Who are the Flames’ future leaders?

Leadership is important in most facets of life, and of course, professional sports are no exception. For a rebuilding team, it’s especially crucial. After all, rebuilding teams tend to be filled with younger players, and they usually don’t win a whole lot. The latter isn’t quite true for the Flames this season, but the former is, as there have been tons and tons of rookie recalls.

The Flames are pretty fortunate with the group they’ve got, captained by Mark Giordano. Or perhaps it should be they were for fortunate. Trades, coupled with Giordano’s injury, have left Kris Russell the sole survivor of the leadership group that started the season.

While his defence partner Dennis Wideman joined him with a letter, as did Jiri Hudler (who maybe should have had an “A” all along), it’s possible the Flames already have their future leadership core in their lineup.

Who fits the bill?

Mikael Backlund

Backlund is one of just three players Darryl Sutter drafted to have made the current edition of the Flames full time. Of the three, he’s the oldest at 25. He has a certain level of seniority, and as the changing of the guard continues, well, he’s been around the longest: a regular since 2010.

It’s taken an unnecessarily long time for Calgary to realize just what it has in Backlund (don’t forget that just last season, Bob Hartley was playing him on the fourth line and even healthy scratched him once), but we’ve finally reached that point. It happened around the time he got to wear his first letter. With various injuries abounding, Backlund was gifted with the “A”. He then got to wear it for Team Sweden at the World Championships after the season.

Throughout his entire career, he’s quietly been one of the Flames’ best players. Now that the team knows just what they have in him, he’s become one of the most played ones, too. He often plays some of the hardest circumstances and takes the toughest assignments, simply because he’s the best forward suited for the job. He lightens everyone else’s loads and puts others in a position to thrive.

Backlund also seems like a very vocal guy, an enthusiastic soul, and someone who should be a Flame forever and ever, if only for this tweet (but also for many other reasons, of course):

TJ Brodie

Mark Giordano’s defence partner may not be Mark Giordano, but he’s a pretty incredible player in his own right, and it’s entirely possible he ends up being even better. Not drafted until the fourth round, this is just his first season appearing on league-wide radar, but Brodie has quietly been an excellent player throughout his four NHL seasons to date. 

He’s only 24, and he’s already been leading the Flames in ice time throughout this entire playoff push of a season. When it comes to the whole changing of the guard thing, he’s second only to Backlund in seniority: another rare successful Sutter pick who was in the NHL at the end of the #goingforit era before the team conceded to rebuild. And during said rebuild, he’s shown he has the tools to become a legitimate number one defenceman. Scoring at his highest ever professional clip hasn’t been bad, either.

Brodie is already a leader on the ice, he just doesn’t have the letter to show for it. However, as the Flames progress through their rebuild, and as Giordano inevitably declines due to the worldwide curse that is aging (but hopefully not for a while yet!), he might just end up with one. 

Sean Monahan

Monahan is developing into what’s pretty much a Mikael Backlund who can score. Heavily sheltered in his rookie season, Monahan was thrust into the first line centre role early in the season after every veteran centre succumbed to injury. And rather than flounder, he thrived, improving in every single statistical category.

The fact that he was captain of the Ottawa 67’s in his draft year only points to an official leadership role for Monahan, perhaps sooner than we think. He seems mature beyond his years. He’s the only forward to spend more time on the ice than Backlund this season, as the two are looking like they’ll be forming a formidable one-two punch down the middle for years to come. 

Monahan is still only a sophomore, so it may be early to give him a letter yet, but it seems almost certain he’ll end up with one, and could very well end up taking over Giordano’s captaincy when it’s time. He’s the first player the Flames drafted for their rebuild, so it seems fitting for him to one day completely take over the charge.

Bonus: Lance Bouma

Ideally, Top Six Forward Lance Bouma is actually a fourth liner, and ideally, he doesn’t get so much ice time. This isn’t a knock on him at all; it’s more a hope that the Flames have more skilled players in the lineup, and the coach recognizes that and plays him in a spot more suited to his game.

Bouma is a marriage of the two categories of players above him: he was the third successful Sutter pick, making the Flames not too long after Brodie; and he also wore a letter in junior, captaining the Vancouver Giants in his final WHL season.

He fits the Russell mould to a tee, as you can often find him leaving everything out on the ice. Russell leads the team in blocked shots, Bouma leads the team in hits (and blocked shots by forwards, for that matter). He’s a staple on the penalty kill, one of just three Flames to have played more than 100 minutes shorthanded this season (the other two are Brodie and Giordano).

While you wouldn’t expect someone who, in theory, shouldn’t be getting that much ice time throughout an entire game to have a letter, Bouma is as worthy an exception as any.

  • I think Hartley has a remarkable facility to bring out leadership in his players. That’s because they can make a mistake on the ice and still go right back out there (Shore defence on Boston tying goal). I think he also puts out young players in all situations–toward the end of the game, for example.

    I see Jooris as part of the future leadership group. Johnny Hockey has also been playing very determined toward the end of this road trip and got the assist on the final come back goal against Ottawa.

    GFG!!!

  • Good write-up Arii. Great news for the Flames that not only are all these guys young (25 oldest) but they are top players which always helps. As these guys move more into the “vet” category, there’ll be less need to keep old vets to mentor the new kids, opening up some space for several banging on the doors to get in.

    • Truculence

      I’d argue that Hartley handled Backlund perfectly last season. Backs was stellar defensively, but his offensive game was non-existent. Far, far too frequently he had no confidence and would enter the o-zone looking to either pass quickly, dump the puck, or take a low-percentage shot.

      After his demotion, and obvious discussions with the coaching staff, he seemed to have been born anew on the offensive end. He held the puck a little longer to make the better play, and was confident enough to carry it into the high-scoring areas.

      In sum, Backlund’s two-way game was never at fault, but Hartley saw more potential and Backlund lived up to expectations by at least scoring at a clip expected of a top-nine forward in the league.

      • Burnward

        That was kind of my point. Don’t like that narrative that he was misused or mishandled.

        He had some holes in his game. I’d also include going to the hard areas on a more consistent basis. He got the message and improved into a very good two way player. Still has to get stronger on the dot though.

        • Parallex

          But you DO like the narrative that Hartley sprinkled enchanted pressbox dust on him and magically made him a better player as some people seemingly love to assert?

          Coach misuses player and gets poor results then starts correctly using player and gets good results seems like a far more logical explanation. Having watched Backlund since he was with the Kelowna Rockets I feel pretty confident saying that it’s a case of Hartley fixing Hartley not anything else.

          • Burnward

            Nah. I just judge by what these eyes tell me.

            He’s playing a harder brand of hockey lately. I don’t know if that’s because of Hartley or magic pixie dust, but it has happened. To me.

            He still needs to get better on the dot.

      • Craig

        Actually I don’t think Hartley had anything to do with Backlunds emergence offensively, Backlund himself credits the time he spent in Sweden during the last lockout as what boosted his confidence. And if Inremember correctly Backlunds underlying numbers were very very good on the fourth line, but he was playing with Mcgratton and whoever else. So he had limited minutes, with bad players and people expected his “offence” to be there. But it miraculously appeared when he started getting minutes with quality line mates.

        Hartley seems to be a great locker room coach, he’s great with the boys and the media, but he makes some horrendous calls on line combinations. Just look at Engelland and Brodie.

  • Christian Roatis

    For what it’s worth, Sven Baertschi has a goal and 3 assists in 3 game with Utica, one of the AHL’s best teams. Important to note however, lots of veteran AHLers on that squad.

  • Parallex

    I think any question of who the teams leadership core should be has to start with the role you see such players performing in that capacity.

    Officially the only actual job of a captain is as the only person authorized to speak with the game officials regarding rule interpretations when he is on the ice. Of course unofficially the job is bigger then that so what does the job encapsulate?

    Essentually I see the job as primarily that of communications. Advocate for the team on the ice (to the officials), serve as the point man on media relations, serve as a go-between for players and management/staff, perform ceremonial functions for the team, serve as an example of how one should compose himself on and off the ice (ie during games, during practice, in the offseason).

    So who has all those qualities? Hard to say… but I wouldn’t bet against “Boring” Sean Monahan. He needs to come out of his shell a bit but all the components are there. Beyond that I just don’t know

  • The Real Slim Brodie

    Backlund also found his goal scoring touch and confidence playing in Europe during the lockout and playing in the world cup he was stellar and may have been unhinged from the defensive play expected of him during that time…go flames

  • RKD

    I could see Monyhands as a future captain, but there is no need to rush him. A lot of guys cannot handle a letter but Mony seems mature enough to handle the burden.