Thursday, August 21, 2014

Desperate For McDavid: 12 Things That (Mostly) Need to Happen for the Flames to Get Him

FF + CM

The initials are etched into picnic tables at Peter's Drive-In, carved into trees at Princess Island, and scribbled oh-so-eloquently on the bathroom walls of sports bars around town.

In each instance, they're in the centre of a heart.

Flames Fans love Connor McDavid.

The 2015 NHL Draft is still over 10 months away yet all of Calgary is smitten over the strapping young centre from the OHL's Erie Otters, who has been hyped by salivating draft pundits for over a decade. OK, it hasn't been quite that long, but it sure feels that way you hear his name so often.

After all, his credentials speak for themselves:
  • Granted Exceptional Player status to play in the OHL at age 15. He was just the third to receive such a distinction. John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad were the others. 
  • Stands 6-foot-0, 185 pounds, and is still growing
  • Last year went 28-71-99 to finish fourth in OHL scoring, doing so in just 56 games -- a dozen less than the three players ahead of him. 

All that and he was only 16 years old most of last season. Sixteen! Goodness.

The other day with the sun shining bright, birds chirping, kids laughing, I wrote a piece you can read here entitled "Dream a Little Dream". In it I identify 12 things that (mostly) need to happen for the Flames -- a playoff team over the final 34 games of last year, to be a playoff team over 82 games this season. It's not likely, but as you'll read, it's also not as inconceivable as you might think.

While the enthusiastic (Stanley) Cup-half-full audience roared its approval, saying yes -- this is possible, this can happen, the (Stanley) Cup-half-empty folks were chagrined. No way, they implored. Don't let it be. These are the guys and gals that have fallen for McDavid and fallen hard.

In fact, one person went as far as to declare: I don't care how the Flames could make the playoffs, just give me the 12 things that need to happen for us to get Connor McDavid, that would be something I'd read.

OK, here it goes.


12 Things That -- If They (Mostly) Happen, Should Result in the Flames drafting Connor McDavid  


1. Hiller Also Wins Just One Game in Regulation 

Jonas Hiller has yet to put on a Flames jersey yet he has just one fewer regulation win than his Swiss countryman Reto Berra chalked up with Calgary and he was here for four months before famously fetching a second round draft pick from the Avalanche at the trade deadline. Twenty-nine games, a 9-17-2 record, but just one win that didn't require overtime or a shootout.

It's unrealistic that Hiller will repeat that dubious feat considering he's here on a $4.5-million ticket and will play a lot, but if he doesn't end up with more than a handful of wins -- regulation or otherwise, that would be an indication Anaheim knew what they were doing last year when they eventually demoted him to be the back-up to the back-up. It will likely also mean the Flames aren't winning much either because while Karri Ramo was good at times last year, he also spent plenty of time behind Berra on the depth chart so expectations should be tempered.


2. Mason Raymond Leads the Flames With 23 Goals

Excluding the lockout-shortened season, Mike Cammalleri's 26 goals last year was the lowest total to lead the team in scoring since the Flames arrived in Calgary in 1980 -- and exactly half of them came in his torrid hot streak over the final six weeks. It also equalled the franchise record for futility set by former Calgary Cowboy Bob Leiter, whose 26 goals made him the top marksman for the Atlanta Flames in their expansion season in 1972-73.

Obviously this is a vastly different calibre of team and playing in a different era from the 1988-89 Stanley Cup-winning team, which had just as many 50-goal scorers as the Flames had 20-goal scorers last year, but my goodness, Calgary is going to have to find some more offence from somewhere.

Remaining from last year, the three top goal scorers are Sean Monahan (22), Mikael Backlund (18) and Jiri Hudler (17). Mason Raymond is here now but in seven seasons, he's broken 20 only once, and surpassed 15 only twice. If nobody reaches 25 this year, expect Calgary to be scraping the bottom of the league standings.


3. Adirondack wins the Calder Cup

A fantastic place to be watching hockey this season is the Civic Center in Glens Falls, New York. The new home of Calgary's American Hockey League affiliate, they've inherited a team that last year in Abbotsford was an impressive 43-25-8. That team should be even better this year, bolstered by the potential addition of Johnny Gaudreau and the probable additions of Emile Poirier, Brett Kulak, Kenny Agostino, Bill Arnold and David Wolf. The latter, who I wrote about recently right here, is one of Calgary's oldest (will soon turn 25) and most intriguing prospects.

With Markus Granlund and Max Reinhart both potentially returning also, Tyler Wotherspoon back after some NHL seasoning, maybe a re-focused Sven Baertschi and a full-season from Patrick Sieloff and Michael Ferland, that's one good-looking Adirondack team to be guided by newly-hired skipper Ryan Huska. The better the Jr. Flames line-up is, the worse off Calgary's line-up will be and that could mean some long, cold snaps coming up this winter as the Sr. Flames try but potentially struggle to get things done with a line-up chockful of guys merely keeping seats warm for the prospects that are on the way.


4. Chris Stewart is Right, Buffalo is Playoff-bound!

"I think on paper right now there's no doubt in my mind that we're a playoff-bound team."

Those words came from Buffalo Sabres forward Chris Stewart and no, he didn't utter them on April 1. He actually said it just last weekend in this story on NHL.com.

Well forget the playoffs, one doesn't need to be that delusional. For the Flames to have their best shot at McDavid, they merely need Buffalo to finish ahead of Calgary. Perhaps 29th spot for the Sabres accomplishes that feat.  But man, it's not going to be an easy task. The Sabres were 14 points back of 29th place Florida last year. That's not even in the same area code. And some would argue less Ryan Miller, they've gotten worse.

Calgary hockey fans didn't like him much when he single-handedly dismantled the Hitmen in last year's WHL playoffs but it's time to move on and get behind Sam Reinhart in hopes he steps into Buffalo's line-up and makes a huge impact. You'll also need Matt Moulson to score a ton, Cody Hodgson to keep getting better and Swedish goaltender Jhonas Enroth, age 26, to be the second coming of Henrik Lundqvist. Then maybe, just maybe, the Sabres will be good enough to climb out of the cellar and give up that spot to someone else. That 'someone else' could be the Flames.


5. Deryk Engelland is Calgary's Iron Man

One player played in all 82 games for the Flames last year. That was Chris Butler.

If that title is taken over by Deryk Engelland this year, that will be good news for Engelland and also good news for fans hoping for the worst as it means the rest of Calgary's roster -- aka the better half, were all injured at times and the more games missed by a team that isn't very deep, the harder it will obviously be for this team to win hockey games.

Calgary deployed 44 players last year during the regular season. By comparison, Los Angeles used just 28. Every player except TJ Brodie and Joe Colborne suffered a significant injury and in some cases -- see Curtis Glencross and Dennis Wideman, guys got hurt more than once.

Injuries are very much a luck thing. Does that puck hit you on that one particular place where it fractures your ankle, or just a half-inch away where it glances off the shin pad. McDavid seekers will hope the Flames are indeed lucky... by being unlucky.


6. Less People Return Than Depart on the 'Trade Deadline' Roadie

On Sunday, Feb. 22, the Flames will head to New York to begin a seven-game Eastern road trip. The number of players that pack a second bag just-in-case will say a lot about where this team is at in the NHL standings and if they're looking out the front window or into the rear-view mirror.

Why is that? Halfway through that trip will be the NHL trade deadline. Calgary will likely be in Philadelphia on that particular day.

The more players that don't end up returning to Calgary, the better the odds are that this team does not repeat last year's ill-timed hot stretch to close out the season but instead limps to the finish line.

Curtis Glencross and Karri Ramo are both pending UFAs so they're obviously two names that will be on the block. Glencross has a no-trade contract but if given a chance to join a Stanley Cup contender, those things have a way of working themselves out.

Jiri Hudler, David Jones, Dennis Wideman, Ladislav Smid, the list goes on and on of veterans who could end up being shipped away.

Remember, the failure to unload Mike Cammalleri last year nearly came back to bite the Flames. It was only Leon Draisatil's rise to prominence, Sam Bennett (Central Scouting's No. 1 ranked player) falling to No. 4, and the Flames just barely staying in that bottom pack of four teams that 'salvaged' would could have been a huge missed opportunity from a draft perspective.


7. Payroll Suddenly Goes Up

What is that old expression. One man's trash is another man's treasure?

The Flames are dead last in the NHL in payroll. They have plenty upon plenty of space to be creative and general manager Brad Treliving is trying to leverage that space and turn it into assets, he's told us that much multiple times already.

If he can grow Calgary's payroll but taking on a couple short-term but problematic contracts from other cap-crunched organizations, those hefty contracts likely won't be accompanied by players that will put the Flames over the top. More so, it may have the opposite effect. It would drop a couple overpaid veterans into Calgary's line-up, which in turn will keep two of the Flames top prospects suppressed in the AHL. While this scenario is not great for the season ticket holder, it could increase the odds that Calgary gets another great building piece -- and a monumental one at that, in the 2015 NHL Draft.


8. Flames Win the Lottery

This season is the 40th anniversary of the year the expansion Washington Capitals went a woeful 8-67-5. Oh my. That was 20 points worse than the second-last Kansas City Scouts and 30 points behind another franchise some of you will never have heard of called the California Golden Seals.

The problem is the Flames could repeat that dreadful Caps season or somehow even be worse -- heck, they could be last place in the NHL by 40 points, yet Calgary would still have an 80 percent chance of losing the lottery and falling to No. 2 pick.

This reduction in the odds of winning the lottery as the 30th place team from 25 percent to 20 percent was part of the changes the NHL announced on Tuesday. The teams impacted by the changes are the teams that finish in the bottom four spots overall as there is now a reduced chance for them of winning the lottery. To get McDavid, the Flames not only have to be bad and finish in last place to maximize their chances, they then have to be lucky and hope the 5-to-1 odds of winning the lottery come through.

Of course, finishing last would still guarantee Jack Eichel as a consolation prize and from all reports, he's right there in the McDavid conversation, but this story isn't about getting Eichel, it's about getting McDavid!


9. Bob Hartley is Fired

There were some great coaching performances in the NHL last year but given what he had to work with, the level of compete Bob Hartley got out of the Flames in his first full season behind the bench was nothing short of remarkable.

From game one to game 82, from minute one to minute 60 and often beyond, the blue collar Flames rolled up their sleeves and worked their tails off. Officially, Calgary played in 49 one-goal games. Unofficially, there were another dozen or so that would have been one-goal games if not for a late/empty net goal. The end result was a much better and far more entertaining season than anyone could have imagined as the fans rallied behind a team that was short on talent but long on heart.

But can he conjure up such magic again? If you've seen Hartley run his practices, you'll know he is a demanding coach. There is enough leadership on this team and prospects playing for job that tuning out the coach shouldn't be an issue already yet it seems to inevitably happen to every coach eventually, it's just a matter of when.

Further, circumstances are not ideal for Hartley in 2014-15. Despite the support voiced publicly by the Flames management regime, Hartley is a Jay Feaster hire, who is entering the final year of his three-year deal and that puts him in a precarious spot.

With just the tiniest bit of drop off, those shootout wins and overtime losses become regulation losses, those one-goal losses become two-goal losses, and talk of a contract extension becomes debate about whether he lasts the year. When that conversation starts occurring, it will be reflection of a team mired at or near the basement of the NHL standings and you know where patience ranks on Brian Burke's list.


10. Sophomore Slumps Strike

Former first round picks Sean Monahan and Joe Colborne were two important parts of the Flames success last year. We're not just talking about their proficiency in the shootout either.

Both rookies played pivotal roles in the Flames top nine. Monahan, 19, was second on the team with 22 goals in his first NHL season. Colborne, 23, turned into a real pleasant surprise, especially after shifting to the wing, finishing with 10 goals and 28 points.

For the Flames to be better or even tread water, both of these guys need to take another step forward. If one or both experience the ol' sophomore slump, that's going to big a big blow and would likely propel Calgary in the wrong direction in the standings.


11. Sam Bennett Wins the OHL Scoring Title

If Sam Bennett is leading the OHL in scoring, that means he's not in Calgary. That means the Flames ultimately are a worse-off team. Now that may not be the case initially. If everyone is healthy, does Bennett make the Flames a better team this October? Probably not. He's too young, too raw, and still a little too lean.

However, it's a long season. By the second half of the year, with three months of NHL experience under his belt, Bennett is now a better player and he is an upgrade over what Calgary might be deploying in the top nine. Mix in a month with Canada's World Junior team over Christmas, and that only further raises his confidence.

With Bennett settling in and leading the Flames with his Doug Gilmour-like qualities, now the Flames are winning games in February and March that maybe they wouldn't otherwise. Unexpected wins is not the formula for dropping in the standings and increasing your odds in the lottery.

If you want a shot at McDavid, you hope McDavid is in a scoring race against Bennett -- and that race is next year in the OHL. It should be a good one too. In similar number of games, Bennett was just eight points behind McDavid last year. Who knows, perhaps in a few years, they'll once again race each other for the scoring lead, only this time it will be the Flames scoring lead.


12. TJ Brodie Signs Another Bridge Contract

If the bridge contract conversation with TJ Brodie happens again next summer, you'll know things went south in 2014-15 after Brodie's excellent season last year alongside Mark Giordano.

As it stands, with a similar season to what he turned in last year, Brodie is in line for a long term contract offer from the Flames that could be north of $5-million per year. That will have been two-and-a-half seasons of excellence from the now 24-year-old and there would be no need to wait for a larger sample size, just a desire to get his name inked to a long term pact before he gets anywhere near PK Subban's expensive neighbourhood.

However, if both sides resort to a second bridge deal next summer, it means a sharp decline in his play -- as seen by our eyes and proven out by deeper analytics, has left the two sides unsure of what the future holds. There is no way that this team survives Brodie's play faltering. His role on that top defence pairing is critical and the Flames are in heaps of trouble if he falters. Although, their draft positioning would reap the benefits.


So How Does it End?

In this piece and in the preceding one, I've very much visited the two extremes of what could happen. Most likely, the actual truth will fall somewhere in the middle, which is familiar territory Calgary fans know all too well. In the last 25 years, the Flames have made it past the first round of the playoffs only once. They've also been bad enough to select in the top five of the NHL Draft just once. Mediocre, middling, so-so, average, unremarkable... what you get out of that is what you've got -- a franchise five years removed from the playoffs yet in the early stages of a rebuild.

The best chance for the Flames to get the No. 1 pick, draft McDavid and set this team up for a very, very bright future, may very well hinge on the fortunes and potential turnarounds of other teams. That, along with a healthy dose of luck come lottery time. We've already talked about Buffalo. But more so, what about the others that hung around the bottom of the standings last year?  Florida, Edmonton, New York Islanders, all of these teams should be better this year.

The ideal scenario for the Flames is to remain competitive and entertaining, and perhaps even improve, all while dropping a few notches in the standings thanks to even greater improvement by everyone else.

Considering what's at stake, even the most ardent of Flames fans would probably accept that outcome, knowing that in 2015-16 when the likes of Bennett, Poirier and maybe, just maybe McDavid also, all pull on a Calgary Flames jersey for good, the tone of that annual summer 'what if' conversation will very much change.

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Recent Flames Reading

  • 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.
  • David Wolf: Hard Knuckles, Soft Hands - Get to know 24-year-old German winger David Wolf, who is known for being big and bad but is proud of the finesse part of his game also. What to expect in his first year in North America.
  • Sven Degrees of Separation: The Trials and Tribulations of Sven 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. 
  • Debut of the Stick TAP - My Q&A Mailbag - You guys submitted some great questions: How many NHL games this season will Sam Bennett play? How will playing time unfold for Calgary's goaltenders? In this new 'cleverly' named content feature, I responded to these and other reader-submitted questions by providing my own Thoughts, Analysis and Predictions.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dream a Little Dream: What Will it Take for the Flames to Make the Playoffs in 2014-15?

This season, the Calgary Flames will finish ahead of the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.

It's an outlandish statement and is the type of claim that might get one committed to the nearest mental institution. To be clear, it's also not a prediction. But I lead with it for a different reason than just testing your sobriety.

Consider the following: For the final 34 games last year -- that's over 40 percent of the regular season, the Flames were a better team in the standings than both of those aforementioned Western Conference finalists. That's right, Calgary had a better record over that span than the eventual Stanley Cup champions. 

Don't believe me? Go ahead, check for yourself.

 

With many of the residents of Flames nation more consumed at the moment on whether or not Calgary will finish in the bottom two this year to potentially get a shot at drafting the uber-hyped Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, what seemingly has been forgotten is one hell-of-a run this club went on in the second half last year. Beginning the night of that infamous line brawl in Vancouver on Jan. 18 that ended in a 3-2 shootout loss, Calgary was in the top half of the NHL's 30 teams over the final three months.

So, while it may be preposterous to think that over a full 82 games, Calgary can stay ahead of the deep and talented Kings and Blackhawks, it is not out of the realm of possibility that this team could finish eighth in the Western Conference, just like they did over the final 34 games last year.

Then once you get in, of course, anything can happen in that first round. Heck, the Kings won the Stanley Cup three years ago after slipping into the playoffs as the West's No. 8 seed. Lest we forget the charm of the 2003-04 Flames, who won over the city as well as the entire country with their Cinderella post-season run in which they entered every series as the underdog.

So, what will it take for Calgary to crack the top eight? I know a few of you just uttered, "a miracle"' and I get that and yes, a lot of things need to go right and by that, I mean a lot. But that said, nothing I'm about to mention is inconceivable.

12 Things That (Mostly) Need to Happen for the Flames to Make the Playoffs in 2014-15:


1. Ramo Plays Out of his Mind

Looking strictly at their price tags, your first conclusion would be that Jonas Hiller is now the guy in Calgary. Set to haul in a hefty $4.5-million next season, the team's second-highest paid player behind Dennis Wideman, surely Hiller was not given that type of coin on July 1 to merely sit on the bench in a baseball cap and open the defencemen gate.

That said, he's also not the guy that gets this team into the playoffs. Hiller turns 33 in February, his usage (or lack of) by Anaheim in last year's playoffs spoke volumes about where they think he is on the career arc. He'll be good, dependable, and if things fall right, he could backstop the Flames to 12th place in the West. However, that type of mediocrity doesn't get you much other than a lengthy wait before your first pick come the next NHL draft.

For this team to climb at least four more rungs higher, they don't need good goaltending, they'll need great goaltending and of the current candidates, Karri Ramo is the most likely to conjure up such sustained magic. He's older at 28 but given his many years in Russia prior to last year, his ceiling is still very much shroud in mystery. If Ramo can play 55-60 games, win 30-35, and place in the top 10 in the NHL in save percentage, then the Flames will be onto something. Of the extra victories Calgary has got to pick up this year to hang with the big boys in the West, the goalies are going to have to steal a few of them on their own.


2. 'Same Old, Same Old' From Johnny Hockey

Johnny Gaudreau  has done nothing but prove people wrong at every level, throughout his career. That can happen when at five-foot-eight, you look like more like a child sitcom star than a budding pro hockey player. His most recent successes:
  • He dominated US college hockey. In his third and final year at Boston College, he won the Hobey Baker by going an unconscious 36-44-80 in 40 games.
  • He joined the Flames for the final game of the NHL season and just like that, he scored Calgary's only goal. Easy.
  • He went to the IIHF World Championships along with a bunch of seasoned pros and was just fine going 2-8-10 in eight games against a decent calibre of international competition. 

Conventional thinking including my own -- the many reasons for such I outlined here back in April, is that Gaudreau will at least start this season with Adirondack in the AHL. In so many ways, this seems to be the wise and prudent thing to do. Plus, every time the topic is raised with Flames management, you get the sense they will be ultra conservative with their diminutive but talented left winger.

That said, his sublime offensive skill set is unlike many others. If he shows in training camp that the NHL is, indeed, where he should be honing his craft, then he may just very well stick around Calgary and what a boon that would be for the team offensively. A rookie season of at least 20 goals and 35 assists doesn't seem out of reach with regular power play duty and a spot in the top six and if that's how it unfolds, the presence of No. 53 (or more likely, No. 13 by that point) instantly makes the Flames better and more competitive.


3. No Sophomore Jinx for Monahan 

With 22 goals last year in his rookie season, Sean Monahan had the best year offensively a teenager has ever had in a Calgary Flames uniform.
  • Sean Monahan, age 19, 22 goals in 2013-14
  • Jarome Iginla, age 19, 21 goals in  1996-97
  • Dan Quinn, age 19, 20 goals in 1984-85
  • Dan Quinn, age 18, 19 goals in 1983-84
  • Robert Reichel, age 19, 19 goals in 1990-91

So now what? What's the next level for Monahan? This is as far as you can possibly get from an advanced stats analysis but it seemed to me with a few of his goals, Monahan was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. Expecting him this year to take a giant step forward from his 22 goals last year would be a tad optimistic. On the other hand, his assist total of just 12 was one less than TJ Galiardi and only three ahead of Sven Baertschi. That just seems flat-out unlucky and I'd expect that number to climb significantly.

Monahan suffered a fractured foot in November that cost him seven games. Then he returned to the line-up and didn't play a whole lot for a while as coach Bob Hartley took a cautious approach while he finished mending and worked his way back. For the Flames to be in the chase, Monahan will need to take on more responsibility in the form of more ice time, more power play time, and even more penalty kill duty, which he started to receive late in the season. If he can put up 20 goals and 30 assists and become a real force on the ice defensively, Calgary becomes a more dangerous team.


4. More of the Same from Giordano and Brodie

Together, this defence pairing was dynamite. They drew most of the tough assignments and handled them impressively. Giordano nearly made the Canadian Olympic team, he was in the Norris Trophy conversation and that's all conventional evaluation-driven -- the so-called 'eyeball test' and traditional statistics. Digging into their advanced stats reveals these accomplishments came under challenging conditions -- often sent onto the ice for face-offs in their own zone and consistently matched up against the opposition's No. 1 line.

For Calgary to play into late April this season, this pairing will need to be everything they were last year and a little bit more. That's logging 25 minutes a night as the No. 1 unit. They'll have to be steady and reliable with no room for regression. Also, staying healthy will be a must. Brodie has been an iron man, missing just two games in the last two years -- and one was as a healthy scratch (while Derek Smith played) in the season opener in 2012-13. Early last year, Giordano missed 18 games with a broken ankle, a stretch in which the team went 5-11-2, this after the the Flames new captain had helped guide the club to a superb 4-2-2 start.


5. Backlund Earns that $5-Million Contract

Sam Bennett is too young, Sean Monahan is not quite ready and Matt Stajan is not the right guy. For the Flames to have a chance at being playoff-relevant this year, Mikael Backlund needs to seize the job as Calgary's No. 1 centre and play at the same level, if not higher, than he played at over the final two-thirds of last season when he established himself as one of the league's better two-way centres.

Playing out the final year of a two-year deal that will pay him a modest $1.5-million this season, Backlund is due for a massive pay hike in the summer of 2015 if he repeats his performance from last year. In this in-depth analysis piece I wrote earlier this summer, I examined his performance last year in several facets of the game and my findings is he was right up there with many of the NHL's stars. I made the case that Backlund could very well be a $5-million player when his current deal expires next summer. And for the Flames to have a realistic shot at the post-season this year, they'll need him to play like a $5-million player and not just for 50 or 60 games either, they'll need that level of performance consistently from him for all 82 games and that is a big ask considering his history of not being able to stay healthy. He has missed time in recent years with finger, arm, knee and hand injuries.


6. Raymond Replaces Cammalleri's Offence

The goal total last year for veteran Mike Cammalleri ended up pretty gaudy when all was said and done. But much of it came while the the Flames were playing out the string in April. An educated conclusion you'd draw from Cammalleri not being dealt at last year's trade deadline was the pending UFA's trade value at that point was not very good. That's understandable considering he was in the midst of an ice-cold stretch of three goals and six points in 24 games. Then all-of-a-sudden his fortunes changed and he had a ridiculously good April that ultimately earned him an eyebrow-raising $5-million, five-year deal with the New Jersey Devils this summer.

Cammalleri's offence will be missed, no question. His 26 goals have to come from somewhere if the team is going to challenge for a playoff spot. When the team is playing in all those close games this year, perhaps the guy that will step up and deliver the clutch goal will be newly inked free agent Mason Raymond.

He's not on that same level as Cammalleri, especially not the April version, but can he match the production the Flames got from Cammalleri from December through March? Why not. We know as a visiting player the Cochrane native enjoys playing in Calgary. His eight goals in 14 career games at the Saddledome includes a pair of hat tricks while he was with the Vancouver Canucks.

We'll have to wait and see what Calgary ultimately gets from Raymond but what they need from him to be a playoff threat is for him to match his career-high of 25 goals and if they do, don't be surprised if that's in the neighbourhood of what Cammalleri ends up with in New Jersey -- and that from a younger guy making $2-million less per year.


7. Must Stay Healthy

The hard-hitting, never-say-die, throw-yourself-in-front-of-shots style that coach Bob Hartley had the blue collar Flames playing last year does take its toll physically. The only player to appear in all 82 games was Chris Butler.

It's going to be difficult and will take some incredible good fortune but Calgary needs to have a far healthier year if they're going to stay in the mix for a playoff spot this year. They just don't have the type of depth that is NHL-ready right now to overcome long term injuries to key players.

Take for example, the blueline. It's not a great defensive corps overall with a huge drop-off after the top pairing. But if Dennis Wideman and Kris Russell can play a decent 18-22 minutes nightly and Deryk Engelland and Ladislav Smid can be serviceable at 14-16 minutes, they'll be OK. Tyler Wotherspoon showed last year he's capable of stepping in and can backfill a number of different roles so there's a tiny bit of wiggle room if someone goes out long term. But multiple injuries would result in them summoning additional bodies from the minors and considering where the other blue-line prospects are at -- Patrick Sieloff and Brett Kulak are not quite ready yet, rushing them could hurt both the team and the player's development in the long run.

Up front, it's a similar situation. The future looks bright with the likes of Emile Poirier, Morgan Klimchuk and Sam Bennett but this is not their time yet. Even older college guys like Bill Arnold, Kenny Agostino, Bryce van Brabant and Corban Knight need to adjust first to the AHL. If any bottom-six forwards go down, there are some viable options in Ben Hanowski and David Wolf but if the Flames were to lose Monahan, Jiri Hudler, or Raymond for extended periods, then they're in deeper trouble.


8. Baertschi Bounces Back

He's gone from my pick last year to lead the Flames in scoring to being just one of many Flames prospects that 'hopefully' pan out. A star coming out of junior, I recently examined the trials and tribulations of Sven Baertchi over the past couple years and identified seven key events that have happened that have contributed to where Baertschi is today, which feels in a way like he's become estranged from the franchise he was drafted by three years ago.

We need to remind ourselves repeatedly that Baertschi is only 21 years old and if he figures it out, talk about found money. Here's a first rounder you likely weren't counting on to contribute this year and if he can step up and play a big role on the team, this team is instantly better. As a bonus, his return to form could elevate the games of other on the team also. It was only in glimpses we saw them last year but personally, I'd like to see Monahan and Baertschi re-united on the same line for another trial this season.


9. Shootout Prowess Continues

Last year was an epiphany for the Flames when it came to the shootout, especially on home ice. Consider Calgary's shootout record at the Saddledome was a feeble 6-21 prior to last season. Then last year, they were a perfect 5-0. In one season, they nearly matched the number of shootout wins on home ice they had over the previous eight seasons. Just think about that for a minute. Wow.

So why the sudden turnaround in shootout success? Two reasons: 1. Better goaltending from Karri Ramo (and Reto Berra). 2. Greater individual success, particularly by newcomers Joe Colborne and Sean Monahan.

Colborne, who turned into Hartley's 'lead-off hitter' in the skills contest, was a tidy 4-for-9. Monahan was even more clutch going 5-for-8 with four game-deciding goals -- second in the NHL behind TJ Oshie and Anze Kopitar, who each had five. Remember Jarome Iginla's struggles with the shootout? Those nine combined goals on 17 shots for Colborne and Monahan match the nine goals Iginla had for the Flames on 36 shots over his eight seasons.

Overall, Calgary was 7-3 in the shootout last year and they'll have to be just as good this year to stay in the hunt because they're not going to be blowing anybody out. Just like last year, I'd expect a bunch of nail-biting one-goal games once again. Last season the Flames played in 49 one-goal games going 25-17-7, tying them with the 2010-11 Florida Panthers for the second most one-goal games in NHL history. The only team to play in more was New Jersey, who last year played in 50.


10. Glencross Bounces Back

There's this thing in hockey. It's a little bit weird but I also understand and appreciate the premise. It's that when players are injured, they're kept away from the team. They come to the rink early to get their treatment. If they skate, they do so early, often before the others arrive. They typically don't travel with the team on the road. They just aren't seen around the team all that often.

The idea is since that player is not available to help the team anyway, keeping them at a distance is a message to the healthy players that they have to suck it up and go on and try to win without them, no excuses, etc.

Considering Curtis Glencross missed 44 games last year -- 29 with an ankle injury and 15 due to a sprained knee, he has very much become a bit of a forgotten man. With those long interruptions, you got the sense his season last year never really got going. But let's not forget, this guy can flat-out score.

Add up his scoring stats from the past four seasons and Glencross averages 28 goals for every 82 games. That's good. Scoring at that clip would put him in the top 30 in the NHL. The advanced stats community will look at his shooting percentage and contest that such production is unsustainable. However, it's also been four years at that rate, not four weeks, so if it is an anomaly, who's to say he can't have another anomaly season this year and score another 30 goals.

If you can get a healthy and productive season out of Glencross, who enters the year motivated to have a good year as he's a pending UFA, you have a real nice addition to a team's forward group that played much of last season without him.


11. Start Fast and Sustain It

Last year, Calgary got off to a splendid start. They busted out of the gate 4-2-2 and had some early momentum going behind rookie sensation Sean Monahan. But then Mark Giordano got hurt and that put the team in a hole they never were able to fully dig themselves out of.

Huge this season is not just having a good opening week, or a great October, but they need to stay in the playoff chase through the end of December and then find their second wind in successfully navigating through the dog days of January and February. Then we'll see where they are come March.

If they can remain near striking distance of the top eight, that puts the season and the NHL Trade deadline in a whole different light. Now, instead of shopping pending UFAs like Ramo and Glencross -- assuming both have turned into pivotal figures, perhaps the Flames decide to add bodies instead. Calgary has plenty of cap space so we know that's certainly not a concern should they be close enough that the decision is to go for it.


12. Need Help From Both Sides of the Continent

This may sound odd but for the Flames to have a shot at the playoffs this year, they need Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg to be much improved also. If the conference turns into a hierarchy of have's and have not's where the Canucks and/or Oilers and/or Jets become the whipping boys for their American peers, then it's very unlikely the Flames will be able to win enough to hang with that upper echelon.

Calgary needs the Western Conference to turn into a 14-horse race (or more plausible, a ten-team race for the final four playoff spots) in which Canada is no longer a pawn shop to pick up cheap wins. That will flatten out the next tier beyond the heavyweights -- Anaheim, LA, Chicago, San Jose. With these second-tier teams beating up on each other all year, the point total for making the top eight in the West could come down to around 90 points and every bit helps.

In that same vain, the East will also wield some influence on the West race. In those interconference games, every East regulation win over a West contender is a bonus for the Flames and conversely, if Calgary can rack up points when playing Eastern opponents, that will help them stay within reach of the peloton -- or even be at the front of it.


Peering into the Crystal Ball

To make the playoffs, the Flames will probably need to be 15 points better this year. That's everything they achieved last year plus a couple more bonus points and six or seven more victories. That's asking a lot. I mean, A LOT.

However, if this exercise has taught us anything, it's a reminder that there are some really nice pieces in place with this Flames hockey team with Giordano and Brodie anchoring the blue-line, Backlund and Monahan up the middle. While the odds of making the playoffs this season are steep, I'd argue the odds of finishing in the bottom two are even more extreme.

Of the dozen possible scenarios outlined above, none of them are inconceivable. Even if only half of them occur, the Flames will still be a better team and will hang around the Western Conference cut line a lot longer than people expect.

While the Buffalo Sabres look like a safe bet to be in the NHL's cellar once again this year, the saving grace for Flames fans focused on the 2015 draft is the teams around Calgary have gotten noticeably better. While I realistically expect the Flames to come in at around 80 points (last year they had 77), that likely isn't enough to finish ahead of the improved Panthers, Islanders and Oilers.

Short of making the post-season for the first time in six years, surely the ultimate goal for this playoff-starved city, the back-up goal would be be playing a competitive and entertaining season, seeing overall improvement from the team as well as from its young players, yet still finishing 29th. In terms of what's most realistic, that would be an excellent outcome for Calgary.

I'm just not sure it's going to happen. The pride and fight-to-the-finish attitude that made this team as likeable as it was last year is not going to allow them to plummet to the very bottom -- unless the team's core players end up spending long stretches on the IR.

While missing out on the 'big two' next draft would be disappointing for some, there is a positive to be gleaned from an improved record this season that keeps the rebuild needle pointing in the right direction. Accomplish that, while integrating youth into the line-up, and that will only mean good things for 2015-16 when a playoff spot becomes an expectation, not just a hope.


----------------------------------------

Recent Flames Reading

  • David Wolf: Hard Knuckles, Soft Hands - Get to know 24-year-old German winger David Wolf, who is known for being big and bad but is proud of the finesse part of his game also. What to expect in his first year in North America.
  • Sven Degrees of Separation: The Trials and Tribulations of Sven 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. 
  • Debut of the Stick TAP - A Q&A Mailbag - You guys submitted some great questions: How many NHL games this season will Sam Bennett play? Will the Flames be in the running for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel? In this new content feature, I responded to these and other reader-submitted questions by providing my own Thoughts, Analysis and Predictions.
  • The Polarizing Selection of Goaltender Mason McDonald - Selecting a goaltender with pick No. 34 infuriated a lot of Flames fans. Why take a goalie so early? Well, I've done the homework and I will explain to you why it was the smart choice for Calgary at that point in the draft. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Goalies Should Also Be Afraid of This 'Big Bad' Wolf

Right now, in one of the northern most hockey rinks in Germany, training camp is already well underway for one of the newest members of the Calgary Flames.

With its first game in the newly formed Champions Hockey League quickly approaching -- an Aug. 22 tussle with Swedish club LuleƄ, the Hamburg Freezers are hard at it in preparation. With two on-ice practices every day as well as one off-ice workout, there's undoubtedly plenty of sweat as players get back into it after several months off the skates, a lengthy layoff not uncommon for European players.

Panning the roster of those running through drills at the O2 World arena in Hamburg, ardent hockey fans may recognize some of the names from NHL past -- Matt Pettinger, Duvie Westcott, Christoph Schubert, Phil Dupuis and Sebastien Caron. However, it's an intriguing 24-year-old left winger, who has yet to play an NHL game, that is of most interest to Flames fans. His name is David Wolf and after signing a one-year, two-way contract on May 12, he is about to take his game to North America for the first time.

But first, the veteran of five seasons in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) will spend August training with his old team, whom he played with for the past three years.

"For one month and the whole preseason, I go with my old team," said Wolf last month, when he was in Calgary for the Flames development camp. "Then in early September, I'll come here, skate 10-15 days with the guys in Calgary and then I hope I'm prepared for main camp."


The Prototypical Burke Player

The two attributes that immediately leap off the page when it comes to the native of Duesseldorf, Germany, are his size -- 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, and his time spent in the sin bin. He amassed more penalty minutes (415 PIMs in 143 games) than anyone else in the German league over the past three years including being the league-leader two of those years. One would assume that is evidence of a surly character packing the pugnacity and belligerence that Flames management covets.

However, while being afraid of the 'Big Bad' Wolf is an irresistible story line thanks to famous Grimm fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, Wolf insists one shouldn't be too quick to judge this book by its cover.

"Guys over here, when I signed, they watch the penalty minutes and they see that I'm a tough guy and I would say I'm pretty tough: I stand up for my teammates when I have to, I fight when I have to, but I'm not out there looking for it," said Wolf.

Overlooked is the fact Wolf was also second on his team in points each of the last three years. He showed a glimpse of his diverse skill set during one of the development camp shootouts when he raised eyebrows by being the only player to attempt a spin-a-rama. He didn't score although came darn close, just failing to jam the puck past the outstretched pad of Mason McDonald, as he completed his 360.


Hard Knuckles but Soft Hands

"I do have some finesse too, although I've got 'summer hands'," laughed Wolf, who at the time hadn't skated in nearly three months.

On the ice, Wolf looks like a cross between Milan Lucic and a football linebacker. A hunch in the back, broad across the shoulders, if he can finish around the net as he has proven he can do in Germany, he could be a good fit to eventually play on a line with some of Calgary's undersized skilled guys. Mason Raymond, Jiri Hudler, Sven Baertschi and Johnny Gaudreau are a few names that immediately spring to mind.

That type of role would be a familiar one for Wolf, who was 14-26-40 in 48 games last year skating on a line with ex-WHLer Garrett Festerling -- a former linemate of Jordan Eberle in Regina, and 2008 Maple Leafs fifth round draft pick Jerome Flaake -- Hamburg's top marksman with 25 goals.

"That was my part back home. I had a really good sniper on my line and I had a little playmaker on my line. I was getting the puck to them and going to the net. I would get a lot of goals in front of the net, rebounds and stuff," said Wolf. "Of course, when you play with two skilled guys, you learn something too and you get more confidence in your game and your skill level gets better."


Keeping it Simple

First impression of Wolf at development camp is he's a guy, who is deceptively quick, is filled with energy, and who is not afraid to get in aggressively on the forecheck, which can be an intimidating package for a defenceman to ward off.

"David's an interesting guy. He's like a walking fridge," described Flames GM Brad Treliving after seeing him live for the first time in July. "He's got a straight-ahead approach and he's a big body, who does everything well. He'll be an interesting guy to see, come training camp."

After a month of working out intensely with Hamburg, Wolf is hoping he'll be in a good position to compete for one of the one or two open spots Calgary currently has at forward. He admitted his conditioning in July was "pretty bad", which is natural when it's your first time on skates in over three months.

"You can run as long as you want in the woods, but when you hit the ice, it's just different," said Wolf, who said nearly all the rinks in Germany take out their ice during the summer. "These kids over here, they can run, they can skate, they skate all summer long. But with the European guys, who are not on the ice that much in the summer, they need to get their conditioning back."


Fan Favourite in the Making

Engaging and personable off the ice and possessing a German accent that sounds remarkably like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you get the sense Wolf will quickly establish himself as one of the more popular players with fans, wherever he plays.

What's left to determine this September is whether that will be in Adirondack or in Calgary. Or, as he adjusts to the smaller North American rink that he has had little experience on, perhaps he starts off in Glens Falls, New York, and then joins Calgary.

Either way, this September, the Wolf will be back... and he'll be hungry.

---------------------------------------------

Recent Flames Reading

  • Sven Degrees of Separation: The Trials and Tribulations of Sven 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. 
  • Debut of the Stick TAP - A Q&A Mailbag - You guys submitted some great questions: How many NHL games this season will Sam Bennett play? Will the Flames be in the running for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel? In this new content feature, I responded to these and other reader-submitted questions by providing my own Thoughts, Analysis and Predictions.
  • What Could (and Will Not) Happen with Kevin Hayes - If you believe what you read, the ex-linemate at Boston College of Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold and the former first round pick is about to become an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 16. I broke down the different scenarios of what could unfold.
  • The Polarizing Selection of Goaltender Mason McDonald - Selecting a goaltender with pick No. 34 infuriated a lot of Flames fans. Why take a goalie so early? Well, I've done the homework and I will explain to you why it was the smart choice for Calgary at that point in the draft. 


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sven Degrees of Separation: How did we get to the point we're at with Baertschi?

It feels like longer but it was just three summers ago that Calgary Flames fans were basking in the wake of a refreshing change of direction at the NHL draft. Jay Feaster, having just taken over the general manager reins from Darryl Sutter, showed an affinity for speed and skill over size in using three of Calgary's first four picks on highly talented, creative, but small forwards.

Of that trio, which included Finnish centre Markus Granlund in the second round and tiny but gifted left-winger John Gaudreau in round four, the real excitement was around 13th overall pick Sven Baertschi. Born in Switzerland, the left-winger was coming off a superb regular season with Portland (34-51-85 in 66 games) -- his first season in North America, which was followed by an even better playoff performance (10-17-27 in 21 games) as Baertschi, along with teammate Ryan Johansen, helped lead the Winterhawks to the Western Hockey League final, where they would lose out to Kootenay.

During Sutter's eight years as GM, it could be argued the only legitimate 'skilled' forward the Flames successfully drafted and developed was 2007 first round pick Mikael Backlund and back in the summer of 2011, the jury was still very much out on him as he was coming off an underwhelming 10-goal rookie season.


Excitement Builds

As it turned out, the buzz around Baertschi was just getting started. It would reach a feverish pitch the next season after he turned in an even better year in the WHL and in the process accomplished something that hadn't been done in over a decade-and-a-half and hasn't been done since.

In 2011-12, Baertschi averaged a stunning two points per game, finishing with 33-61-94 in 47 games. That remarkable regular season remains the only time in the WHL in the last 17 years that a player has finished the year with twice as many points as games played (while playing a minimum of 40 games). Jordan Eberle never pulled that off. Neither did Patrick Marleau or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Jamie Benn or Ryan Getzlaf. Nor did Sam Reinhart or even Calgary Hitmen legend Pavel Brendl, for that matter.

In fact, turn your gaze out East and the last guy to accomplish that feat in the Ontario Hockey League was John Tavares, who did it seven years ago. The last guy before him? Some dude named Patrick Kane.

In the typically higher-scoring QMJHL, only two players have done it recently with one of them having done so in each of the past two years. His name is Jonathan Drouin and chances are you've also heard of him.

For good measure as Portland went all the way to the WHL final again in 2012 -- only to lose again, Baertschi wrapped up his impressive junior career by going a scintillating 14-20-34 in 22 playoff games.

So after all that excitement and so much promise, where did things go wrong? How did we get to this point we are today where Baertschi's future with the organization is very much a question mark? Not long ago viewed as potentially one of the best players on the Flames, now he's not even considered by some as one of the club's top prospects.

Here is a look back at seven things that have happened between draft day and today, which I feel have contributed to the current mess we're in.


Sven Degrees of Separation 


1. March 7-17, 2012

The Flames were banged up and desperate. Big time desperate. Calgary sat two points out of a playoff spot but forwards Mike Cammalleri, Lee Stempniak, Mikael Backlund, Blake Comeau, Tim Jackman and Lance Bouma were all injured and Greg Nemisz, Krys Kolanos and Guillaume Desbiens had already been summoned from Abbotsford. Needing another forward, Feaster decided his best option for his next reinforcement was leveraging the seldom-used emergency recall option so on Mar. 7, he called up Baertschi from junior.

Held off the score sheet in his NHL debut against Winnipeg at the Saddledome, Baertschi scored his first NHL goal in his next game in Minnesota. What a moment. He then proceeded to score in each of the next two games as well to make it a three-game goals streak for the kid, who was not yet 18-and-a-half years old. Lauded with headlines like 'Svensational', Baertschi was suddenly the toast of the city. Fans loved him.

However, just like when you were 12 years old and you met that cute girl while you were on vacation with your parents, it was a short fling that had no chance of lasting. Stempniak's return from an ankle injury meant on Mar. 17, 11 days after he arrived, Baertschi had to be returned to Portland.

At the time, it was hoped this early exposure to the NHL and his offensive success might help Baertschi in the long run. However, in hindsight, it seems the unrealistic expectations that came with it -- both for fans and more so for Baertschi himself, ended up being the worst possible outcome.


2. April 13-25, 2013

Baertschi spent the 2012-13 NHL lockout in the AHL where he got off to a terrific start going 6-11-17 in the first 19 games for Abbotsford. Then he suffered a spine-related head/neck injury that knocked him out of the line-up for over a month. He returned to the Heat for a couple games in January before re-joining Calgary when the lockout ended and drawing into the line-up for the Jan. 20 season opener.

It was in game four that Baertschi suffered a hip flexor injury that cost him 11 games. Upon his return to the Flames line-up, he was not getting a lot of ice time and after six games, Baertschi was demoted to Abbotsford. In those 10 NHL games, he had accumulated just one assist.

Having got his game going again, and with the Heat eliminated from playoff contention, and with roster spots available in Calgary after the trading away of Jarome Iginla and Comeau, Baertschi was called back up again on April 7. In his first game, he logged 18:15 in ice time and played much of the night on a line with Mike Cammalleri.

Getting steady ice time every night, Baertschi finished the season on a tear, racking up an impressive seven-game points streak (3 goals, 6 assists). Things were good for Baertschi. Plus, with Calgary's perennial leading scorer gone, the club and its fan base was looking for someone new to lead the team offensively and why not Baertschi considering his sparkling resume. Frequent water cooler conversation that off-season centred around who would lead the Flames in scoring in 2013-14. In fact, in this story, I predicted it would be Baertschi from the list of 11 possible candidates.

If there's a lesson to be learned in all this it's that thriving in April when there's no pressure on the team -- the Flames were far removed from playoff contention, and when you're mostly playing teams in the same boat so also deploying line-ups laden with rookies, is success that you do need to temper when it comes to setting future expectations.


3. April 26, 2013

The final game of the season was in Chicago and Baertschi would end up missing that one with a groin injury picked up the night before in St. Louis. Little did we know at the time the significant ripple effect that injury would have.

First, it forced Baertschi to reluctantly turn down an invitation to play for Switzerland at the IIHF World Championships in May. While it is a tournament that is viewed as no big deal here in North America, it's the opposite in Europe where it's very important. Making matters worse, Baertschi would end up missing out on an amazing Cinderella run for Switzerland that was not unlike the Flames 2004 Stanley Cup run was around Calgary. An extreme underdog, the Swiss went all the way to the final before losing the gold medal game to Sweden.

Then, hoping to recapture that same magic in the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Swiss stuck with mostly that same roster -- 19 players from the WC team were part of the team that went to Sochi. That left Baertschi once again out in the cold, missing a golden opportunity to gain valuable confidence and experience by playing on a big stage against the best players in the world.


4. September 5-8, 2013

Each September, prior to Calgary's main training camp, the prospects report to rookie camp. It's a busy week, which culminates in a tournament in Penticton, B.C. and games against prospects from the Oilers and the Canucks. It's dubbed the Young Stars tournament and with more NHL experience than anyone else going into last year's event, Baertschi should have been one of the stars of that camp.

But it didn't turn out that way.

Baertschi did not shine -- held without a point in three games. His lackluster play was criticized and his attitude was questioned. While it's true he never got to play with the Flames premium talent in Sean Monahan, Markus Granlund or Emile Porier, instead lining up with the likes of Coda Gordon (no longer in the organization) and Josh Jooris, he also didn't exactly earn such a plum assignment either. After the tournament, Abbotsford head coach Troy Ward, who led the camp, didn't mince words.

“There’s no question, when Sven has the puck or he’s in support of the puck and has someone that can support it with him, Sven’s a really good player,” said Ward. “One of the things he has to continue to learn as a young man is continue to play hard and go get it back. That’s his development right now."

Was Baertschi miffed that he was invited to a 'rookie camp' despite having 25 NHL games on his resume? Although still considered a rookie by NHL standards, that sure was the prevailing feeling you got. I relate it to a 15-year-old boy being forced by his parents to take his 10-year-old sister out Halloweening. The impression Baertschi left was that he wasn't motivated.

How that tournament played out for Baertschi was a disaster and he left Penticton with a tarnished reputation that he has yet to repair.


5. September 30, 2013

On Monday morning, three days prior to the Flames regular season opener in Washington, Calgary media assembled at the Saddledome for the traditional start-of-the-year state-of-the-nation address to be delivered by Brian Burke, who was less than four weeks into his role as President of Hockey Operations.

It was a pretty nondescript presser for the most part, the most interesting things being Burke's seemingly endless array of unique and colourful expressions that always keep a room amused. But then Baertschi's name came up in a question and Burke was not shy to share his first impression.

Asked what he thought of Baertschi so far, he responded, "That I don’t know. I’m not sure. All I’ve seen so far is flashes of brilliance. Flashes of brilliance are fine if you’re working in the university, but they’re not much good to people in an NHL building."

He wasn't done.

“There are three zones in the ice surfaces in this league. I don’t see that he’s learned to play and compete in two of them. He’s got to learn there’s a clock in this league and there’s so many minutes in the game and that you’ve got to compete through all of it. What I see is a guy who’s focusing on one area and even then, sporadically,” said Burke. “So I don’t know what we have."

He still wasn't done.

“I’m not ready to quit on a young kid. I’m not ready to throw him under the bus here today and rip him, but I think you can tell from my comments that I see big holes and I see a lack of commitment that’s not going to get him anywhere in my books.”

Baertschi made the Flames season-opening roster. But many were already wondering how long he'd last. Meanwhile, as for the answer to how long it would take for Baertschi to move past such pointed and public criticism? I don't think we have the answer to that one yet.


6. December 12, 2013

It was a day that seemed inevitable as soon as Burke joined the Flames organization on Sept. 5. Sure enough, just over three months after being hired to oversee Feaster, Burke fired Feaster.

Up until that point, Baertschi had been up with the Flames and while he looked just fine at times, he struggled to consistently get meaningful ice time from coach Bob Hartley, who stuck him on the fourth line some nights and four times made him a healthy scratch. But with Feaster's departure also came Baertschi's as Burke demoted him to the AHL as his first order of business as the club's interim GM.

Back in the AHL where some argued he should have been from the start of the season, Baertschi struggled to find his way initially. In his first 15 games, he managed only two goals and two assists. The points eventually came as he strung together a couple five-game point streaks and a six-gamer as well, but you never got the impression he ever got back in the organization's good books.

Occasionally, Ward would touch on modest improvements in Baertschi's much ballyhooed 'three-zone play' but he never gushed praise, that's for sure. When Baertschi did get hot offensively -- he erupted for a seven-point weekend in a two-game series with Rockford late in the season, Ward seemed more determined to credit his linemates than the left winger himself.

Tough love? No kidding.

Baertschi also wasn't a factor in the AHL playoffs and the Heat could have really used some offensive spark from him. Coming off their best ever regular season and poised for a long run behind the standout goaltending of Joni Ortio, the Heat instead succumbed to Grand Rapids in four games in the opening round best-of-five. Just like that, it was season over with Baertschi limping to the finish line with just a single assist over his final seven games.


7. May 9, 2014

What an opportunity this year's World Championships was going to be. Sean Monahan was going to be there. Johnny Gaudreau was going to be there. Mikael Backlund was going to be there. Most importantly for Baertschi, so was newly hired Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who was an assistant GM with Team Canada. It was the perfect opportunity for Baertschi to turn the page on what had been a miserable and frustrating year and leave a solid first impression on Calgary's new decision maker.

Knowing what was at stake and how badly Baertschi and his fragile confidence really needed something good to happen, you had to feel for the kid when halfway through Switzerland's opening game against Russia, he went down with a fractured rib. That injury that sent him to hospital would knock him out of the tournament. Seven minutes and five seconds of ice time. Ten shifts. That was it for Baertschi, a horrible but fitting way to wrap up a very challenging and mettle-testing 12 months.


Looking Forward

Earlier this spring, it was announced that Baertschi's jersey number was changing from '47' to '27'. I wouldn't read too much into it but maybe, just maybe, it's a positive sign of what will be a much better year. Although, it's hard to imagine a year going much worse.

With so many already focused on the 2015 draft, hoping that the Flames will be ready to turn the corner quickly on the rebuild if they can add just one more high-end first round draft pick to the organization, you tend to forget that they have a pretty darn good first round pick right under their nose in Baertschi, and he's already here.

Maybe it's because of that initial five-game stint three years ago but you tend to forget that Baertschi is still only 21 years old. There are only three players drafted after him in 2011 that have more points. He's far from a bust yet.

A good comparable for Baertschi is Minnesota's Nino Niederreiter. In fact, their similarities are down-right spooky.
  • Nearly identical in age -- Niederreiter is less than a month older
  • Both play left-wing
  • Both played two years in the WHL with Portland
  • Both are from Switzerland
  • Both were first round picks -- Niederreiter was 5th overall in 2010

In their most compelling similarity, you could also argue both were in the NHL too early. Drafted by the Islanders, Niederreiter went straight to the NHL as an 18-year-old and had a disastrous season. A prolific scorer in junior and coming off a year with the Winterhawks in which he scored 41 goals and had 70 points in 55 games, Niederreiter amassed all of one goal and no assists in 55 games during his rookie season in New York. Oh ya, and he was a minus-29.

Niederreiter spent all of 2012-13 in the AHL and after being acquired last summer by the Wild in a trade for Cal Clutterbuck, Niederreiter had a nice year in his return to the NHL and I thought played his best hockey of his career in last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Not yet 22 years old, he's suddenly back on track to being the player everyone once thought he would be. 

It goes to show that having patience, while it can be excruciating when you're dealing with such immense talents that you can't wait to see put on your favourite team's jersey, can really pay off in the end.


So How Will it End?

Whether a similar bounce-back will happen in Calgary with Baertschi is one of the more compelling story lines to follow in the year ahead. It would come as a shock to nobody if instead, Baertschi is shuttled out of town in a trade. Everyone knows the Flames desire to get bigger and with Gaudreau on the scene now -- and also a natural left-winger, is their room in the line-up for both him and Baertschi? 

Now I think there is. First, remember the shortage of right-wingers on this club. A couple of port-siders will have to switch over and play on the right instead so that opens up some additional options. Secondly, Baertschi does have the ability to play with a bit of an edge. Considering the year he just suffered through, you would sure hope he'll come to camp in September fired up, angry and ready to play hard. 

When he was hired, Treliving made a point of saying every player in the organization can look at his arrival as GM as a fresh start. He insisted that every player would begin with a clean slate. Nobody needs that clean slate more than Baertschi. Now we'll see if he rolls up his sleeves and embraces it.

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