It’s has been pointed out to me on occasion that I tend toward the negative when it comes to my commentary and analysis. While that’s not necessarily true, I’ll admit a certain misanthropic bend to my writing about the team – in part, due to something of an innate cynicism and in part due to the organization’s almost total lack of success over the last plus two decades (with the lone exception of 2004).
By my estiamtion, it’s been another so-so off-season for the club and they’ll again be in tough to make the playoffs. Assuming the season gets played at all, it’s bound to follow a script similar to what we’ve seen the last three years featuring a few more valleys than hills and, ultimately, a mad scramble for the playoffs which inevitably falls short.
All that said, there are certainly more than a few things worth looking forward to in 2012-13 if you’re a Flames fan. One of the delightful aspects of the endlessly iterative nature of professional sports is no matter how dim a club’s chances may get for overall success, each new season brings fresh interests and hopes. This year is no exception for Calgary.
So here in no particular order is what I’m looking forward to in 2012-13.
Backlund, Baertschi and Brodie
7.) The search for Kipper’s successor
I think for perhaps the first time since he grabbed the incumbent #1 position in 2004, this season will feature a real and earnest search for the Flames next starter. The organization currently has Leland Irving, Henrik Karlsson and Karri Ramo as pro options, with Joni Ortio playing his trade overseas.
Karlsson will probably be demoted or moved back to Europe, while it’s a safe bet Irving will get a very real look at the NHL level. How he fares this year will go a long way to determine whether he sticks with the Flames long-term or not.
Ramo is the ultimate wild card: after a couple of above board seasons in the KHL, the former Lightning prospect has one year left in his Russian contract. Chances are he plays that out and then crosses back over to challenge Kipper in the final year of his contract (assuming the affable Fin is still around. His salary drops to just $1.5M in 2013-14, meaning he may choose to forgo his last year and retire. Also, the team may choose to trade him given his age and the fact his NTC has expired).
There are a lot of balls up in the air when it comes to the Flames goalie situation and very little is obvious or certain. It will be interesting to see how guys like Irving and Ramo fare in their various leagues/roles as the opportunity to grab Kipper’s spot opens up.
6.) The Continued Development of TJ Brodie
Somewhat forgotten in the excitement around Sven Baertschi, John Gaudreau, Mark Jankowski and Max Reinhart is the fact that TJ Brodie established himself at just 21 years old as legitimate NHL option on the back-end last year. He didn’t tear up any scoring records and he played some of the easier minutes on the team, but jumping into the league at that age and holding your own is a step a vast majority of kids never take.
Brodie displays the sort of skills and poise that are highly valued in the modern game: he can skate, he has excellent vision and a good outlet pass. Although smaller in stature, Brodie also shown an ability to hold his own in board battles and dirty areas to a much greater level than he initially showed as younger man.
It often takes blueliners at least until the age of 24 to really figure things out at the NHL level, so I’d say Brodie is a bit ahead of the curve. Even if he never progresses beyond a third pairing, occasional PP guy he’ll have covered his bet as a 4th round draft pick. He’s a good bet to develop well beyond that point, however, given his tool-set and progress thus far. If he can take another firm step forward this coming season, he will be able firm up the Flames somewhat questionable depth at the top of their defensive rotation.
5.) Max Reinhart’s Rookie Season
Even if there is no lock-out, the eldest Reinhart son will probably spend the majority of his season in the AHL with the Abbotsford Heat. He is an intriguing prospect for Flames fans to watch nonetheless because of his very high hockey IQ. Although his offensive numbers in the WHL were never eye-popping, Max developed into the Kootenay Ice’s most invaluable overall player due to his ability to effect play in all circumstances.
Reinhart likely to have a longer apprenticeship than, say, Sevn Baertschi because doesn’t possess any of the qualities that typically get you fast tracked to the show – that being high end offense or being bigger/meaner than average. Hi progress at the AHL level and how he handles the size and rigors of the pro game will be instructive however. If he can survive and thrive, Reinhart is the kind guy who become the capable (but under appreciated) two-way center almost every better than average team in the boasts.
4.) The Arrival of Roman Cervenka
It has the potential to blow-up spectacularly in Jay Feaster’s face, but I still consider the acquisition of KHL scoring star Roman Cervenka a worthwile experiment. Right now, it’s unknown just how well he’ll acclimate to NA hockey or even where he’ll play in the line-up be it as a winger or center. Cervenka may turn out to be an invaluable addition to the Flames severely lackluster depth in the 23-27 age range up front, but he might also turn out to be Jiri Dopita, Fabian Brunnstrom or Ville Leino.
Cervenka is an unknown commodity currently, but has the possibility to step in a make an immediate impact on the roster.
3.) The Return of Bob Hartley
I was somewhat underwhelmed by the hiring of Bob Hartley, if only because of the "boys on the bus"/nepotistic feel to the whole ting. That said, he has a pretty good resume and there’s no question the team needed a new perspective after three years of Brent Sutter banging his head against the wall.
The Flames roster is going to present the new bench boss with particular challenges, including which forward unit(s) to match against other team’s best players. How he constructs his forwards lines will also be of interest: does Matt Stajan get another chance now that he’s beyond Sutter’s baleful glance? Does a kid like Sven Baertschi get thrust into a scoring role immediately? Where do Curtis Glencross and Mikael Backlund land on the depth chart? etc.
Hartley has promised a more "offensive/exciting" brand of hockey this coming season, but I suspect coaches tend to eventually match their systems and strategies to the rosters they have to work with. How he determines what the optimal strategy is and what players he favors will be fascinating to watch.
2.) Mikael Backlund’s Inevitable Rebound
It’s possible Backlund will continue to shoot blanks, that he’ll find himself relegated to the bottom end of the roster and will finally be pronounced a bust after all and be shipped out for pennies on the dollar.
That’s not my expectation, however. Even though I think his offensive ceiling might be in the 40-point territory and he’s probably never going to score much more than 15 goals at this level, I think Backlund’s various percentages will rebound enough this season that his output (which was so disappointing last year) won’t blind fans to the various other qualities the young center possesses.
Backlund took the rare step of driving possession and scoring chance ratios last year in difficult circumstances. The Flames haven’t had a young forward do that in recent memory – that was the bar Dustin Boyd could never clear, for instance. If Backlund can sustain at least average SH% and scoring rates, he becomes the sort of player who can help make life easier for everyone else on the roster. Think of guys like Dave Bolland and Frans Nielsen, for instance – not superstars or anything, but centers who make it possible for the Toews and Tavares of the world to have a bit more rope to work with.
1.) Sven Baertschi
This is the obvious one.
Baertschi has been crushing things since the Flames took him 13th overall in 2011. No player in his draft class scored at a higher point-per-game rate. His developmental step forward in junior from rookie to sophomore was gigantic. To top it all off, he scored three goals in five games as a teen during his cup of coffee last year, including the highlight reel marker above.
Baertschi is not only the best prospect in the Flames stable by a country mile…he’s the best forward skater to be picked by the organization in recent memory. He represents a lone, bright star in what has been an endlessly dark night for Flames fans when it comes to prospect acquisition and development. And given how rapidly the Flames top-end is aging, he is also the organization’s best (only?) hope for developing an heir apparent up front to whom failing hands can pass the torch.
While expectations for his rookie season should be tempered and there’s always the possibility a prospect (however talent) won’t work out, it’s impossible not to be amped about Baertschi’s potential.