Folks, if there’s one thing the Flames shipping out three roster players prior to the trade deadline did, it was create opportunities for younger players. At present, there are four key rookies in the Calgary line-up, and there have been as many as six in certain games due to injuries.
Are the kids doing as well as expected? Let’s take a look. I’m excluding Ben Hanowski, as he’s played a single game. (To his credit, he started out shaky and looked better as the game went on.)
23, pending restricted free agent
Past performance: Aliu bounced around between teams last season, playing for the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles and for the Abbotsford Heat on a loan before the Flames traded John Negrin to Winnipeg for his rights. Last year, he had 14 points in 42 games for the Heat and had two points in three games with the Flames during a late season call-up.
Aliu played three games for Calgary, all of them as a stop-gap measure on emergency recall. He was fairly well shielded, with a Corsi Rel QoC of -1.09 and he played primarily with guys like Steve Begin and Blake Comeau. In his most recent single-game recall, he played with Roman Horak and Mike Cammalleri, curiously, and played well. At least, well enough that you wouldn’t notice that he was playing in his fifth NHL game. Aliu’s been a decent depth option for Calgary despite having an undistinguished tenure with Abbotsford, but it’s worth cautioning that he’s been extremely shielded and he’s had an extremely small sample size.
26, first year of a two-year contract
Past performance: After two years in the Pittsburgh organization on an AHL contract, Ben Street joined the Flames (on his first NHL deal) in the off-season. He had 57 points in 70 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, but it’s worth noting that the Baby Penguins play a more offensive and up-tempo system than the Heat. In 67 games for Abbotsford, Street has put up 36 points.
Street’s hard to judge, as he played a couple games early in the season and then came up very recently. His most frequent linemates have been Roman Cervenka and Jiri Hudler, and he’s been very, very shielded compared to his teammates – having a Corsi Rel QoC of -1.77. That’s right, he’s been as close to playing AHLers as he can be in the NHL. And he’s been outshot, with a Corsi Rel of -14.3. Yikes.
Despite this, it’s hard to place the blame just on him. Roman Cervenka hasn’t set the world on fire this season and given the small sample size for Street (with just three NHL appearances), it’s hard to know exactly what he is. For now, he’s maybe a replacement-level NHL player.
21, first year of a three-year contract
Past performance: A product of the Kootenay Ice, and the eldest of ex-Flame defender Paul Reinhart’s three sons, Max had a fairly distinguished junior career. He increased his points-per-game every year of his four-year WHL tenure, played in the Memorial Cup, represented his country at the U-18s and wore a letter for half of his junior career. This season, he progressed from a bottom-six defensive role in Abbotsford during the lockout to playing top-six minutes against the opposition’s best players once the lockout ended. To say that he expected to get the call to Calgary would be likely incorrect, as he had a team-worst minus-26 rating when he was summoned.
If the other players that the Flames recalled have been shielded, given that the coaching staff are trying to get a read on them, perhaps Max Reinhart is the opposite. After playing the hard minutes on the farm for Troy G. Ward, he’s been thrown to the wolves in the NHL (with a Corsi Rel QoC of 1.46). And he’s largely thrived, generally out-chancing and out-shooting his opponents, and he’s been quite adept at creating scoring chances with physical play. He has 17 shots on net through six appearances, in addition to three missed shots.
Granted, it’s still quite early, but Reinhart’s early returns have been excellent. The coaching staff has been more and more prone to giving him tough situations (playing the other team’s top lines and more defensive zone starts), but he’s been up to it thus far. He’s played with many different line-mates – his pairing with Tim Jackman has been good for both of them – but so far his most common line-mates have been Backlund and Cervenka.
I’m not entirely sure that the Flames know what they have in Max Reinhart yet. But based on his AHL performances, I’m sure they have ignored his awful plus/minus and focused on how well he’s fit into Bob Hartley’s high-tempo forechecking system. Based on six games, I’d say Max Reinhart is an NHL player next season.
21, second year of a three-year contract
Past performance: The son of Czech star Roman Horak, Roman the younger was the centerpiece of a trade with the New York Rangers that sent disgruntled draft pick Tim Erixon to the Big Apple. Horak’s also proven to be an absolute steal of a player, making the injury-addled Flames roster in each of his first two seasons with the organization. Horak played 61 games with the Flames last year but wasn’t great when he was sent to the AHL. This season, he went on a scoring tear with the Heat during the lockout and was consistently good (but not a consistent force on the score-sheet) in both leagues once the lockout ended.
If there’s one guy that Troy G. Ward has evened-out as a hockey player, it may be Roman Horak. Horak’s played as many games under Ward as he has under any professional coach, but only recently has Horak become notably as an tenacious forechecker and a very strong force in all three zones.
He’s also been an underrated offensive force. In the Minnesota game, for example, he both started and finished a strong passing play with linemates Roman Cervenka and Jiri Hudler (on a Czech-ing line), gaining an assist on Hudler’s goal. Much like Reinhart, Horak has barely been shielded, with a Corsi Rel QoC of 0.78. Against the strong competition, Horak has been narrowly out-chanced with a Corsi Rel of -1.2.
After 75 games in the NHL, it’s apparent when watching Horak play (or talking to him) that he really doesn’t want to go back to the American Hockey League. To be fair, it seems clear watching Horak that he’s ready for a regular NHL job. He’s poised with the puck, knows where to be without it, and generally does what an NHLer should – and he’s just 21. Based on how he’s been deployed by the Flames recently, and his performance over the last few games, it may be the case that Calgary’s management and coaching staff feel similarly.
20, first year of a three-year contract
Past performance: Sven Baertschi was a pretty good junior hockey player. In two seasons in the WHL, he had 179 points in just 113 games. He came into Calgary last year on an emergency recall from junior and had three goals in five games. He made the Flames roster out of camp, played bottom-six minutes and wasn’t amazing, and was sent back to Abbotsford – where he played during the lockout. He had 26 points overall in 32 AHL games and was brought back up.
Sven Baertschi is still a work in progress, in that he’s still trying to figure out the ebbs and flows of regular NHL life. His play away from the puck could use a bit of work, but he’s come a long way from when he started the season.
His year can be split into two segments: when he played bottom-six minutes (with Blake Comeau) and wasn’t great, and when he played top-six minutes without Blake Comeau. When he was sent down, Baertschi’s Corsi Rel was amongst the worst on the team. Since he’s returned, his relative corsi rate has rallied and now sits at 0.5, basically even. He’s benefited from some good veteran linemates like Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak.
Is Sven Baertschi an elite NHL talent yet? Well, not quite. He’s getting shielded a bit and he’s got good line-mates. But if the goal is to build up his confidence and allow him to put up some points in the NHL, mission accomplished. At the very least, he’s an NHL calibre talent who doesn’t look out of place in the Flames top-six. The season he’s had is probably a bit disappointing on the score-sheet, but he’s now finally playing with the poise and creativity that those around the team hoped he would all year.
22, third year of a three-year contract
Past performance: A product of the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit and Barrie Colts, T.J. Brodie was a good, if not great, junior-aged defender. He shockingly made the Calgary Flames out of camp three years ago, then (to the shock of nobody) turned out to not be particularly amazing as a 20-year-old. To his credit, he went down to the AHL after three NHL games and became a very good all-around defender. When he returned to the NHL to open last season, he was quite impressive, albeit in a bottom pairing role.
T.J. Brodie began this season as a healthy scratch. He’ll end it as arguably Calgary’s best blueliner. He was once shielded and played third-pairing minutes. As the coaching staff gained confidence in him, Brodie’s been protected less and less, moving into the second pairing and eventually playing on the top tandem with Jay Bouwmeester.
With Bouwmeester gone, Brodie is one of the team’s most effective defenders. Wideman may have a better shot and Giordano may be more of a physical presence, but for a 22-year-old with just 97 NHL games under his belt, Brodie has wildly exceeded expectations.
And I think it goes without saying that the Flames have turned their fourth round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft into an every-day NHL roster player.