There are tough jobs on every hockey club in the National Hockey League, but Calgary Flames defenseman Dalton Prout has one of the tougher gigs there is. On a team with a deep blueline, Prout has to be ready to play anytime, anywhere, with anyone.
The 29-year-old Prout has been in a unique position throughout the 2018-19 season – even more so late in the season after the addition of Oscar Fantenberg at the trade deadline and the return of Michael Stone from injury.
On one hand, he’s stayed mostly in one spot after bouncing around between four different teams over the past two seasons – the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils and the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters and Stockton Heat. Aside from a brief conditioning stint with the Heat, he’s been with the Flames all season.
But while Prout is playing with arguably the best team he’s ever been with, unless circumstances change drastically he’ll end up playing the least hockey he’s ever played. With 10 Flames games remaining in the season Prout has played in just 15 contests. Even including his four AHL appearances, he’s on pace to play far fewer than the 36 games he played in 2016-17 as he bounced between the Blue Jackets and Devils organizations.
Prout has rarely and infrequently played – once sitting in the press box for 26 consecutive games between appearances – and often his appearances are under odd circumstances. He’s played with a mixture of Oliver Kylington, Rasmus Andersson and TJ Brodie, and his appearances in the lineup are often short notice and have been due to a random combination of injuries, suspensions, salary cap and performance issues. He was the last full-time roster player to hit the scoresheet this season – in his 13th appearance – and the occasion was a big enough deal for his teammates to award him the police hat as player of the game.
“He’s a good pro, a good teammate,” said Flames head coach Bill Peters of Prout following his first point of the season. “The guys really respect him. Comes to work each and every day, does what he needs to do to be ready. When he’s called upon, he comes out and plays a real solid game. Doesn’t get out of the realm of reality of what he’s all about. He knows what he’s all about and is very consistent.”
While many of the things around Prout are out of his control, he seems to be focused on controlling the things that he can.
“The hardest thing is getting game reps, so the biggest thing you can do is keep your head mentally in it,” said Prout prior to a recent game. “Everyday you come to the rink, you have a choice; you don’t stay the same, you get better or you get worse. So the attitude you bring to the rink is number one. Past that is having the idea of I’m here to make my teammates better. And I feel like after that, you have those things in place, the rest takes care of itself. So when your name’s called upon, you’re ready.”
Playing infrequently and with different partners is a challenge of its own. Regular pairings can learn each other’s tendencies and quirks, or work in the video room to get a crash course on somebody they’re going to play with. Since that’s not really an option with Prout, he opts to keep his game nice and simple when he does slot in.
“There’s definitely familiarity with a partner, and you have tendencies that you pick up on throughout a season,” said Prout. “If you don’t have the luxury of playing with guys for 20 minutes a night for 40-plus games, you have to dumb down your game. And that’s not because I don’t believe in my abilities to do more, it’s being more predictable to your teammates. If you can know 99% of the time, be predictable in what you’re gonna do, your teammates can anticipate plays, help you out, and they know where the puck’s going to be, always in good defensive posture – it leads to good D-zone time and you don’t get yourself in trouble.”
There’s absolutely nothing glamorous about being the seventh defender. Or, in Prout’s case, you can argue that he’s slid to the nine spot with Fantenberg and Stone joining the fold. But Prout has taken on the role with relish and tried to make the most of every chance he’s had to play. He might not play very much down the stretch or in the postseason, but he’s definitely contributed in his own way to the Flames’ success in 2018-19.