Shinkaruk

Dark Horse - Chris Higgins (PTO)

In camp on a professional tryout, Higgins is a versatile veteran that Gulutzan is very familiar with from his time in Vancouver. While he's not the player he used to be, the speedy winger is still someone that could help fill a bottom-six role and buy the club some time to get a prospect like Tkachuk one more year of seasoning in junior.

While his previous stint in Calgary was a while ago, he left a good impression and he could be the type of veteran Gulutzan sees as important to have around to complement all the youth.


4. Who will play D on the 2nd pairing beside Hamilton?

Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie make for a formidable top pairing. While both are left shots, Brodie prefers playing the off-side so it works out well for the two workhorses. That leaves Dougie Hamilton on the second pairing and the question of who rounds out the top four.

Best Guess - Jyrki Jokipakka

Unless Kris Russell finds his way back to the Flames, this is one of those spots that could see a carousel of players rotate through because there isn't a slam-dunk option currently in camp. Dennis Wideman in a contract year, despite having lost a step, could definitely log the minutes required in this role. Tyler Wotherspoon with a terrific camp could earn himself a promotion into this role. If the Flames contend, a trade deadline acquisition could be the player that finishes the season in this role.

But for now, my money is on Jokipakka getting the first look. The 25-year-old was a pleasant surprise when he came over from Dallas in the Russell trade. There is more jam and physicality to his game than I was expecting. The 6-foot-3 Finn can also move the puck and was a coveted addition to the Finnish World Cup team.

Other Options - Dennis Wideman, Tyler Wotherspoon, Jakub Nakladal (unsigned)

Dark Horse - Kris Russell

If the Flames legitimately feel they have a team that can make the post-season and potentially make some noise when they get there, it's hard to imagine they're comfortable with their depth on defence. It's not so much about the current inventory at the NHL level, but what if there are a couple significant injuries on the blueline? Do you have enough trust in your mostly inexperienced call-up options if you need to bring up a couple guys from Stockton?

Whether or not there is enough money in the vault is probably the biggest question with Russell, an Alberta guy through and through, who loves the city. There is an affinity for Russell as well within the front office. While he's regularly ridiculed by the advanced stats community and there are holes in his game, he also has shouldered a lot of playing time over the years. You cannot discount the pivotal role he played in helping the Flames overcome the loss of Giordano and get into the playoffs in 2015.


5. Who will be the 7th Defenceman?

Clarity finally on Ladislav Smid leaves the Flames with six defencemen on one-way contracts so there is room for a player to join the mix and compete with Deryk Engelland for minutes on the third pairing.

Best Guess: Tyler Wotherspoon

In his sixth training camp with the Flames and on the cusp of his fourth pro season, it's go-time for the 2011 second rounder. It's been a winding journey for Wotherspoon, viewed as the next-in-line on the blueline for a long time but then losing his grip on that label last year when Brett Kulak leapfrogged him to make the opening-night roster. When I spoke with Wotherspoon last month after he signed a one-year deal, he talked about the excitement of getting a fresh start under Gulutzan, who knows him from his WHL days. He also talked about the turning point in his season last year, which ultimately led to a promotion to Calgary and a strong showing with the Flames.

Now waiver eligible, staying in the NHL is entirely on his shoulders. If he plays well in camp and shows that after 162 games logged in the AHL, he is ready for big league employment, his cheap $625,000 contract would be ideal for the cash-strapped Flames. If Calgary chooses to send him down, maybe another team decides to take a shot at him.

Other Options: Nicklas Grossmann (PTO), Brett Kulak, Kenney Morrison, Jakub Nakladal (unsigned)

Dark Horse: Ryan Culkin

Rewind to early February 2015 and Culkin had risen up the AHL depth chart to the point where he might well have been the next call-up when Calgary needed a defenceman. Instead, he suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Last year, his season began with a separated shoulder and assigned to the ECHL to get back up to game speed, he let that affect his game and he ended up spending three months buried in Adirondack.

But he's back, he's healthy, he's confident again after overcoming last year's "mental depression" as he called it and he got September off to a great start with a solid showing in Penticton. With Gulutzan wanting his defencemen to be pushing up ice and very involved in the play, Culkin's two-way game would fit in very well.



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.

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