At the very beginning.
The hype machine was too strong
Take yourself back to the summer of 2011. Tim Erixon has just refused to sign with the Flames, waiting until the last minute in a pretty obvious ploy to force a trade to daddy’s team, the New York Rangers. The Flames are beginning to undergo a period of transition, even if management refuses to acknowledge it, and the team is laden primarily with over-the-hill veterans. The only prospects to look forward to are TJ Brodie and maybe, like, Max Reinhart.
So there was instant excitement and expectation when they selected Sven Baertschi with the 13th overall pick. The Swiss winger was coming off an 85 point season over 66 games in his first year in North America. He screamed high offensive talent, and he was young. He was exactly what the Flames needed.
He spent his sophomore WHL season scoring at a berserk pace when not battling injuries, and ended up with a two-points-per-game record. A five-game emergency call-up only compounded this when he scored three goals, showing off instant talent and offensive instincts. He played 14 minutes a game a couple of times, and even got to see some ice in an overtime game. Svensanity was in full effect.
Struggles and the beginning of a rebuild
The 2012-13 season started with a lockout, and so Baertschi, along with all the other prospects, went to the AHL. There, he scored six goals and 17 points over 19 games before suffering a neck injury.
He came back just in time to join the Flames once the lockout ended. Baertschi joined the Flames for the first four games of the season, although he was threatened to be a healthy scratch by then, and only played five minutes against the Edmonton Oilers. He was then sidelined for about a month with a hip flexor injury before returning to action and scoring just one assist over the next six games. He was sent down.
It was the right move for him. Baertschi was playing limited minutes, and wasn’t able to produce. He was also still a rookie in what had already been a tumultuous and injury-filled season. He clearly needed somewhere to get his legs back under him.
He was upset with the demotion, and it took him a couple of games to find his touch again, but Baertschi ended up with another four goals and eight points over eight games. With the Flames firmly out of the playoffs and the long-awaited fire sale underway, he was recalled.
It took Baertschi another three NHL games before he found his legs again. He was playing around 17 minutes a night, the most he’d been getting in the NHL all season. And then he scored three goals and nine points over his final seven games. Things looked to be back on track for what was still the Flames’ top prospect.
Enter: Brian Burke
And then everything went straight to shit.
Brian Burke criticized him before the season even began, questioning his commitment and saying he could only play in one of three zones. Publicly, Baertschi took it in stride.
He played with Jiri Hudler and rookie Sean Monahan. Monahan shot 30% over his nine-game tryout, scoring six goals. He had three assists to make him a point-per-game player over that time. Baertschi, meanwhile, had four points over those same nine games, shooting at 12.5%. Still, he was getting regular minutes.
And then he was healthy scratched for Tim Jackman, with Hartley citing Matt Stajan’s return, as well as wanting to see more from him, as reasons.
Baertschi played the next four games, scoring just one assist before being healthy scratched again. Tim Jackman and Brian McGrattan played in his stead for the next two games. He returned to action for the next nine straight games, hitting his stride when receiving more ice time and scoring a goal and four points over that time.
He was a healthy scratch once more, then played the next four games before Jay Feaster was fired. He put up two assists over consistently declining minutes. Burke took over as interim general manager, and promptly demoted Baertschi. That was pretty much the death knell.
Baertschi went on to put up 13 goals and 29 points over 41 AHL games; not bad numbers, but not exactly the sign of the player the Flames had initially drafted and seen over his first two seasons.
A new season means a fresh start, and this year, Baertschi was given a chance. He was one of the Flames’ final training camp cuts, outlasting everyone outside of Josh Jooris. The two were sent down together as players like Devin Setoguchi, Brian McGrattan, and Brandon Bollig made the team instead.
When injuries forced the Flames to recall multiple prospects, Baertschi was among them. When he wasn’t a healthy scratch, he was playing paltry fourth line minutes. He played fewer than 10 minutes for 10 of his 14 games. His most common linemate was Paul Byron, whom he nearly aided to a hat trick (although he was inexplicably benched later in the game before the feat could be achieved), and following that, Bollig.
The writing was on the wall. When Baertschi was playing in the NHL, he received fourth line minutes, and couldn’t score. When he wasn’t on the ice, he was in the pressbox. When he wasn’t in the pressbox, he was in the AHL. All this despite being one of the final cuts from training camp, and cut for players he was definitely already better than: one massive final blow to his confidence.
In Sven Baertschi’s final game for the Flames, he was given a top six role for two periods. He collaborated with Mason Raymond for a goal. He took a penalty, and was promptly benched. And that was that, for no discernible reason.
Nobody handled things properly
Jay Feaster said he regretted using an emergency recall on Baertschi the season after he was drafted. He cited expectations were made too high, and both management and the fanbase had bought into them.
In his first season after being drafted, people were excited. Baertschi was scoring a lot. He got called up to the NHL and scored three goals in a row. He was going to be the Flames’ next Jarome Iginla. He said he wanted to be as much.
In his rookie professional season, he saw some bumps in the road, and maybe wasn’t as NHL-ready as initially thought. But that was okay. It took him a little bit, but eventually after getting over the disappointment of being sent down, he showed flashes of that high offensive ability he was known for, and ended his season on a very strong note.
But the expectations were already set: he had to be high scoring at all times. He was in junior. He was during his brief call up. The Flames were finally in transition, and they had next to no prospects that could be considered a top six guy. He was one of the few, essentially treated as a god the moment he signed his contract (which was immediate thanks to the aftermath of the Erixon scare).
Being scratched, singled out, and scapegoated was brand new territory. For a sophomore player, the level of focused criticism from upper management was completely bizarre, but his first years with the Flames had apparently warranted it. Through no fault of his own, a kid in his early 20s had become a heated topic, which resulted in publicly heated responses and the complete shattering of his confidence.
“Always earned, never given”
That was the motto used to justify sending Baertschi down and keeping him there.
It’s a lie. It always has been, and it always will be. The very nature of professional sports ensures that. There are too many complications regarding contractual status for “always earned, never given” to be true. The phrase is nothing more than an easy copout. After all, you can’t prove a player isn’t trying hard. All you have to do is say it. And if you’re the one in power – if you’re Bob Hartley or Brian Burke – your word is law.
Consider how both Baertschi and Monahan started their careers. Not to say Baertschi would have developed the same way as Monahan, but: Monahan started off with six points in five games straight. Baertschi had three goals in his first five games. Neither were sustainable, but both were impressive.
The main difference here is what the Flames could do when both prospects stopped scoring. In Monahan’s first 50 games, he had 24 points. In Baertschi’s first 50, he had 23. There wasn’t a whole lot different, but thanks to Baertschi’s age he could be sent down, and Monahan couldn’t. Monahan got to ride the slumps out. Baertschi was demoted and his demotions became an over-wrought concern. They turned into self-fulfilling prophecies.
“Always earned, never given” didn’t apply to this season’s training camp, which was Baertschi’s last chance. Yes, there were limited spots available – in part because of management’s obsession with acquiring inferior players who were “gritty”. (Remember that the Flames once valued Brian McGrattan’s presence in the lineup over Josh Jooris’. Jooris had an insane training camp, which in theory would be earned over a veteran tough guy [or Brandon Bollig, for that matter, who did not look anything resembling impressive], and yet he didn’t make the NHL until the first injury struck.)
(Also remember that McGrattan’s one job was to be a tough guy, and yet when he and Baertschi shared the ice during a pre-season game against the Jets and things got chippy, it was Baertschi going after his opponents while McGrattan stood there and watched. One of these players made the team over the other.)
Even when Baertschi was called up, he never got a fair shake. He could bust ass and be the best Flame on the ice, and still get benched. Devin Setoguchi could make the team ahead of him, get first unit powerplay time, and score no points while Sven Baertschi was cut, played the fourth line, and was never once put in a position to succeed. “Always earned, never given” didn’t apply to Setoguchi when he was up with the Flames. He was given multiple chances to succeed before finally being sent down. Baertschi was not once put in such a position, and yet, it was preached that he had to earn it.
“Always earned, never given” resulted in the Flames not giving Baertschi a chance to actually earn it. It’s hard to prove you’re worthy when your coach shows little interest in giving you even 10 minutes of ice time and would rather play far worse players with no future in the organization over you. When Bollig is given more of a chance, you don’t have a future in the organization, either.
Sven Baertschi is not a quitter for wanting out of a toxic situation
I’m going to end this one on something of a rant. If you know me, you know I’ve been a big fan of Sven Baertschi since before he was drafted. With the Flames in a period of transition and his apparent enthusiasm and general skilled, offensive talent clearly apparent, he very, very quickly became one of my favourites. So this whole situation has left me feeling sad at the loss of what could have been, and very, very, very pissed off about the way people – management and some parts of the fanbase alike – have responded.
Management pissed away an asset because they couldn’t control themselves and then overcompensated by publicly dragging the kid. The latter happens. Professional athletes are never immune to criticism. They are, however, people. People respond to different things in different ways. Where a public ass kicking may work for one player, a more nurturing tone may be needed for another. From our glimpse into what we know about Baertschi, everything was handled wrong, resulting in crushed confidence that he never recovered from.
He was never going to make it as a Calgary Flame thanks to that. He may never make it at all. He may never have made it, period. But we’ll never know if he really could have turned into the Flames’ next Iginla, because the organization messed the entire situation up from day one.
And then there’s another reaction. In lieu of Tim Erixon being waived, talk about him and the notion of player attitudes has come up again. Specifically, “bad attitudes”, in which a player doesn’t want to be a member of a team for whatever reason.
The whole “bad attitude” thing has been an issue with Baertschi ever since he was demoted. Somewhere down the line, people decided he had decided he was above it all and automatically deserved a spot on the team. “Always earned, never given” seemed to result from that, just as it never seemed to apply to a number of other players who weren’t followed like a hawk so their low professional moments never became public.
Saying “good riddance” to a prospect who came to Calgary extremely enthusiastically only to be completely misjudged, misvalued, and mishandled by management is ridiculous. Calling a kid in his early 20s a quitter when full grown adults old enough to be his parents and directly in charge of his future were publicly dragging him is absurd.
Baertschi was well within his rights in demanding a trade and refusing to re-sign. The excitement surrounding him was coupled with constant injury problems. He faded a bit. And when new management took over, it was incredibly apparent they did not like him, and incredibly apparent they never would. Why would anyone want to stay in that environment? He recognized he was unhappy and decided to do something about it. And he did it in a way that didn’t screw the organization over the way they screwed him, allowing them to at least get something back before he walked.
That isn’t quitting. That isn’t having a bad attitude. That’s looking out for his own best interests over those of an organization that suddenly completely stopped giving him a fair shot. That’s resiliency. That shows a clear desire to make it.
I hope Sven Baertschi has a great career.