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.
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.
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.
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.