With the propsect tournament drawing to a close, the Calgary Flames main camp is right around the corner. Practies and such start this coming weekend while the first exhibition game goes September 20th in a split-squad game in/vs Vancouver. The rest of the pre-season schedule is here.
The Flames start camp with a full compliment of NHL players and one-way contracts, so there isn’t going to be much in the way of training camp battles for roster spots. In addition, the importance of training camp to a players ability to make the team or move up the depth chart is often exagerrated and magnified at this time of year. With such a limited amount of games against often less than NHL-quality competition, results from the pre-season have to be taken with a large helping of salt. There’s a reason guys like Brandon Bochenski lead their clubs in scoring in September only to be returned to the AHL when the puck drops in October.
With those caveats attached, training camp can still definitely yield some interesting information. Adam Pardy and Mark Giordano both stood out in a couple of exhibition tournaments before cracking the squad, for example. The coach’s choices can also give us some insight into how the depth chart and line combinations are shaping up heading into the regular season. It’s also a good time to assess how close or far some of the younger guys are to becoming effective pros.
With that in mind, here are some things worth keeping an eye on once main camp opens in a few days:
While there isn’t a lot of room for a rookie to crack the main roster this year, there are still a number of interesting names to watch, particularly when the games get going. Primary amongst which is the somewhat revelatory trio of Patrick Holland, Max Reinhart and Sven Baertschi. The three teenagers will all be returned to their respective WHL teams at some point this month, but their notable performance in the rookie tournament may have granted them a date or two against real NHLers next week. It will be instructive to see how each does against men rather than their peers. Baertschi ini particular ended up looking a few paces ahead of the pack by the end of the prospect proceedings, so he’s naturally a guy worth watching. A couple of years ago Mikael Backlund came into camp as a teen who looked to be ahead of the curve only to find himself completely overwhelmed when the adults hit the ice. That’s obviously not atypical for most youngsters and Backlund has come a long way since, but the degree to which Baertschi sinks or swims may give us an idea of how far along he is.
The other hopefuls and youngsters worth watching include:
Ryan Howse – WHL sniper didn’t really stand-out in the rookie tournament and is rumored to have shown up for his first season of pro hockey somewhat out of shape. Howse scored a lot of goals on a fairly lousy team in junior. He was criticized as a one-dimensional player in his draft year and was more reliant on PP scoring than other Flames prospects in the past. He’s certainly a player that can be dangerous inside the hashmarks, but as Bryan Cameron showed last year, that is not necessarily enough to get you ice time and points at the pro level.
Roman Horak – Acquired from New York in the Tim Erixon
fiasco trade, Horak was Howse’s regular linemate last season and was the Adam Oates to Howse’s Brett Hull as it were. He showed some flashes during the recent rookie gathering, although he was also inevitably overshadowed by Baertschi and company. Horak is a smaller, flashier player who is known for speed and passing, although he never put up mind-blowing numbers in junior.
Mitch Wahl – Former Flames second rounder was a scorer and leader in junior, but had his first professional season essentially wiped out by a headshot that caused a severe concussion. Wahl is a smaller, cerebral center who gets by on wits and vision but was always criticized for his lackluster willingness to engage physically. He will likely be behind the pace for awhile as he tries to recover from his lost season.
Greg Nemisz – Former first rounder seems to be lost in the fold a bit. An uninspiring skater and player without one stand-out above average skill, Nemisz’ managed an okay scoring rate last year for the Heat and was praised for his versatility by former head coach Jim Playfair. For me, Nemisz is a guy who seems to blend in to the background of games whenever I watch him, although his most notable play in the prospect camp was an egregious turn-over at his own blueline that caused a goal against. Expectations for Nemisz have started to deflate a little, although he may still have a future as a David Moss-type player if he can continue be an effective jack-of-all trades up front.
Paul Byron – The "other guy" in the Regehr trade, Byron appeared in a few games for the Sabres last year and at 22-years old with a couple of pro seasons under his belt, might be the closest of the hopefuls to challenging for a roster spot on the big club. Another smaller, skilled guy in the Baertschi/Horak mold, Bryon will be no doubt counted on to improve the Heat’s formerly punchless offense this year.
Lance Bouma – Bouma made his debut with the Flames after a spate of injuries last year and didn’t look terribly out of place on the fourth line. Big and fast with a willingness to engage in physical battles, Bouma probably isn’t going to make the NHL because of his scoring totals (although his marker against the Oilers kids showed that he isn’t completely without hands). Bouma is probably in for a the full three year internship at the AHL level, but may again place near the top of the list when it comes to potential injury call-ups.
Carter Bancks – Free agent invitee from last year impressed during his brief showing in the AHL before being felled by injury. A smallish winger who works ceaseslessly and skates well, Bancks doesn’t have the highest ceiling but could be in the mix for a 4th line, energy-player type role down the road.
TJ Brodie – Young defender is the best homegrown prospect on the blueline now that Tim Erixon is plying his trade in New York. Although this past week showed Brodie still has some things to work on in the defensive end, there’s no question he has top-end mobility and offensive instincts. Was the stand-out of training camp last season and managed a better point-per-game pace than most of the Heat’s forwards once he was sent down.
John Negrin – The most senior of Flames draft picks on the blueline now that Pelech is gone. Negrin had high marks coming out of junior but his pro career has been sullied by constant injury problems. A big defender who can skate, Negrin will need to stand-out and remain healthy this year in order to remain relevant in the organization.
Chris Breen – Big free agent signing moved up the depth chart under Jim Playfair last season. Breen hasn’t shown well in my limited viewings of him, with siginficant deficits in skating and mobility being his primary weakness. However, the org seems high on the kid so he may get a long look this training camp. That is, assuming the injury he suffered in the rookie camp doesn’t keep him out of the line-up.
The Parent Club Questions – Blueline and Center
As mentioned, there isn’t a lot of movement expected on the big club. The only two areas with minor question marks heading into camp are the back-end and the center rotation. With the exit of Robyn Regehr and Daymond Langkow, there is uncertainty about how particular roles will ultimately shake out. Training camp won’t be where these questions are ultimately answered as it’s likely Brent Sutter will experiment with things based on results during the regular season. The coach may, however, give us some indication of the direction he’s leaning.
The first line center shuffle
The Flames have a lot of middle-rotation centermen. In a way, the club’s depth is impressive, boasting Olli Jokinen, Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan, Brendan Morrison and sometimes pivot David Moss. In another way, it’s congested and confusing: none of the guys in question are proven heavy lifters or front-line offensive threats. There is therefore no clear depth chart or pecking order when it comes to the Flames centers – the race to land on a line with Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla will begin in earnest next Tueday. Current favorites for the position range from Moss to Backlund, although no one has things locked down.
Filling the Robyn Hole
Regehr has been the Flames primary shut-down option since 2003. His absence will likely be assuaged with the addition of Scott Hannan as well as a promotion up the rotation of Mark Giordano. The Flames depth chart beneath Hannan, Gio and Bouwmeester is somewhat unsettled as well: Cory Sarich, Chris Butler, Anton Babchuk, Brendan Mikkelson, Brett Carson will all be dueling to see who can land in positions four-through-seven. Not to mention wild cards like AHL veterans Clay Wilson and Derek Smith, both of whom have been amongst the top point producers amongst defensemen in the minors the last few years.
– There’s a chance the team will opt to carry at least one enforcer this year with both P3L and Raitis Ivanans on one-way contracts. The big guys may well be battling to show the brass who should stick with the parent club.
– For all the flack Jarome Iginla catches for being a slow starter, Miikka Kiprusoff tends to be pretty unreliable in October himself. The Flames goalie had probably his worst season in the Calgary colors last year, so it be would be nice to see him start off on the right foot for a change.
– Training camp usually yields some surprises/dark horses. Sometimes stand-outs prove to be true future NHLers like Giordano and sometimes they end up being false alarms like John Armstrong. It will be interesting to see if any unknowns poke their head above the fray this fall.