Development Camp Thoughts

With Calgary Flames development camp all wrapped up for 2011, I thought I’d share my thoughts after being at the Don Hartman NE Sportsplex for four of the five days.  It certainly was a different look from years past, with a whole lot more skill on the ice than we’ve seen in other years.  From dynamos like Paul Byron and Jon Gaudreau to newly signed Sven Bartschi, there was lots to be positve about.

Big Bodies

Two blueliners caught my eye for the duration of the camp, and both of them come with fairly large frames.  The hulking Chris Breen has noticeably improved in his skating over the past year, and playing a full season of pro hockey will do that.  I talked to him during the week and he admitted he was almost forced to become a better skate and a better positional defenceman in making the jump from junior to pro, because he could no longer count on his size to cure all woes.  He’s a smart player who is learning more and more how important decision making is, and I really do believe Breen will play in the NHL in the near future.  I’ll have an article on Breen out later this week.

Kootenay Ice defender Joey Leach isn’t as close to cracking an NHL roster as Breen is, but I think there’s a good shot he’s manning an NHL blueline one day down the road as well.  Leach isn’t quite as monstrous as Breen, but he’s also an imposing figure who’s coming off a really important season in the Western Hockey League.  It was important for two reasons; first, he dealt with a serious injury that took a long time to recover from, which is always a good learning experience.  But, second, he was put in some really tough spots upon his return to the lineup, especially as the Ice stormed to the WHL crown.  Along with fellow Flames pick Max Reinhart up front, Leach helped form Kootenay’s five man shutdown unit, and saw a ton of time against top end players like Brayden Schenn and Ryan Johansen.  While I don’t see either Leach nor Breen being top three NHL defenders, I think they both project to be reliable blueliners down the road.

Speaking of Reinhart, he was one of two guys at the camp who looked noticeably bigger from one year to the next.  After an impressive season, and more impressive postseason, Reinhart looks like a guy who has filled out in a big way.  The other guy who fell into that category is 2008 first rounder Greg Nemisz, who really focused on building muscle throughout his first season in professional hockey.  He’ll be relied upon a ton this year with Abbotsford, and I expect Troy Ward to use him in a ton of tough spots throughout the year.

A quick note on sixth round pick Laurent Brossoit in net, because he is a big goalie.  Standing 6’3, the Edmonton Oil Kings product covers a lot of net, and has a lot of flash to go along with his size.  He showed us a quick glove hand throughout the camp, and there is one thing that I like most about him: he’s going to get a ton of playing time with the Oil Kings this coming season.

Sizeable Skill

Both Paul Byron and Jon Gaudreau lean towards the "smaller stature" side of the scale, but what both guys lack in physical size, they make up for in an extremely high amount of skill.  We’ll start with Byron, who came over from Buffalo as part of the Robyn Regehr trade.  He was one of the quickest guys on the ice in both straight line speed and in hockey drills, showing a lot of speed during puck handling drills.  The 22 year old put up decent numbers as a first year AHLer last year, and I know Jay Feaster and the Flames believe he’s already knocking on the door for an NHL job.  He’s got a lot of things to like, and I’m feeling less and less tentative about my comparison of him to Detroit’s Darren Helm on the first day I saw him.  I think there’s something there with Byron.

As for Gaudreau, he’s not knocking on the door for an NHL job.  In fact, he hasn’t even graduated high school.  That said, watching him handle the puck as if it was on a string was a lot of fun to watch.  Who knows if Gaudreau ever makes the jump to the NHL, but I don’t see a ton of risk in drafting a guy with his level of skill in the fourth round.  If he doesn’t pan out, oh well; if he does, it’ll be because he’s a wizard with the puck and is as quick and shifty as anyone else in the system.  Committed to Northeastern University for the 2012-13 season, Gaudreau truly is a project, but I think a project worth taking on for the Flames.

First Look

13th overall pick Sven Bartschi looked exactly as I thought he would for my first in person viewing of him.  Watching him on TV playing for the Portland Winterhawks, it’s very easy to see just how skilled and dangerous he is with the puck on his stick.  While he doesn’t have the most blinding speed, Bartschi has a lot of power in his stride and can get a step on his defender by using that power to create a nice burst.  He’s got a great shot and he showed it a few times in camp, but his real coming out party might just be in Penticton when we see him in a game situation.

  • First Name Unidentified

    Great report Pat.

    I wish we could somehow get rid of Hagman and Stajan giving us the ability to ice young players like Byron, Nemisz, Bouma, etc. for the whole season.

    I would also like to see Breen and Brodie make a serious run at cracking the top 7 this season. I think post Dutter era is beginning to show and we are shifting our focus to skill. Exciting!

  • I’m kinda excited to see the new look of the flames. They are going to be very similar this year but I think in 3 years time it’ll be a VERY different team. I’m optomistic for the future, not really for this year though. I think we’ll be competative for 8th but that’s about it. I think the heat will have a good team this year though which is very good. It’ll be nice to be able to bring guys into a winning organization. It’s going to help our development a lot! I’m glad we got a few high skill guys too.

  • Pat,

    Nice article and thanks for the info. I think last year was Byron’s second AHL season though. Hockey DB has him with 57 games in 09-10 and 67 last year (with an 8 game cup of coffee in the bigs).

    • Probably either one of those would be a pretty good guess. He sort of seems like a Langkow but maybe with a little more offensive upside. I’m glad he’s recovered fully from that concussion. One thing I do know is that Abby will have a much more offensive punch with Nemisz, Cameron, Byron, and Wahl all getting more time as well as if Reinhart makes a go for it.

    • I’d say Wahl’s NHL ceiling is closer to Conroy than Langkow. People forgot that Lanks was a former top-10 pick that scored a ton in junior and has multiple 20-goal, 60-point seasons under his belt in the NHL.

      If Wahl becomes anywhere as good as Conroy (let alone Langkow) then I’ll be thrilled.

    • I’ve liked Wahl everytime I’ve seen him up close. He’s a smart hockey player and while regular NHL top six minutes might be a stretch, I certainly think a top nine spot is realistic. He plays well in his own end and is a good skater, which is a perfect fit for a third line.

  • I’ll reserve my excitement regarding positive notes on prospects until I see them in action. We used to get the rah rah from D Sutter every year too.

    Granted – it seems there’s a noticeable change in direction and style of the prospects… but I’m going to maintain skepticism until proven wrong.

    Nice report, though.

    • I’m guessing that we still end up in the bottom 5 in all of the various rankings. Which means another year of “the Flames have no prospects” taunts from around the NHL.

      As Kent said, it takes some high end talent to really get a system noticed. With the Flames system, I think it’s best to compare 2011 to, say, 2007. To me it’s clear there are far more potential NHLers now than there was then.

  • Ken V.

    We know that our prospect pool is not really that thin, but it does need more promise and despite my criticisms of our focus being on Abby I think we have ultimately taken a step in the right direction. Great read Pat.

  • Vintage Flame

    Great job from the development camp Pat.
    I was really impressed to hear about the size put on by Nemisz and Reinhart. Being that Greg isn’t the fastest skater out there, I think the increased size will help his puck possession and positional play. I’d like to see him be that centre we have that can plant in front of the net and be a thorn in the goalie’s side with some tips from the point. I keep saying this about Moss, cause we really haven’t had this aspect in a centre since Joe Nieuwendyk.

    The same goes for Reinhart. He had a great year, and to hear that he has added a bit of size to his frame is encouraging as well. Sounds like he is getting closer about challenging this roster for a spot on it.

    I’m excited to hear about the skill level of Gaudreau and Byron. Sometimes with guys like this it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. Hope for the best with these two for sure.

  • Nice job Pat. Kent, it seems like there are a lot of contracts coming off our books and a lot of open roster spots next year. Do you think there will be a chance Flames will go after Patrick Sharp this season or the next? IMO, he would be the perfect man to center Iggy and Tangs. There will be some open roster spots on the Flames this year and next, who will make the jump first and who do you see coming up as a top 6 forward in the comin year(s)?

    • Those are tough questions to answer at this point. Sharp would be a good target for sure. As for making the jump into the top-six, the only guy even close is Backlund. He may even do it this season. The rest of the Flames prospects are nowhere near that point, so we’re talking several years down the road (if ever).

      • Vintage Flame

        I see this this year as being a tough one for Backlund. He has to make his mark as a top 6 guy, but I think he will be in tough against Moss and having Langks back in the lineup.

        I don’t think it will be good for his development if he is back on the 3rd line, but he has definitely shown flashes that merit top 6 play. It’s going to be interesting to watch him this year for sure.

  • RexLibris

    It seems like the Flames system has a number of bottom 9 prospects, guys who’ll have a decent career if they can become established as complimentary hitters and grinders with maybe a decent 3rd line centre to good 2nd line centre prospect in Nemisz.
    This places the team in a tough spot because it’s almost impossible to turn a good 3rd liner or tweener 2nd liner into a blue-chip stud prospect.

    So which result would Flames fans prefer for this year? To get into the playoffs with the likelihood of a 1st or 2nd round exit or to finish bottom five? From what I’ve read so far it seems like the fanbase is split.

    • Vintage Flame

      Tough question Rex. I think what our record is like & how the team is playing & our injury situation will dictate what Feaster & King decide. We arent exactly deep in some positions that a rash of injuries like what happened to Edmonton a couple years ago will dictate the flea market sale at the trade deadline. I personally think we should be somewhere in the middle as being sellers irregardless how we are doing. But thats just me.

  • In truth our prospect pool is nothing right now. Neither thin nor deep. It’ll be 2 more years before we can say with any accuracy how a lot of these ‘exmperiments’ will work out. Right now, it’s like we’re starting at ground zero.

    That said, I will concede the overall talent level has gone up and I commend that, but there’s nothing yet to indicate that the increase in pure skill we’ve acquired will necessaruly have top 6/top 4 impact at the NHL level.

    I still wish we’d taken Grimaldi, but I do have high hopes for Bartschi.

    As for Backlund, I still say he’d have been off last year in the AHL. And while Langkow may be back, Backlund should at least get consistent 3rd line minutes as compared to a lot of time on the 4th line last year. More minutes, but less pressure should hopefully allow him to break through in year 3 the following season.

    I believe it’s critical that we sell of out top assets at the trade deadline this year in order to further add to that talent pool. Which is why the Regehr move bugs me so much. Still trying to figure out exactly which direction Feaster is trying to go here.

  • RexLibris

    @ Kevin R

    Injuries and performance are obvious limiters on the performance of a team as there are some years where it can actually serve you well (the year my Oil drafted Hall losing 50% of our starters that season cemented our grip on last place) but I guess what I was wondering was answered by the response of the-wolf (selling off top assets to get the ball rolling on a rebuild). It seemed like every summer for the past few years the off-season was when Flames fans would talk about how good the team looked on paper (to be fair we did the same thing here, like when MacT said we could challenge for 1st in the NW and we finished the year drafting 10th overall) but this off-season there seems to be an almost fatalistic sense around this team. I don’t think they’re that bad right now, they can still compete on a nightly basis during the regular season. They just need everything to go their way to beat the top-echelon teams. Now in a year or two that’s when I see the bottom really falling out from under the team based on the age of your core, expiring contracts, and the overall projection of your prospects. From experience, I can say that having a braintrust that recognizes its time to rebuild before falling face first is a big advantage over one that decides to do it once all the other options have been exhausted.

    • RexLibris

      Wolf echoes my sentiments, especially on Regehr & Feaster/King have not really come out & given us fans a committed direction. Perhaps being a cap spending team it would be almost blasphomy to declare a rebuild. I do believe we let Backlund loose with Tanguay & Iggy. He’s our best legitimate chance right now at reducing the age of our core. Gio & JBO are also younger & what can be considered core. Lets face it, Iggy & Tanguay are our only forward core players & Kipper, the age factor is worrisome.
      Prudent trades and some real good luck may shorten a rebuild.