Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Cuts Like a Knife: Driving Home This Evening, Eight Thoughts as Flames Cut 10 Players

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Driving home this evening, I could have sworn we had it all worked out.
You had this boy believing, way beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Well I heard it on the street, I heard you might have found somebody new.
Well who is he baby, who is he and tell me what he means to you.
I took it all for granted, but how was I to know, that you'd be letting go....
Dube, Valimaki, Foo, Klimchuk, Lomberg, Pollock, Rittich, Poirier, Shinkaruk and Wotherspoon.

While for Bryan Adams, the re-assignment of those 10 players -- Dillon Dube and Juuso Valimaki to junior, the other eight to Stockton -- may have felt so right, this is one of those times where I was mistaken. In particular. I thought 2013 first rounder Emile Poirier would stick around a little longer.

For me, this wouldn't be the first time things have gone astray. Instead, Poirier along with Tyler Wotherspoon and Hunter Shinkaruk were all placed on waivers. Should they go unclaimed, they will head to Stockton on Wednesday morning.

As Calgary whittled its roster down to 28 players, less injured players Daniel Pribyl and Marek Hrivik, here are eight random thoughts on how they got there and who remains.


1. Gone For Now or Gone for Good?


It was back in July, during Stampede Week, on episode 15 of my Flames at 80 Decibels podcast, in which Rob Kerr and I debated the exact scenario that unfolded Tuesday of Poirier being sent down to the minors and whether or not such a move carried a risk of the 2014 first rounder being claimed off waivers by another organization.

There are NHL clubs that could be interested.
  • The Canadiens were reportedly interested in Poirier in his draft year, but Calgary took the Montreal native at No. 22. The Habs didn't pick until No. 25. 
  • Vegas could always use some young forwards that have the potential to one day put the 'gold' in Golden Knights.
  • Colorado should be interested because they're not very good.


I can't tell you with any certainty if Poirier is going to be an impact NHLer one day. But what I know is he looked like a can't miss prospect two years ago when I ranked him the team's No. 2 prospect behind Sam Bennett.

Although his well-documented battle with sobriety cost him a couple of key development years, I'd want to retain this lottery ticket still if I'm the Flames as I believe there still could be some upside with this player.

What works in Calgary's favour are a few factors. For one, not only do other teams have to be interested, they have to be prepared to keep him on their NHL roster. You can't claim a player off waivers and then assign him to the minors. With teams already trying to figure out how to pare down their numbers, are they willing to add another body, which means subtracting yet another?

Secondly, what is Poirier? At this point, he's still very much an unknown commodity. Vegas, for example, had a free shot at him in the expansion draft and chose not to take him. Not much has changed since.

If Poirier isn't ready to step in and help the Flames team today, why would another team think he can help them immediately?

So while this feels like it has the makings of being Paul Byron all over again, it isn't Byron. Byron had 138 NHL games on his NHL resume when Calgary tried to slip him through waivers prior to the 2014-15 season, Poirier has just eight. It's a night-and-day difference.

The AHL is the best place for Poirier to be right now so he can take on a prominent role and get his game back on track after a couple of tough years. If he gets lands there and I'd guess the odds are pretty good, it will be with the Flames where he can continue to work with Brian McGrattan, now officially on the team in a player development role. From there, and perhaps in a few months, he could be ready for a another crack at the NHL.


2. Righty Rasmus Repressed?

So far, a case can certainly be made that Rasmus Andersson has been the best of the sixth and seventh D hopefuls. Brett Kulak has struggled in his own end, so has veteran Matt Bartkowski and those are the only two other options left in camp. In this game of Survivor, there are two spots available and three contestants.


That said, I'm not convinced for a few reasons that it makes sense for Andersson to be thrust into a third pairing role in the NHL quite yet.

For one, he's only 20. His development is far from tapped out. Playing top pairing minutes, taking on top pairing responsibilities in the minors wouldn't be a bad thing. One area he needs to improve in is his pace-of-play and decision-making. It's easier to learn that in the minors.

Secondly, a big part of his game is quarterbacking the power play yet he likely wouldn't see any time on the man advantage in Calgary.

The lefty-righty thing is another barrier. Coach Glen Gulutzan made it very clear a year ago that he likes his defence to play on their natural side. You'll recall he was not too interested in allowing an established player like TJ Brodie to play his off-side. With that history, it's hard to believe he'd then be receptive to two righties on the third pairing.

While it's been a struggle at times for Kulak and Bartkowski this September, especially the latter, I suspect it will ultimately be those two that get those two blueline roster spots. In that scenario, I have Kulak getting the chance to play regularly and the older Bartkowski serving as the dude in the press box. By spotting the use of that third pairing that will also include Michael Stone in favourable situations as best you can, you hope Kulak can settle in and get to how he was playing when he was up last year. As you may recall, he looked solid for quite a while last year to the point where I wondered if he would ever end up going back down..

But one thing we've learned, Andersson is looking like a nice option when injuries on that right side do strike (e.g. Travis Hamonic) and that feels like an inevitability.


3. Seeking Fourth-Line Truculence

One look at the PTOs invited to camp and it's clear what the MO was for the Flames this off-season -- find some muscle and snarl to replace the departure of team bodyguard Deryk Engelland, who signed with the Vegas Golden Knights after the expansion draft.
Tanner Glass

For what it's worth, Tanner Glass, 33, a veteran of 500-plus NHL games with Florida, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh and the NY Rangers, has looked fine in the pre-season and it appears he has a good chance of signing a deal.

Glass brings a rambunctious style and could be what the Flames are looking for as a depth forward. He was a fan favourite when he played in New York. Also in the mix up until being released from his PTO on Wednesday morning was Joseph Cramarossa, who Calgary wanted last year when the Ducks were forced to waive him in March after acquiring Patrick Eaves. At that time, he was scooped on waivers by the lower-ranked Vancouver Canucks, who had priority over Calgary, who also had interest.

Add in veteran pugilist Luke Gazdic, who is still on a camp on one-year, two-way deal, and at one point you had three guys known more for their fists than their hands. Gazdic is surely bound for Stockton to help provide leadership down there, but might he stick around for a little while with Calgary opening the season with a stretch of bully-like opponents -- at Edmonton, versus Winnipeg, at Anaheim then at Los Angeles? Glass and/or Gazdic on the roster seems like a very real possibility.

These final two preseason games could influence how that turns out.



4. Big, Tall, Strapping Pivot

It's the build you'd die for if you're an NHL centre -- 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds.

Mark Jankowski looks ready to be in the NHL and I'd stick him on my fourth line with zero hesitation. Sure, he'll play far less than if he was on the first line in Stockton but he's 23. He's spent a full season-plus in the AHL. For his development, practicing and playing against NHL teams is the way to go in my view.


No, it doesn't mean Bennett needs to move to the wing. No, it doesn't mean Jankowski needs to go to the wing. Just line them up 1-4, four home-grown first round picks up the middle -- Monahan, Backlund, Bennett and Jankowski.

You may not remember but go back to last year and see how Matthew Tkachuk was used slowly out of the gate. His time on ice in his first eight games were: 12:30, 13:43, 11:42, 10:39, 11:12, 13:34, 9:33, 10:58

With Jankowski on the fourth line and by adding in some PK time, you could get him close to 10-12 minutes and near those same ice times. Start off like that, see how he handles it and then decide where you go from there. Where he starts the season doesn't need to be where he finishes, nor where he is by the start of November.

During Calgary's first seven regular season games, Stockton only plays three times. Playing fourth line with the Flames will actually result in more minutes than if he's on the first line with the Heat for those two-and-a-half weeks.

If he's not ready, then you demote him to the AHL, no problem. But if he shows he's ready, then you can either continue status quo or even entertain the option of moving him up to third line centre, increasing his minutes, and now you have the luxury of moving Bennett to the wing.

You don't decide today, just let it play out.


5. Checking Out of the Last Chance Hotel

Can't help but think this is it for Tyler Wotherspoon, who entered camp this year with the best opportunity he's ever had to make the team, but simply couldn't seize the opportunity and that's been a familiar script.

When the 24-year-old restricted free agent was qualified this off-season, I was admittedly surprised because there was no indication based on his usage the last couple years that he was part of the team's future plans. Yet back he came, like the cat that wouldn't stay away.

But it sure looks like a fifth season in the AHL is how it's going to end for the 2011 second rounder. Touted for years as the best-of-the rest when it came to the Flames prospect cupboard on the blueline, he's been passed now by several younger and more dynamic players.

Wotherspoon will be a steady, reliable player for Heat coach Ryan Huska, and maybe he gets in a handful of NHL games on the third pairing if multiple injuries strike, but the writing sure seems to be on the wall for a guy three months older than Dougie Hamilton.


6. Wingman Worries

As the number of forwards left in camp begins to dwindle, so does the list of winger candidates to play alongside Kris Versteeg and Sam Bennett. If only the Flames had been able to land Patrick Sharp.


Getting the rare chance as a first line understudy to be the headliner, Bennett got everyone's imaginations running wild on Friday night when he got a chance to centre Johnny Gaudreau and had a stand-out performance with three assists -- two primary helpers on Gaudreau goals -- a game-high six shots and a dominating 17-8 night at the face-off circle.

But the reality was he was only keeping that chair warm for Sean Monahan, at least for now. While there is merit to a Bennett-Gaudreau partnership and spreading out the top nine -- Backlund-Frolik another twosome and Tkachuk-Monahan another possibility, I highly doubt there's any appetite to make that drastic of change with the regular season a week away.

Instead, I'd expect what we've been seeing to date other than when Monahan was sidelined for that one game and that's a Gaudreau-Monahan-Ferland first line, the 3M line intact, and then Bennett, Versteeg and <Insert name here> on the third line.

It's the identity of that third line winger that has much of Flames nation feeling anxious and uneasy because it almost feels inevitable that it will be whipping boy Troy Brouwer, who would have a difficult time cracking the top six on a beer league team based on fan evaluations.


But Wait, There's Hope

However faint, I offer two beacons of hope for Bennett enthusiasts.

First, while it is true that Bennett centred a line with Brouwer on it 31 times last year and while it is true that analytics would suggest it's a pairing that doesn't work, keep in mind that 15 of those games so essentially half, were the first 15 games of the year when the entire team was awful. Remember, they had the worst record in the NHL over that period. Sure, Bennett-Brouwer wasn't working, but nothing was working.


I'm not suggesting Brouwer-Bennett is a marriage made in heaven. I prefer Bennett with high-skilled players too but the reality is that won't be the case to start the season. There's only one Gaudreau. Looking at remaining options for the right side, you're looking at Lazar, Brouwer, Hathaway or Freddie Hamilton. It's like showing up at a garage sale at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Things are really picked over.

What if you flip Versteeg to the right side? After all, he shoots right so that's easily done. Well then options include Glass or maybe Cramarossa. Hmm. Not sure that's any more appetizing.

Short of wholesale line juggling in the top six, which may happen eventually but seem unlikely to start, brace yourself for more Brouwer with Bennett. On that note, also remember that Brouwer averaged 20 goals/season for seven years prior to last season. Were those seven years the anomaly or was last year's 13 goals. Let's see how year 2 goes for the team's alternate captain.

The other ray of sunshine peeking through the clouds is the play of Jankowski. Should Jankowski make the team as the fourth line centre and should he be able to establish himself as an NHL-ready centre, as mentioned earlier that gives the Flames the luxury of moving Bennett to the wing and let's be honest, that solves everything.

Then, perhaps it's Bennett on the top line with Monahan and Gaudreau. Or maybe you slide him alongside Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik with Tkachuk playing alongside Jankowski and Versteeg. Or, you could go Bennett-Jankowski-Versteeg. Arguably, all of those work better than the current set-up so for Bennett fans, you should be cheering for Jankowski.


7. Lack is a Lock

The presence of Jon Gillies may have some of you thinking that maybe he has a chance to beat out Eddie Lack for the back-up job. Well, stop thinking such silliness because there is zero chance of that happening.

Gillies is still in Calgary so somebody gets to skip Thursday's trip to Vancouver. He is basically an insurance piece at this point. Despite giving up eight goals in his game-and-a-half, Lack is a lock for the back-up job behind Mike Smith at least to start the season.

With one year left on his contract and the Flames only on the hook for half of the Swede's $2.75 AAV, Lack is someone that can easily be buried in the minors at some point if things go south. But we're not there yet and those chagrined at how the first two appearances have gone need to take a closer look at the circumstances of those two starts:
  • Both games -- versus Connor McDavid and the Oilers and versus Patrik Laine and the Jets -- were on the road.
  • Both games were against far superior line-ups than what the Flames suited up. In fact, each game featured only four or five players expected to be in Calgary's opening night line-up. 
  • Lack has yet to play a single minute behind Calgary's vaunted top four on defence. Instead, in his starts he's seen a steady dose of Stone (x2), Kulak (x2), Wotherspoon (x2), Bartkowski (x2) and Andersson (x2) in front of him. The inexperienced Josh Healy and Juuso Valimaki also played one game each. So take that into consideration and good luck with that.
  • Five of the eight goals he's given up have been on the power play and I'll point out, that was with 90 percent of the Flames regular penalty killers watching the game on TV back in Calgary.

Even-strength save percentage is generally viewed as the preferred stat when evaluating goaltenders and Lack has put up a respectable .923 (stopped 36 of 39 shots) so far. For context, that figure would have ranked him 15th in the NHL last season.

While he hasn't proven he's back to being Canucks' Lack as opposed to Canes' Lack, there's no reason to panic quite yet. Sure, seeing Gillies in a Flames uniform is possible, but I'd suggest it would be December at the earliest.

Before that happens, Lack will get plenty of opportunity to show that with NHL defencemen in front of him as well as NHL forwards -- an improvement on the support he's had so far, he is the capable goaltender that Gulutzan is familiar with from when he was on the west coast.


8. Lazar Pointer

One of the names hanging around despite some uninspiring play is Curtis Lazar and as a warning, don't expect that to change -- the hanging around part, that is.

The reason I fully expect him to be on the opening-night roster is it was less than three months ago that Calgary handed him a two-year, one-way, $1.9 million deal.


The Flames traded a second round pick to Ottawa last March to acquire the 2013 first round pick because they saw a player with untapped upside. Untapped or non-existent is what is yet to be determined.

Rushed to the NHL too early one could argue in Ottawa, his time with the Senators did not go well -- 13 goals in 176 games while saddled on the fourth line and playing with the likes of Chris Neil. That said, fourth line might be a best-case scenario for Lazar, who has yet to seize his opportunity with the Flames despite a third line RW job lying in wait for him.

Ever since he was brought in at last year's trade deadline, the focus was on this season. Lazar did play four regular season games last year and he got into game 4 in the playoffs but the focus was fully on 2017-18. Well, so far, there's been a lot of skating but little else accomplished.

With the ink not yet dry on that two-year contract, he's not a guy heading to the minors but it's a very real possibility that he could open the season in the Rogers Place press box and that would be a disappointing outcome for the club.

For me, more time is still required before passing final judgment. It's been a very uneven pre-season for Calgary and Lazar is not the only player that has been noticeably unproductive. But patience in the fan base has already run out and when the games matter, and the contributions remain the same -- that's when the pressure is really going to build.

If he can get some positive results and start gaining some traction, perhaps everything changes, but with every passing day, that looks like a bigger, and bigger 'if'.





By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues that I've enjoyed and I'll occasionally use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.


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24 comments:

  1. I understand not signing a player to play on the third line in the offseason, but without someone stepping up to take that spot in the preseason, is it time for a Jagr signing?

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    1. Jagr has indicated he will begin the year playing over in Kladno, Czech Republic. He can be signed anytime so if the team scuffles, maybe the urgency to plug that whole will increase. You never know.

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  2. Do you think Jagr would sign a contract that would stipulate he needs to be on X line, with Y amount of minutes per game and powerplay? You could move someone down and slot Jagr up, but is that what you really want to do? I am guessing Jagr's demands playing time is the reason he isn't signed, not the cash

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    1. Might be a combination of the two. Hard to know what you're getting at his age now to the point of committing to certain expectations. Could create an issue if the production isn't there.

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  3. As much as we like Poirier's potential, he is far better off playing first line (hopefully) withe the Heat and get his career back on track. It would be success if he gets in a game or two this season if there are injuries on the Flames roster.

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    1. One hundred percent agree. He needs to be back in the AHL, starting the long road back 'on the ice'. Glad it has worked out for Calgary to get him down there and if he can conjure up that type of game he plays that made him a first round pick, it could be some found money down the road.

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  4. Fan's frustration over the "Burden" which is Brouwer continues to grow. I am so disappointed that the Flames did not bring anyone into camp to push the "Burden" and Lazar at RW. Instead they brought it Glass, Gazdic, and Crammer to compete for a LW spot where they have more depth and much better prospects. I'm not even upset that the "Burden's" counting numbers were down, he has bad analynic numbers as well and most importantly is that he just seems not to care (most shifts he just does very little) and yet GG has him wear a letter.

    Darren you are around the team quite a bit. What is it that the Flames see in the "Burden" that he has a letter; it sure is not based upon his on ice performance.

    DPG

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    1. Honestly, you're going to drive yourself crazy trying to justify Troy Brouwer's $4.5M salary and presence based solely on his on-ice performance. You're going to be off to a padded room in no time. Straight-jacket, the whole thing.

      It's never been a secret that they brought him for other reasons beyond hoping he scores 15-20 goals (which he didn't, so his on-ice year wasn't great, for sure, but there were other contributions). From what I'm led to believe, he has a reputation off the ice for being a guy not afraid to have the hard conversation with teammates and keep them accountable. There's a story about him challenging Ovechkin in Washington. That's not something a lot of players would have the balls to do. This is a unique attribute and a great majority of players do not have that make-up to be able to have that straight talk with their friends, their colleagues. Maybe, just maybe, Mark Giordano is one of them, which is why the team identified a need for leadership support for him -- think good cop, bad cop.

      No, you can't quantify what the result of this is and it may seem like a lot of b.s. but this is a team with a lot of young, wealthy players finding their way in the league but also in life. There were those Super Bowl suspensions two years ago. You know what they say about where there's smoke...

      Switching topics, when the team was about to break last year in mid-November, last in the NHL, Brouwer is one of the 3-4 players (Giordano, Engelland, Monahan) Glen Gulutzan specifically credits with keeping the team together as the temptation was running high in many to abandon what the coach was trying to get them to do system-wise because it wasn't working. Instead, they stuck it out, then it clicked, and away they went.

      Go back to when they signed Brouwer. Treliving realizes he paid a premium for the player (you can't build your team on July 1, paraphrasing it) but he had done the research, interviewed past teammates, coaches Brouwer played under, etc. the one thing with the GM is he's thorough, and they wanted Brouwer for certain qualities and they went after him. That 'A' on his sweater wasn't becasue they thought he'd score 25 goals. For Brouwer, when demand is high and supply is limited, he milked it and it worked out to a sweet financial deal. I understand that this is all stuff that people devalue because you can't measure it or see it but I'm in my late 40s and I've been in a lot of different work places and the successful ones have mechanisms/people in place that in different ways get more out of you.

      I know you will continue to be frustrated. Fans will look at graphs of how Brouwer and Bennett together on the ice doesn't work and will go crazy, but he has a role, he's going to play, he needs to play somewhere, and beyond the ice, there's more to him, way more than you'll ever see on the ice.

      Again, did they expect 13 goals from him. No, the performance was definitely a disappointment (although he did have a bad hand for longer than people realize) and he can be a lot more cantankerous out there, but he's not here to score 25. There are other attributes beyond the box score. Who knows, second year in a new city, a proud guy, who lives in Calgary year-round and surely hears the whispers of disenchantment, will he step up this year with a stronger on-ice performance? I almost expect it, but temper your expectations and just accept the team performance as the consolation prize, as that's where he's adding the most value.

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    2. But who talks to him about being the guy who shows it on the ice. All I want is an honest effort and far to often I just don't see. At some point his talk will fall on deaf ears.
      DPG

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    3. And yet... those wonderful off-ice qualities weren't enough to have him protected in the expansion draft. Let's face it, the Flames were fine with having that contract off the books and still are. The signing was a mistake, one perhaps Treliving was not fully on board with at the time (more autonomy in his latest contract)

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    4. Asset management 101: Why protect something you have no risk of losing. Would they have been fine with his contract off the books? Certainly. But that doesn't have anything to do with what I'm saying is that there is more to why he was brought in than on-ice performance. That's all. And I believe fully this was Brad Treliving's signing all the way and one it is fair for him to be criticized for at this point in time. There seems to be a need to talk in extremes all the time with Brouwer. Yes, he's over paid for his contributions. Absolutely, 100 percent. Regrets? With hoe it's worked out on the ice? Probably. But the spirit of why he was brought in seems to get conveniently dismissed and every now and then, although most ears don't want to hear it, I like to remind people of those factors.

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    5. Darren: I get the spirit of why he was brought it; additional leadership but when does it seem not to be working. He talks about his leadership role and says all the right team things but then it seems he does not deliver. At some point his talk becomes dismissed by his teammates. This also can lead to players questioning the coach. Here's the thing I would love to stop complaining about him but that requires him to show me effort every shift; I don't even care if his counting numbers don't rebound. Hit somebody, skate back hard on D, get in a scrum and protect someone.
      DPG

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    6. Fair deal. Time to move on. Time for new new games, new samples of work, new stats to delve into, fresh storylines -- maybe, new heroes, new scapegoats -- maybe. Anthems, protests, Trump, arena deals and Troy Brouwer all things that I'm tired of hearing about. Maybe it's just me. Looking forward to flipping the calendar to a new month and hopefully fresh conversation. Cheers.

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    7. Let's hope October is a more positive month and we are talking about something positive.
      On a side note I'm hearing Poirier is playing well in Stockton.
      DPG

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    8. Darren: Giving credit where credit is due. Last night TB played with a greater effort and was effective especially on the 5 on 3 PK. He still needs to show this effort on a nightly basis but it was a step forward.
      DPG

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  5. OK I will be the guy to say it.... Wouldnt Iggy be a fantastic 3rd or 4th liner?

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  6. I'm excited about the Flames, there seems to be options and depth that we haven't seen in Calgary for a long time. I think Jankowski will continue to impress and see more ice time as the season progresses. I think that the players assigned to Stockton will start to dominate like Janko did last year and when called on will contribute on the big club. I'm excited to see what Smith can do behind a stud defensive group (something he did not have in AZ)

    I'm not in favor of signing past glories or 45 year old wingers. I think this years team is tight in the locker room, their focused and driven to succeed

    Can't wait for the regular season to begin

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    1. As of last year, Jagr was still performing very well on the right side, considerably better than any of the other existing options in the organization. They waited to see if any wingers (so not Jankowski) stepped up in camp and I don't anyone did, thus they pulled the trigger on a guy that still has the hands and size to be dominant with the puck, a guy that will be one helluva mentor for Bennett and co., and comes on a pretty thrifty price tag all things considered.

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  7. Why does this coach not see the how detrimental Troy Brower is to this line-up? Why does Brower wear an "A"? Brower certainly does not try hard enough to be an example to other players on the team. Neither does Brower contribute to the production of his line-mates.

    Finally, given their lack-luster performance in Vancouver, if the Flames need to infuse energy and enthusiasm into their line-up, why not play more of the kids and just go with them?

    Other NHL teams are doing that, why do the Flames insist on sticking with older, slow veterans who won't provide very much energy anymore?

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  8. Who talks to Brower to get him going???

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    1. Troy's Dad? Lots of lectures have been handed down by hockey parents in the drive home from the rink!

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  9. Im just confused as to why Hathaway was on waivers when he's been probably one of the difference makers on most shifts and brings and element we sorely lack....arguably one of our better forwards tonight vs the oil...since barely any of them even showed up

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    1. Hathaway decision was made prior to game 1. Tanner Glass did more and impressed more in the pre-season (in the eyes of the decision-makers). I think it's that simple.

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