The Calgary Flames have been looking for a Brandon Prust type of player for years — well, ever since they traded Prust away.
General manager Jay Feaster tried to woo him back to Calgary for a third stint, but the ‘fool me once, fool me twice’ clause in mind, Prust chose to hit up the Habs for a hefty sack of money two summers ago instead.
At the Saddledome Wednesday night, the guy the Flames hope is the answer to the role of energetic little ball of hate went head to head with the prototype at the position.
Lance Bouma isn’t at Prust’s level yet, but considering the devastating injury he suffered a year ago, he’s on his way to carving out the same kind of niche in the NHL. Through four games this year, he’s got a goal, a scrap, and a few big hits. Most of that quantifiable production came in the opening game against Washington, but after a stellar pre-season that featured surprising offensive contributions and you see the potential in the 23-year-old who tore up his knee just a few games into last season.
Wait, why are we talking about a fourth-liner?
The return to the hard-working Flames identity is pivotal to the success of a team without stars. This is the reality without Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. The Flames believe Bouma represents exactly the lunch-bucket mentality they’re trying to teach, and that his efforts will rub off on even the most skilled of the bunch.
“We don’t have any superstars. We have pep — we have to take pride in that. If we don’t work hard and play the right way, we have no chance. And we know that,” said captain Mark Giordano. “He’s a big piece to our team. His skill is very underrated. He flies around. He throws big hits. He plays the right way. If you really watch him closely in the defensive zone, he’s unbelievable. He blocks shots. He’s always in the right position.”
Wednesday night some of that was on display. Bouma was out there in the last couple of minutes with the Flames clinging to a one-goal lead. He was the recipient of a handful of P.K. Subban crosschecks on the boards, which helped secure the victory when the defenceman ended up in the penalty box.
He jarred with Prust Wednesday when they lined up across from each other, battled for every inch of space, and made sure every Canadiens puck carrier in a few strides’ reach felt the weight of his body.
“Scary, scary man when he comes and hits you. He’s a strong kid,” said Giordano. We saw that in the season opener when his jarring blow broke Washington Capitals defenceman Jack Hillen’s leg.
“I’m sure they were looking over their shoulder whenever he was coming after that.”
Adding insult to injury, Bouma made it a 4-1 Flames lead (which would later be relinquished) with his second-period wrister. Yeah, the kid might be able to score a little, too.
Embracing his role
By no means does Bouma appear overly physically intimidating. At 6-1 and 210 lbs., he’s a middleweight. But like Prust, Bouma is more than willing to drop the gloves to defend a teammate, or inspire his fellow Flames by finishing every check.
p>“For sure that’s something I want to do every night. I’ve got to be a physical player,” Bouma said. “I’m a guy who’s got to bring energy to the team. Whenever the guys need a lift, (a fight is a possibility) too.”
Prust made a name for himself league-wide as a member of the Flames by seeking out fights, often against much bigger men. The Habs winger now fights as an afterthought. Bouma is on a similar career path, earning time on the penalty killing unit because of his defensive efforts, and occasionally reminding his coach and teammates that he doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff.
“Going out there and playing hard, being a hard player to play against, being physical — making hits is just as good as getting in fights sometimes,” Bouma said. “If a fight happens, it happens, right? If the team needs it, then you’ve got to do it. If you make a big hit or someone makes a big hit on one of your players, it might be time for that, for sure.”
The knee looks good so far
Thanks to a long and successful rehab, his surgically repaired knee can tolerate the big hits.
“It feels great. I haven’t had any issues with it at all. It was a hard training camp and I didn’t have any troubles,” Bouma said. “I’ve been happy with it.”
His upbeat mood is a far cry from where he was after injuring both his MCL and ACL in Game 3 of his start in Abbotsford during the lockout. The disappointment of the seriousness of his injury set in quickly. The frustration of having to rehab his MCL for two months before going in for surgery on the ACL had him battling mentally with his situation. It was a contract year and he hadn’t exactly locked himself into a top-12 role with the Flames yet.
“You go through an injury like that, you can pretty much go through anything, I think. It was a long year. In the long run, I think it helped me out mentally for sure,” Bouma said of the ordeal. “It made me a better player. I think watching the games helped also.”
Maybe the most important part of the healing was when Flames management told him not to worry about his next contract. As long as he is healthy, they see a fit for him. An opportunity to permanently stick around with the big club has been dangling in front of him for a couple of years now.
“That was huge. Knowing that if I just get better I’ll be alright (contract wise). That’s all I was focused on was getting better. It took a lot of pressure off me. “I felt if I put in the work, everything would take care of itself.”
That’s one area the Flames don’t have to worry about with Bouma. He’s always ready to work.