Flames approach to youngsters has changed

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.

  • cberg

    Pretty reasoned and accurate article. Well done.

    Right at the moment it appears the Flames will be very lucky to get back to the playoffs this year, as they haven’t been able to win against the Division this year, plus the Division is playing better (AC & SJS).

    I’m wondering how the youngsters will react the next couple of months? I expect they’ll be putting it all on the line and not accepting the losing. The only way I see the team continuing at the bottom is not trading out a bunch of vets, whereas a bunch of new youth will bring enthusiasm which would improve the team in the short term. I would like to see several guys moved out, which I believe needs to happen, but don’t expect a precipitous drop in the standings barring a couple of key injuries. Oh well….. Let’s see what happens.

  • Derzie

    Flames chance of making the playoffs this year are slim and none. With the Kings, Ducks and San Jose likely the best the Flames can hope for is a 4th place finish in the Pac Division.

    So the sooner Tre gets the job done in moving out this year’s UFAs the better off the Flames will be for next year. Bring up some deserving prospects.

  • Muuule

    Solid veterans like Backlund and Gio are a big part of making the transition easy I think. Let’s also not forget Brodie’s slow and steady transition to the NHL as a good example that taking time is not a bad thing.

  • everton fc

    This team needs a little housecleaning. Guys like Hudler, Wideman, maybe Russell, Jones (hope not), Stajan, others, need to be moved. The young guys need these minutes up here to give them a taste. It worked for Ferland.

    That said, Granlund’s sort of died on the vine here. If he’s the best on the farm “present”, that’s discouraging. And are we comfortable w/the management team assembled there?

    Am I the only one still thinking Burke may not be good the Flames??

  • DestroDertell

    I disagree completely. I know we’re all supposed to laugh at everything the Oilers do, but the flames would also send a bunch of their young rookies right into the NHL if four of them were happened to be first overall. What’s wrong with the Oilers’ “handling” of young players is their complete failure with the players they’ve drafted outside of the first round (and obviously none of them were thrown in the NHL right away). The only two players currently in the NHL Oilers roster drafted by them outside the first round are Anton Lander and Davidson – two frindge players.

    The Oilers are not a good example of why throwing young players in the NHL quickly is a bad idea.

    • RickT

      I think the article is saying that the Flames do send the youngsters as shiny new toys into the NHL as early. But, their usage and fanfare about them are different.

      Ex. sheltering Monahan, not expecting him to be a number 1C immediately in the league (vs. RNH, McDavid, etc.)

      Ex2. sheltering JG, not expecting 1st line winger production (vs. Hall, Eberle, etc.)

      Sam Bennett is as shiny a toy as they come. He was projected 1st overall by NHL Central Scouting, he fell because of his shoulder and because Ekblad was by far the best defensive option (projected 2nd by NHLCS).

      I agree with you, about the later rounds of drafting sinking the Oilers. And that plays a part, but so does mismanagement of first year players in general.

    • T&A4Flames

      The difference is what was supporting the high picks when they were brought to the NHL. EDM went full demolish of the vets whereas CGY kept a few solid vets around with good work ethic and seriousness to the game, on and off the ice.

    • Parallex

      Yeah, I’ve got to agree with this… what the Flames have done isn’t anything really different then what the Oilers did. Hotshot prospects up in the NHL pretty much as soon as they could get them there.

      What is different is that the Flames got a legitimate top D pairing via an undrafted free agent and fourth round pick. Or in other words, like Destro said, we’ve had more success outside the 1st round. Meaning we’ve either been lucky or have had a better scouting department. Of course with 4 first overalls it’s a more glaring failure up the QE2 but that’s just optics.

  • NHL93

    I agree to an extent. I enjoy seeing Hartley place his kids in positions to succeed. Burns did it with Joe Thornton in the day, and Jaques Martin did it with Spezza too. You shelter them, bench them a few times, send them down at other times (Spezza got sent down after looking like he belonged) – but all of it is for the development of that player.

    My one quibble is that this is only half the story. What about Baertschi? I never subscribed to the narrative that the Flames ruined Sven. I think the guy had his chances and for whatever reason it didn’t happen. So for me, the player has to bring up his side of the bargain. And for me, Sven just didn’t.

  • NHL93

    Good article, but can we please permanently and forever and always kill the narrative that Gaudreau being benched for a game somehow made him what he is? I heard Hartley on the Fan last week talking about how he spoke yo his assistants that they may have to give Bennett the “Gaudreau” treatment. Way to take credit for Johnny’s greatness Bob. Talk about an egotist.

    Gaudreau received crappy minutes, low minutes and terrible linemates for those first four games. After being benched for a game, he was thrust onto one of the top lines and put with quality players for more than 8 minutes a game. Lo and behold, what do you know, kid has talent.

    Kudos for making sure the kid wasn’t hoping to bring murdered out there, but the benching narrative turning around his game is pure bunk.

    As for the rest, IMO, I still believe Monahan should’ve gone back and that Bennett shouldn’t have had his first year burned. Mostly for cap reasons.

    I will give Hartley credit though for not just handing first line jobs to these guys on day one and burying them against the best in the league. For the most part, he’s sheltered them as required. That part of the article I fully concur with.

  • BurningSensation

    @ryan pike

    “a few months after the Flames officially kicked off their rebuild by trading Iginla away for future assets”

    I swear you do this just to make my blood pressure spike.

  • RKD

    I agree somewhat they do seem to season their guys in the AHL first and for longer stretches. Compared to the Sutter days, it’s night and day. Sutter would not ice young players and then just traded them away. I still want to see more especially on the back end. Guys like Kulak who has already played should be on this team. Jooris shouldn’t be sitting so much in favour of Bollig. It’s feels like we are waiting a long time to see guys like Porier up here.

  • RickT

    I don’t think we can say Calgary’s learned from the Baertschi debacle.

    There have been plenty of questions this year about how Calgary’s young players are used, and by extension, how they are developed. When Bennett was languishing on the third line, we all scratched our heads. Many people have expressed frustration that he still plays the wing. We’re still frustrated that Hamilton barely cracks the top 4. Some of our best youngsters aren’t being used on the power play.

    Edmonton’s failure isn’t star development – with the exception of Yakupov, each of their F.O.Ps is living up to expectations. Their failure was to assume that stars=success, while ignoring depth players.