One of the most common questions I get from out-of-town friends and relatives is in regards to the Calgary Flames and their differences with the Edmonton Oilers. More specifically, here’s how it’s normally posed to me:
How come the Flames rebuild seems to be progressing faster than Edmonton’s?
The short answer is that if it is, it’s because of differences in how Calgary has handled their youngsters – both compared to Edmonton and their past selves.
A TRIP UP NORTH
Edmonton’s rebuild unofficially began with the 2007 Draft. Here’s how their next few picks panned out.
- 2007: Sam Gagner, went right to the NHL in 2007-08
- 2008: Jordan Eberle, went right to the NHL in 2010-11 as a first-year pro
- 2009: Magnus Paajarvi, went right to the NHL in 2011-12 in his first year in North America
- 2010: Taylor Hall, went right to the NHL in 2010-11
- 2011: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, went right to the NHL in 2011-12
- 2012: Nail Yakupov, went right to the NHL in 2012-13
Notice a pattern?
Until recently, the perception of the Oilers rebuild process was this: “No, this time an 18-year-old will be able to turn the franchise around.” They did a better job managing the development of Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse (and this year’s development of Leon Draisaitl), but typically the Oilers brought their shiny new toys right to the big leagues – with the unspoken message of “you’re going to be the kid to save the Edmonton Oilers.” It didn’t work, and every season it seemed like the kids got used to losing.
Similarly, it create a huge problem for expectations management. Especially in the 2010-13 period the Oilers sent new kids to the NHL to make a dent in the team’s progression, where they had to share a locker room with the other hopefuls who had failed to do so. When a procession of tremendous young players came into Edmonton and failed to move the dial, it probably had a psychological impact on the newcomers and the seeming inevitability of their failure.
A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE
While the Flames probably could’ve learned a lesson from what was going on in Edmonton, they were desperately grasping at their dwindling playoff chances and the last visages of the Iginla Era. They had utterly failed to draft and develop good young players for years – give credit to Edmonton for at least drafting well.
Enter Sven Baertschi. After being grabbed by the Flames in 2011 in the first round, he came in on an emergency recall the following spring and was good at scoring goals. Suddenly, not only had the Flames drafted and developed a player well, but he was actually good right away! (None of the stop and start, up and down shenanigans that they went through with Mikael Backlund, no sir!)
Sven-sanity swept Calgary. Baertschi spoke of wanting to be the face of the franchise. No doubt Jay Feaster thought that the team could avoid the pain of a protracted, Edmonton-style rebuild, because if Baertschi could step in as a 20-year-old and be anywhere close to Iginla’s production level, they could transition away from #12 without much of a drop-off in overall team performance. The torch would be passed and the Flames could make a run at a Cup, hallelujah.
Of course, we know how that turned out. Baertschi’s inconsistent play away from the puck drew the ire of both new President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke and new Head Coach Bob Hartley, and the Swiss product was frequently in and out of the line-up, up and down the forward lines, and bounced from the NHL to the AHL (and back) for two seasons before new General Manager Brad Treliving mercifully gave him a fresh start via a trade to Vancouver at last year’s trade deadline.
The lesson? Anytime your discussion of a young newcomer involves the phrase “Don’t worry, <insert name here> can save us…” just come up with a better plan, because you have an awful plan and everyone’s being set up for failure.
(And not to derail things, but if you look at Calgary’s history with 18-to-20-year-olds, they were just as guilty as Edmonton in terms of how they approached shiny new toys and sending them straight to the NHL. Edmonton just had a lot more of them, which is why this is mostly an “Edmonton lesson.”)
THE RECENT PAST
If there’s any evidence that the Flames have learned lessons in how to handle youngsters, it can be found in their handling of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett.
Monahan was drafted in 2013, a few months after the Flames officially kicked off their rebuild by trading Iginla away for future assets. Already NHL-sized, the Flames had effectively lowered expectations throughout the summer and 2013’s training camp by trumpeting that they had a young group. Monahan had a great camp and put up nine points in his first nine NHL games, and at that point he could’ve been sent back to the Ontario Hockey League or be kept in the NHL and burn the first year of his entry-level deal. While inflated by his shooting percentage, Monahan’s points production basically forced the Flames to keep him up.
While he’s had some growing pains this season, his consistent offensive production through his two seasons (and change) has validated the team’s approach. But y’know what part of their approach actually worked? Putting Monahan in positions to succeed – good linemates, consistent ice time and favourable zone starts – and not panicking when his results weren’t Herculean. They had a plan and stuck to it, and since the team was in a full-fledged rebuild and primed their fanbase for possible struggles, nobody broke out the pitchforks and torches when Monahan didn’t turn out to be Joe Nieuwendyk or Gary Roberts right away. Since Monahan was never sold as a saviour, nobody got mad when he wasn’t one.
Remember Gaudreau, one of the most prodigious offensive talents the NCAA’s seen in decades? He signed with the Flames and unlike Monahan, had the option to head to the AHL due to his age. Gaudreau showed flashes of something early on, but generally wasn’t spectacular in his first five games. Rather than panic, Hartley parked him in the press box for a game to watch and learn, then unleashed him back onto the ice for the next game in Winnipeg. Since then, Gaudreau’s been as poised, creative and dangerous in the NHL as he was in college.
And like Monahan, they had a plan that involved tons of offensive zone starts, good linemates and favourable zone starts. He was set up for success and eventually had it. And like Monahan, he was never supposed to be a saviour. In fact, in the run-up to his signing, Burke frequently threw cold water on any lofty expectations whenever he had a microphone or recorder in front of him – emphasizing the potential challenges he’d face due to his size.
And in the case of Bennett, the Flames’ struggles this season have necessitated some diversions from the usual plan – he’s been bounced around line-wise a bit and has occasionally gotten some tough assignments – but the expectations management campaign has been the same. Hartley frequently mentions that Bennett’s young and learning, and while the team was probably tempted to put him in the press box for a game or two during his 18-game cold spell he was still fifth among forwards in shots during that span, meaning he was generating scoring chances commensurate to his ice time and usage.
A LESSON LEARNED?
I’m not entirely sure if Calgary’s change of heart regarding usage of their youngsters is a happy accident or something they actually tried to do on purpose. The reason I’m confused is because the Flames did end up putting their young shiny toys in the NHL as quickly as possible: Monahan right after he was drafted, Gaudreau after he signed an NHL contract, and Bennett soon after he recovered from shoulder surgery. The only “tough decision” that management actually made was sending Bennett back to the OHL last February rather than keeping him on the NHL roster.
Everything else was a happy accident. The team was thin enough on good centers in 2013-14 that an almost-19-year-old Monahan cracked the roster – and that was precipitated by the Flames being just bad enough to draft him the previous June. And Gaudreau’s desire to chase a second NCAA Championship and play with his brother kept him in college long enough for him to ripen a bit; the Flames surely didn’t dissuade him from that path, but it’s not like their plan all along was to leave the NCAA’s offensive terror in college.
If anything was done on purpose, though, it was the organization’s expectations management in regards to these burgeoning young stars. Heck, Gaudreau is near the top of the NHL’s scoring race and if you put a gun to Treliving’s head (aside: do not do that, please), you might get him to say that he’s a great young player and they’re excited to have him. A year ago? He might’ve let slip that they were excited about what he might be able to do in the future. Any comparisons to past Flames greats, or even strong players around the league, saw the breaks pumped and comments qualified with disclaimers.
In that sense, the Flames have learned their lesson in regards to bringing along their youngsters in a responsible manner. It’s just a bit of a shame they had to go through the Baertschi debacle before they did so.