October 4th, 2010 | Posted in Commentary
By: D'Arcy McGrath
Psst … don’t look now but the Flames have a 21 year old center and a 20 year old defenseman on the roster, and the season opens on Thursday.
Two players seemingly about to take on larger than expected roles, and likely teaming up to buy Mach3 blades as neither has a daily need for the old straight edge.
But how can this be? The Flames er Sutters don’t like kids, and they certainly don’t like non-Western Canadian kids. They prefer Alberta beef, and aged at that, right? Old slow footed tough as nail farm kid defensemen, and burly slough skating white bearded physical wingers that may find the net ten times if they can stay out of sickbay.
At least that’s the imagery provided by many hockey fans in Calgary and media coast to coast.
The NHL is shifting to tomorrow, or at very least to the now, yet in Calgary it’s a plodding game of human bumper cars with little regard for youth, speed, or high octane offense.
Wait just a minute.
A Tale of Two Rookies
Now lets not get ahead of ourselves, neither player has officially made the team as I put key stroke to laptop, but the writing appears to be on the wall.
However, the two kids have very different stories in their aim to make the show this fall.
Mikael Backlund had a good spin last season, penning 11 points in 19 regular season games before heading back to the AHL to help the Heat navigate the playoffs. Coming into camp however, the slick Swede had a good chance to crack the roster but was far from a guarantee.
Camp news had Daymond Langkow on an amazing uplift in injury recovery giving the Flames some serious strength down the middle. There didn’t appear to be room. With Olli Jokinen and Matt Stajan locked down on the top two lines and Langkow and Craig Conroy in town looking to bounce back from tough seasons the pivot spot was pretty sewn up. Clearly the Flames knew things weren’t as good for Langkow as expected when David Moss was turned into a center before preseason sked started.
However, as the dust settles on the Camp 2010, two things have changed greatly, both boosting young Backlund’s chances of not only making the team, but playing an integral part in it. Matt Stajan and David Moss are both now hurt, and could be for a good chunk of October. Plus it’s hard to fault Backlund for his camp performance after returning from Pentincton and the rookie tournament. On some nights he may not have stood out, but was always solid in a two way role and then found chemistry on the top two lines in the last handful of preseason games.
He looks ready.
The more intriguing story is authored by defenseman T.J. Brodie.
To many I’m sure it seems that the kid appeared from thin air, as his name has never been one thrown about as a can’t miss future all star defenseman, or huge trade target from other teams. For others however, he’s always been on the radar both for his stellar offensive output in the OHL, and his performance in Camrose in the camp rookie tournament two years ago. Drafted as a lean undersized puck moving defensemen, Brodie has grown and filled out making his potential move to primetime surprising in the timing, but less so in the inevitability.
However, I don’t care who you are … nobody saw this coming.
The Flames opened their veteran camp in a very different fashion this season, splitting the roster into an NHL and AHL group almost right away. There were a few bodies that seemed misplaced, but all in all the split made a lot of sense. That is until you noticed Brodie with the big boys. His performance in Penticton where he outshown a lot of top young defense prospects was noticed by the Flames from Jim Playfair all the way up to Darryl Sutter.
A hat tip in main camp was a nice gesture, and a great way to promote the importance of rookie camp to hopefuls both from this campaign and future campaigns; stand out here and you get a chance to go there type of thing.
What Brodie has done with the gratuity is astonishing however.
From years of training camps, we’ve all seen the rookie phenomenon in the past. The Flames had a hot shot line of Daniel Tkaczuk, Rico Fata and Oleg Saprykin one fall. They carved up opponents in the first two or three preseason games then hit a wall when teams started dressing more and more vets as the silly season moved on. Same for Chuck Kobasew five years ago; you can look good against peers but when things get serious they get … well … serious.
Brodie, however, just didn’t change his game;
- he kept moving the puck efficiently offensively.
- he kept showing patience when taking the puck up the ice.
- he continued to show poise beyond his years in his own zone.
Essentially he did what any NHL team would be looking for from a young player; he didn’t give them a reason to send him packing. If team brass had an assumption that he would stumble when the games got closer to the opener; he didn’t. Was he perfect? Of course not, but he was decent enough in his own zone that it appears the Flames feel they can mitigate those mistakes in order to harness and utilize the kid’s gifts on the attack.
Remember this is a Flames team that is looking to prove they can score more goals this season. Both Brodie and Backlund could play huge roles in just that.
Changing Philosophy or Better Prospects?
The inclusion of one or both of these players in the team’s roster plans this season seems to fly in the face of the “Sutter never gives the kids a chance” mantra that is trotted out in Calgary each and every fall. Fans have always bemoaned the inclusion of the Wayne Primeaus and Mark Smiths of the world ahead of the team’s prospects.
The other argument however, one that appears to be proven this fall, is that young players of the past simply didn’t rise up and take a spot. They played decently, perhaps comparative to vets, but they didn’t steal jobs away from incumbents. This year is different. And the Flames know it.
So now what?
Up front the Flames have been spared any tough decisions due to a rash of injuries to the likes of Langkow, Stajan, Moss and Ales Kotalik. Backlund is simply needed, not needing to crack the roster through his play. His time in the top six will be interesting to watch as strong play from Backlund will really complicate things once Stajan returns.
The blueline however, is healthy meaning Brodie’s shoe horning in on things is sure to cause a wrinkle or two.
Will the Flames waive Matt Pelech and assign him to Abbotsford knowing they may lose a former first round pick in the process?
Will the Flames trade a veteran defenseman to make room for Brodie? Or two to make room for both Brodie and Pelech? And if they do who do they move?
Cory Sarich has a big contract and two years to play, Steve Staios has one year but appears to be an important part of the dressing room. Ian White is sure to be gone at the end of the season making his departure for a greater return now great asset management but perhaps not the best way to ice a team for this season.
So many possibilities …
And so refreshing to have decisions this tough, and this unexpected.
Youth is served in Calgary.