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Friday, September 01, 2017

September: It's a Great Month for Hockey

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"It's a great day for hockey."

It's the signature line from the late great Flames coach, 'Badger' Bob Johnson.

My variation of it begins today.

"It's a great month for hockey."

Yes, September has arrived and of the 12 times we ceremoniously flip the page of the calendar, today is always my favourite.

School is soon back in. Baseball pennant races are heating up. The Stampeders-Eskimos Labour Day Classic is just a few days away with the Grudge Match to follow. The NFL gets going for real in less than a week.

But more importantly, it's the return of hockey, hockey, and more hockey.

Parents out there will be able to relate. Located on the bulletin board in some houses, on the fridge door in others, the hallowed kitchen calendar in an active household is the equivalent of an air traffic controller's monitor. What is going on, where and when?

In my house, August had some red ink on it -- a barbeque one night, a birthday party on another. My daughter had a hockey camp one week. The wife and I slipped away to Las Vegas for a few days. But mostly, a whole lot of nothing. That's OK, downtime has its place.

September though? A game-changer.


Hunt for Red September

Seriously, there's so much red ink this month on the calendar, it looks like it was retrieved from the police lab where Dexter does his blood splatter analysis.

For me, my own Friday morning hockey kicked off the month in style today. Wednesday morning hockey starts next week. Monday and Thursday lunchtime hockey gets going the week after.

For my daughter, prep skates loom -- four ice times in four days. Following that are midget evaluations -- five ice times over a 10-day span.

Meanwhile, prep skates, evaluations, practice games, formation of teams, all of that will be going on this month for Calgary's pro hockey team too.

The Flames will play 10 games in September.

The rookies get three games to themselves starting next Friday at Penticton at the always compelling Young Stars Classic. Calgary's prospects will take on the Oilers (Friday, Sept. 8, 5 pm MT), Canucks (Sunday, Sept. 10, 3 pm MT) and Jets (Monday, Sept. 11, 11:30 am).

I'll be there to keep you informed. You can also watch the games online as Sportsnet960's Pat Steinberg will pair up with his broadcasting peer from the opposing teams to call all three games, which will be available via the Flames website.

Upon returning home from the Okanagan, the rookies are joined on the ice by the veterans as main camp gets underway. Calgary's seven-game preseason slate gets going with a pair of split-squad games on Monday, Sept. 18 against Edmonton. Seven games over an 11-day span will determine who stays and who goes from the groups of forwards and defence aspiring to make the opening night roster.



Time of Optimism

The one thing about September is optimism is always in the air. If the team loses, it doesn't matter, it's only the preseason. This is a time for building chemistry and evaluating competitions for jobs, winning is not the primary concern. Yet if the team wins, it's a sign of things to come. Watch out!

This year is no different.

Starting in net, there has been another complete turnover of the teams goalie tandem. It's been a habit in recent years, but this year, finally, they have the right pieces in place. Or so the club hopes.

Mike Smith, part of Canada's Olympic team three years ago, is the new starter. He comes to the team rejuvenated after a six-year grind in the desert with a Coyotes team that spent much of his tenure there as one of the league's doormats.

This is someone that can play 55-60 games. He's done it before. Often. He's a legitimate, proven No. 1. Brian Elliott wasn't. Neither was Karri Ramo. Is he older? Yes, he's 35. Is he too old? Nope. Is the NHL becoming a young man's game? Absolutely, but more so when it comes to skaters. There are still goaltenders around Smith's age or older that are getting the job done and quite well. Think Pekka Rinne, Craig Anderson, Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Miller.

He's joined by the affable Eddie Lack. When Lack, the social media darling, was last spotted in the Pacific Division, he appeared to be on his way to stardom with Vancouver. After two awful seasons in Carolina where attempts to change his style failed badly, he's determined to get his game back on track while playing for the same coach in Glen Gulutzan who was with him when he was enjoying success with the Canucks.



Bolstered Blueline

On the blueline, the Flames counterpunch to Edmonton's high-flying offence is to stock up on defence.

The new guy is Travis Hamonic. Like Smith, here's a guy anxiously looking forward to the change of scenery. He'll be the first to admit that last season wasn't a great one but he's 27, is just entering his prime, and isn't far removed from being considered one of the NHL's up and coming stars. Playing back in Western Canada, expect great things from the native of St. Malo, Manitoba. Further, with that stability on the second pairing, expect the re-emergence of the TJ Brodie of old, with the Flames slick-skating No. 7 having lost his ball and chain from last year.

Meanwhile, the D core is anchored by the elite pairing of Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton. Giordano turns 34 the day before the season-opener, but don't get caught up on what his birth certificate says. This is a guy whose career arc has always lagged a couple years behind everybody else and there is no indication whatsoever that a slowdown is lurking. The captain continues to play excellent hockey while being the face of the franchise. Kris Versteeg, who has kicked around the NHL a fair bit and has played with some of the league's top players, has called Giordano one of the greatest leaders he's ever played for.

Hamilton, meanwhile, is a player very much on the rise. Prying the 2011 ninth overall pick out of Boston might go down as general manager Brad Treliving's greatest coup. A favourite of many on the ice, his post-game 'Dougie bombs' after seemingly every win last season -- lurking in some weird way in the back of player interviews -- brought out a playful side of Hamilton that adds to his charm.

Meanwhile, there's also 27-year-old Michael Stone -- another player entering his prime -- who after making $4 million last year, took a pay cut to re-sign with Calgary for three seasons. When injuries strike and over the years, needing to promote someone into the top four has been a regular occurrence, Gulutzan has a nice fall-back option. It's going to take more than one injury to this team's top four to inflict damage.


Shiny Happy Top Six

Up front, the ingredients in Gulutzan's mixing bowl include young players with bright futures and older players that provide stability.

In need of a new contract after this year, Mikael Backlund anchored the team's best line last season. Ten years in the organization now, Backlund's career path isn't unlike the rise in popularity of REM back in the late 80s and early 90s. Always a hit around college campuses, it was more of a cult-following at first led by diehards that loved the alternative band and appreciated their music. REM was a band not that well known in the mainstream until years later. But once they broke through, then the widespread acclaim came and it grew quickly.

Same for Backlund. To their credit, the hardcore Backlund supporters have always been there. Now everybody is pro-Backlund and the 28-year-old Swede is on centre stage. His line with the always-steady Michael Frolik and youngster Matthew Tkachuk was tremendous in 2016-17 and much of the same is expected this year.

Meanwhile, the two pals on the conventional top line -- the highly-paid Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan -- are a year removed from the contract talks that consumed much of their offseason a year ago. That distraction gone, surely more comfortable now with the spotlight, pressure and scrutiny that comes with making north of $6 million, big seasons are expected.

Monahan scored 17 goals over the final 38 games last year. That's a pace that over 82 games would net him 37 goals. I'm often asked if Monahan will ever be more than a 30-goal scorer and to that, I counter with why not? Heck, he scored 31 goals as a 20-year-old. Why can't he score 35-plus? Especially playing with No. 13.

As for Gaudreau, just one year removed from being tied for sixth in NHL scoring, expect a similar season to 2015-16. After not signing until right before opening night last season, then breaking a finger in mid-November, then spending a couple months trying to find chemistry with Alex Chiasson -- two guys who shouldn't be lab partners -- it was a challenging season at times.

After dropping from 30 goals and 78 points two years ago to 17 goals and 61 points, expect those totals to rebound as the 24-year-old begins his fourth year in the NHL. A return to 30 goals and 85-plus points is well within his ability.

Meanwhile, I'm fascinated to see where Tkachuk takes his game after a tremendously impactful rookie season at age 19. Re-stock the mouthguards! With a freshly minted two-year deal in his back pocket, Micheal Ferland will start the year back on the Gaudreau-Monahan line and if he can remain there, that bodes well for the team's forward depth.


Depth Makes the Dream Work

One question mark while at the same time being the biggest area for potential growth is Sam Bennett.

Still without a contract, which is that one looming potential distraction. If that can get sorted out in the next couple weeks and there's still plenty of time despite all the nervousness out there, then you wonder if he's ripe to take a giant stride forward.

From 18-18-36 to 13-13-26 a year ago, it's not the direction many thought his goal and point totals would go. But with a bit more offensive swagger, more self-belief, more power play opportunity, some skilled linemates, 20-plus goals and 50-plus points is possible.

Meanwhile, the always-steady and skilled Versteeg is back to provide a veteran presence and underappreciated offensive skill set to line up alongside Bennett.

Oh, and there's Troy Brouwer. If nothing else, Brouwer will surely be better because how can't he be. For seven straight seasons up until last year, he bounced between 17 and 25 goals -- averaging exactly 20 goals/season over that span. Which was the blip, last year or the seven previous years? Having just turned 32, he's not that old either.

Fans are certainly down on him, but not only is it possible for him to rebound from his 13 goals last year, I'd expect that goal total to increase. Maybe not to 20, but it should go up. The adjustment is over, he's settled in, and he's a proud guy that is surely aware that 'Brouwer talk' around the city he now lives in year-round has not been flattering.

Additionally, there is opportunity for some young skaters to bring a little 'juice' to the line-up as Gulutzan likes to say. There are jobs to be had up front. Is this Mark Jankowski's moment to break through? Is Spencer Foo as good as last year's 62 points in 38 games at Union College would suggest? Will Emile Poirier's great story continue? What about the rambunctious Garnet Hathaway?

We'll find out starting this month. In fact, one week from today, Foo and Jankowski will be lacing up the skates against Edmonton in the rookie tournament.

On the blueline, Brett Kulak looks on the verge of full-time NHL employment NHL, but with Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington and Tyler Wotherspoon nipping at his heels.


Final Word

It's been a hot summer and while many aren't yet ready to let it go, I'm not one of them. Bring on the cool, crisp (and clear) air of an arena.

The South Okanagan Events Centre, the Saddledome, WinSport, East Calgary Twin Arenas. For me, September is one long hockey rink pub crawl.

At one point between watching hockey, covering hockey, playing hockey, evaluating hockey, driving my daughter to hockey, there's a stretch of eight or nine straight nights at a rink -- and that's in a span of 17 such arena commitments in a span of three weeks.

While ridiculously busy, I love it. The drama, the storylines, I sit here today wondering what they will be -- both in midget girls and the NHL. Because there will be plenty of both to delve into.

Within a month, my kid will know her team and Marek Hrivik will know his. Then we'll really be ready to kick this thing into high gear.

It's officially go time, pedal to the metal, and if all goes well for the local hockey heroes, it will be nine-and-a-half months before we hit the brakes.

September, the most glorious month of the year.



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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6 comments:

  1. Well done Darren! You have an uncanny knack of stoking the embers so that now I cannot wait until next Friday. I am looking for a shot of Jankowski's hard summer work combined with Foo's competitiveness(especially against Oilers next Friday)

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    1. Thank you. My guess is a Jankowski-Foo pairing but we'll know for sure in a few days.

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  2. Darren have you seen many of the prospects in Calgary this offseason? I know Janko came really earlier last year to get ready. Also is there any news on who will make up the young stars team? Will the other squads allow Poirier to play or do you think he would be better off here with the vets and the informal skates?
    Thanks
    DPG

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    1. It's become common for prospects to come to Calgary in advance of rookie/main camp. So many of them have arrived but not all, and it's a mixed bag of top prospects, middle-of-the-road and fringe prospects. Obviously, by now you will have seen that the rosters are out. Poirier has too many pro games to be eligible to play in the rookie tournament. < 100 pro games is the general guideline. Exceptions are made for first year pros if they were late out of college, etc. That said, to your point, I think it's OK for Poirier to remain back with the 'big kids'.

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  3. Replies
    1. If only it was that easy! Unfortunately, as they say, time doesn't grow on trees.

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