As the club hits the second year of their rebuild, the Calgary Flames have a new general manager in Brad Treliving and a bunch of new veterans. But while the team’s roster on opening day of the regular season will likely be full of veterans, given the team’s off-season acquisitions, there are five young players who have the best shots to crack the Flames line-up.
JOHNNY GAUDREAUKnown in collegiate hockey circles as “Johnny Hockey,” Gaudreau signed with the Flames in April after a courtship that involved the team sending a private plane to Philadelphia for the Hobey Baker Award ceremony. Gaudreau signed, jumped on a plane and made his NHL debut on the final day of the regular season (alongside college teammate Bill Arnold).
Gaudreau is not big. But he’s blazingly fast, incredible agile and has, to be blunt, incredibly sick stick-handling skills. He was Calgary’s best player at the Young Stars Classic Tournament by a country mile. The only way he doesn’t start the year in Calgary is if management wants him to get some reps until his belt tearing up the American Hockey League.
The bad news is that Sam Bennett is, generously, 185 pounds. He’s not huge and he’s a young 18 – Sean Monahan turned 19 in October last season, Bennett turns 19 in June, so he’ll be 18 for basically the entire season.
The good news is that Sam Bennett, Calgary’s highest-ever draft pick at 4th overall in the 2014 Draft, is really good. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s elusive and he plays with a physical edge. He’s not gigantic and he arguably lacks the confidence in traffic that Gaudreau has. Then again, Gaudreau’s 21 and has spent three years playing against men in the NCAA. Bennett needs a bit of time to physically mature, but his skills are there.
A late-round pick in 2010, Ferland is a big-bodied fella who plays a rough-and-tumble style with surprisingly good hands. He had an excellent junior career in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings and Saskatoon Blades, but he’s had a rough go of it over the past two seasons. In addition to some off-ice legal troubles, he was shuffled around between four teams and three leagues because of the 2012-13 NHL lockout (ending up back in junior as an over-ager), and his second pro season was derailed by a knee injury just before Christmas.
Now fully healed and leaner and faster than in previous seasons, Ferland is aiming to get his first taste of the NHL. And for a Calgary Flames club looking for big, tough players that can drive the puck possession game, Ferland may be exactly what they’re seeking.
The younger brother of Minnesota Wild forward Mikael Granlund, Markus was Calgary’s second round pick in 2011. He came over from Europe last season after spending several years in SM-Liiga playing against men. He was arguably Abbotsford’s most impressive forward, showing unexpected poise in traffic and adjusting really quickly to the smaller North American ice. His late-season call-up was impressive as well, but derailed by a shoulder injury.
Granlund was one of the team’s best players in Penticton at the Young Stars Classic Tournament, and likely was already on the club’s radar for at least a call-up.
Calgary’s first round pick way, way back in 2011, Baertschi’s bounced between the NHL and AHL since turning pro two seasons ago. He’s been criticized by some for his play away from the puck, but he’s still a crackerjack offensive player. His offensive numbers in both the NHL and AHL are pretty strong, and perhaps a new GM in Calgary with a different set of eyes provides Baertschi with a fresh start.
Baertschi added about 10 pounds to his frame in the off-season, which should help in the corners, and he’s poised for a big season. The X-factor is what the addition of Gaudreau to the pro ranks will do to Baertschi’s confidence – will be be relieved that he’s no longer the franchise’s Next One and just focus on the game, or will he feel more pressured to perform with another player fighting with him for an NHL job on the left wing?
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.