September 06 2012 11:59AM
Once the season starts, the Flames will have a couple of rookies who will garner a lot of attention: Sven Baertschi and Roman Cervenka. That will mean the roster's lone sophomore - TJ Brodie - will likely slide under the radar undetected. That's not entirely a bad thing for the 22-year old defender.
Although he exploded onto the season as a 20-year old a couple years ago with a precocious point-per-game preseason performance, Brodie's development into an NHLer since that point has been calmer and less attention grabbing. He made the club that year on the back of a few hot exhibition games but was soon demoted once it was clear he had a few areas to work on and instead spent the season on the farm as one of the Heat's primary rearguards.
It took Brodie until November last season to be called up. He didn't replicate that singular exhibition performance, but it became clear his overall defensive game had improved enough that 3rd pairing duties weren't above his head. Injuries to Mark Giordano, Derek Smith and Chris Butler plus Sutter's disdain for Anton Babchuk (and to some degree, Cory Sarich) ensured Brodie was a regular in the line-up until March 9th, when he was concussed in a game versus the Jet (an injury that erased the rest of his season).
Expectations and Comparables
Although he was a relatively high scoring defender in junior and his initial foray at the NHL in the preseason of 2011 featured a bunch of points, it's undetermined right now how high his offensive ceiling will be in the show. Upon his recall last year, it was clear Brodie was more concerned with playing basic, mistake-free defensive hockey than leading the rush or pinching at the blueline.
The kid has some of the tools required to put a few points on the board, however. Brodie is mobile and can skate the puck out of trouble. He also has good instincts and vision, so he can thread passes to forwards through the neutral zone. On rare occasions last year, Brodie flashed some creative flare by skating the puck deep into the oppositions end, driving wide around defenders and trying to find shooters in the slot. His obvious puck skills are part of the reason the rookie averaged nearly 2 minutes of PP ice time last year.
The tools and the ice time didn't translate into an overly impressive stats line, although 14-points in 54 contests pro-rates to a respectable if unspectacular 21 points over a full 82 game schedule. With rare exceptions (Dion Phaneuf), it usually takes several seasons for young blueliners to start gaining enough ice time and responsibility to also start putting points on the board. The Penguins Kris Letang, for instance, scored 17, 33 and 27 points in each of this first three seasons, respectively. In fact, in clicking around nhl.com, the fourth season seems to be the general "rule of thumb" year where blueliners become fully established and make a big step forward in terms of offense.
A recent comparable for Brodie might be the Blackhawks Nick Leddy - a similar defender in terms of build (6', 191 pounds) and style (mobile, two-way), Leddy scored just seven points in 43 games during his rookie season but followed that up with 37-points over a full sophomore season.
Of course, point totals aren't the full measure of any player and less so for defenders. Brodie's underlying numbers were decent in his first 50-odd games, although that is due in no small part to Sutter's careful usage of the player. Only Anton Babchuk saw similarly soft opposition last season and no regular defender started more often in the offensive zone than Brodie. That's not uncommon for 21-year old rookie defenders, so the buttery soft minutes shouldn't necessarily been seen as an indictment of the player. The good news is, Brodie's possession rates were the best amongst Flames blueliners, so he took that all important first step of surviving and thriving against the lesser lights.
Brodie isn't overly tall at 6'1" and could use a few more pounds on his frame. He'll never be a guy who hammers opponents into submission, although his ability and willingness to play the physical game in the corners was noticably better in 2012-13 than it was during his first few games in the show the year before. If he can add a bit of weight and strength this summer and over the next few years, Brodie's size and physicality should no longer be listed as liabilities on his scouting reports. That said, it will always be his skating, poise and smarts that drive his game.
With a new coach taking over the bench and the club drowning in third pairing options, it's hard to determine where Brodie will land on the depth chart this season. The kid is the only NHL-level defender currently on a two-way contract, but it seems unlikely the team would demote Brodie after he established himself so ably last year. Sarich, Babchuk and Smith all averaged less ice per game than the rookie under Brent Sutter, which suggests the Brodie is at the "top of the heap" in terms of the third pairing hopefuls.
That could change in either direction under Hartley, although there doesn't appear to be much room above the youngster on the depth chart. Wideman, Bouwmeester, Butler and Giordano are the de facto top-four, with Brodie having little chance of usurping any of them short of a quantum leap forward or an injury to one of the incumbents. Butler is perhaps the only nominally vulnerable veteran of the four, assuming he isn't attached at the hip to Jay Bouwmeester like he was under Brent.
As such, the most likely result is more of the same for Brodie in terms of ice time and role this season, with perhaps a slight uptick in ice and quality of competition. Wideman and Giordano will get the bulk of the PP time from the blueline, so we shouldn't expect Brodie to improve his PPG pace to any great extent.
Brodie's goal this season should be to continue to beat up the weaker sisters in terms of scoring chances and possession in order to further establish himself at the NHL level. If he can become the first guy who gets promoted up the depth chart in the event of illness or injury, he will take another step towards becoming an everyday top-4 option and perhaps that "big leap" in season four down the road.
This year his ceiling is probably limited to about 17-18 minutes a night and between 20-25 points, but top-4 minutes and 35+ points isn't out of reach in the near future.