Jankowski will be back sooner or later, but let’s not rush his return

To all the Calgary Flames fans still puzzled and angry that Mark Jankowski is toiling in the minor leagues while the likes of Troy Brouwer, Matt Stajan, Tanner Glass and Freddie Hamilton continue to enjoy their NHL perks: consider the case of Curtis Lazar as a cautionary tale.

You know Lazar as the cheerfully inconsistent Flames fourth liner who occasionally flashes the potential to move up the lineup but has yet to carve out a meaningful role at the National Hockey League level.

That’s the Calgary perspective.

Back in Ottawa, the 22-year-old is known as a first round bust.

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He’s a perfect example of a project player who was mishandled early in his professional career. His early struggles could be mirrored by Mark Jankowski if the Flames sacrifice his physical and mental development from a major role with the Stockton Heat in favour of a minor role in the top league.

It might seem counter-intuitive to both the team and player. It appears to many that the Flames would be better off with Jankowski anchoring the fourth line alongside some combination of Lazar, Stajan, Hamilton, Glass and Brouwer.

The same logic might suggest that Jankowski is better off honing his skills against NHL competition on a nightly basis regardless of the top minutes.

But let’s take a look at how that worked out for Lazar when the mediocre Senators skipped sending their new top prospect on a tour of duty in the American Hockey League after he put up 41 goals and 76 points in 58 games for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL as an 18-year-old.

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Spoiler: it didn’t.

Tonight, Lazar gets a huge opportunity on the top line against his old team, but it’s just another step in a total player rebuild the Flames have undertaken.

Lazar jumped right into the lineup with the Sens in 2014-15. He started between young stars in the making Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone and was impressive enough in a third-line role initially to get the talk from GM Bryan Murray that he wouldn’t be returning to junior.

What then-head coach Paul MacLean said about Lazar at the time sounds similar to glowing pre-season reviews about Jankowski from Flames bench boss Glen Gulutzun this year.

“The way that he’s played, the consistency he has shown and the ability he has shown to adapt to the game and to raise the level, we feel very comfortable and confident that him staying here is going to make us a better team,” MacLean said of Lazar to the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch back in 2014. “He’s got hockey sense. He’s in the right place a lot. He just knows where to go. That’s probably his best skill is the fact he knows where to go.”Curtis Lazar Profile

The promise faded against the tougher competition in the NHL’s regular season. He finished with six goals and 15 points as a rookie, and followed it up with six more goals and 20 points in his second season. He showed his incredible talent at the junior level while playing with Connor McDavid and captaining Team Canada to a world junior gold medal in 2015-16, but the narrative changed when he returned to the Sens. He was moved to the wing. Expectations were high. He wasn’t meeting them. His confidence dipped.

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The final blow came when he got mono in training camp last season and started his year in the AHL. If not for all the other jabs he’d taken to his development, that setback likely would have been a blip on his chart. But he got his first taste of the minors in arguably the worst shape of his life, and the numbers reflected that with three goals and four points in 13 games before he returned from Binghamton.

The rest is pre-Flames history. He didn’t pot a goal and had just one assist in 33 games with the Sens before the deadline deal that brought him to the Flames in March.

A fresh start is doing him some good, but the Flames are rebuilding a broken player.

They have a chance to ensure Jankowski remains intact until both the team and player are ready for him to take a meaningful full-time role with the Flames.

There’s a reason Jankowski isn’t here now, even though he undoubtedly earned a spot with a stellar pre-season. The problem is that spot is likely on the fourth line until someone in the top nine gets hurt or slumps significantly. (The Lazar move to the top line is temporary. It’s a motivation start: he’ll be as pumped as anyone to play his old team, and Micheal Ferland gets a reminder that he has to earn his place with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan on a daily basis.)

The Flames, unlike the Sens at the time, have the luxury of patience. Sens GM Pierre Dorion admitted last year the team was essentially forced to rush Lazar into the NHL, even if it meant a role that didn’t really fit his skill set.

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“We didn’t draft Curtis just to be a third or fourth line guy, we drafted Curtis to be an impact player for us,” Dorion told Garrioch a year ago. “It’s about handling the puck well, making more plays and being an impact player.”

Jankowski may one day be an impact player for the Flames. For now, he’s thriving in the AHL. He’s playing top minutes in all situations and making major impact statistically. His three goals and four points in his first two games with the Heat has him sitting among the league’s leaders through opening week.

There’s nothing better for his confidence and development right now, and he knows that he’ll be called up sooner or later as long as he keeps performing well.

Everyone knows it. It even cryptically made No. 16 on Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman’s recent 31 Thoughts.

But let’s be patient. The longer the wait is, the more likely it is his transition to the NHL is a smooth one. A productive one. One that more resembles the Lazar trajectory today than the one from just a year ago.

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  • Atomic Clown

    Much as I dislike Jankowski toiling away in the minors, I agree with it. Good players need to be put in good positions to succeed. Fourth line minutes with the likes of Stajan, Brouwer and Glass are hardly optimal playing conditions. Sure the compete level in the NHL is miles above the AHL, but getting <10 minutes a night is pretty crappy. Jankowski is a top 6 forward, and only after the departure of Stajan, Brouwer, Jagr and maybe Versteeg will he have a chance at a top 6/9 role, with decent teammates. Maybe by that time Poirier has also placed himself in competition for an NHL roster spot. Patience is a virtue, don't follow the Edmonton model i.e Yakupov

    • BringtheFire 2.0

      Boy, that’s a long-view for Janko, if we’re waiting for those players to depart.

      If I was Janko, I’d be cool with waiting a little, but the whole organization-and the hockey world as a whole, apparently-thinks he’s ready but he’s not playing. If I was a player watching from the AHL as people I’m better than play in the NHL…well, after a time…I could turn out disgruntled.

    • Chucky

      At this point Stagan has 46:36 on ice, can’t find AHL TOI but Janko has played two games, third game tomorrow. By that time the Flames will have played 6 games. Sending him down before the four day break was just dumb.

  • sathome

    This is a curious comparison. I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise of not rushing prospects, but Jankowski is literally older than Lazar. He had four years in college and a year in the AHL. Sure, we want to make sure he’s ready for the NHL grind, but they’re wildly different circumstances.

    • PrairieStew

      Age is not everything. Maturation can very immensely. Janko was clearly a very late maturer; at 18 – more like a 16 year old. Guys that mature early – and start putting on man weight ( and shaving) at 16 are more likely to play major junior. ( Aaron Ekblad !) Monahan was a guy like that – he’s just a couple of weeks younger than Janko, but was an extremely early maturer. Though basically the same age – I view Sean as 3 years older. Lazar not as mature as Monahan, but close.

    • redwhiteblack

      I completely agree. Much different NHL timelines as Janko is now 23 and has only played in 1 NHL game. Lazar is 22 and after tonight will have played in over 190 NHL games. This only validates more for me that Janko should be here now. I am sure he be a regular soon and this hopefully won’t be an issue. I feel a bit for him because he has earned a spot.

      Glass showed well in preseason but his signing was unnecessary as it has clogged things up. Management would have smarter to let Glass walk.

    • freethe flames

      I was going to say exactly this.

      Th one thing I would like to add is that Janko could possibly allow the Flames to move past the old model of a 4th line that does not play that much and to a team that can have 4 effective but different lines. 2 lines that mostly get Ozone starts and are primarily responsible for O and 2 lines that get primarily D zone start. Janko could I believe become Backs lite as early as this year. This would prevent some of the terrible match ups. In some ways Janko could also be a Monny light as well. The other issue is the Flames also need to add at least one more effective forward. Lots of potential for line juggling if and when Janko and who ever the best other forward is get call up. Personally I think it’s Magpie as Jankos, Frolik; their chemistry in the AHL has been very good at both ends of the ice. A line of Magpie/Janko/Ferland could very well be effective and be like a 3m lite line.

    • The Fall

      Was Draisaitl a bust for getting sent back to the WHL? Johnny was an older rookie; same goes for (Mark) Stone; so was Panarin. Exceptional teenagers make the league sometimes — the more exceptional ones continue without looking back: is that a rule or an exception?

      All different circumstances for different individuals — there is no magic formula. Error on the side of caution, keep them in junior and then the AHL longer seems like the safe way to manager investments in people.

  • StarIV

    We’re in week two of a long NHL season. I agree with staying patient right now. If Janko still hasn’t gotten into a game with the big club come the new year, then I might start getting antsy about a Janko call up. There’s lots of time and I don’t think Janko is any worse off in the minors at the moment.

  • Alberta Ice

    Glad to know Jano is on deck especially if there is an injury down the road. His chance will come and when it does, all Flames fans will be eager to see him again. I listened to a radio interview with the Heat’s coach and he mentioned that the greatest test for a player coming back to the AHL is his attitude. So that is the true test for Jano at this time in his career. (Meanwhile, so far, Lazar’s play has been a pleasant surprise. It will be interesting to see how he does on that top line tonight.)

    • BlueBloods

      You’re comparing Jankowski who’s developed in the NCAA and one year in the A, to Lazar who had neither … interesting comparison.
      Although your logic seems to be in line, you couldn’t be more far off in comparison.

    • Steve Macfarlane

      Jankowski is older and stronger now than Lazar was when he started, and there is a bit of seasoning from college, but what I’m saying is the NHL is as big a jump from college as major junior, and that the full AHL season was great for him and another won’t hurt – although I’m sure he’ll be here for at least half the year once injuries start to happen. Lazar was rushed in by a bad team that needed help and he’s only now starting to regain his confidence.

  • oilcanboyd

    If the Flames keep winning majority of their games and there are no significant injuries I am not in a rush to rush Janko. Why fool with a winning formula?

    Note that even with all the shots against Smith, Flames are plus 3 in goal differential! Last year after 16 games they were minus 25….

    • OKG

      Goal differential is mostly special teams plus 3v3. Our 5v5 GF%is below 50 and our score-adjusted CF% is also below 50. Our score-adjusted 5v5 xGF% is one of the lowest in the NHL so far.

  • Sincity1976

    Lazar is a terrible comparison. Lazar was rushed into the NHL as a teenager with with zero pro experience. Jankowski is 23 and was a runner up for rookie of the year in the AHL last season. Let’s not try and make this something it isn’t. Jankowski was one of our best players in camp and the team has acknowledged he is NHL ready. This isn’t them cooking him a little bit more. He is in the AHL because of “the likes of Troy Brouwer, Matt Stajan, Tanner Glass and Freddie Hamilton.” Or probably more correctly because the team needs/wants/think-they-need Stajan to be taking d-zone draws and killing penalties.

  • BendingCorners

    Put him out there 12 minutes a night with Ferland and Brouwer plus 2-3 minutes on the PK and he will be getting plenty of experience. If it doesn’t work, send him back down.

  • Cheeky

    Can’t really compare these 2 situations. 18-19 yr old compared to a 22-23 yr old with professional experience? Closer comparison would be Monahan to Lazar – at the time both teams needed these youths and had spots open (whereas Calgary now doesn’t necessarily need Janko as they needed Monny back then). Monny took the opportunity and ran with it each year after (also getting Gaudreau as your linemate helps). Lazar didn’t and it spiraled downward (didn’t help he got limited mins on 4th line). Janko is ready, yes at this time with no room at the inn (#deadweightvetsneedtogo), Janko is better off getting top mins in minors but needs to be given an opportunity soon.

    Lazar situation is a need to allow some of these “better than juniors” but “not quite ready for NHL” to be allowed to play in AHL under 20. Imagine if a 18 or 19 yr old top prospect “in-betweeners” could develop in minors rather than going back to juniors because of age or being pushed into NHL before they are fully ready…

  • McRib

    Meh, Jankowski was a far more effective AHLer than Lazar was last year. Eventually it becomes equally detrimental to keep sending young players back down to the AHL (see Daniel Tkaczuk, Rico Fata, etc in late 90s). Professional sports are so mental, telling a prospect over and over he isn’t good enough for the NHL is a great way to kill confidence. I’m just thankful that through this debacle Jankowski is still playing well in the AHL.

    Mark Jankowski’s 0.88 PPG in AHL last season. Curtis Lazar 0.31 PPG in AHL last season. Curtis Lazar is also a year younger. Nothing earned, everything given. I’m fine with Lazar being on the Flames, though Jankowski would be a far better option; but Brouwer and Glass keeping him out of the AHL is just ridiculous.

  • Stockton's Finest

    Hey. Hands off Janko. You will get him soon enough.

    In all seriousness, once he heads north, he stays. I put him up anytime before Christmas. It would be nice to have him down here to help Stockton bank some valuable points before he hits the big time.

    In response to Chucky, i would put Janko at around 20 minutes a game. He plays on both PP and PK. Plus he plays top line minutes.

    Lastly, it would be great if he was able to bring either Mangiapane or Hathaway with him to help ease his way into the line-up. These 3 have such great chemistry together it would be a shame to break it up. Hathaway could easily supplant Glass on that 4th, or 3rd, line.

    • freethe flames

      I have said for a while now that the line of Magpie/Janko/Hathaway would be better than a line of Glass/Stajan/Brouwer. They would make mistakes but at least they would all work hard and they all can skate. Even if just Magpie and Janko came up I could see a line of these two and Ferland or Lazar being a very effective line. Enjoy the game tonight.