While the CBA negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA seemingly continue to waltz the line of the second NHL lockout in just seven years, optimistic fans are opting to focus on the conclusion of August which always brings the start of rookie and NHL training camps in September.
For the Calgary Flames, several players of both the rookie and veteran variety will see training camp as the first step in either establishing themselves in the league or wiping the slate clean after a disappointing 2011-2012 season. With numerous additions made to the roster, the Flames upcoming training camp will arguably be the most intriguing autumn audition over the past three years as new head coach Bob Hartley must not only familiarize himself with returning players but also successfully facilitate new players into the lineup in an attempt to build chemistry.
Looking at the current Flames roster, it can essentially be broken down into three distinct groups that have a unique focus: the new faces, the bounce-back candidates, and the veterans. Today, the Flames fresh faces will be examined.
The New Faces
While much has been made of the significant offseason acquisitions of defenseman Dennis Wideman and forwards Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka, it is appropriate to focus on the current wunderkind in the Flames prospects pantry, Swiss winger Sven Baertschi. Baertschi has finally completed his apprenticeship in the CHL’s Western Hockey League with the Portland Winterhawks and to say he passed is an understatement. In two seasons with the Winterhawks, the Swiss Sensation amassed 179 points (including 67 goals) in 113 games. After a successful, though brief, 5-game emergency call up to the Flames late last season in which he amassed 3 goals and respectable +2 rating Baertschi returned to the lead the Winterhawks on a run to the Western Hockey League championship. Recording 14 goals and 34 points in 22 playoff games, Baerstchi has demonstrated a mastery of the junior level and successfully capped off his stint with the Flames.
Entering training camp, Baertschi represents the brightest light in the immediate future of the Flames franchise and while finding a home among the top 6 forwards isn’t a certainty it is unanimously hoped for. A player of Baertschi’s high skill level, a more than noticeable chasm in the Flames lineups of recent playoff-less seasons, should make the team, contribute, and even has the opportunity to be in contention for the Calder trophy awarded to the NHL’s best freshman.
The aforementioned two Czechs added over the summer, Jiri Hudler and Roman Cervenka, enter their first training camp with the Flames with the expectations of providing consistent offense to offset the loss of the sporadic Olli Jokinen. Hudler, a player who is capable of bouncing between center and the wing, has spent his entire career with the Detroit Red Wings and as such is accustomed to a puck possession game plan, consistently contributing in all three areas of the ice, and winning. In limited time bouncing between the 2nd and 3rd lines of his career with the Red Wings, Hudler has managed seasons of 42, 57, 37, and 50 points and is coming off a season in which he notched a career best 25 goals. Should he develop chemistry with either Iginla or Cammalleri, Hudler will find himself in the largest role of his NHL career as that combination would bring about a gratuitous rise in his accustomed ice time. Hudler will also factor in to the Flames special teams as well. Of his 50 points last season, Hudler saw 10 of them come on the Wings power play. Due to his expected increased offensive role, a 30 goal season is well within Hudler’s reach should he seize the opportunity the Flames have afforded him, particularly if he finds himself in a pivot position on a team that is relatively weak down the middle.
Cervenka, an import from the KHL’s Avangard Omsk, is an undisputed centre unlike Hudler. Having never been drafted, Cervenka has plied his professional trade entirely in Europe as before Omsk he spent 5 seasons with Slavia Praha HC of the Czech league. Despite the recent litany of unsuccessful transplantation of European stars into the NHL (Joakim Lindstrom, Fabian Brunnstrom, and Jonas Gustavsson), Cervenka does offer a tantalizing resume as he led the KHL in goal-scoring in 2010-2011 as well as finishing 3rd overall in league points while following that up with a run to the KHL finals in which he lead all playoff scorers with 21 points in 20 games and an all-star team nod in 2011-2012. While North American fans can be relatively snobbish in assessing the KHL as a legitimate league, poaching a star such as Cervenka from a major KHL franchise is a coup for the Flames and an outside-the-box gamble that is low-risk and high reward. With a base salary of $925,000 with an incentive-laden 1-year contract that could pay out as high as an additional $2,850,000 in performance bonuses, Cervenka will be eager to prove that he is an NHL calibre player. A natural centre, Cervenka will be given ample time with players such as Hudler, Cammalleri, Iginla, Baertschi, and Alex Tanguay to see if a clicking combination can be found. Cervenka enters camp as arguably the hungriest Flame, and that should hopefully lead to a 65-70 point season.
On the back end, the most notable and controversial acquisition of the Flame’s summer is Dennis Wideman. Acquired in exchange
for prospect Jordan Hendry and a 5th round pick from the Washington Capitals, Wideman was promptly signed to a 5-year deal worth $5,250,000 per season. Wideman has made as much of a reputation as an offensively oriented defenceman as he has a mistake-prone defender and is unfortunately coming off a disappointing playoff run with the Capitals in which he was a lowly -7 with just 3 assists in 14 playoff games. Wideman was an additional -8 during the regular season with Washington, although he did manage 46 points- with 20 of them coming on the power play. Make no mistake, Wideman was acquired chiefly to do what Jay Bouwmeester has failed to do in Calgary and that is quarterback a successful power play. While his defensive numbers are more than suspect, the Flames back end is littered with players such as Mark Giordano, Cory Sarich, and Bouwmeester who are chiefly responsible for keeping the puck out of the net. While it would behoove Wideman to focus on improving his defensive play, he will better help the team by bringing a staple presence to the point on an inconsistent power play that has finished as low as 26th and as high as 8th the past three seasons. Last year, Calgary’s power play was 13th. While no one is expecting Wideman to contend for a Norris trophy, success on the power play would go a long way towards absorbing the shock of his exorbitant contract.
Rounding out players looking to become new faces are wild card bottom 6 forwards Akim Aliu and recent try-out contract signatory Steve Begin. Aliu can be an effective player, which was best demonstrated during his 2 game stint with the Flames last season. Despite this brief appearance, Aliu’s name was peppered across the score sheet thanks to 3 points and 12 penalty minutes. His game against the Anaheim Ducks was particularly impressive, as he was widely regarded as the most noticeable player on the ice and looked like a premier pest. While one game is not enough to truly evaluate what Aliu’s worth to the franchise on an objective scale, he seemed to showcase the best elements of his game to a Flames franchise that is aggressively trying to return to the playoffs. Aliu’s audition late last season will set a bar for his performance and evaluation at training camp and a bottom 6 slot is within reach for the young winger.
Finally, journeyman center Steve Begin will be looking to crack back into the NHL after missing all of last season recuperating from injuries. Having last played in the NHL in 2010-2011 with the Nashville Predators while spending the majority of his time with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, Begin insists he is ready to return to the NHL. His best bet at a roster spot is earning the 4th line center role, a test that will see him primarily competing with fan favourite Blair Jones (who is coming off a season-ending injury as the result of a heroic blocked shot on a 5-on-3 kill) and Lance Bouma.
This group of fresh faces certainly gives the Flames the opportunity to experiment and evaluate new malleable clay at this season’s training camp, something that the franchise has been less than accustomed to the past few years. Along with a new coaching staff, this upcoming camp is shaping up to be the most intriguing in recent memory.