Professional sports is a tough, demanding racket. And as fans, followers and folks covering a professional sports organization, the push is always for more, better and faster. If the Flames have a good game, the human thing to do is to want another one, or a better one, or to wonder why the Flames couldn’t deliver in that manner faster or more often.
When it comes to building for the organization’s future, the same instincts often apply. Yesterday, the Flames sent Keegan Kanzig back to major-junior. The instinct, under the “more, better faster” mindset, is to presume it’s he’s regressing, or at least not developing as fast as he could, or to compare him to other players the Flames could’ve taken and scoff. All of those perspectives have validity.
But it’s important to note that developments like Kanzig’s demotion don’t occur in a vacuum and aren’t merely a product of a single regime.
First off, let’s deal with the big thing – the Flames choosing Kanzig ahead of others in the 2013 Draft. Now, the Flames had just chosen three blue-chip forwards in the first round – Sean Monahan, Morgan Klimchuk and Emile Poirier – and probably (a) felt like they needed a blueliner for balance and (b) felt like they could swing for the fences a bit and gamble on a guy like Kanzig. Granted, that still doesn’t make it a great decision; my instinct is to trade down and gain a pick if I’m not in love with the options available to me, but I’m not a general manager. And recall Kanzig was drafted in the final draft for Jay Feaster, who had tried extremely hard to turn Chris Breen into an NHLer with little success. It’s entirely valid to criticize the decision-making behind making the pick. But once the pick is made, the goal is to maximize the asset (or to maximize the asset’s value).
Now, the Flames signed Kanzig to a contract; Brian Burke actually inked the deal a week after he fired Jay Feaster. So Brad Treliving has inherited an asset from his predecessor and his boss, and most likely the plan for Kanzig’s development coming out of last season was for him to spend a full year in the AHL learning the pro game. Two big things probably changed the organizational plan over two days this past summer: the Flames traded for Dougie Hamilton and Oliver Kylington fell into their laps at the Draft. Hamilton’s signing added an NHL body and probably bumped a player (possibly Tyler Wotherspoon) from NHL duties back to the farm. And adding Kylington gave the Flames the rare opportunity to develop a highly-touted 18-year-old themselves rather than watching from afar. And I strongly doubt anybody really begrudges the Flames for taking advantage of the opportunity of adding either of Hamilton or Kylington to their hockey club, even if it does come at the cost of crowding Kanzig out of a professional job.
In terms of Kanzig’s development, I’m of two minds. On one hand, he needs to improve his skating and mobility and learn the pro game, and I’m not sure if he’ll do that rag-dolling small children in the Western League. (I’m being facetious here.) But if Kanzig stays with the Hitmen, he’s going to play a lot more than he would in Stockton. And if he gets traded, he’ll be a highly-sought-after commodity and will undoubtedly land on a club that (a) gives up a bunch for him and (b) plays the heck out of him to make up for it. And in a similar circumstance, when the Flames were jam-packed in Abbotsford due to the lock-out, Micheal Ferland went back to junior (while burning the first year of his deal as Kanzig is) and played a ton en route to a Memorial Cup appearance. It doesn’t have appeared to hurt Ferland’s development, though he was obviously a different case in terms of the specific development challenges he had to overcome.
The bigger challenge for Kanzig’s development will come next summer, as there’s a possibility that zero defenders could leave the professional system (aside from potentially AHL signees Aaron Johnson and Dustin Stevenson) while up to three more could be added. Potential free agents are Kris Russell, Jakub Nakladal and Tyler Wotherspoon (RFA). Potentially going pro next season are college senior John Gilmour, college sophomore Brandon Hickey and junior stand-out Rasmus Andersson, who qualifies for AHL duty early due to his late birthday.
To be blunt, demoting Kanzig doesn’t really matter too much for his development right now. He’s going to play a ton in the WHL no matter where he ends up. The bigger challenge is finding a spot for him next season in the Flames professional ranks. With newer, shinier, arguably more NHL-ready toys joining the organization regularly, it’ll be a challenge for the Flames to maximize him as an asset and while yesterday’s move itself isn’t trouble, it may be a sign of the larger challenges to come.