(Today we debut VF’s Voice of the Nation – a weekly from a more fan friendly perspective)
For months we have talked about what the Calgary Flames need to do this off-season to not only remain competitive in this upcoming season, but to also enhance and secure a viable future, with a refocused look on drafting and development in the farm system. This week we debut "Voice of the Nation", grassroots look at what a team can do from within to dig themselves out of mediocrity and strive towards being a contender once more.
Many on Flames Nation have all advocated and agreed that, come this time next year, the Calgary Flames should look dramatically different. Yet, with nearly $23 Million dollars coming off the Cap next year, no one can really say how it will look. Aside from what might come about through free agency or trade, the Flames have made the acknowledgement that there is a strong need to develop the farm and increase the learning curve of the prospects that play there.
In our first part, let’s take a look at the defence and goaltending in the system. With the departure of Robyn Regehr, the Flames made the defence core open to audition. Many thought that this would be the opportunity needed for a young D-man, like T.J. Brodie, to come through the system and join the big club. The re-signing of Anton Babchuck made that a little less certain, and the signing of Scott Hannan all but sealed Brodie’s fate back to Abbotsford, for at least one more season.
The building blocks on defence start with Brodie. he is a great puck moving defenceman that possesses great skating. He is 6’1" and 185 lbs, so he will need to fill out a bit more. What is key about Brodie though, is that he will be able to provide leadership and anchor the top defensive pairing in Abbotsford and will push the others in their play. His excellent skating will be a metric for everyone he plays with and should be considered a strong asset on the powerplay. He has a fairly hard shot, but more importantly, it’s an accurate one as well. Last year in the AHL, T.J. finished the year tied for 2nd in team scoring and was the Heat’s only representative in the AHL All-Star game. Although he may start the year down in Abbotsford, look for Brodie to be the first guy called up if the Flames run into injury issues or are looking for a spark in the line up. The physical side to Brodie’s defensive game will mature as he puts on more mass, but the most encouraging aspect to his game is his raw skill and intelligence with the puck. In 68 games with the Heat, Brodie was a +3 playing on a defensive pairing that always faced the opposition’s top lines.
Chris Breen is another hopeful the Flames have on the blueline, and is T.J. Brodie’s defence partner. The 6’7", 231 pounder is going into this season with plans of cracking the Flames line-up rather than remaining on the farm. However, I have him ranked behind his linemate, and since we have seen the Flames pretty much shore up the back end I would say the 22 year old is looking at another year in the AHL. Once again this bodes well for the Heat, and ultimately the Flames. Breen is going to face top opposition in the minors which will further add to his development, a better option than seeing the pressbox as a 7-8 defensive option for the majority of the NHL season. Even at 6’7", Breen is not a physically dominating type player. In an interview back on July 9th, he even stated that he "wouldn’t mind being 240. but if I don’t feel fast? There’s no point to it."
Breen is a solid skater, given his size. He can shoot the puck well, and is accurate much like Brodie. The two should compliment each other, especially on the PP. Having two shooting options on the point, makes it harder for the opposition to hone in and isolate Brodie from the play. Look for the forwards to have more scoring chances presented to them, given that the shot from the point can come from either side. This year should also give Chris the chance to work on the mental side of his game. At times, Breen can be indecisive or not aggressive enough. As his confidence matures playing against teams top forwards, so should his competitiveness, which is what Calgary wants to see in order for him to become an NHL caliber player.
Joey Leach is another tall player that will need some time to grow into his 6’3" frame. Playing the active stick, if he can add some significant mass to him, he has the potential to be a strong shut down defenceman, forcing wingers to the outer periphery. I had the chance to see Leach play last year. He is a strong skater and plays a good positional game. More than likely we are going to see Leach returned to the Kootney Ice. His 3rd year in the WHL should bolster his development. I like this move because, when he joins the AHL next year, it will be in a situation where he can step in under Breen and Brodie. The Flames are starting to show a trend towards leadership and mentorship for their different prospects coming up in various stages. I see Leach fitting nicely into that system.
John Ramage is a player that I’m personally looking forward to see play in Abbotsford. During his stint with the US World Junior team last year, he looked very impressive. His service as their captain showed that this kid has leadership skills. Being the leader of a group of all stars demonstrates a level of respect amongst your peers. If this is how the US players saw Ramage, I’m all for him bringing that trait with him to the Flames organization. He is a smart player with a great sense for the puck in all three zones of the ice. He is the guy that doesn’t take a shift off and can play a physical game without taking himself out of position. the downside of Ramage is that he wants to remain in Wisconsin for one more year, so the Heat won’t have the luxury of his play this season. The good news is when he does join the Heat; he will bring instant credibility and leadership to a team that has already had a one year jump on this new phase of development. That won’t hold Ramage back and expect him to step in seamlessly and contribute instantly.
Leyland Irving has definitely played himself into the conversation for the future of the Flames. Even with the re-signing of Henrik Karlsson, the Flames plan to give Irving every opportunity to win the back-up role in training camp this year. That being said, it is more likely that Leyland comes to camp and learns a lot about the areas of his game that he needs to work on. Taking those lessons learned back down to Abbotsford only helps build upon the overall development of the team. If the players can play their game with the knowledge that they have a more than capable tender behind them, you have the foundation of a pretty cohesive group.
Irving’s play last year gave the Flames the peace of mind that they could call him up in case of injury to Karlsson or Kiprusoff. Irving was 2nd in the AHL in wins (30) and led the league with 8 shutouts. He had a 2.30 GAA and a 0.913 SAV%. Look for Leland to carry the majority of the mail this year, providing the Heat a chance to develop Joni Ortio at their own pace.
This brings us to Ortio. Since he only got to play in one game last year with Abbotsford, this is going to be a year of adjustments for the young Finn. It is often said that one of the big things he has to work on is his positioning. This undoubtedly will be something that the Heat and Jordan Sigalet will work with him on, especially since he is moving from European to North American sized ice. Where Ortio excels, is his instinctual play. According to Hockey’s Future, he has good reflexes, rebound control and quick lateral movement. Even as a young player, he has been able to demonstrate composure under pressure, and mental strength when facing breakaways and shootouts, then the Flames depth in goal definitely shows developmental progression in the years to come.
In part 2 of the series, we’ll take a look at the development of the forwards in the system, and the new direction that the Flames have taken towards the Fountain of Youth…