Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Replacing Backlund: Handicapping the List of Candidates

The Mikael Backlund injury watch is starting to intensify. Big time.

Today is day five of Calgary Flames training camp and the team's 25-year-old has yet to set foot on the ice. Nursing what's been described as an abdominal strain suffered while training in Sweden, the lack of news on the Backlund front is now being interpreted as bad news.

"I'm worried," confessed coach Bob Hartley on Monday, when talking about the ongoing absence of his No. 1 centre.

So, what if Backlund isn't healthy to start the season? Let's not forget, this is not the old Backlund, this is the new and improved version, who played like one of the NHL's elite players for the final two-thirds of last season. As I discussed at length earlier in the summer in this piece, another season from the 2008 first round pick like the one he just completed and Backlund could very well be looking at a long-term pact averaging $5 million per year next summer. He's about to enter the final year of a two-year deal, which will see him earn a modest $1.5 million in 2014-15.

Don't kid yourself, Backlund's absence for a significant length of time this year would leave the Flames with a huge void to the extent that one fan Tweeted yesterday -- in response to the Backlund speculation, "I hope Connor McDavid likes white cowboy hats."

In sports, there's an expression: Injury equals opportunity. But for whom? Well, that's what I'm debating today. If you include Lance Bouma as a centre and I originally projected him as opening the season as the pivot on the fourth line, then the Flames depth chart up the middle -- less Backlund, now consists of Sean Monahan, Matt Stajan and Bouma.

For the purpose of this article, let's assume Backlund ends up missing at least a couple weeks of the regular season. This isn't that far-fetched of a possible outcome considering he hasn't skated yet, the delicate nature of abdominal strains (that can end up being sports hernias requiring surgery) and the reality that the NHL season gets going for real in two weeks.

Below are nine candidates that could conceivably fill in for Backlund at centre. Each brings a little something different to the table. Depending on who it is, you could bump the other three centres up a rung and make the job opening a fourth line centre role. Or, you can keep the other three where they're currently slotted and insert someone straight into Backlund's spot on the top line. Although there are only a couple players that would have the overall game to be cast even temporarily as the club's No. 1 centre.

Now admittedly, I'm not working with much of a sample size given training camp just got underway and there's only been two split-squad pres-season games. But, as we stand today based on what I've seen and heard, here is how I'd handicap the race to fill in at centre.

Nine Candidates to Replace Mikael Backlund

Markus Granlund: 2 to 1 

Why it Would Make Sense - This guy can flat-out play. At rookie camp, he looked a level above the other prospects and he left the impression he could step right into an NHL line-up. He's coming off a superb season in the AHL, in which 25 goals in 52 games put him among the league's leading goal scorers and that was as a rookie. While last year was Granlund's first year in North America, his experience playing against men started before that. Beginning at age 18, he played two seasons in the top Finnish league for HIFK Helsinki. Granlund does everything well offensively and like so many Finns, his defensive game is very sound also. Need him to kill a penalty? No problem. Looked fine in a short stint with Calgary last year and could step right into a top six role this year.

Joe Colborne4 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - Colborne's natural position is centre. In fact, of the Flames regular centres last year, Colborne led the team with a face-off winning percentage of 48.5. The former first round pick played centre most of last year before Hartley decided to try him at right wing. Worth noting is he wasn't moved because he wasn't playing centre just fine, it was done to give Colborne more ice time. As you may recall for the early part of the season, Colborne was competing with Backlund for playing time. As they took turns getting hot, the other was dropped to the fourth line centre role. In the second half when Backlund took off and quickly shot up the depth chart, Hartley moved Colborne to the wing to get him off the fourth line. Without issue, Colborne could easily slide back to centre as he did Saturday night, when he looked good operating with Johnny Gaudreau and Devin Setoguchi on his wings.

Max Reinhart: 5 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - Of the club's top prospects, Reinhart has the most pro experience (in North America) having spent the last two seasons in the AHL with Abbotsford. What you have to like about Reinhart is he just continues to get better and play with more assertiveness and confidence. His slick set-up of TJ Brodie's goal on Sunday night was just one example. His first year with the Heat was a struggle. He was 7-14-21 in 67 games and was an appalling minus-26. Last year, however, was a 180 degree turnaround for Reinhart, who in one less game went 21-42-63 to lead the team in scoring. He also finished plus-6. At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Reinhart has the size and grit to step right into a bottom six role. While he played left-wing last year, he was a centre his whole career prior to that. I have him making the team anyway as an extra forward so he could easily slide down into the starting 12.

Sam Bennett: 8 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - His raw skills offensively may be second only to Gaudreau and he can back it up with a 6-foot-1, 180 pound frame, which makes him a tough player on the ice to handle as he is just as strong and sturdy as he is shifty. As the 4th overall pick in last year's NHL draft, stepping directly into the Flames line-up would not be unprecedented. We all know what Monahan accomplished last year after being selected 6th overall in 2013. Bennett is driven and the needle on his compete metre is at its maximum whenever he's on the ice. After showcasing himself nicely in Penticton, he's been limited in Flames camp so far due to a groin injury but there's still plenty of time for him to get going, find his way into some exhibition games, and potentially open up the season with the Flames. And like Monahan a year ago, if Bennett is Calgary's leading scorer after nine games and has proven he can play in the NHL, your decision of whether or not to return him to the OHL ends up being made for you. At that point, the only decision that would remain is what will his new 'traditional' jersey number become?

Paul Byron: 12 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - Despite being undersized, the kid brings it every night, there's no denying that. His stature puts limitations on his game but to his credit, he plays bigger than he is, never afraid to get in aggressively on the forecheck and play with an edge. While Byron has played mainly on the wing lately, he has also played plenty of centre in his career so could slot into an open centre job without much issue. Byron also brings versatility. He can play with two skilled guys in a top six role or line up with a couple more abrasive-types in a fourth line role. If everyone is healthy, I had Byron slotted in as the 13th forward and able to fill in at multiple positions. If a fill-in is, indeed required, then voila, Byron could be your guy.

Corban Knight16 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - At 24, he's one of the older options. Played four full years of college at North Dakota before spending most of last season, his first as a pro, with Abbotsford where he had a nice year going 18-26-44 in 70 games. He also got into seven games with the Flames. What you get with Knight is a guy that is very good at face-off. Knight looks at that area as one of his specialties. With faceoffs not an overall strength of the Flames by any means and given the team's propensity to play in tight games, Knight would give the team a nice option to take an important face-off in the Calgary end late in a game. Also, being one of the few right-handed shooters on the team, he would present a different look for the centres and perhaps a coveted one given the skilled players the Flames will potentially have on left wing.

Bill Arnold: 20 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - I've talked to college hockey pundits, who say Arnold was the best defensive forward in the country last year. There's the natural chemistry with Gaudreau, obviously, from their time as linemates at Boston College, but I see Arnold's role as different than Gaudreau's at the NHL level. In fact, I see him more as Matt Stajan-light, responsible in his own end, good at the face-off dot, etc. Also, considering how counted upon Backlund is for his penalty killing, Arnold would be a perfect substitute as the PK is very much Arnold's forte. In Penticton, whenever the Flames were in a 5-on-3 situation against, it was Arnold that Ryan Huska would deploy as the lone forward. While the 22-year-old may not have the same brand name cachet as some of the Flames more talked-about prospects, what you do get is a guy that plays a 200-foot game, is mature, and someone, who isn't going to hurt you.

Mathieu Tousignant: 25 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - Agitator, aggravator, shit disturber... Whichever adjective you choose, you can't go wrong in describing the sandpaper-like qualities the fiery Quebec native brings to the line-up. Tousignant is not a prospect in the traditional sense in the slightest. He turns 25 in November. He's already spent five seasons bouncing between the AHL and ECHL. He's never played an NHL game. Make no mistake, he's not in the line-up for his offence. He's there to be a pest -- all shift, every shift, whether that's a chop to the back of the knee, a face wash, or laying someone out with a hard hit. He brings a lot of attributes that you just know the Flames management team relishes and we all know Calgary hasn't had much of for a very long time. Tousignant centred Brian McGrattan and Lance Bouma the other night in Edmonton. Was that a possible sneak preview to where he might be playing come October? He's a long shot, for sure, but hearing Hartley praise him the other day, you know he's a fan so I wouldn't rule him out as long as he's in camp.

Read more about Tousignant in good pieces written yesterday by both Scott Cruickshank (Calgary Herald) and Randy Sportak (Calgary Sun).

Turner Elson: 100 to 1

Why it Would Make Sense - He really played well in Penticton, bringing a ton of energy and speed to the line-up. His career hit a blip last season when he struggled to get meaningful playing time from Troy Ward in Abbotsford and produced just three points in 37 games before being demoted to the ECHL, where he went 5-10-15 over the final 18 games and was 7-4-11 in 21 playoff games as the Aces won the championship. Elson speaks highly of that experience with Alaska and how it rejuvenated his game and it's noticeable. In Penticton as well as in main camp so far, Elson has been a real pleasant surprise. If the Flames don't want to rush any of their grade 'A' prospects and also want to keep the likes of Byron and Colborne on the wings, perhaps Elson gets a shot. He wouldn't be the long term solution and the odds of this happening are pretty steep but you never know.

Stay Tuned for the Conclusion

It may end up coming down to how much time Backlund is expected to miss -- if he ends up missing time. If it looks like he'll only miss two weeks of the regular season, then you're looking at more of a temporary fill-in. In that scenario, instead of disrupting plans the team may already have for Colborne as a right-winger, perhaps they go with a Reinhart as a short-term fill-in.

However, if Backlund's injury turns into a longer term thing, then that changes things. Now you're likely looking for someone with higher upside offensively on a team that is going to need scoring by committee this season. In that scenario, you're looking at Granlund or shifting Colborne to the middle to open up a full-time role on the wing for a player like Gaudreau.

As you can see, the Flames have plenty of options if needed but however they patch up the hole, know that there is still damage below the surface that the club won't be able to fully cover up. Of the three players I've said Calgary cannot afford to lose to a long term injury, Backlund is one of them along with Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie.

But as the Connor McDavid evangelists will point out, if the rebuilding Flames are going to suffer injuries to key players, this isn't a bad season for that to happen.


Recent Related Flames Reading

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Baertschi's Fresh Start: He's Older, Wiser, Stronger and More Mentally Tough

Sven Baertschi says he's a changed player. Now it's time for him to pull on a Flames jersey, get out on the ice and show it.

Baertschi will make his preseason debut Sunday night when Calgary kicks off a busy nine-game preseason with a pair of split-squad games against the Oilers -- one in Edmonton, and one at the Saddledome. Baertschi will play in the game at Rexall Place on a line with Markus Granlund and Paul Byron.

"Mentally, I'm a different player," says Baertschi, who I caught up with Saturday afternoon at WinSport. "I'm still the same player on the ice, I'm just more grown up, I've learned more and I understand the game better."

As I chronicled here earlier this summer, last season was pretty much an unmitigated disaster for Baertschi. Just about everything that could go wrong for the 2011 first round pick, did go wrong.

The first misstep was a poor showing at Flames rookie camp where his effort and attitude were questioned. Then, before the season began, he was publicly scolded by President of Hockey Operations, Brian Burke.

He broke camp with Calgary but struggled to get meaningful ice time, often skating on the fourth line and four times being scratched by coach Bob Hartley. He was demoted to the minors in December. In February, he was snubbed by the Swiss Olympic Team and in May, he got hurt early in the first game of the World Championships in Belarus.

"Through those tough times that I had, maybe they have to be there to make sure I understand how much it actually takes to play in this league," Baertschi says. "Maybe it was a good thing certain things went wrong, for me to really get going and speed up the learning process and speed up the mental toughness."

The 'Perfect' Ending to an Un-Perfect Year

Of all the low points last year and Baertschi shakes his head in agreement as they're itemized, he says his broken rib suffered while playing for Switzerland was the low point.

"Towards the end of the year down in Abbotsford, I was really getting going and was feeling really good going into the playoffs, So, I was so pissed that we lost to Grand Rapids because I want to be a playoff player, I want to go far, I want to win, that's who I am," Baertschi says. "Then I get a call from my agent right after the game and he says the Swiss National Team coach wants you to come as quick as possible."

What an opportunity for Baertschi, who had to decline his invite to the WC's the year before due to a groin injury, only for him to miss out on an inspiring run by Switzerland, which won silver (and then reunited most of that same team for Sochi).

He knew it was also a chance to make a good first impression on Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who had just been hired and was going to be in Belarus as one of Team Canada's assistant GM's.

"Getting that call and having the opportunity to prove once more what I can do out there, that was huge for me," says Baertschi. "I was going to go in, play with some great players. I was so excited going there and then I'm barely getting used to the big ice and then it was done already."

In a fitting conclusion to a miserable year, Baertschi says the play in which he broke his rib wasn't even a hard hit.

"It just caught me in that perfect spot. For me, I didn't want to believe that I was hurt. I was like 'ah, it's just a muscle cramp or whatever, I'm good to go' but I jump over the bench and I had no air, I couldn't breathe," Baertschi recalls. "I tried to battle through it, I took two or three more shifts and then I got the puck on the far side and I picked my corner out and I was like 'that's a goal' and as soon as I tried to shoot, my whole body just shut down. I couldn't even bend my stick so the doctors pulled me off and said you're going to the dressing room."

Soon he was in an ambulance being whisked to the hospital in Minsk. After that came a frustratingly long eight-week layoff while he recovered. The domino effect of that was a late start to his off-season training. Normally Baertschi says he only takes two weeks off before he returns to playing some sports and getting into weights.

Making Up for Lost Time

"With those eight weeks that I missed, I had to put even more work in. I pretty much worked my ass off this summer," says Baertschi. "Not being able to train for that long period bothered me so I had to get back at it. That's one of the reasons why I came down here to Calgary so early this year. To get going with Ryan (van Asten) and especially to also get to know Ryan."

Ryan van Asten, a graduate of the University of Calgary, who has worked in the past for Hockey Canada, is the Flames new strength and conditioning coach. He was poached from the Los Angeles Kings during the off-season.

"I loved Rich (Hesketh) before, I loved what he did with us, but with Ryan, it's a little bit different," says Baertschi. "It's huge for me to come in here and work with him because he's got some new ideas and different things that might help me.

The fact van Asten has two Stanley Cup championships on his resume from working with the Kings validates his abilities.

"In LA, he did a great job with the guys there. So I was really excited, meeting him. We adjusted a lot of things, we worked on my nutrition and we worked on a bunch of stuff. It felt good during fitness testing and I feel great on the ice now."

Baertschi says one area where he feels stronger is his legs.

"I feel really good and I feel like I'm in better shape than last year skating-wise. I have more energy and power in my legs and that's a good thing."

Rekindling the Good Karma of Jersey No. 27

A phone call Baertschi wasn't expecting to receive over the summer came from Mark DePasquale, the Flames equipment manager, who told him that he had to switch numbers.

"I was shocked," said Baertschi, who opted to turn in his old No. 47 for No. 27, which the last few years had been worn by Derek Smith. "I know there's a few people around here that have my jerseys so I was wondering what's going to happen with them, can they switch the '4' to a '2' for free? I was worried about the fans but in the end, I was like hey, that's a cool thing."

It's not uncommon for most hockey players to be a bit superstitious. Include Baertschi in that group also.

"I was happy to switch back to my old (Portland) Winterhawks number because I've had success in it so I take it as a positive thing for me."

Second Chance at a First Impression

Although it seems like forever ago when Baertschi was recalled from Portland on an emergency basis and was the talk of Calgary after scoring three goals in five games, you have to remind yourself that he is still very much a young man. When he celebrates his birthday on Oct. 5, he'll only be turning 22.

"For me, I feel different out there. I'm more comfortable because it's my third year coming in to camp, I'm not as nervous any more," Baertschi says. "I feel like I have a little freedom, but I'm also trying to adjust my game from what I've learned before. Overall, I think I'm making steps forward and that's the important part."

With Treliving in place and a clean slate for Baertschi, he looks forward to making a good first impression.

"I take every season as a new start anyway because you have so much time in the summer to get better at your game and then you can come into camp and surprise a lot of people," he says. "With (Treliving) now, it's huge for me as we've been talking a lot and I think he's really given me confidence."

Whether Baertschi is able force his way into Calgary's season-opening roster remains to be seen. Barring injury or trades, there does not appear to be many open forward spots (as I recently examined in this piece). Nonetheless, a strong camp will put him in a position to be one of the first players recalled if he does start the year in Adirondack.

"I'm preparing, of course, to be in Calgary's line-up as soon as the season starts but in the end, I want to be a reliable player," Baertschi says. "I want to make sure I show that I've learned from the past, that I understand the game better and that I'm a more complete NHL player."


Recent Related Flames Reading

  • Sven Degrees of Separation: The Trials and Tribulations of Baertschi - He came out of junior hockey with such acclaim. Yet after so much promise, what has happened to Baertschi. I look back at seven things that have gone wrong for Sven over the past couple years. 
  • Book of Lists: A Flames-themed Assortment of Top 3's - Who could surprise this season? Who could regress? Which prospect is most NHL-ready? Who will be Adirondack's MVP? Who enters a make-or-break season? Who could be the first player traded? Predictions for all of these questions and more as training camp gets underway.
  • Huska and the AHL: Making Sure Players are Prepared for the NHL - Johnny Gaudreau looks like he's ready. Markus Granlund says he's ready. Sam Bennett thinks he's ready. But are they? Ryan Huska explains there's more to being ready than just on-ice skills. Also, Granlund, Michael Ferland and others talk about what they've learned about the AHL
  • 2014-15 Flames Roster: More Opportunity Than Meets the Eye - Despite the late signing of Devin Setoguchi and Corey Potter, the training camp invites of Raphael Diaz and Sheldon Brookbank, there is still opportunity for multiple prospects to force their way into Calgary's line-up this year. I look at what the roster could be.
  • Dream A Little Dream: Can the Flames be a Playoff Team? - How soon we forget that over the final half of the 2013-14 season, Calgary was a playoff team. They were a top eight team in the west over the final 34 games last year. That was better than Chicago and LA. Here are 12 things taht need to (mostly) happen to repeat that.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book of Lists: An Assortment of Top 3's as Flames Training Camp Begins

Training camp is underway, preseason games get going on Sunday. In the spirit of the Book of Lists series of books that were a favourite read of mine back in the 80s, here is an assortment of Top 3's in the context of the Calgary Flames and the 2014-15 season.

Could Surprise This Season

1. David Jones - He's been hurt a lot in his career. In fact, I counted them up the other day and I came up with at least 14 injuries over the past six seasons. As a result of missing over 150 games due to injury during that time, you get the sense we've yet to really see what Jones is capable of doing if he was able to stay healthy for a full season. This is especially the case in Calgary where upper body, eye and shoulder injuries limited him to 17 points (9 goals, 8 assists) in 48 games last season. What we know is he once scored 27 goals in a season so he has hands and at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he has size. As a rare right-handed shooting right-winger, he's got all the makings of being a key asset. As a healthy scratch at one point last year, Jones needs to start strong to earn back Bob Hartley's trust and if he does and if he sees plenty of power-play time, he could score 25 goals.

2. Sven Baertschi - He is no longer the team's prized prospect and you have to wonder if that will motivate him? He's still young too, just turning 22 next month. He still has the game to make an impact.
3. Deryk Engelland - Despite the huge contract the Flames gave him on July 1, expectations among the fan base are low. But in a new organization and given additional responsibilities, perhaps he demonstrates there is a reason he was highly sought after by multiple teams this off-season.

Could Regress This Season

1. Paul Byron - He was a nice story last year with 21 points (7 goals, 14 assists) in 47 games after he was recalled from the minors in November. Byron is on a one-way contract this year but it's a thrifty one at $600K so there are no assurances he won't end up back in the AHL at some point. He is a spark plug with loads of energy and plenty of heart and determination but is not gifted when it comes to physical attributes. Heck, the Flames -- known to round up such figures, criminally list Byron at just 5-foot-7, 153 pounds. There's no way he's that small. But he isn't big and there will surely be a quota on how many guys of diminutive stature the Flames will deploy on any given night. I see Byron more as an insurance policy than anything. When some of the prized rookies are ready -- whether it's October or not until February, they'll likely pass him on the depth chart.

2. Karri Ramo - Ramo shone at times last year but also looked ordinary at other times as the departed Reto Berra took centre stage. If he stumbles to begin the year, he may struggle to find playing time with veteran Jonas Hiller here as well and on a big ticket at $4.5-million.
3. Joe Colborne - I think we're all still trying to figure out exactly what Colborne is. Well, OK, he's a really nice guy. But beyond that, what is he? With his huge size, is he a 3rd/4th liner. Or with his soft hands, is he a 1st/2nd liner? He needs to carve his niche quickly.

One Player the Flames Cannot Afford to Lose to Injury

1. Mark Giordano - The team captain means everything to this team and by that, I mean e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. He had a breakout year offensively last year. Meanwhile, he was also superb defensively. It was a phenomenal year for a guy who wasn't among the 17 defencemen invited to Canada's Olympic Orientation camp last August yet by February, had nearly made the team. He plays on the power-play, the penalty kill, and is out there against all the No. 1 lines. He anchors Calgary's top defence pairing and considering the steep drop off to the second pairing, he and TJ Brodie are critical pieces.

2. TJ Brodie - Brodie, 24, is a rising star, who will be up for an enormous raise next summer. If the club was to lose him for a significant period, the result would be significantly bad.
3. Mikael Backlund - When you talk about who is the Flames No. 1 centre, it's a no-brainer. Matt Stajan's past that point and Sean Monahan's not quite there yet. It's Backlund that will be counted on to play 20-plus minutes of solid two-way hockey every night.

Organization's Comeback Player of the Year

1. Patrick Sieloff - Played just two AHL games in early October last year before a serious staph infection would result in him missing the remainder of the season. He only returned to full-contact in last weekend's rookie tournament. His second of two games in Penticton (read Sieloff's comments after his second game here) was a real nice improvement over a rusty outing in his first and he said he felt much better. He was one of the team's prized defence prospects just a year ago. Expect him to return to that status after turning in an excellent season in Adirondack, which could culminate in a promotion to the Flames late in the year just like Tyler Wotherspoon experienced last year.

2. Michael Ferland - After not playing a game since December, has battled his way back from a knee injury to look very good. There's no reason his rejuvenated play won't continue wherever he begins the year.
3. Devin Setoguchi - A one-time 8th overall draft pick, you never lose those raw skills. Still only 27 years old, after lingering on the UFA market for 54 days, he's motivated to prove 29 other NHL teams wrong. Twenty goals is possible.

Next Player In Line to Get a Letter 

1. Matt Stajan - Stajan often wore an 'A' as alternate captain in the injury absences of Curtis Glencross last year. He's someone, who has re-invented himself in Calgary as a reliable checking center and leader and is well-respected in the dressing room. He would be the natural choice to replace Mike Cammalleri as one of the alternate captains, alongside Glencross. Even though his role is evolving with the influx of younger players and that potentially will lead to a reduction in ice time over the course of this year if not more so, the years to come, he's the type of person and character the team will benefit from having around.

2. Mikael Backlund - Would be an ideal choice as the elder statesman of that next generation of Flames players that have just arrived or are on the way.
3. Jiri Hudler - The veteran took Sean Monahan under his wing last year. As an older, established player and the team's leading scorer a year ago, you can see him wearing an 'A' when needed.

Most NHL-Ready Prospect

1. Markus Granlund - This is not your usual 21-year-old. Played two years in Finland's top league before shining last year in his first year in North America going 25-21-46 in 52 games in Abbotsford, having a strong playoffs for the Heat, and inbetween playing well picking up three points (2 goals, 1 assist) in seven games with the Flames before hurting his shoulder. He's crafty with the puck and plays bigger than the 5-foot-11 he's listed at. Also will impress with his determination to take the puck to the net hard. Noticeable is he isn't afraid to get to the dirty areas. Less talked but nearly as good is his solid defensive game.  

2. Tyler Wotherspoon - Played well in 14 games with Flames last year. Is ready for a full-time role and to start learning at the NHL level when that first injury strikes.
3. Johnny Gaudreau - Elite skill set but a couple months in the AHL to get accustomed to the heavy traffic and banging of pro hockey wouldn't hurt.

Adirondack MVP for 2014-15

1. Joni Ortio - Was outstanding last year in Abbotsford going 27-8-0 with a 2.33 goals-against average and a stingy .926 save percentage, which was second best in the AHL. Will get a ton of work this year as the de facto No. 1 in Adirondack. Barring injury to Karri Ramo or Jonas Hiller, who are secure as the Flames pairing to start the year, Ortio will spend most if not all of the 2014-15 season with the baby Flames. However, look for this to be the Finn's last year in the minors before breaking through next season.

2. Emile Poirier - Scored 50 goals last year in the QMJHL for Gatineau in 72 regular season/playoff games. Should shine in his rookie year of pro hockey.
3. Michael Ferland - Intimidating physically but with a nice offensive skill set also. Will be a force and a fan favourite.

Darkhorse to Make the Flames

1. Max Reinhart - Was right there alongside his linemate Granlund as the best player with the Heat last year after erupting offensively to lead the team in scoring with 21-42-63 in 66 games. Feels like he's much older but he's still just 22 and with two pro seasons under his belt, would be a good bet you'd think to make the Flames to start the year as the extra forward. A longtime centre converted to left wing last year, that versatility will also help. Reinhart is less talked about having missed the exposure of playing in the rookie tournament but he should not be forgotten.

2. Michael Ferland - Led Flames in points and penalty minutes in the rookie tournament. Has a coveted blend of size and skill and almost made Calgary's roster out of training camp last year.
3. Mark Cundari - With a good camp and as a younger option to those the Flames have brought in on try-outs, he could make a case to stick as the team's extra defenceman.

Enters a Make Or Break Season

1. Karri Ramo - With Ortio waiting in the wings with a one-way contract that kicks in for the 2015-16 season and with Hiller signed for two years, the pressure is squarely on 28-year-old Karri Ramo, who is a pending UFA at the end of this season. Ramo needs to perform or else expect him to be moved at the deadline or sign elsewhere come next summer.

2. Devin Setoguchi - He's a past top 10 pick that plays a position (RW) that is in demand. Yet, he was a free agent for nearly two months before Calgary signed him. This might be his last NHL chance.
3. Ben Hanowski - Signed to a one-year deal in the summer. He will be passed on the depth chart soon with all the influx of young players. If he doesn't find himself a role to thrive in, he may not be re-signed.

First Player to be Traded

1. Jiri Hudler - With two years remaining on a deal paying him $4-million per season, the veteran winger would be a nice add, and for most teams an affordable add, if a playoff contender loses a top six winger to injury. At 5-foot-10, Hudler is on the smaller side and with more similar-in-stature forwards on the way in Markus Granlund, Johnny Gaudreau and maybe Sven Baertschi too, I can see Calgary parting with Hudler at some point during the season -- especially if they tumble out of playoff contention in the West, to open up playing time for a rookie.

2. Curtis Glencross - The pending UFA wants a big raise. Considering where the Flames rebuild is at, I'm not sure that makes Calgary the best fit. If healthy, he could be a much sought-after player.
3. Dennis Wideman - If the Flames are willing to retain a couple million of his $5.25-million salary, a market could eventually develop for the veteran right-hand shooting defenceman.

Three Best Players at Rookie Tournament

1. Johnny Gaudreau - Every time we've seen him, he's impressed. First it was his terrific third season at Boston College when he was 36-44-80 in 40 games. Then it was scoring a goal in his only NHL game. Then he went to the IIHF World Championships and racked up 10 points. Most recently, he stood out and scored a couple highlight-reel goals in Penticton. While it's his offence that makes him a frequently searched name on YouTube, his drive and determination is just as fun to watch. When he's knocked down and loses the puck, just watch him closely because he's like a pit bull after you, trying to get it back -- and he often does get it back. He'll also frustratingly pick pockets after chasing down guys on the back check. Fun to watch at both ends of the ice.

2. Markus Granlund - Played two of the three games in Penticton and stood out as a guy ready to take that next step to the big time. He's also not shy to say straight-up to you that he's ready.
3. Sam Bennett - His speed, tenacity and all-round game is going to make him a star for a long time. It's not his time quite yet but come this time next year, look out.

Three Pleasant Surprises at Rookie Tournament

1. Turner Elson - Always one of Jay Feaster's favourites, Elson was one of the top players at the Flames development camp in 2013. However, he did not produce at all in his first pro season with Abbotsford (2-1-3 in 37 games) and eventually was demoted to the ECHL. Elson rekindled his game with Alaska going 5-10-15 in 18 games and winning the league championship. He stood out for his blend of speed and skill in Penticton. He was absolutely flying around everywhere in both of his games and that included scoring a beauty of an end-to-end goal.

2. Josh Jooris - Late-blooming RW played well on the Granlund-Ferland line.
3. Garnet Hathaway - A relative unknown at camp after graduating from Brown University and signing a two-year AHL-only deal last spring, he impressed with his blend of size and skill.


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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ryan Huska and the AHL: Making Sure Players are NHL-Ready Both On and Off the Ice

Johnny Gaudreau looks like he's ready. Markus Granlund says he's ready. Sam Bennett thinks he's ready.

But what, exactly, makes you ready to play in the National Hockey League?

Ryan Huska, who has been the head man behind the bench for the Flames prospects games, points out that there is much more to a prospect being ready to play hockey at the highest level than just their abilities on the ice.

As the new head coach of Calgary's American Hockey League team in Adirondack, Huska is in the preparation business. It will be his job to make sure the young men under his watch are ready not just as hockey players, but also ready as people.

"Part of our job is to make sure they're given everything that they need to have success and that doesn't just mean how it's going on-the-ice. We have to have a pretty good handle on how they are off the ice as well," says Huska. "There's so much more than the on-ice -- players practicing or teaching them to handle different systems. You have to teach them to really grow up and mature."

Kids Mature at Different Ages

When it comes to maturity, there is no set formula for when it occurs. It is very much an equation that consists of variables and not absolutes.

"Everybody matures differently. Some guys it might be at 22 years old, others it could be at 24 or 25," says Huska. "Our job is to make sure we're patient with them and really work to help them understand how to prepare to play nightly, but take care of themselves when they're away from the rink as well."

One example is around nutrition.

"When they're living their own for the first time, it's easy for a guy to go to McDonalds and have lunch. It's a little tougher for them to think about what they're putting in their body. That's just one of the small, little things that you have to help them along with," says Huska, who spent the past seven seasons as head coach of the WHL's Kelowna Rockets so has plenty of experience with dealing with these same situations, only with younger clientele.

Sean Monahan last season is a great example.

Last year, the 19-year-old demonstrated throughout Flames training camp and into the first couple weeks of the regular season that on the ice, he was ready. But what about off it? As Huska alluded to, also factoring into a hockey club's decision to keep a teenager in the NHL is whether or not he is ready and mature enough off the ice. Now in Monahan's case, that was not a concern. Frequently lauded for his serious, focused approach to the game and for his preparation, it was clear that Monahan was ready in that regard, although staying in the NHL came with a caveat.

The Flames had a stipulation that in order to stay with the big club, he was not allowed to live on his own.  After lining up a billet, the decision was eventually made that Monahan's mom would come out to Calgary to live with him instead.

Under-appreciating the Calibre and Role of the AHL

Listen to NHL coaches and general managers and they'll rave about the AHL and how it's a great stepping stone or development level for the NHL in terms of the calibre and quality of the hockey.

Yet, it seems every year, there are players -- especially younger players, that don't fully appreciate that point until they get there and experience it for themselves.

Michael Ferland learned this for himself in 2012-13 when he began the season with Abbotsford. A dominant player in the WHL the year before with 47 goals and 96 points, Ferland found himself in and out of the line-up in the AHL and eventually Calgary returned him to Brandon and he completed the year in the WHL.

Now "maturity" as Huska referred to it and when that occurs, would have factored into that decision as well. In speaking with the Abbotsford News last year, Heat coach Troy Ward summed up Ferland's situation back in 2012, like this: 

"He was basically a 20-year-old that was living like a 17-year-old. When you try to do that in this room and this environment, it becomes very difficult. That's not a knock against Michael – that's just where he was in his development process."

Nonetheless, Ferland headed back to the WHL with a greater appreciation for what to expect at that next level.

"In the American Hockey League, you're playing against men, you're not playing against kids like you are in the WHL," says Ferland. "I went back down with a lot of confidence after playing up at that level. Obviously, I wanted stay up there and play but it wasn't working out," 

Markus Granlund came over from Finland a year ago. After spending most of his first pro season in North America in the AHL, he speaks to the benefits.

"For sure, the AHL helped me. They play more games than I was used to and it helped me adjust to the smaller rink," says Granlund, who after a slow start finished strong to end up with 46 points (25 goals, 21 assists) in 52 games with the Heat. "Everybody down there is trying to go to the NHL so they're all working hard. It's a good league and it was good for me."

The Big Jump From College to the NHL

Last season was also the first year in the AHL for right-winger Josh Jooris. He spent the entire season in the AHL after leaving top ranked Union College after three seasons and signing with the Flames.

Making the jump to pro after three NCAA seasons is the exact scenario facing Johnny Gaudreau. Granted, they're two different players on the ice, obviously, but the factors off the ice still apply.

"It's a huge jump. Honestly, as a college player coming into it, I had a great camp and I was on a real high and I underestimated the development curve," said Jooris, who had 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in 73 games. "It takes some time. Working hard down there and learning the game, but it's going to go a long way."

Jooris says he learned lots from Troy Ward and his coaching staff.

"I was really pleased with my first year as a pro. It was obviously an adjustment at first but a great coaching staff really helped me out along the way. Coming into this year, I'm really looking forward to having that experience under my belt."

Benefit of Playing With/Against Older Players

Another player, who has had the chance to sample the AHL for a total of 14 games is defenceman Brett Kulak, who joined Abbotsford after each of his last two WHL seasons wrapped up.

He says the difference between playing strong kids and strong adults is significant.

"The phrase that gets thrown around is 'man strength'. Everyone up there, I feel, has really developed physically. Some of the guys talk about how there are hidden tough guys always, throughout the league, you never know who's going to pack the strength."

Kulak also singled out the AHL's veteran rules as another useful component.

After a certain number of games/year, players are deemed veterans. Teams are only allowed to have a certain number of veterans. This ensures playing time for younger prospects but also ensures teams have the ability to have veteran players on their team that can lead by example.

"It's the right amount of older guys, who are playing games down there. They may be guys coming back from the NHL, who have played years in the NHL. I got to be around Shane O'Brien and you see how guys like that play. Down there, I realize that he could really control the play, he didn't have to over-rush things, move the puck too fast. He just slowed it down to the pace you wanted and he made good plays."

Different Voices, Different Results

Another factor not to be discounted, when you go to the AHL or any new league, is you end up with new coaches and new teammates and that comes with new/different ways to learn.

Defenceman John Ramage began last year in Abbotsford but late in the season, he was sent down to Alaska in the ECHL.

"Obviously, any time you get sent down, you're not too happy about it but at the same time, I went down with a positive mindset and tried to make the most of the situation and I was fortunate to go down to a team in Alaska that was coached by Rob Murray."

Murray, who was on the coaching staff for eight years in the AHL with Providence -- the last three as head coach, was a new and fresh voice for Ramage and it just clicked for Ramage.

"It was a big step for me in my development. I was able to play in lots of different situations and had a lot of ice time and I was able to find my game," said Ramage. "Every place you go, you're going to have different coaches and different personnel and basically it's up to you to try and make the most out of every opportunity and try to use your resources like the coaching staff and the players around you to try and make yourself better."

It's All a Matter of Perspective

Over the next couple weeks as Calgary Flames main training camp unfolds, there will be Flames prospects that when you watch them play in exhibition games, they will look ready for taking that next step and being on the NHL roster. Hey, that rookie at age 20 is a better player than that other guy at age 27. However, realize that there's more to the decision and there are risks involved.

There are plenty of examples where rushing a player to the NHL has set back a player's development. One could argue that being in the NHL too early has played a big role in where Sven at today or more so, where he isn't at.

Starting a player in the AHL, which may be the case for Gaudreau, or returning him there for a second season (or at least to start) as might be the case for Granlund, would not harm either player's development. It's the same thing with returning Bennett to the OHL for a third season.

What we really need to do is change our perspective and heed the learnings of the many players that have reluctantly gone to the AHL only to have their eyes opened to the high level of play. It's not a landing area for NHL rejects, it's a development grounds for future NHL greats. Players need to remember that and so do the fans.


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