Thursday, September 01, 2016

Found Money: Five Flames That Could be Pleasant Surprises in 2016-17

It's one of the best feelings ever.

You put on that pair of plaid shorts you haven't worn for a while and you immediately wonder what that piece of paper is that is folded up in the pocket. When you pull it out, it's a $20 bill. Hot damn!

Then, as if you just received a massive inheritance from a rich relative you never knew, your mind starts racing as you ponder the frivolous ways you're going to spend it.

At first blush, there doesn't look like there will be a lot of big surprises this season for Flames fans. Sean Monahan should end up at around 30 goals again, Johnny Gaudreau should be about the same. I would expect Michael Frolik and Mikael Backlund to be in the vicinity of 20. Another dozen for Dougie Hamilton seems about right and for Matt Stajan and TJ Brodie, 6-8 would be par for the course.

But dig a little deeper and while there are no sure things by any means, there are a few opportunities for found money. Here are five players that could pleasantly surprise and provide a much better return on investment than expected.

1. RW Daniel Pribyl

When Daniel Pribyl was signed in April, Brad Treliving did his best to downplay expectations and you can't blame him. After all, he wanted to set the player up for success and avoid a repeat of four years ago. We all remember the lofty praise former GM Jay Feaster heaped upon Roman Cervenka, the last free agent Czech forward Calgary brought over, who ended up back overseas after just one season.

Coincidentally, Cervenka was the only player to have more points than Pribyl in the Czech Extraliga last year. Pribyl racked up 16 goals and 45 points in 45 regular season games, then added another 11 points in nine playoff games before getting injured.

Notably, when Pribyl tore up his knee, he had not yet been signed. Calgary had made no commitment yet and could have easily walked away. Yet they didn't. The Flames proceeded to sign him anyway and bring him back to Calgary to have his ACL surgery. So you know there's belief in the organization that this solidly-built young man -- 6-foot-3, 216 pounds -- can be an impact player.

Whether or not the 2011 Montreal Canadiens sixth rounder will be ready for training camp remains uncertain. Given he's on a two-year, two-way contract, starting him off in the AHL would be an easy thing to do. But this guy is a big, skilled right-shooting winger, which are all ingredients the Flames GM was shopping for in looking for forwards this off-season. He's 23, has played five years of pro hockey with his points-per-game steadily climbing every season. He could snipe 20-plus goals if given a chance in the top-six and regular time on the power play.

2. C Sam Bennett

Sam Bennett just turned 20 in June and is entering his sophomore season. Coming off an 18-goal rookie campaign, the 2014 first rounder should score more this year with many predicting a modest bump up to the vicinity of 23 or 24 goals. But what if he scores a lot more?

His personal highlight reel from 2016-17 could have all been taken from that four-goal game against Florida in January. We're talking about a high-end talent that is very skilled. While Calgary drafted him fourth overall, remember that NHL Central Scouting had him ranked No. 1.

Last year was an up-and-down season production-wise. He had that torrid stretch of eight goals in five games halfway through the year. But when he was moved back to centre in late February, the scoring dried up and he notched just three goals over the season's final 25 games.

But this remains a very talented player. With a new coach and feeling more comfortable at centre now, he could be on the verge of a huge breakout season not dissimilar to Gaudreau, who jumped up to 30 goals in his sophomore year. Remember, this is someone that absolutely tore up junior two years ago -- 11 goals and 24 points in 11 regular season games -- in his last encore in Kingston after returning from shoulder surgery. He's also insatiably competitive and you know he will be motivated to try and steal some attention from his old minor hockey buddy up the highway, Connor McDavid.

3. RW Alex Chiasson

From that 2009 draft class in which Alex Chiasson was selected 38th overall by Dallas, he sits just outside the top 20 in goals with 38. But he looked more like a top 10-calibre scorer when he initially broke into the NHL.

Take his first full season with the Stars in 2013-14 and add in the seven games he got into the season prior and it adds up to 19 goals in 86 games, That works out to essentially an 18-goal pace. Only four rookies scored more often that season -- Nathan MacKinnon (24), Tyler Johnson (24), Ondrej Palat (23) and Sean Monahan (22).

The move out East didn't work with him scoring just 19 goals total over the next two seasons in Ottawa. And lo and behold, his coach from that failed stint in the Eastern Conference, Dave Cameron, has also found his way to Calgary this summer. But under Glen Gulutzan, who was his coach when he scored six times in seven games when he first arrived in the league, if he can regain his scoring touch again, there is opportunity for him to thrive in the top nine.

Can the Montreal native get back to fulfilling the promise that was there after his three years at Boston University? Acquired for the dirt cheap price of minor league depth defenceman Patrick Sieloff, the pressure should be off and maybe that's ideal. A one-year, low money deal should provide motivation also. With an opening on the top line a possibility -- Troy Brouwer lining up with Backlund or Bennett are just as likely as the former Blue playing with Monahan -- the 6-foot-3 right winger has a great opportunity. What a coup it would be if he could double his eight goals from last season, or maybe even bump up against 20 once again.

4. LW Hunter Shinkaruk

There might still be some work to do in the minors but Hunter Shinkaruk is inching closer to being NHL-ready and if his seven games in Calgary late last season are any indication. perhaps he'll be there by the middle of October when the regular season is set to begin.

Matthew Tkachuk is a guy that everyone will be watching this camp but should the 2016 first rounder end up back in junior and that's a good possibility, that opens up a spot on the left side in the top nine for a guy that can provide some offence, and lighting the red light is exactly what the Calgary native has done wherever he's gone.

Shinkaruk scored at a 40-plus goal pace in junior. After a stellar 16-goal rookie season in his first taste of pro hockey with Utica in 2014-15, that total shot up significantly last year when he racked up 27 goals in 62 AHL games. He then added two goals in that short stint with the Flames. He loves to score, he's driven to score and while undersized at 5-foot-11, he's not afraid to take a beating and get to where he needs to be -- the front of the net -- to score goals.

Monahan will always be the toast of the 2013 draft for Calgary. But while Emile Poirier (22nd) and Morgan Klimchuk (28th) -- the Flames other two first rounders that year -- continue to find their way in the minors, Shinkaruk could be next up. When he gets that opportunity and if it's not to begin the year, it could be after just a month or two, I'd expect his patented scoring to continue as he proves to the Canucks that they erred in trading him away.

5. D Dennis Wideman

So what are the Flames going to do with Dennis Wideman? It's not a question that's trending anywhere near the level of 'When are the Flames going to sign Gaudreau?' yet it's been a frequent question all off-season and it's a fair question too.

With young kids coming up, what will the Flames do with the veteran defenceman, who had such a miserable season a year ago. There was the much ballyhooed suspension and non-stop conversation surrounding his incident with linesman Don Henderson. There was his massive drop-off offensively from a career-high 15 goals the previous year to a career-low two goals. The icing on the cake was his season-ending tricep injury.

While I won't go as far as to call a bounce-back season probable, it's certainly possible. For one, it appears he'll be here. While just one year remaining makes his hefty contract easier to move, I still don't think it's movable -- even if the Flames opt to retain half of his $5.25 million freight. If it was, it surely would have happened by now.

You know Calgary is going to score some goals. The power play should be better. Plus, if there's a ever been a time for Wideman to crank up his play by one or two levels, this is the year. That big contract he signed back when the Flames were in Atlanta, or so it feels, is finally set to expire and if he wants to be in the NHL next year at age 34, the path to such an opportunity has to be a strong season thsi year in which he proves he can still rack up points. With his regular power play time, some better fortune -- his shooting percentage was a career-low last year -- a dozen goals could be in the offing and that would certainly be an unexpected bonus for the team.

Final Word

The Flames are coming off a year in which there wasn't a lot of one-year wonders. In contrast to the year prior when Lance Bouma and Josh Jooris were among the many that had career seasons that were going to be difficult to repeat, the most likely guy to regress - Joe Colborne and his 19 goals -- is long gone.

Sure, Giordano's 21 goals could fall off but none of the other goal totals seem that far out of line with many guys in a position to slightly improve.

If the Flames can mix in a couple pleasant surprises along the way -- or even just one of the above, without any serious, unexpected regression from the other relied-upon veterans, an offence that was top-10 in the league last year should be even better. Add in better goaltending and defensive play and this team should definitely be in the hunt. Let's not forget, they missed the playoffs last season but just 10 points and that was with a long list of fixable issues from goaltending to special teams.

Last year, that crumpled up piece of paper in your shorts was a Double Bubble wrapper. Maybe, just maybe, this year it will turn out to be some cold, hard cash. Heck, you can then go and spend it in late April on the Red Mile.

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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1 comment:

  1. Put Sammy, Gaudreau, and Brouwer together. i think with those three Sam could hit 35-35-70. Kid is more nsturally talented, just younger than, Monahan. Only issue is whether Monahan can carry a line without Johnny.