Monday, September 09, 2013

Penticton Post Mortem - Revisiting my 10 Flames Storylines

Prior to the start of the Young Stars Classic rookie tournament in Penticton, I identified 10 Calgary Flames storylines I was going to be closely following.

After the Flames impressive showing in the event, winning its first two games -- 5-2 over Edmonton and 4-1 over Vancouver, before suffering a 3-2 loss to San Jose on Sunday, I thought I'd take a few minutes and revisit those 10 storylines and let you know what I learned.

1. North To Alaska

The recent addition of the ECHL's Alaska Aces into the Flames organization as a next-level-down minor league affiliate to the American Hockey League's Abbotsford Heat, gives Calgary increased options when it comes to developing and finding ample playing time for its burgeoning pool of prospects. One position that's particularly crowded is goalie where 33-year-old journeyman Joey MacDonald is joined by veteran European imports Karri Ramo, 27, and Reto Berra, 26, in the battle for NHL playing time.

Also in the organization and looking to make an impression are the Flames two goaltenders that will split the playing time in Penticton -- Laurent Brossoit, 20, and Joni Ortio, 22. Brossoit's stock has steadily been on the rise since being drafted in the sixth round in 2011. Meanwhile, Ortio has been playing against men in the Finnish Elite League. No, there won't be any decisions made after this short tournament but these three games are an opportunity for one of them to move ahead of the other on the depth chart. The second-best of the two come the end of September will want to invest in some warm Sorels as they'll likely be bound for Anchorage.

THE VERDICT - It was more about what one guy did than what the other didn't do but Ortio, in his only start, was absolutely sensational and showed that he's here to make a serious run at a job with Calgary, never mind Abbotsford. Getting the Friday assignment against Vancouver, Ortio was peppered for 40 shots but was only beaten once -- a long screen shot he didn't see. On the day the team left for Penticton, I sat down with Ortio to discuss his many connections and comparisons to Miikka Kiprusoff, his frustrating first season with the Flames two years ago, his breakout season back home last year, and the two biggest adjustments for him in adapting to the NHL game. Read my in-depth feature on Ortio here

Brossoit was fine -- .906 SV% and 2.50 GAA for his two games. He was not very busy in the opener against Edmonton and was the victim of a couple of bad bounces in a 31-save night against the Sharks. But, two years younger than Ortio and in year one of his three-year entry level contract compared to Ortio, who is entering the final year of his ELC, the early edge for landing in the AHL vs ECHL goes to the more experienced Finn.

2. Future Constellations

I'm particularly intrigued to see the line combinations and who plays with who during this tournament. Seeing how the Flames emerging stars are aligned may just be a preview to combinations or trios to come down the road.

Markus Granlund and Sven Baertschi worked well together at development camp. Will they be reunited? Who will flank 2013 sixth overall pick Sean Monahan? Might the Flames try him with fellow first rounders Morgan Klimchuk and Emile Poirier, who conveniently play left wing and right wing respectively? On the blue-line, will we see top-end prospects Patrick Sieloff and Tyler Wotherspoon pair up and see what impact they can have as a duo?

Note: On Sept. 4, the Flames announced that Klimchuk will not attend the tournament and will be sidelined for 2-4 weeks due to an abdominal wall strain suffered during a recent WHL pre-season game with Regina.

THE VERDICT - Throughout the weekend the line combinations and defence pairings were mostly tossed back into the blender prior to each game. Clearly the coaching staff of Troy Ward and Robbie Ftorek, perhaps under guidance from above, wanted to see guys play with different guys and see what worked and what didn't. Predictably, in some cases, chemistry was instant. In others, not so much.

Granlund, who I also spoke with at length prior to the tournament beginning -- see his feature here, was the best Flames player in the tournament with three goals and a bunch of dandy set-ups. He just looked one step faster and a level or two more skilled than most everyone else. So whoever was riding shotgun with Granlund -- Poirier one game, Michael Ferland for two others, they ended up looking good also. Monahan and Poirer played together for two games and they were superb, a tantalizing package of speed and skill in those two 2013 draftees who could be NHL line-mates in 2014-15.

Baertschi was a disappointment but he wasn't surrounded by the same skill as some of the others and that may have factored in. Corban Knight was his centre for two games and Josh Jooris for the other. His opposite winger for two of the games was Coda Gordon. Baertschi didn't get to play with either of the Flames top two centres in Monahan or Granlund, nor did he have the chance to take a spin with the dynamic Poirier. The silver lining for Baertschi was that in the only game in which the outcome was on the line in the third period -- Sunday's one-goal loss to San Jose, he did have his best period. Did Baetschi lack motivation for this tournament, given he was a 25-game NHL 'vet' at a rookie camp?  On Twitter Sunday, I joked that his uninspiring performance was akin to a 14-year-old asked by his parents to take his 10-year-old sister out on Halloween. Regardless, it goes to show that Baertschi's success in 2013-14 may depend on how he's used and where he slots in on the depth chart. It sets up three interesting weeks coming up in main training camp. 

3. Flames Development Camp, Part 2 - The Sequel

A quality that eludes so many young players is consistency. So important is finding a way to make an impact each and every game rather than ride the roller-coaster of highs and lows that typically happens with most rookies and wreaks havoc with their confidence. In this respect, I'll be watching to see if guys that stood out to me six weeks ago at WinSport can back it up with another strong showing. I'll have my eye on MonahanGranlundCorban Knight and Sieloff as four of the bigger names looking to further establish themselves. I'll also keep a close watch on lesser known players who made a great impression on me in July, players such as Ryan CulkinTurner ElsonJosh Jooris and even invitee Linden Penner,

THE VERDICT - Granlund and Monahan definitely delivered once again and by displaying that consistency -- from development camp-to-Penticton, as well as shift-to-shift and game-to-game, those two demonstrated that they are a notch above the others. 

Knight and Sieloff were fine but not as impactful as at development camp. Culkin was generally pretty good despite having to overcome a horrendous gaff in game one when he fired the puck into his own net. However, Culkin didn't have as big of an impact as I was expecting -- but then he only played two of the games. Elson was great when he got the plum assignment of skating with Monahan and Poirer but didn't stand out in the other two games. Jooris had a good tournament and was used a lot, showing why the Flames were determined to lure him away from college.

4. Whose Ready for Prime Time?

Make no mistake, a better litmus test is still to come in the form of the seven pre-season games between Sept. 14 and Sept. 25 that will be played against bigger, older and more experienced NHL players. But, these three games should still provide a sneak preview to who might be ready to pull on a Calgary sweater when the Flames open the season Oct. 3 at the Verizon Center in Washington.

While Baertschi is virtually a lock, I'm particularly intrigued to see who stands out amongst the candidates to potentially play centre either now or next year. It's very possible that three of Calgary's opening four centres in 2014-15 will be playing this weekend in MonahanGranlund, and Knight. What about Max Reinhart, where does he fit in? Reinhart played 11 games last season but due to injury was not able to fully participate in the development camp so he's got some catching up to do. For Reinhart, this weekend could be huge. Can he outplay Knight? That's one of several subplots to monitor.

THE VERDICT - I really liked the two games that Reinhart played before he got Sunday night off. He scored a goal, had good jump, demonstrated his strength in one sequence getting behind a defenceman, who was all over him and then essentially swatting him aside like a mosquito to give himself a clean breakaway. Maybe that was those 11 NHL games last year paying off? He sure seemed to be playing with an assertiveness that comes with confidence. Knight is not flashy but is solid and rarely seems to be in the wrong place or make a bad play. Reinhart vs Knight will be a training camp battle to monitor. 

Monahan continues to look comfortable in this level of hockey and I have no doubts he could play at the NHL level this year, just not sure how effectively over an 82-game grind and in the tough Pacific Division. I still say one more year of the OHL, a couple weeks under the national microscope at the World Juniors, and perhaps a trade to an OHL playoff contender if Ottawa doesn't turn out to be one, is the prudent route to go. 

The most intriguing situation is Granlund. I mean this guy looked really, really sharp and if he keeps it up, there's going to be a temptation to find him a spot on Calgary's opening night roster. Yet, it doesn't make sense to play him on a third or fourth line. He's got loads of ridiculous skill and is best served as a first or second line guy playing with skilled wingers who can score. Perhaps he starts in Abbotsford to get further assimilated to the NHL-sized rinks and the physicality of the North American game but he'll play at some point in Calgary this year, I assure of that.

5. Best of 'D' Rest

There's been a lot of hype and for good reason about Sieloff and Wotherspoon, who both signed entry level contracts with the Flames this summer. Likely destined for the OHL and AHL respectively for more seasoning, both will nonetheless be out to turn heads and change minds this training camp. But, what about the rest?

Three Flames defencemen are pending unrestricted free agents at season's end -- Kris RussellChris Butler and Derek SmithShane O'Brien is a UFA the year after. Opportunity awaits in the near future and I'm interested to see who else forges their way into the conversation. Culkin is a guy that really stood out in July and is sniffing around for a pro contract. John Ramage is a rare right-handed shot and as a college grad is older and stronger. Can he get himself into the mix? Looking further down the road, Brett Kulak is a player I want to see more of as well as 2013 fifth round pick Eric Roy.

THE VERDICT - Making a big statement with an impressive tournament was Ramage. In fact, the Wisconsin graduate might have been the best of all of them -- Sieloff and Wotherspoon included. He's only 22 years old but commands a presence on the ice of someone that's closer to 32. The poise he shows, the obvious leadership in his constant on-ice instructing and directing, I was very impressed. As well, he showed more offensive panache than I was expecting but that's indicative of his improved two-way game. In Ramage's first three years with the Badgers he scored six goals combined. Last year he tallied eight. 

The other guy that made him noticeable once again and in a good way was Keegan Kanzig. More on him below.   

6. Watching and Waiting for Keegan Kanzig

Victoria Royals defenceman Keegan Kanzig was the tallest player drafted in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, 13 pounds heavier than any of the other 210 players. With size like that, that's how you get on my radar. Given what this young man could become, I'll be keenly observing his development every chance I get and that includes this weekend. He's a project, for sure, and is a long ways away but I was impressed by how Kanzig played in development camp. For a guy 6-foot-7 and 240-plus pounds, he was more mobile and looked slimmer than anticipated and had one of the lowest body-fat indexes of any of the prospects when they went through the fitness testing at the start of camp.

THE VERDICT - You just expect him to be a worse skater, more out of shape, caught out of position as he runs around trying to make hits. But, he doesn't seem to do those things. They talk about hockey IQ. Add that to a guy the size of the Rocky Mountains and the Flames appear to have one hell-of-a fourth round pick in the pipeline. Oh yeah, and he can throw 'em too. Got in a heavyweight tilt with 6-foot-5 Kyle Bigos from the Sharks on Sunday and was the decisive victor. Am pretty sure Kanzig needed to have his knuckles re-paved after it all was over. And Kanzig is just three-quarters of the age of 24-year-old Bigos.  

7. Identity in the Making

Grittier and harder to play against. That, according to Flames General Manager Jay Feaster, is the mould in which he's trying to shape this Flames club and those qualities were a theme to some of his off-season dealings that brought guys like TJ Galiardi and O'Brien to town. But, for best results, a culture and team identity is something you need to nurture and grow within the organization and cannot simply be imported and those seeds of the future, if you will, are these players in Penticton. I'm not worried about Sieloff, he's the poster child for those abrasive qualities the organization is seeking but it can't be a one-man show. I'll be watching to see who else steps up this weekend and shows some sandpaper qualities.

THE VERDICT - Helped by playing rival organizations for the first time and not just scrimmaging against each other, there was a little bad blood established during the tournament and that's a good thing as many of the kids will be playing against each other at different levels for years to come. Even first rounders Monahan and Poirier showed a scrappy side in some impromptu meetings at the top of the crease. Kanzig is the guy that can drop them with anyone, Sieloff is the guy that will send you into next week if you cross the blue-line with your head down, but more importantly, there were signs of team toughness that is perhaps most valuable of all.  

8. True Measure of Greatness

One of the true measures of a player's greatness is how much better he makes others around him. Over to you, Sven Baertschi. A month shy of his 21st birthday, if Baertschi had played just one more NHL game he wouldn't be in Penticton as the general guidelines around eligibility excludes players who have played more than 25 NHL games.

Instead, he is here and with an opportunity to elevate the play of the others on his line. I'm curious to see who gets the cushy assignment of playing alongside Baertschi. Will his line-mates be able to elevate their game to another level and who knows, maybe there might even be some instant chemistry that could potentially spill over into the pre-season and maybe even the regular season. The leadership opportunity for Baertschi this week will exist in even greater form in the dressing room and off the ice too. At development camp, he told me that despite the pressures, guys still need to have fun and that's an area where he tries to lead by example. I get the feeling he'll be preaching that same thing this week.

THE VERDICT - Plain and simple, Baertschi clearly isn't great yet. In retrospect, still only 20-years-old and with just 25 games on his NHL resume, this shouldn't stun anyone. A lot was expected out of him and as I already touched on above, what we got was sloppy and generally uninspiring play. What I will say with certainty is the temperature of the spotlight on him during main training camp has just gone up several degrees. 

9. Playing Shorthanded

When we look back at this year's tournament roster ten years from now, it may very well turn out that it featured several of the Flames 'stars of the future' as advertised. However, not to be forgotten are all the guys that aren't here.

As the hectic traffic on Calgary's roads this morning reminded us, school is back in and given the Flames affinity of late for kids playing U.S. college hockey, that means some of Calgary's finest prospects aren't going to be in Penticton. That long list includes goaltender Jon Gillies and 2012 first round pick Mark Jankowski -- both back in Providence already, getting ready for their NCAA season to start. Of course, Johnny Gaudreau is back at Boston College so he won't be there either. Also absent will be Kenny AgostinoBill Arnold, John Gilmour and big, tall and ever-engaging Tim Harrison.

THE VERDICT - Does Calgary win Sunday's game with San Jose if they had the luxury of turning to big Jon Gillies in net?  Maybe. It would have further helped if Monahan had Johnny Gaudreau on his wing instead of Andy Taranto, who was there on a try-out. However, despite the wealth of talent south of the border that were holed up at their school library doing homework, the Flames still looked very good all weekend and clearly have way more legitimate potential impact NHL players in the mix than this organization has had in a very, very, very long time. 

10. Poirier vs Shinkaruk, Round 1

Friday, Sept. 6 sets up to be the first of what is likely to be many meetings between Emile Poirier and Hunter Shinkaruk. Poirier, through no fault of his own, ended up one of Calgary's most scrutinized picks in the draft not so much because of who he was, but more so who he wasn't.

I recapped the wild adventure that was the Flames 2013 draft here. However, as a quick recap, the Calgary native Shinkaruk kept falling in the first round and to the astonishment of pretty much everyone, he was still on the board when it came to the Flames pick at 22nd. As shocking as that was, what followed was even more stunning to observers outside of Calgary's management inner circle as the Flames also passed on the hometown kid to select Poirier. Then, to put an exclamation mark on the sequence of events, Shinkaruk was plucked two picks later by arch rival Vancouver. Whether Feaster called the right name that afternoon in New Jersey will be a question asked for many years to come and the first chance for observers to over react one way or the other will take place in Penticton when the two prospects go head to head.

THE VERDICT - Poirier was good all weekend. Great speed, sneaky good with the puck. He's a bit of a pest too and that's a quality the team certainly needs more of. I didn't see as much of Shinkaruk as the only game I saw of Vancouver was the head-to-head with Calgary but in that game, Shinkaruk was excellent as well showcasing a nice shot, great vision, and a soft set of hands around the net. It's been just over two months since the draft so it should come as no surprise that the players picked 22nd and 24th are still very much on equal footing. Stay tuned on this one as there are still many chapters to be written. 

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