Photo credit:Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports
The Calgary Flames learned some tough lessons from Sven Baertschi’s development
By Ryan Pike6 months ago
Every year, the National Hockey League’s clubs gather to select promising young hockey players at the annual entry draft. Some players turn out to be everything they’re hoped to become. Some players, unfortunately, do not, and you can learn a lot about player development from both successes and failures.
On Wednesday, former Calgary Flames forward Sven Baertschi announced his retirement. His tenure in the Flames organization, three months shy of four years overall, likely taught the club some harsh lessons about player development.
Baertschi’s arrival in the Flames organization caused a lot of excitement among the fanbase. Under general manager Darryl Sutter, the club didn’t really utilize the draft very well – often shuffling out high draft choices to bolster an aging NHL lineup and hollowing out the club’s farm system as a byproduct – and the club didn’t often hit on their high picks when they kept them.
When assistant GM Jay Feaster succeeded Sutter in the big job, he spoke loudly and often about utilizing the draft more effectively. It was music to a lot of peoples’ ears. Baertschi, selected 13th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft, was the first player selected by Feaster as Flames’ GM.
The following season, an 11-day stint on the Flames’ roster may have, in retrospect, derailed Baertschi’s career.
In 2011-12, the Flames were absolutely waylaid by injuries. They suffered over 300 man-games lost to injuries, including a span between mid-February to late March that saw the club without seven regular forwards. Already missing Blair Jones, Mikael Backlund and Lee Stempniak, the Flames lost Mike Cammalleri, Blake Comeau and Lance Bouma over a two-game span, forcing them to call up their entire first line from the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat: Guillaume Desbiens, Krys Kolanos and Greg Nemisz.
Tim Jackman left the club’s Mar. 6 game with Montreal early with an injury, resulting in the club opting to recall Baertschi from the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks on an emergency basis (utilizing a CHL transfer agreement loophole) rather than call up another AHLer.
Baertschi arrived with much fanfare, with the thought of seeing the organization’s new top prospect – it’s shiniest, newest toy – acting as a respite for fans during a really challenging season. He suited up for five games, playing almost exclusively with Tom Kostopoulos and Greg Nemisz – after his first two games, he began getting used on the power play for about a minute per game. He scored goals in his second, third and fourth games, which did little to pour cold water on fan enthusiasm.
Comeau returned to action on Mar. 13, resulting in one of the four roster emergency situations being resolved and Kolanos being returned to the AHL. Stempniak was cleared for action on Mar. 17 and the Flames were forced to return Baertschi to the WHL, where he spent the remainder of the season.
A lockout delayed the start of the NHL’s 2012-13 season, so Baertschi began his pro career with the Heat in the AHL. By the time NHL camps began on Jan. 13, Baertschi had 18 points in 21 AHL games. He arrived back in Calgary with sky-high expectations, which were inflated for a few key reasons:
- First, he was the shiny new toy and the undisputed top prospect in a system with virtually no depth. If a prospect was going to make the team and make it difference, it was going to have to be him.
- Second, Baertschi’s performance to that point, especially at the NHL level, featured a very small but promising sample of his game, but one that was really inflated by circumstance. In his entire Hall of Fame career, legendary goal-scorer Jarome Iginla scored on 13.1% of his shots. Baertschi scored on 30% of his shots in his five game appetizer, and was used in really sheltered deployments during that span.
- Third, Feaster didn’t do much to stem external expectations for Baertschi. He frequently praised the prospect in media appearances, at one point musing that he would be Iginla’s successor as face of the franchise.
The result was the perception, fair or not, that here’s this fresh-faced Swiss winger here to save the Flames!
When you factor in Baertschi was a 20-year-old kid who had played just two North American seasons period, had just 26 games of pro hockey under his belt and had recently missed a few weeks with a neck injury, he had a lot of work to do to round out his game. He made the team out of camp, but he ended up being in and out of the lineup due to clashes with head coach Bob Hartley over the details of his game away from the puck, and he bounced between the NHL and AHL for the rest of the season.
In the fall, new president of hockey operations Brian Burke had some harsh words about Baertschi’s incomplete game:
“I’m not ready to quit on a young kid. I’m not ready to throw him under the bus here today and rip him, but I think you can tell from my comments that I see big holes and I see a lack of commitment that’s not going to get him anywhere in my books.”
Baertschi never seemed to find his footing in the Flames system after that. Eventually he requested a trade and was sent to the Vancouver Canucks prior to the 2015 trade deadline.
In the years since Baertschi’s introduction to the NHL, the Flames have dramatically improved their drafting. Not only does their developmental system feature much more depth across the board, but the club has managed to hit on their first-rounders fairly consistently; of the 10 first-rounders selected after Baertschi (2012-21), nine have played NHL games and four (Mark Jankowski, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk) have played over 200.
Despite this massive boost in the quality and quantity of Flames prospects over the last decade, they’ve done a much better job of expectations management. Sure, some of that may have been Brad Treliving’s nature, but the management team seemed to go out of their way to set realistic expectations for their kids and pour cold water on any chatter they felt might set up their prospects for failure.
The depth of the farm system and setting of realistic benchmarks has had two results:
- Prospects, especially early on, have to virtually kick the door down in training camp to make the NHL roster (see: Monahan, Bennett and Tkachuk), as the Flames try to avoid rushing them.
- When prospects do arrive, there’s rarely been the perception that they’re coming to save the team. When Monahan arrived, the team was entering the rebuild period and when Bennett and Tkachuk made their pushes for NHL duty, the Flames already had Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau around so the spotlight didn’t cast too harsh a glare on them.
Suffice it to say mistakes were made in the Flames’ handling of Baertschi. But it certainly does seem that the club was open-eyed about how they mismanaged that situation and, notwithstanding some challenges with Juuso Valimaki’s injuries, they’ve been much better at managing the development of their top prospects as a result.
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