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Kevin Rooney battled back from injury to become an NHL regular again in 2023–24

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Gould
14 days ago
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It’s easy to root for players like Kevin Rooney.
No, he’s not the biggest, the most skilled, or the most productive player. For a large chunk of his first season in the Calgary Flames organization, he wasn’t even on their NHL roster.
But after a lengthy recovery from a shoulder injury he sustained during training camp, Rooney returned to the Flames down the stretch this past season and endeared himself to fans with his excellent work ethic and solid two-way play. In the process, he earned himself a one-year contract extension.
In an unexpected turn of events, Rooney has even become a bit of a cult favourite in certain circles of Flames fans. Here’s a look back at how ‘Roons’ got to this point — and where he could go from here.

The past

Looking back, it’s a testament to his dedication to the game that Rooney made it to the NHL in the first place after topping out at 15 points in 41 games as a junior during his NCAA career at Providence College (winning the National Championship alongside fellow future Flame Mark Jankowski). Although he served as team captain in his senior year, Rooney managed just six goals and 10 points in 38 games during the 2015-16 season.
Rooney didn’t immediately land an NHL deal after turning pro. He signed with the AHL’s Albany Devils in 2016 and spent most of his first full professional season in a checking role with the club, managing 13 goals and 21 points in 71 games.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Devils were in the midst of a season that would end with them securing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. After selling at that year’s trade deadline, they needed some players to come up from the AHL and provide additional depth. Rooney got the call, signing his first NHL contract in February 2017 and appearing in four games with the Devils down the stretch.
Rooney skated in one game with the Devils the following year before establishing himself as a semi-regular bottom-six forward with the team in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. Then, as an unrestricted free agent from the Devils in 2020, Rooney hopped across the Hudson River and signed a two-year, league-minimum deal with the New York Rangers.
With the Rangers, Rooney cemented himself as a full-time NHL forward, specialising in killing penalties. He collected 14 goals and 26 points in 115 games over his two seasons with the Rangers and added a pair of assists in 15 games during the Rangers’ run to the 2022 Eastern Conference Final.

The present

That brings us to the 2022 offseason, which, as everyone knows, was particularly perilous for the Calgary Flames. By the time they agreed to terms on a two-year deal with Rooney on July 13, 2022, they’d already been informed by Johnny Gaudreau’s camp that he wouldn’t be returning to Calgary, and they would soon hear the same from Matthew Tkachuk. It was a tough summer.
Fairly or not, Rooney was immediately maligned by fans in Calgary as being a far cry from the players they didn’t want to lose. At the time, he was a 29-year-old fourth-line centre coming off a six-goal season. The Flames would soon acquire Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, and Nazem Kadri, all to varying levels of success … but, for a while, Rooney stood pretty much alone as the Flames’ lone offseason addition amidst all the departures.
Amidst all the jokes and memes being made by fans, Rooney struggled to find his footing underneath a demanding head coach in Darryl Sutter. Despite his undeniable speed and defensive capabilities, Rooney looked uncomfortable with the puck on his stick and generally seemed to lack confidence. By Christmas, he’d been demoted to the AHL’s Calgary Wranglers after appearing in just 17 games with the Flames.
After completing his first season in the Flames organization in the minors, Rooney entered 2023-24 with a lot to prove. But after suffering a shoulder injury early in the preseason, he underwent surgery and was sidelined until the end of January, at which point he returned to the AHL.
Rooney skated in four more games with the Wranglers before being summoned back to the Flames in early February, making his season debut the same day as Andrei Kuzmenko’s first game with the team. Rooney scored his first goal as a Flame in New Jersey two nights later and remained a fixture on the club’s fourth line for the rest of the season, earning rave reviews for his professionalism and perseverance. He finished the season with three goals in 33 games with the Flames and was rewarded for his efforts with a one-year contract extension.

The future

Rooney’s new deal covers the 2024-25 season, after which he’ll once again be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. He’ll earn $1.3 million, the same yearly rate he commanded during his first contract with the Flames.
Despite him being a pending UFA, there never seemed to be any momentum behind the Flames trading Rooney in 2023-24, and it’s easy to understand why. He started the year on injured reserve, had been sent down the previous season, and was never the highest-profile player to start. Besides, the Flames organization isn’t exactly flush with other capable fourth-line centres, let alone ones with Rooney’s experience and work ethic.
That said, it’s easy to envision Rooney becoming an attractive piece to other teams ahead of the 2025 trade deadline if he can stay healthy with the Flames next year. His defensive acumen and playoff experience will undoubtedly be of interest to GMs around the league, particularly given his manageable cap hit. Considering the Flames gave up a fifth-round pick for a similar player in Ryan Carpenter in 2022, who’s to say they won’t be able to get another pick back for a capable veteran in Rooney?
Until then, Rooney should serve as a benchmark for the younger players in the organization looking to break into the Flames’ lineup. If guys like Cole Schwindt, Adam Klapka, and Sam Morton want a trial run, all they’ll have to do is outplay Rooney, and then, maybe they can have his spot after the deadline (or even sooner).
The Flames aren’t a playoff team at this point. What they are is a ragtag group of quality veterans, young players, and various other misfits. Rooney fits into the latter category — and he’s become arguably the easiest one to pull for.

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