Smells Like Teen Spirit – Teenagers with the Calgary Flames

Flames prospect Sven Baertschi (gzbhow/Flickr)

It’s nearly October, the Western Hockey League season has begun, yet two of the WHL’s most talented players are at an NHL training camp. And as fate may have it, they’re both at the same training camp, attempting to crack one of the NHL’s most veteran-laden rosters.

This summer saw two very intriguing occurrences.

First, Max Reinhart, Calgary’s third round choice in 2010 and son of long-time NHLer (and Flame) Paul Reinhart, went on a bit of a tear. After a strong regular season with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice, Reinhart turned it up in the post-season. He posted 27 points in 19 playoff games, including scoring or setting up the series-clinching goal in each of the four rounds of the playoffs. Then he put up strong numbers in the Memorial Cup, albeit in a losing cause. Suddenly Calgary had an emerging ace prospect.

Then, at the NHL Entry Draft in Minneapolis, they acquired a second. With their first round pick, 13th overall, the Flames selected Swiss forward Sven Baertschi, fresh off an impressive season of his own with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks that ended at the hands of Reinhart’s Ice in the WHL Finals.

Flames fans were salivating at the thought of the 18-year-old Baertschi and 19-year-old Reinhart donning the Flaming C in the future. However, the lingering presence of the duo at Flames main camp has led some to theorize that “the future” could be as soon as October 8th, when the 2011-12 season kicks off.

Is this development likely? Well, not quite. For a few reasons.

First of all, the Flames have a metric ton of one-way contracts and guys that have to go through waivers. Keeping either of Baertschi and Reinhart would displace an existing NHL body. Moreover, the Flames have approximately 49 contracts on the books for 2011-12 (the signing of defenseman James Martin pushed the Flames to 49) and one of the teenagers hitting the bigs would put the Flames at the limit, taking away any of their flexibility to add via trade or waivers.

Secondly, the bigger question is whether or not the duo are ready for primetime. Both players showed flashes of greatness in the WHL playing against players of similar size, experience and age. Putting them in the NHL this season would very much be throwing them into deep waters, especially in a hockey-mad city like Calgary with expectations (and pressure) sky-high after two seasons without post-season play. It’s been said that nothing has ruined more great careers than early exposure to the NHL, and the Flames have a history of throwing prospects to the wolves (although they have curbed that tendency in recent years).

It’s been over a decade since the last teenager cracked the Flames roster – young Oleg Saprykin. Since 1990, only four teenagers have cracked their roster right out of training camp: Jarome Iginla, Derek Morris, Robyn Regehr and Rico Fata. (Dion Phaneuf would have been the fifth, but the 2004-05 season was wiped out via lockout and he joined the team as a 20-year-old.) All four guys were brought up to the NHL when the Flames did not have a whole lot of depth, although only Fata’s career really suffered as a result. Several other players were thrown into the fray way after their junior seasons were complete and, to be honest, none of them set the world on fire. With the Flames having a truck-load of NHL-ready bodies to begin with, there is no roster hole that needs to be filled with rookies.

If Baertschi and Reinhart have the ability to come in and contribute in a major way – like Iginla, Morris or Regehr – then they should be able to do so. But sparing that, there is no reason to rush them into the National Hockey League. With no less than a dozen big-ticket NHL deals coming off the books following this season, why not let Baertschi and Reinhart dominate the WHL for one more year and then give them an honest shot at the NHL for 2012-13?

After all, good things come to those who wait.